Can Columbia’s Fraternities Survive the National Threat to Greek life?
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Written by Candy Chan

Edited by Juliana Kim

Photos taken by Natalie Tischler

October 20, 2018—It’s Homecoming weekend. The cheers of college undergraduates ring bright around Morningside Heights. There’s a reason why this weekend feels so distinct from all the others; no matter where you find yourself Saturday morning, you’re immersed in a cacophony of laughter interspersed with the honks and toots from the traffic. Bodies clad in blue and white are entangled and moving as one, dancing and yelling in the backyards of the fraternity brownstones. People raise their blue solo cups in the air—this is Columbia! We are Columbia..

Even after the weekend creeps back into the mundane routine, undergraduates can always count on fraternities to provide spaces to congregate and exhibit school pride, both of which are rare occurrences at Columbia.

But Columbia’s Greek life is facing a crossroads concerning its identity on campus.

Fall 2018 is a noticeably quieter semester for Greek life. At Columbia, four chapters undergo judicial review this semester: Beta Theta Pi, Sigma Nu, Kappa Delta Rho, and Lambda Phi Epsilon. These chapters make up half of all fraternities with brownstones.

There are also three fraternities without a pledge class this semester—Sigma Chi, Lambda, and KDR do not go through recruitment this fall.

For SigChi specifically, a new national policy mandating at least five weeks of new member training poses a problem to the Columbia chapter. The majority of SigChi brothers are on the football team, and the sport’s rigor during the fall semester leaves no available time to conduct the extended new member training program, according to Ryan Gilbert, a senior at Columbia College and consul of SigChi.

Samuel Deng, a senior at Columbia College and president of Lambda, cites size of membership as the reason why Lambda opted out of recruitment. “We’re trying to rescale and rethink some of the processes that go on inside our fraternity that have to do with our size,” says Deng. “Next semester we’ll be taking a [pledge] class.”

KDR declined an interview request.

In September the North-American Interfraternity Conference issued a ban on hard alcohol—their response to the many times binge drinking has led to tragic incidents in fraternities. The ban passed with a “near unanimous vote” and must take effect by September 1, 2019.

In accordance with the new dry policy, Columbia’s fraternities agreed to not serve hard alcohol at any of their events.

While fraternities at Columbia navigate internal issues, Greek organizations across the nation are under intense scrutiny after a series of deaths and allegations of sexual assault. The year of 2017 alone witnessed four hazing-related deaths at Penn State, Louisiana State, Florida State, and Texas State. The issue of sexual assault in Greek life was illuminated on Columbia’s campus by a far-reaching study published earlier this year, which revealed that both men and women who participate in Greek organizations are more likely to experience sexual assault than non-Greek peers.

Some of Columbia’s peer schools have taken action to curtail Greek life, while other liberal arts colleges including Amherst and Bowdoin have banned Greek organizations altogether.

The North-American Interfraternity Conference, an association of college fraternities, updated their “Preserving the Fraternity & Sorority Life” page in response to the national dialogue:

“A student’s first amendment right to freely associate with single-sex organizations has recently come under threat.”

Yet here at Columbia, there seems to be no fear of an end to Greek life. In fact, Greek life on Columbia’s campus is growing.

Incentive for Chapters to Behave

No Greek organization on campus has a squeaky clean record, but there is a structure at Columbia that holds chapters accountable and motivates them to remain on good standing. In 2011, Columbia’s Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life introduced the ALPHA Standards of Excellence Program, a method by which chapters are assessed by college administrators.

The categories of assessment are academics, leadership development and member education, philanthropy, chapter management, and activities and alumni. Chapters that fail to meet the appropriate ALPHA standards run the risk of losing their brownstone, if they have one, or even University recognition—the latter of which would effectively dissolve their existence on campus.

“I think that provides good incentive for chapters to behave and listen to the administration simply because they’re working in our benefit,” says Thomas Davidsen, a senior in Columbia College and director of internal affairs of the Inter-Greek Council.

A separate review process comes from the Greek Judicial Board, a committee of students tasked with resolving complaints through hearings. The Judicial Board also has the ability to restrict what chapters can do that semester, and the decision most visible to non-members of Greek life is in the form of social suspension, a disciplinary action wherein chapters are prohibited from hosting events.

The Greek Judicial Board runs alongside the Inter-Greek Council, as well as the Interfraternity Council, the Panhellenic Council, and the Multicultural Greek Council. These organizations are all self-governing and are composed of members of different chapters. The way in which Greek life operates at Columbia sets it apart from the likes of Harvard and Yale, neither of which has had or has a student council overseeing the chapters, giving Columbia students more autonomy.

On a more chapter-specific level, each president is responsible for upholding a healthy relationship with representatives from the national organization. As consul of SigChi, Gilbert communicates with his chapter advisor “basically everyday.”

Harry Soriano, a senior at Columbia College and president of Pi Kappa Alpha, emails representatives from the national chapter at least once a week. He admits that recently nationals has taken a more “hands-on” approach with the management of the chapter at colleges across the country, pushing the brothers to engage in more dialogue about better ways to serve as leaders.

Greek life at Columbia is dependent on the smooth operations between many key players: there is constant dialogue between four Greek councils and the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, the Greek councils and the individual chapters, and the chapters and their national organizations.

Students are at the midpoint of every interaction between Columbia and the national organization.

Power That Fraternities Have

There is one line that I repeatedly hear in my interviews with fraternity members—“Greek life is different at Columbia because we’re not a state school.”

Yet, is Columbia completely in the clear and immune from the problems that afflict Greek organizations across the nation?

At Columbia, 24.1 percent of students are in a chapter of Greek life. Admittedly, this constitutes a smaller number of students than at larger state schools. Nicholas Syrett, a professor of women, gender and sexuality studies at the University of Kansas, author of The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities, and Columbia College graduate in the class of 1997, tells me that universities with smaller endowments often rely on national Greek chapters to provide housing for students.

A 2014 story from The Atlantic reports that one in eight American students enrolled at a four-year college lives in a fraternity or sorority house. That is not the case at Columbia, where the University owns the eight fraternity brownstones, which in total house just 102 people out of a student population of 8,766, not to mention the students who live in the East Campus fraternity townhouses.

The size of Columbia’s Greek life is small even compared to peer institutions like Dartmouth (64 percent) or Massachusetts Institute of Technology (45 percent)—but one in four students is not insignificant.

John Hechinger, a journalist at Bloomberg News and author of True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities, argues that Greek organizations becomes a major force of influence at any school once they become a big “social or political bloc on campus.” Hechinger confirms that Columbia’s 24.1 percent is still a “sizable population” for any college campus.

Underage students in need of a weekend activity find themselves with limited options—bars and clubs require fake IDs and New York City can be expensive. Greek life is still one of the few entities providing an accessible social scene at Columbia. Davidsen calls Greek life a “social valve” and a “necessity on this campus simply because of space limitations for large social gatherings.

What makes for a college party is pretty much uniform across the nation: a reliable sum of students needing to unwind and a space in which they can congregate. Columbia students rush to the SigEp brownstone for Homecoming just as students at Florida State would run to a different house before a big football game. On a campus where space is so limited, these eight fraternity brownstones provide one of the few arenas for socializing.

Hazing, binge drinking, and sexual assault make up the trifecta that has dominated fraternity coverage in the media. Most recently, the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court Judge Brett Kavanaugh cast a spotlight on the seedy correlation between fraternity culture, sexual misconduct, toxic masculinity, and beer.

Unsurprisingly, overconsumption of alcohol is the common denominator that professionals have extrapolated from every high-profile incident related to fraternities. Kavanaugh’s response? He likes beer, a lot.

The NAIC already banned hard alcohol by the time of the hearing, but the new policy is like cutting a weed; it does little to extract the root of the problem. What else is there to do?

There is an anthropological explanation behind toxic masculinity. Syrett tells me that any time a group of people congregate on the basis of one characteristic—their sex or their race, for example—they tend to magnify that characteristic.

“And because men are already more empowered vis-a-vis other people in the United States, what ends up happening is that they gain more power through that [single-sex] space,” says Syrett.

In fact, researchers report that toxic masculinity—what studies identify as “anti-social behavior” coupled with “negative views about women”—are stronger indicators of sexual misconduct than consumption of alcohol.

On Fraternity spaces have historically been unique in that they hold the advantage of offering alcohol at their events. On the other hand, the National Panhellenic Conference, which governs all the Panhellenic sororities at Columbia, requires a policy of “alcohol-free facilities for all housed chapters,” meaning no sorority events can serve alcohol.

In universities across the nation and at Columbia, this legislative difference between the fraternities and sororities has pushed students—and particularly female students—into the fraternity houses. In 2007, the U.S. Department of Justice financed a study in which researchers found that women who frequently attended fraternity parties were at a significantly higher risk of facing sexual assault.

More than a decade later, that data still remains relevant. Drawn from surveys and data collected from Columbia’s own student body, the research team at the Sexual Health Initiative to Foster Transformation found that membership in a fraternity or sorority heightens the risk of sexual assault for both men and women.

Fraternity and sorority formals, in particular, are events during which the meaning of consent can be blurred. In the most recent SHIFT finding, a woman is recorded at one such event saying, “the general expectation, if you’re on a date, is you’re going to hook up with the person who invited you.”

Recently, the word co-education has dominated headlines for the first time since the enactment of Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, a policy mandating that all federally funded institutions are prohibited from discrimination on the basis of sex. In response to conversations surrounding gender disparity, some universities are finding ways to open up single-sex organizations.

Harvard has been leading the charge. Starting fall 2017, the college cracked down on single-sex organizations, warning students that members of such clubs will be barred from holding leadership positions and receiving official recommendations for prestigious post-college scholarships, like the Rhodes and the Marshall. One fraternity at Yale has also taken notice. Last year, Yale’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon branch opened its rush events to women and non-binary students.

But at Columbia, co-ed seems unlikely. There is only one co-ed Greek fraternity at Columbia: Alpha Delta Phi. When the group decided to admit women in the 1980s, they had to split from the national organization. ADP still runs independently from their national branch.

Past Resistance to Change

Spring 1984: Freshman Brendan Mernin pledged a prominent fraternity at Columbia. Two years later he would pen a mournful op-ed in Spectator titled “Brotherhood breeds ‘loathsome attitudes.’” Mernin’s op-ed illustrated the derogatory manner in which his fraternity brothers treated women and people of color. Mernin writes, “For some (not all) of Columbia’s fraternities, however, activities generally accepted as offensive are systematic, traditional and institutional.” He ends the op-ed with a question: Do fraternities have a place at an institution like Columbia?

Mernin’s question would guide much of campus dialogue in the years to come. Columbia’s fraternities endured many accusations of date-rape and racial harassment. Sigma Alpha Mu, a chapter no longer on campus, was caught violating state and university alcohol policies in 1989 when a freshman student became heavily intoxicated and fell into a state of unconsciousness for four hours. A month later, then Columbia College Dean of Students Roger Lehecka sent out a letter which stated that in the first few weeks of every new term, at least three students receive medical treatment for excessive alcohol consumption at frat parties.

In March 1988, Columbia's Greek Life found strong opposition from Students for a Reformed Fraternity System (SFARFS). United in their goals to eradicate sexism in Greek organizations, SFARFS wanted fraternities to go co-ed. That spring SFARFS proposed a forum on Columbia’s fraternity system, and even though their petition received 180 signatures from students in support, both the Columbia College Student Council and the Inter-Fraternity Council denied it sponsorship or endorsement. Nonetheless, after two months of planning and negotiating, both councils finally agreed to a forum.

The following April, over 300 students crammed inside a classroom in the Law building to watch the two and a half hour forum unfold. Both sides—SFARFS and IFC—employed rhetoric still used on campus to this day.

Speaking on the pro-reform side was Peter Sheehy, a disaffiliated member of Sigma Nu who graduated from Columbia College in 1990. “Sexism is a powerful and destructive force that is deeply embedded in the all-male fraternity system,” Sheehy said.

As members of SFARFS brought up issues of toxic masculinity and sexist behavior, members of IFC refuted them by claiming those were all stereotypes, and that the Columbia student body neglected what fraternities offered in terms of social life and community service.

Minute by minute, the central problem underlying Columbia’s fraternity system crystallized: No one could understand the full extent of fraternity culture without being in a fraternity. Who could say for sure that the issues so prevalent in national perceptions of Greek life weren’t just stereotypes? Who could confirm that incidents of sexism and racism in fraternities weren’t merely anomalies? And in regards to the allegations directed towards specific chapters, who could prove these things actually happened? After all, we’re at Columbia.

The forum did little to change Columbia’s Greek system. Almost all fraternities on campus are still single-sex. SFARFS failed to meet their goal and disheartened members slowly chipped away until the group disintegrated. Despite the vocal opposition to Columbia’s Greek system, more chapters came to campus and many more undergraduates pledged. Disheartenedly, Sheehy tells me that SFARFS failed for two reasons: the University was reluctant to listen, and the fraternities were resistant to change.

Culture of Complicity

Shaquan Nelson, a senior in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, was once called a racist slur by a fellow fraternity brother. In spring 2018, he published an op-ed that ends with a plea—fraternity brothers need to help one another by calling out inappropriate behavior.

Nelson is now a member of the co-ed literary fraternity, Alpha Delta Phi. He lives in the fraternity brownstone too; his room is dedicated to the craftsmanship of his clothing line. This new space he’s acquired, he admits, makes him feel more comfortable.

“Just because there was toxic masculinity doesn’t mean there were people who always agreed with it,” Nelson says. “But there were a lot of people who were complicit. And there were also people who cared enough to go out of their ways in meetings to try and make a change but that was futile.”

Nelson’s op-ed did not go unnoticed. Davidsen notes that omitting the name of Nelson’s fraternity, “could’ve protected [the fraternity] and made it an overarching story,” but he is adamant that what Nelson described “absolutely would not occur” in his organization, SigEp.

Other fraternity members responded similarly, acknowledging that while they can see how Nelson’s account could happen in some chapters, it would never be permitted in their own.

The Response

Last spring, Columbia welcomed the reactivation of Omega Psi Phi, an African-American-interest fraternity. Leading the initiative was Gavin Powell, a senior at Columbia College.

Omega Psi Phi is one of the Divine Nine—a group of historically black Greek organizations with rich legacies in campus activism and progress. The chapter was first established at Columbia in 1968.

As Powell retells the history of Omega Psi Phi, he suddenly halts in desperate pursuit of his phone. “I’ll show you this crazy picture,” he tells me. Powell opens Instagram and pulls up an image taken in April 1968: a group of protestors surrounding the statue of Alma Mater, herself carrying a sign that reads “End Trustee Rule Support the Strike.” Powell zooms in on a man located to the left corner.

The man wears opaque black shades and a wool cape. He is Alford Dempsey Jr., a charter member of Omega Psi Phi at Columbia and now a County Superior Court Judge.

“It’s like, holy shit! I just looked at a random picture on Instagram and there’s a member of my chapter,” says Powell. “I definitely think that’s something to be proud of to show that you know, for me, it’s all about the volunteer work, social work, and activism.”

The Multicultural Greek Council currently oversees the 11 culturally-based Greek organizations on campus. In 2016, there were less than 200 members spread across the then 10 chapters in MGC, which vary drastically in membership size. While Lambda—an Asian-American-interest fraternity—boasts 40 members, Phi Iota Alpha—a fraternity for all people of the Americas—has six.

Multicultural Greek organizations emerged on colleges campuses across the country in the late ’80ss and ’90ss. The growth of these chapters had to do in part with higher university enrollment rates of students of color as well as their demands for a space where they can share their heritage.

Each MGC chapter fosters a tradition they believe to be at the core of their cultural identity. For Lambda members, there is a ritual that accompanies each meal. Deng tells me whenever Lambda brothers gather to eat, they always wait for the oldest member to take the first bite, a custom reminiscent of many East Asian traditions.

In 2015, the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life placed a moratorium halting the establishment of new Greek chapters until Columbia can determine how to best support the growing community. The moratorium was lifted last year.

Yvonne Pitts, associate director of Fraternity and Sorority Life, confirms the expansion of MGC as they have “expressed the greatest amount of interest in having new chapters join the community.”

The Greek community at Columbia is ready for more MGC chapters; leading the welcome crew is Davidsen.

While the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life will be dedicating its resources to increasing membership in MGC chapters, Davidsen tells me that IGC will do its part in better integrating the three councils, and thus strengthening the overarching Greek community.

“My board right now is trying to host one of the biggest initiatives,” says Davidsen. “We’re planning on having all three councils, all Greek students, and non-Greek students welcome to monthly or bimonthly study breaks and workshops in partnership with Sexual Violence Response, Go Ask Alice!, and Counseling and Psychological Services.”

What IGC can do best is facilitate conversations between the three subcouncils in hopes of continually making Greek life more inclusive and helping chapters meet their requirements for the ALPHA Standards. IGC, however, is not the council best suited for the task of effecting change on a student level, especially in regards to gender-based misconduct and discrimination.

“Greek life in and of itself is a relatively decentralized governing system,” says Davidsen. “[IGC] finds that the councils probably have a better understanding of what individual students need.”

Coby Zucker, a senior in Columbia College and president of the Inter-Fraternity Council, identifies the biggest problem among Columbia’s fraternities as the lack of communication and transparency on each chapter’s struggles. He believes that most chapters are facing the same internal issues, whether it be working with Columbia’s administration or working together with fellow brothers.

Like Davidsen with IGC, Zucker can only help to moderate conversations between the individual fraternities.

Despite being figureheads for these governing councils, Davidsen and Zucker admit that they don’t know much about each chapter and its policies except their own.

The difficulty in regulating Greek life at Columbia stems from its diversity—each chapter belongs to a separate national organization and each fraternity has its individual culture and personality. FSL, IGC, and IFC have to work with the different set of standards and rules each organization mandates.

Whose Future, Whose Responsibility?

The responsibility of shifting fraternity culture rests with each individual chapter. Long-lasting, effective change is only attainable when initiatives are driven by the chapter brothers themselves.

According to Zucker, Sig Nu hosts a chapter meeting they call “Lead” once a week. This gathering offers the brothers an opportunity to discuss prevalent matters on campus, such as those on the topic of race and masculinity. Zucker trusts that fraternity brothers will look out for one another.

“Because you’re so close to everyone in the chapter, if you see something inappropriate happening, if you see something you’re uncomfortable with, you can call it out,” says Zucker.

Delta Sigma Phi, another fraternity on campus, also steered their own sexual consent education last year when they collaborated with Columbia’s HeForShe. The workshop took the form of a trivia night and HeForShe supplied tote bags for the winning group. Afterwards, the fraternity split off into smaller discussion groups to share reflections.

As co-president of HeForShe last semester, Celine Laruelle, a senior at Columbia College, had doubts about the effectiveness of their collaboration. Laruelle recognizes that it was mandatory for DSig to undergo sexual violence education as part of the ALPHA Standards, but she had concerns if the brothers would be fully engaged.

“I remember when we had the break-out conversations we were talking about women’s portrayal in the media and one of the guys said ‘I don’t really see a problem with that,’ and so we had a conversation,” Laruelle says before she exclaims, “and that’s what I mean! We can talk it through and we can discuss his assumptions and his beliefs because we had a more intimate setting.”

DSig wasn’t the only fraternity that reached out to other campus organizations. Last Bacchanal, DSig along with SigEp, SigNu, and Beta teamed up with Planned Parenthood Generation Action at Barnard to provide safer sex kits in the bathrooms. In an op-ed on Medium, Sarah Lubin, a senior at Barnard and president of PPGEN, writes that this effort not only brought the issue of safe sex to the attention of fraternity brothers, but also to visitors attending the brownstone parties.

Outreach and partnership with other clubs on campus indicate that fraternities are aware of their stereotypes and are working to change them. Though this signals a hopeful future considering the dark legacies of fraternities, it also confirms that the onus is and will continue to be on the chapters themselves to tirelessly advocate for a more inclusive and respectful community.

A party at the end of the week, a formal at the end of the semester, a squad to come back to each night—fraternities occupy space not only physically on campus, but also in the imaginations of what college could be for undergraduates.

And with great space comes great responsibility. Are fraternities up for this challenge?