On August 4, the day after students returned to UNC-Chapel Hill, the door of an off-campus house opened and the sidewalk was flooded with two dozen girls going out together. They were dressed to be seen—outfits mulled over between friends, long hair brushed down their backs, $500 Golden Goose sneakers pre-scuffed and graffitied to make them look lived-in. There was only one accessory missing: Despite the ongoing pandemic and strict rules put out by the university, none wore masks.
The girls strolled side-by-side, shouting and giggling as they ignored a neighbor standing, watching them, phone in hand. The video of their Chapel Hill parade was soon circulating on Twitter, spurring criticism of the lack of face coverings and social distancing and concerns about what even-less-safe party they were heading to. In retrospect, it was just the beginning.
The video was quickly tied to Chi Omega, the oldest sorority at UNC-Chapel Hill. The next day, an emergency meeting of the Faculty Executive Committee convened to discuss concerns, and the video made its way to CNN after the school announced it would shift to remote learning August 17.
But the Greek life parties didn’t stop then.
The next weekend, UNC’s Beta Theta Pi and Zeta Psi chapter houses were cited by Chapel Hill police for holding large parties with loud music. Two weeks later, the school announced that Zeta Psi had a cluster—an outbreak of five or more cases. Parties were also reported at Phi Gamma Delta and Phi Delta Theta. Two members of Phi Delt, Duwe Farris and James Dohlman, were charged with misdemeanors.
On August 29, a UNC student filmed groups of women going into Pi Lambda Phi fraternity, the house next to Zeta Psi. The student, who shared the footage on Instagram, says he saw almost 40 people enter the house.
When the video got back to fraternity members, they tried to explain themselves to the poster (who wishes to remain unnamed after receiving threatening text messages) and claimed there was “nowhere close to 40 girls in the house last night and there was no party occurring.”
“We brought a couple of close friends who are girls over to meet some of the potential new members and that is it,” the Pi Lam member wrote in texts reviewed by the INDY.
In a typical year, the first ragers of the semester are centered around Greek life recruitment; “potential new members (PNMs),” or those attempting to join a Greek organization, will jump from party to party at the fraternity houses to meet brothers. Sorority women use the fraternity houses for recruitment, too; PNMs show up to the party and end up speaking to groups of women in the same organization.
None of these are “official” recruitment events and could lead to fines every year; they’re also a yearly tradition for the school’s most elite organizations.
But this year isn’t a typical year.
Greek life isn’t pandemic-proof, and a recruitment process that thrives on face-to-face interaction (as well as alcohol and drugs) quickly created a breeding ground for the coronavirus.
UNC-CH’s Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life—which helms the Interfraternity Council (IFC), Panhellenic Association, and two multicultural Greek councils—rushed to make a decision on recruitment the week the university announced its plans to reopen. On July 1, Panhellenic opened its recruitment registration. The IFC posted its registration information on July 21.
The two Greek councils were supposed to hold “virtual rush,” where sorority or fraternity members would hop on a Zoom chat to meet potential new members. The university says this plan was outlined June 30 but not presented to the councils until August 3, the same day students officially began moving into dormitories and the day before the Chi Omega party.
But like the annual illusion of “dry” rush, “virtual” rush was only a solution in theory. Students told the INDY that there were still off-campus parties, dinner events, and other in-person opportunities to meet the brothers.
These groups depend on recruitment to repopulate after seniors graduate each spring. At schools like UNC, a pledge class could include up to 50 new members, depending on the organization. Since UNC-Chapel Hill typically recruits in the fall, the organizations budget for the influx of tens of thousands of dollars that comes with a new pledge class. The organizations need these finances to pay their housing staff, upkeep the house, and pay fees. This money also pays for parties and mixers.
Aside from finances, recruitment is a means of maintaining an organization’s tier—their spot in the social hierarchy of the school’s Greek system. This not only affects their time at UNC-CH but stretches into the real world. The Hussman School of Media and Journalism is named after a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon. Dean Smith’s son, Scott, was a DKE too.
At NC State University, this process for recruitment led to 13 reported COVID-19 clusters in Greek housing, more than a third of all outbreaks on campus. As of this week, more than 800 students tested positive for the virus and another 1,000 remain quarantined due to potential exposure. UNC, by comparison, reported that 1,100 students have tested positive so far.
But fewer of UNC-Chapel Hill cases have been associated with Greek life, or at least, that’s what has been reported. Only Zeta Psi, Sigma Nu fraternity, and Alpha Delta Pi sorority have reported clusters to the university. While the numbers are lower, Chapel Hill students report that friends and classmates are circumventing the school’s records by getting tested off-campus, then failing to self-report these cases. Other students left campus for their hometowns and got tested there.
The university administration is aware of this. In an August 25 email, Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Amy Johnson sent a letter to all members of UNC fraternities and sororities reminding them that noncompliance could result in legal trouble.
“We have also received reports of fraternity and sorority members being discouraged by their chapters from testing to avoid quarantine or isolation measures in the event of positive results,” Johnson wrote. “These practices cannot continue and jeopardize the health of not only chapter members, but peers, family members, and people in the local community. We expect and require your collective leadership and action to ensure that all requirements are being followed.”
NC State’s administration has expressed similar frustration with its Greek organizations. In the school’s email announcement about switching to remote instruction, Chancellor Randy Woodson blamed the campus spread on large parties and said the school had seven Greek houses quarantining at the time.
Some feel the COVID problem is just the tip of the Greek life iceberg and believe it’s time for the organizations to disband. Pushback against Greek life is growing, and students are sharing stories of discrimination and harassment anonymously through an Instagram page called @abolishNCSUifcandpanhel. The page also shares screenshots from group messages of fraternity members inviting members of different sororities to “COVID positive parties” and rush events.
NC State’s recruitment process is still up in the air. On August 27, the school’s Fraternity and Sorority Life Department sent an email telling members that IFC and Panhellenic recruitment would begin September 18. They do not say whether it would be held in person or online.
“The response was far too slow, and to be honest I haven’t seen a sizable response yet,” says fraternity member Thomas Walsh. “Administration takes time, but this was a situation where I hoped the university would have immediate responses to immediate problems.”
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