How Swarthmore abolished Greek life

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Swarthmore abolished Greek life in 2019 after documents exposed the existence of a “rape tunnel.” (Photo by Caroline Burns ’22)

Trebor Maitin

A year of accusations, alleged missteps by the Lafayette administration, and critiques of financial interdependence between Greek life and the College has culminated in the @AbolishGreekLifeAtLaf Instagram page, a part of the larger Abolish Greek Life Movement spurred in the wake of calls for social justice during last summer’s unrest. 

Although many of Lafayette Greek Life Organizations (GLOs) have come and gone, there has never been a complete erasure of Greek life from campus. Proponents of Greek life note that institutions, such as Harvard, have a complicated past with Greek abolition, with plenty of well documented secret societies, reinstatements and abolitions. Some of Lafayette’s neighbors and peers have taken the ultimate step, however.

Swarthmore College, a small liberal arts college located near Philadelphia, outright abolished GLOs in May of 2019, according to the Huffington Post. This abolition came only after years of drama, climaxing when documents exposing a “rape tunnel and a rape attic” leaked, student protests against Greek Life broke out, and a task force, charged with analyzing Greek life, party culture and socialization, released a report declaring that, “The practice of leasing space to any student group should be permanently ended,” in reference to GLOs.

Olivia Smith ’22, a member of the Swarthmore College Task Force on Student Social Events and Community Standards, recalled the long process which led to abolition.

“The community and administrative bodies were being charged with asking this question for a really long time, at least since 2013, if not before,” Smith said, in reference to a 2013 Greek life referendum. “It’s been an ongoing question.”

Eventually, it was Swarthmore president Valerie Smith that declared Greek Life Organizations would no longer exist on their campus. At Lafayette, however, the fate of Greek life lies in the hands of the Board of Trustees.

And after Swarthmore disbanded their GLOs, discourse erupted about what life after Greek life would look like.

“[After abolition], the social scene was in phases of redevelopment, meaning students were learning how to host and throw parties again,” Smith recalled. “This lag on social events or nightlife was a necessary period for expectations and motivations for party culture to change and become something new.”

Supporters of GLOs also say that, should they be banned, fraternities and sororities might move underground, like the Kappa Delta Rho fraternity did in 2011 prior to a deadly hazing incident that happened in 2012. Another organization that went underground after losing its charter is Fiji, which has been implicated in multiple accounts of alleged sexual harassment in anonymous posts online. These incidents suggest that abolishing Greek Life could create a more dangerous, less regulated environment outside the college’s jurisdiction.

“I do think there’s a fundamental difference in talking about banning any general practice and having it go underground versus removing institutional support from a violently structured group of people,” Smith said.

Michael Hill, Swarthmore’s director of public safety, noted in an email to The Lafayette that there had been no reports of underground fraternity activity.

Another common critique of abolition is that, because partying would become less regulated, reports of sexual violence and related crimes would increase. In response, Smith noted that, when a GLO member commits a violent act, they often have a group behind their back. 

“It may be that violence or incident reports have gone up [after abolition],” Smith said. “But that’s maybe because people feel safer reporting.”

The fear of greater violence after abolition has been trailed by a fear of dried-up alumni money streams. Alumni, especially Greek-affiliated alumni, contribute substantially to campaigns such as “Bring the Roar” and “Bring the Best,” helping deliver financial aid to new students, according to Greg Eggert ‘79, a member of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity and the director of the Alumni Interfraternity Sorority Board (AISB).

Eggert noted that, in the absence of Greek life, affiliated alum might possibly contribute elsewhere to the college.

“Don’t think as a fraternity man,” said Eggert, who opposes Greek abolition. “Think as you’re a Lafayette student with the opportunity to have your brothers or sisters come together and better influence the Lafayette campus community, to be a part of it, to be the kind of person that would make the college a better place.

“We just want to encourage our alumni to be great friends of Lafayette.”

The future of Lafayette Greek life is still unknown. Despite President Alison Byerly’s declaration in her 2013 convocation address that she “believe[s] if [GLOs] adhere to the standards set, they have a place,” she, the Board of Trustees, and the Student Government Greek Life Committee, each carry the sentiment that the future of GLOs is in students’ hands.

“If we want to go back to where we were in 2013,” Byerly said, “we have always tried to move in the direction of relying on assuming that the Greek life system was viable only as long as students believe that it’s viable.”