The laundry list of reasons to dismantle Greek life at Duke University now includes a COVID-19 outbreak and campus-wide lockdown. 

That’s in addition to other pervasive, deeply rooted issues like hazing, gender violence, racism, and heteronormativity. But despite this, Greek life has proven to be very difficult to manage.

I dropped out of my sorority last August, as a student-driven movement to abolish Greek life at Duke gained traction. Stories of sexual assault, racial discrimination, and disturbing elitism in Duke’s Greek life dominated social media feeds.  

Through an anonymous Instagram post, one Black student shared his experience in a Duke fraternity. “White members… said the n-word on multiple occasions,” he wrote. “They said it in songs, they said it in jest, they said it despite the fact that I approached them multiple times and asked respectfully that they stop.”

Another student posted that she was drugged at a fraternity party. When she told friends what had happened, she wrote, they said she “should’ve known better” because “that frat was known for drugging women at their parties.”

These stories, along with countless others, made it impossible to ignore the problems inherent in Greek life. Hundreds of students left their Greek organizations, while others advocated for reform within the system. Student activists met with Duke administrators to discuss policy changes, which included ending the recruitment of first-year students by Greek organizations. For a few months this past fall, it looked like things were going to change for the better. 

Greek life at Duke certainly looks different now. Last fall’s reform efforts led to nine fraternities disaffiliating from the university and forming a new organization, the Durham Interfraternity Council (IFC). When most fraternities left Duke, they took rampant issues like hazing, discrimination, and implicit bias with them. However, they left behind the rules, regulations, and accountability that came with being a Duke University organization. 

This new version of Greek life is not an improvement. 

Tensions came to a head when unsanctioned, in-person fraternity recruitment events contributed to a severe spike in coronavirus cases among undergraduates. To contain the outbreak, Duke officials announced a weeklong stay-in-place order for all undergraduates on March 13. Administrators blamed the IFC for the spike, writing in an email to students that “many of these [COVID-19] cases are connected to the off-campus rush activities and parties hosted by individuals connected to Durham Interfraternity Council.” 

The night that the stay-in-place order was announced, a group of Duke students left a message on campus in graffiti: “F*ck Frats.” Their anger was warranted: The lockdown threatened to cut short the rest of the semester, a heartbreaking experience that Duke students know all too well from last year. 

Although the lockdown was lifted a week later, students remain angry. More than 1,500 people have signed a petition calling on Duke to sue the Durham IFC for “reckless endangerment of students and … the Durham community.” One supporter put it simply. “Frats need to be held accountable for acting selfishly and screwing over the entire school,” she wrote.

“Frats need to be held accountable … for screwing over the entire school.”

But Duke no longer has the power to discipline these groups. When fraternities cut ties with the university, they effectively shed the responsibility that came with their on-campus positions. For instance, members are no longer required to attend previously mandatory safety and sexual assault trainings.

Fraternities disaffiliated in February 2021, after Duke announced changes designed to lessen the influence of selective living groups on campus. New policies plan to move housing sections for selective groups away from the main part of campus, and restrict those sections to junior and senior residents only.  

Duke administrators told The Chronicle in November that they hope to create a more welcoming and inclusive housing experience for students. It’s no surprise, then, that these changes did not align with the needs of Greek life, a system built on exclusion. By forming the Durham IFC, Duke fraternities prioritized self-preservation over meaningful change. 

Shreyas Gupta, a Duke senior and founding member of the current movement to abolish Greek life, told The Chronicle last month that there is “nothing redeemable” about fraternities’ decision to disaffiliate. Disaffiliation allows the fraternities to avoid reform, he says, and will result in even less diversity in Greek life. “Now the process has become even more exclusive,” Gupta says, “and it’ll just continue down this road of white, wealthy students attracting more white, wealthy students.”

Will Santee, Duke junior and Durham IFC president, says he’s “fully prepared to launch all sorts of sexual assault and racial inequality campaigns,” complete with a judicial board to hold fraternities accountable. This is too little too late, however, as plans to form the board began only after individuals in the Durham IFC were blamed for Duke’s recent coronavirus spike.

Duke made an attempt at reform, but unfortunately, that attempt resulted in the Durham IFC. Now it’s time to ban Greek life from university life, on and off campus. 

Trying to push aside Greek life will only result in replacements and new iterations, where the toxicity of the Greek system can thrive more freely than before. That’s why I dropped out of my sorority, with the hopes that my peers and I could break the system down, piece by piece. In fact, more than 200 women left their Greek organizations this past year, while only a fraction of men did the same. It’s no coincidence that men appear more satisfied than women with the status quo.      

Santee said fraternities chose to disaffiliate because they did not feel included in the university’s new plan for residential life. Indeed, the new policies would loosen fraternities’ hold on Duke’s social culture, and open the way for a more balanced, coherent undergraduate community. 

That’s a major change for fraternity members who are accustomed to the status and privilege that Greek life grants them. But change is the whole point. 

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