Greek life has always threatened public health and safety on campuses – and now the COVID-19 pandemic is showing it.
Around the country, parties and gatherings hosted by Greek organizations have shown a trend we know to be true – a reckless disregard for others and ignorance of public health and safety guidelines is inherent in Greek life. But Greek organizations have violated the rules that regulate health and safety on campus well before students around the country were asked to heed the warnings of public health officials. Sexual assault and binge drinking plague chapters across the country, and Panhellenic Association and Interfraternity Council chapters at GW have violated rules preventing hazing and binge drinking.
Coupled with partying during a pandemic, Greek organizations are highlighting their privilege. Colleges shouldn’t continue to accept their unconvincing promises to do better every time they are caught violating safety regulations. GW should lead the charge in improving campus safety around the country by eliminating a source of binge drinking, bullying, racism, misogyny, sexual assault and COVID-19 – abolish Greek life altogether.
The movement to get rid of Greek life is not new. At Vanderbilt University, where 43 percent of students are in fraternities and sororities, the campaign to cut Greek life has been led by former members of fraternities and sororities. Their message points out an essential reason why Greek life cannot be reformed at the university level – national organizations, which oversee chapters, are resistant to reform. Similar accusations have been leveled by former fraternity members at Duke, Northwestern and American universities. At GW, the Feminist Student Union campaigned last year to encourage students not to rush because of its past with racist incidents and sexual assault.
Campaigns against Greek life are often sparked after racist incidents – a familiar story for GW which has seen multiple racist incidents. Last summer, the then-president of Phi Sigma Sigma posted a racist Snapchat making light of slavery, and in 2018 three students in Alpha Phi captioned a Snapchat with a racist stereotype. In both incidents, a common criticism was the tendency of Greek life organizations to ignore racist or racially insensitive behavior. Even when organizations dedicate time to fighting racism, they have faced systemic resistance to change from national chapters. If members are unable to police the actions of each other and national leadership is resistant to broader reform, it needs to be taken down as a whole.
Racism is an abject threat to the health and safety of students of color, and the refusal of Greek organizations to properly address its legacy and the harm caused by it informs the current moment. Fraternities, in a show of privilege and inherent selfishness, have failed to adhere to the safety guidelines designed to stop the coronavirus. At the University of New Hampshire, one fraternity party led to an outbreak that infected 11 students. At the University of Mississippi, an outbreak of cases and several deaths have been traced to fraternity rush parties. And at the University of Washington, 155 of the school’s 1,100 fraternity members have tested positive for coronavirus. We can only imagine what kinds of gatherings are happening at GW’s off-campus fraternity homes and how they are potentially harming the surrounding community.
Greek life is built on a legacy of privilege, and their past actions show a disregard for the wellbeing of others – as do their actions during the pandemic. Throwing parties while the country experiences a pandemic is an example of the extreme liberty that has existed since the beginning of Greek life. By eliminating Greek life, Foggy Bottom residents will be safer and it will be more likely that students will be able to return in the spring.
But calls to abolish Greek life should not only focus on recent events – it is a necessary response to an unhealthy pattern of binge drinking culture that has existed for years. Students who participate in sororities and fraternities are at a higher risk of binge drinking in college and sustained binge drinking later in life. At GW, Alpha Epsilon Pi was shut down in 2014 following hazing and alcohol violations. Phi Kappa Psi recently returned to campus following a four-year suspension for sexual misconduct, alcohol violations and hazing. The culture of binge drinking and hazing that exists at fraternities has contributed to the culture of sexism and sexual assault that exists in fraternities around the country.
Some of the most unsafe and unhealthy behavior on college campuses comes from the existence of Greek life, like the bastion of misogyny that has led to a warranted reputation for sexual assault and rape. GW’s fraternities have proven they are unable to police misogyny. In 2018, three fraternities failed to complete their mandatory sexual assault education – the IFC promised harsh penalties but instead fined members $5 for not attending training sessions. As fraternities have failed to address the public health crisis of sexual assault in the past, it should come as no surprise to students that they have failed to act responsibly during the pandemic.
This is not to say all aspects of Greek life are bad – they are centers of charity and networking and provide valuable opportunities for students to socialize and make friends. Greek life can contribute to breaking barriers between different cultures, forging friendships and helping students to pursue careers. Evaluating their value – and the idea of abolition – requires acknowledging their successes and failures. But the failures of Greek life are numerous – fraternities and sororities are unable to overcome an entrenched legacy of racism, an unfortunate culture of misogyny and now a reckless disregard for public health. GW cannot treat these failures as an unfortunate afterthought. To be leaders in promoting public health and safety, administrators must do away with Panhel and IFC.
Kiran Hoeffner-Shah, a senior majoring in political science and psychology, is the managing director and former opinions editor.