As They Head Back to Campus, These Students Are Trying to Reform Greek Life From Within

As They Head Back to Campus, These Students Are Trying to Reform Greek Life From Within

On May 3, just before University of Vermont students would sit for final exams, pack their dorm rooms, and return home, thousands marched on campus to demand that the college reform how it deals with sexual-assault cases.

The protest stemmed from a social-media movement begun in April in which students shared stories of sexual assault at the university.

The same day as the protest, the university administration agreed to a list of 16 demands issued by a student-advisory group days earlier “in response to the university’s continued and systemic mishandling of sexual misconduct.”

The demands included that Vermont conduct an independent investigation into its Title IX office; that the institution hire more advocates for campus victims; and that the director of fraternity and sorority life require every recognized fraternity to attend sexual violence, harassment, or healthy-relationship training each semester and report attendance rates.

“Should fraternity attendance rates fall below 70 percent for two consecutive semesters, we demand that the director of fraternity and sorority life place said fraternity on probation effective immediately,” the demand read, in part.

That demand for training and attendance, and the university’s effort to satisfy it, is one of several examples of efforts by students within and outside of the Greek system to reform it — rather than waiting for administrators to respond to the next crisis. As students return to campus in the fall, some are hoping the Greek system that greets them can make consent, safety, and inclusion higher priorities.

This movement is distinct from another that has gained traction over the past year: Abolish Greek Life. That campaign, which seeks to eradicate fraternities and sororities, has gained some support from within the social organizations themselves, said Gentry McCreary, a consultant who works with fraternities and sororities on risk management, and who has written about the issue for The Chronicle. But, he said, only the “most altruistic students” have left their chapters, and very few chapters actually closed.

“Self-takedowns of a handful of chapters didn’t really change much,” McCreary said. “I think students picked up on that and realized if they do want to promote meaningful change, the best way to do that is from within, and not trying to walk out en masse.” The Abolish Greek Life movement is not big enough for students to all walk out and close their own chapters, McCreary said.

McCreary said he sees the current reform movement as an “outgrowth” of Abolish Greek Life. “Students are probably a bit more emboldened now, I think, after the Abolish Greek Life movement a year and a half ago,” he said. “Students really realize the power that they have to really force change from within.”

Jessica Becker, a rising junior at Vermont, is leading an effort within Greek life to educate fraternity and sorority members on sexual violence. She and other students in the social groups have created a task force to ensure that Greek organizations meet the 70-percent threshold.

Matthew Ennis, president of Delta Tau Delta at Vermont, said that while his chapter is supportive of the new measures, it already boasts a 90-percent attendance requirement for the trainings. The measure “doesn’t change what we were already doing as a chapter,” he said. “I don’t think anyone would complain if it did, either, just because this is important to everyone.”

Some students, meanwhile, think the reforms don’t go far enough. Syd Partin, a rising junior who is not involved in Greek life, said she supports theabolition of fraternities and sororities, and she thinks the university’s agreement to the latest reforms was performative.

“Meaningful change — that’s more than just saying they’re going to give better training,” Partin said. “Training is great, but it’s not policy change.”

The university is making some changes in response to the protests. Erica Caloiero, Vermont’s interim vice provost for student affairs, said the reason the administration was able to agree to all the demands was that it had already begun work on the issues students raised. “It was in alignment with where our institutional work was and is going,” she said.

Caloiero said activism has always been a critical part of UVM’s identity, and in this case, the university is seeing Greek-life members pushing for change from within. “We have some really strong voices from within fraternity and sorority life who are raising awareness, who are bringing together members of the Greek community and the campus community, and providing a point of leadership for their peers and for the institutions around important issues,” Caloiero said.

Vermont is not the only college where students within and outside of Greek life are pushing for greater accountability.

In March, students at Bowling Green State University, in Ohio, rallied to demand the university hold Greek organizations accountable after Stone Foltz, a 20-year-old fraternity pledge, died after a hazing incident. Protest organizers issued four demands to university leadership, including a better reporting system for misconduct within Greek life.

Several of the demands have been met so far, including the creation of a specific anti-hazing policy, and a revision of the hazing-report form to gather more details.

Bowling Green’s Fraternity and Sorority Life Office did not respond to a request for comment. A university representative did not respond to a request for comment.

At Dartmouth College, in July, eight sororities issued a list of interim requirements for social engagements with fraternities after “numerous” reports of sexual violence in Greek life came to light. Under the new requirements, the contact information of “on-duty executives” at chapters hosting events must be sent to visiting chapters before the events; hosting chapters must have nonalcoholic drinks or water available; and visiting chapters will tell hosting chapters the number of members they want to have on “risk duty” before an event.

According to The Dartmouth, the student newspaper, sororities can cancel their official cooperation with noncompliant fraternities, but don’t have the power to prevent individual members from attending events.

As of early August, the full list of requirements was still being finalized, according to The Dartmouth.

A program coordinator for Dartmouth’s Office of Greek Life declined a request for comment, saying this was not her expertise. Dartmouth’s Inter-Sorority Council did not respond to a request for comment.

The latest efforts to reform Greek life come after a decade of greater understanding of the issue of sexual assault on campuses.

Sarah McMahon, an associate professor at Rutgers University’s School of Social Work and director of the school’s Center on Violence Against Women and Children, said that over the past 10 years, activism around sexual and interpersonal violence has increased on college campuses, while the issues have gained national attention. “One of the pieces I think that is a driving factor is student activism, and in particular the activism of students who are survivors of sexual violence and other forms of violence, who have spoken out about how they felt they were mistreated by their universities,” she said.

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