Greek system attempts to hit “reset button,” promote inclusivity


Elizabeth Bell

The six National Panhellenic sorority houses sit in a row next to Wilson Field.

Grace Mamon

More than 100 anonymous submissions about inequality issues on campus have been posted by the @dearwlu Instagram account, since it was created on June 29. On Monday, over 20 posts submitted by students and alumni involved Greek life, prompting conversations about how to promote inclusivity in the Greek system.

Greek life on campuses across the country – including at Washington and Lee – has been under scrutiny in the past few months, amid national conversations about racial justice. Sexism, classism, transphobia and homophobia have cropped up, alongside racism in the @dearwlu posts, which are inspired by the @dearpwi account.

“There’s this general feeling for people of color and anyone that doesn’t fit the W&L mold that Greek life just won’t bring them the same fruits that it brings other students,” Tanajia Moye-Green, ’23, said.

Students who participate in Greek life are overwhelmingly white, Moye-Green pointed out – even for a university with 79% white undergraduates, according to 2019 enrollment trends.

“Once I made the connection that all the ‘lower tier’ sororities were the ones that happened to have the most people of color, I got a little worried,” she said, referring to the unofficial ranking system of Greek organizations.

After standing alone during “Meet the Greek” events and only being invited on one rush date during informal recruitment, Moye-Green said she decided to abandon her hopes of being in a sorority. And she’s far from the only student of color who’s been turned off by the Greek system after feeling unwelcome during her first semester.

But this is something student leaders in Greek life say they’re working to change.

A virtual town hall, prompted by the campus-wide conversation, focused on inclusivity, transparency and accountability on July 21. Over 200 people tuned in. Emma Stoffel, ’21, panelist and recruitment vice president for the Panhellenic Council, which governs the six National Panhellenic sororities, or NPC, on campus, said she was happy about the turnout but there’s more work to be done.

“I think people really want action,” she said. “We can’t just have the town hall and then have things flip overnight and be like ‘Okay, we’re good now.’”

Stoffel was joined by panelists Jamie Winslett, ’21, Panhellenic Council  president, Vij Sivalingam, ’21, senior justice of the Interfraternity Council and Jhade Jordan, ’21, president of Alpha Kappa Alpha, one of the university’s historically Black sororities. Administrators Leah Beard, Tamara Futrell and David Leonard moderated.

Making the recruitment process more welcoming for minority students and those without strong existing social ties is a frequently raised concern which the panelists touched on.

Sivalingam said in an interview that the Interfraternity Council is hoping to spread more information about the recruitment process for men, which he said has been “ambiguous” and “vague” in the past.

He said the Interfraternity Council  plans to hold “Meet the Greek” events, like the ones the Panhellenic Council holds every fall, to help potential new members meet students in Greek life. He doesn’t remember ever seeing members of fraternities represented on campus as a freshman, he said.

“It was on the individual to like go into town and basically walk up to any fraternity house and get to know people,” Sivalingam said. “I think having fraternities come and be accessible at an event like that with sororities…the point of that would just be to try to meet people and have their contact information, especially rush chairs.”

Sivalingam also said there are plans to have more information sessions at the beginning of the year to make the process more transparent, as well as creating a Rho Gamma equivalent for the Interfraternity Council, or IFC,  to help freshmen men with the recruitment process.

Leonard, IFC campus advisor, said all fraternities will participate in diversity training this year and will prioritize inclusivity.

In January, all sophomore sorority members attended diversity training before the first day of formal recruitment.

The creation of an Interfraternity Council social media platform will help mitigate the lack of information among different campus groups, he said.

“The IFC received critical feedback that the process of joining an organization is easier from students that come from similar backgrounds,” Leonard  said in an email, adding that a social media platform will “create an even playing field.”

The Panhellenic Council  is also working to make information about the recruitment process more accessible for first-year  students  interested in joining a sorority, said council members.

Ayo Ehindero, ’21, head Rho Gamma, said this is the first year that Rho Gammas will receive training. Rho Gammas are current sorority members who temporarily disaffiliate from their sorority to act as an unbiased resource for first-year students.

They’re like the peer counsellors for sorority recruitment, Ehindero said. But in the past, they’ve been hit or miss because of the lack of training.

“When you’re winging it, you’re basing it really on your experience and the experience of your friends,” Ehindero said. “You don’t really get a holistic view of how everyone feels during recruitment.”

With training, Rho Gammas can better educate potential new members about all of their options– this includes historically Black organizations, governed by the National Pan-Hellenic Council.

Jordan, the president of Alpha Kappa Alpha, a historically Black sorority, said many women on campus don’t know that National Pan-Hellenic, or NPHC sororities’  rush process is very different from NPC sororities.

“Our rush is based on student interest so we can have it either in the fall or winter,” she said. “And we don’t really target freshmen women, like you can join any year.”

She said she thinks women of color are drawn to NPHC sororities like Alpha Kappa Alpha because they feel valued there.

“I think since we were founded by people of color, we value them,” she said. “We don’t ever try to exclude them. You’ll never hear that about our sorority.”

Rho Gamma training will take place on campus before classes begin, said Ehindero.

The Panhellenic Council will also be creating an anonymous form for potential new members to report any microaggressions or negative experiences they have during the recruitment process, Stoffel said during the town hall.

The Panhellenic Council is also working to remove financial barriers for joining a sorority, said Beard and Winslett.

In the past, female potential new members had to pay $35 to register for recruitment, but this year that fee has been eliminated. In following years, it will only be $10, said Beard in an email.

Mansi Tripathi, ’22, who disaffiliated from Chi Omega in April, brought up “unofficial” financial obligations of joining a sorority, in addition to dues during the Q&A portion of the town hall, including  spending on “big/little week” and clothing requirements for formal recruitment.

“We will be providing every PNM with a t-shirt for the first day of formal recruitment to ensure that the focus of the day is the personalities of the PNMs, not what they choose to wear,” Winslett said in an email.

In addition to these tangible changes, there have also been calls for a much more difficult feat: a shift in campus culture.

“The school offers wonderful opportunities, it’s a great education…robust financial aid,” Sivalingam said. “But it doesn’t give resources for these [minority] students to come in and really acclimate to the culture of a school and institution that was built by good ole boys for good ole boys.”

Lack of minority representation in the Greek system, indecorous party themes and outright and explicit prejudice are common complaints that council members said must be primarily addressed by Greek chapters themselves.

Mickie Brown, ’21, who disaffiliated from his fraternity, Phi Gamma Delta, after freshman year, said he doesn’t think IFC or Panhellenic Council  could really do much to make these changes. It must come from within each Greek organization.

“I don’t know how you go about making or convincing students to rush Greek life that identify with these marginalized identities,” he said. “I suppose reducing the, just kind of the hatred coming out from fraternity members, but how do you police that?”

Brown said no one in his fraternity was ever derogatory toward him for not being straight, but he often heard homophobic slurs thrown around casually.

“You have to create willingness for those groups to join Greek life and with such a historical precedent of those organizations being unwelcoming to those groups, how do you bring about that desire?” he said.

Each of the sororities and some fraternities put out statements decrying racism on social media during the national uprising sparked by the killing of George Floyd – even those with no members of color.

Washington and Lee’s Kappa Alpha Order chapter released a statement on July 7, cutting ties with Robert E. Lee.

“We have asked that Robert E. Lee be denounced as Kappa Alpha’s Spiritual Founder. Most importantly, our chapter is eliminating its ties with Robert E. Lee,” said the statement, which was posted by many fraternity members on Instagram. “We feel a continued connection with Lee will hinder our ability to live up to the standards of Kappa Alpha Order.”

Emily Moran, ’21, president of Kappa Kappa Gamma, said the sorority is ready to hit a “reset button” and make up for past shortcomings.

“Our biggest [goal] is increasing our representation at diversity events,” she said. “Just showing up is a huge step that we definitely haven’t done a great job of in the past.”

Moran said Kappa will be working with representatives from the Office of Inclusion and Engagement to stay up to date on events held by non-Greek organizations because not knowing about them is “no longer an excuse.”

Kappa Kappa Gamma is also planning to make wholesale changes during recruitment, Moran said.

“I think it’s a shared sentiment that we do have a style that typically just stems from, ‘this girl went to my high school, I went to camp with this girl’ and it constantly is extracting from these same social bubbles,” she said. “We’re long overdue to branch out and reach other corners of our campus that we have failed to do before.”

This shortcoming has not been lost on students of color.

“It was pretty clear from the beginning that like in the high tier sororities there were very few people of color, so I knew that those weren’t even an option,” Tripathi said.

Sivalingam, the only minority student in his Kappa Alpha Order senior pledge class, said some students of color that he’s friends with never even considered rushing KA.

Silvana Varela Benavides, ’23, a member of Latinx Student Organization, said she has had a positive experience with Greek life, although she knows many students of color can’t say the same.

“I was born in Costa Rica and I grew up there, but I also went to a predominantly white high school in Georgia,” she said. “I’m also very white passing for a Latina woman…being Hispanic is something that I can tell people.”

She said she thinks much of the demographic disparity in Greek life stems from miscommunication.

“Sorority girls are saying ‘women of color don’t really seem interested in rushing’ and women of color are saying, ‘well, they don’t seem interested in rushing us,’” Varela Benavides said.

Moye-Green agreed, saying the Greek system wasn’t “made” for people of color.

“They won’t prioritize us in the same way and we’ll just always be outsiders hoping to fit in. So, I think that’s why a lot become independent because at least that way we were never promised the inclusivity and not given that,” she said. “As independent…we’ve prioritized our identity over our willingness and desire to fit in.”

Community service chair of the Student Association for Black Unity, Moye-Green said she didn’t know a single woman in SABU involved in sorority life.

Members of Delta Society, a local organization under NPC, said they will also be trying to promote inclusivity this year.

Recruitment chair Lily Webster, ’22, said it’s easy to gravitate toward women you already know during rush events, and suggested a sort of speed dating format instead.

Curry Sherard, ’21, sorority president, agreed.

“If there were some format where the norm was literally meeting everyone…that would be a lot better,” she said.

Webster and another recruitment chair, Katy Blain, ’22, said Delta will put up a bulletin board in their house this year to advertise non-Greek events.

“In CGL there’s a lot of them especially with different cultures and if you don’t have a class in the CGL, you’re going to miss out on a lot of those opportunities,” Blain said.

Sherard, Webster and Blain said because of changes to recruitment processes this year during the pandemic, it is a good time to overhaul their current practices and reach out to a more diverse group of freshmen women.

“I think that should always be our goal and it’s kind of upsetting if that’s not happening,” Sherard said. “We’ll definitely do whatever we can…especially this year we need to make a huge push for that.”