By Emma Campbell and Liz Hay
Opinion Editor and Elm Staff Writer
On Aug. 7, 2020, former Washington College President Kurt Landgraf announced via email that the brothers of the Kappa Alpha Order Beta Omega Chapter had voted to disband. According to Landgraf’s email, “the members felt strongly that the existence of the Beta Omega chapter could not be constructive in building a diverse and ethical Washington College community.”
Kappa Alpha’s motto, “dieu et les dames,” which translates to “God and the Ladies,” is hardly an encouraging maxim for an organization with strong ties to Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The fraternity’s signature colors of crimson and gold, meant to represent the blood spilled and money spent during the Civil War, are also problematic.
Apart from its racist history, Kappa Alpha faced numerous accusations related to breeding toxicity and exclusivity on the WC campus. The fraternity was prominently featured on the Instagram platform @anonwac, which gained attention for posting short, anonymous confessions about abuse and inequity at WC.
Kappa Alpha was not the only Greek Life organization at WC to face bias allegations that were posted about on the account; though, they were the quickest to take public action in the wake of them.
The anonymity surrounding @anonwac makes it difficult to prove any of the accusations levelled at these organizations as factual. However, the ability to prove or disprove specific wrongdoings is not the point.
“[The allegations were] a wake-up call to do better — be better,” President of the Sigma Tau Chapter of Alpha Omicron Pi Jelisaveta Janicijevic said. “Right when those allegations came out, we right then and there…set up a diversity committee.”
The allegations made against WC Greek Life cited by @anonwac were numerous, including claims of racism, complacency, and exclusivity.
“I reported several bias incidents against Greek organizations on campus,” one post made on Aug. 6, 2020 said. “I can’t even count how many times I was singled out based on the color of my skin and ethnicity…We need change and real education about these topics.”
While some posts were vague, other allegations named the Greek organizations accused of perpetuating these incidents.
“[The Beta Pi Chapter of] Alpha Chi Omega breeds such a toxic environment for their ‘sisters’ to be a part of,” said a post from Aug. 8, 2020. “They preach about healthy relationships and cultivating positive experiences when in reality they enable the most hurtful experiences…Major, major changes need to be made both in AXO and Greek Life as a whole and this is from a current member.”
For the sake of full transparency, these reporters are current members of the Beta Pi chapter of Alpha Chi Omega. At the time of the allegations, both of us were Executive Board Members and engaged in conversations pertaining to accountability and chapter-wide improvement.
“The allegations made over the summer were deeply concerning to me and the rest of the chapter,” President of Alpha Chi Omega Madison Nutter said. “It really broke my heart that people experienced that and felt that way and we made an effort to address those allegations as soon as we could, regardless of whether or not allegations were addressed to us.”
Nutter said that after becoming aware of these complaints, Alpha Chi Omega set to work drafting a diversity statement and setting up an anonymous bias reporting system.
“Holding sisters and ourselves accountable for bias is very important to us, so we started putting in the work to really reform ourselves into the most equitable and inclusive version of Beta Pi we could achieve,” Nutter said.
Greek Life at WC may be on a smaller scale than that at larger public universities, but it is not exempt from the privilege inherent in all fraternities and sororities. This is a centuries-old institution founded by the white and wealthy, and WC Greek Life has seemingly done little to acknowledge this history until after their hands were tied by negative publicity garnered by @anonwac.
This is not to say that current steps are not being taken to eradicate toxicity. Committees are being formed, statements are being written, and conversations are being had. Still, without genuine understanding of the issues ingrained in these organizations, WC Greek Life members cannot be expected to make sufficient strides toward true inclusivity.
“I think Phi Delta Theta is pretty inclusive in general,” President of the Gamma Chapter of Phi Delta Theta Jastin Garcia-Mendoza said. “I think we’re still continuing doing that with…the current pledge class…I think the majority of this pledge class is actually very diverse.”
Increasing representation is certainly an important aspect of inclusivity for Greek Life. However, there are deep biases and entrenched issues at every level of Greek Life that must be addressed continuously through multifaceted approaches. Diversifying pledge classes is an important step — not a signal that inclusivity in Greek Life has been achieved.
“The conversations surrounding diversity and inclusion have to be ongoing … Diversity and inclusion are not a ‘one and done’ type deal, so we have to make sure that we’re thinking about diversity, equity, and inclusion in everything from large things, like recruitment, to things that seem much smaller than recruitment at first glance,” Nutter said.
Approaching diversity and inclusion initiatives in the long term is the most effective way to generate change in WC Greek Life. First, we must familiarize ourselves with the ignorance and complicity that got us here.
Fraternities and sororities are inherently exclusive organizations. There are explicit gender- and economic-based restrictions in addition to the historical and systemic biases based on race, ability, and sexual orientation. A 2011 study conducted by Princeton University of its own Greek system found that 77% of sorority members and 73% of fraternity members were white.
The first steps to address the past and present biases of Greek Life can be the hardest because they involve personal confrontations with privilege and its legacy. However, the journey to true inclusivity cannot begin without confronting these initial conversations.
“To make change we have to be uncomfortable,” VP Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion of Alpha Chi Omega Asia Webb said.
Many chapters have engaged with tough conversations internally by creating safe spaces for members to share experiences or talk about national trends. The governing organizations of fraternity and sorority life, the Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Council, have also created more structured programming to address inclusivity in Greek Life.
“When I first came to Washington College, Greek Life was allowed to do whatever it wanted. Over the past few years, the School and the IFC have made a significant effort to control and rebuild Fraternity Life,” President of the WC IFC Jack Peterson said. “The IFC and I took a long hard look at what the Fraternities had become and realized that it was a toxic culture.”
These efforts from Greek Life governing organizations are meaningful steps in the right direction for shared issues of exclusivity, but each chapter has unique areas of need when it comes to their cultures. While the chapter presidents of all three sororities at WC gave interviews for this article, only one of the three WC fraternity presidents are represented. President of the Omicron-Phi Chapter of Kappa Sigma Lenny Brogen was contacted on Tuesday, March 30 and Friday, April 2, while President of the Beta Eta Chapter of Theta Chi Cole Curley was contacted on Monday, April 5. As of Sunday, April 11, neither has responded.
“[Greek Life] does sometimes seem exclusive,” Garcia-Mendoza said. “I think the…three organizations here [are]…athletics, Greek Life, or SGA or something like that…And if you don’t do any of those things it’s harder to get to know people.”
A major contributor to the exclusivity of Greek Life are chapter dues — which can total anywhere from $100 to $2,000 by semester, according to the U.S. News & World Report.
“One of the most significant issues that stop[s] people from joining Greek Life is a financial commitment,” Peterson said. “[The IFC] design[ed] some in-person fundraising events that will hopefully take place next year, which will help create a fund to help students that cannot afford dues. We’ve also found that Fraternity Nationals have scholarships designed to pay for membership dues; we plan on using that information during the Fraternity rush process next year.”
Tapping into resources provided by other areas of the college can augment these internal approaches. There are several Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion sessions available to WC students and college staff that seek to educate participants on issues including microaggressions and anti-racism in a supportive space. Increasing collaboration with groups already existing on campus that specifically deal with advocacy and inclusion is a natural way to improve Greek Life initiatives and programming.
“We have tried to incorporate more diversity and inclusion into our philanthropy…Although we have made some efforts towards our goal, in the future we hope to collaborate with different clubs on campus on different fundraising and educational efforts,” President of the Gamma Beta Chapter of Zeta Tau Alpha Sarah Kelly said.
The areas of privilege and calls for improvement in Greek Life are complex and multifaceted. Creating a truly inclusive Greek Life culture at WC means addressing these layers and decades of intersecting history at every level of our work, for as long as Greek Life exists on campus.
If internal strides are made, Greek Life at WC has the potential to be major players in campus-wide diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.
Featured Photo caption: WC Greek Life has faced recent pressure to increase inclusivity in its chapters, and to hold itself accountable for past biases. Photo by Ben Wang.