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As Wash U Students Reckon With Greek System, Some Want It Gone For Good

Washington University senior John Harry Wagner stands in front of his old fraternity house, Beta Theta Pi, on March 16, 2021. Wagner quit along with most of the brothers during a racial reckoning centered on Greek life.
Ryan Delaney
St. Louis Public Radio
Washington University senior John Harry Wagner stands in front of his old fraternity house, Beta Theta Pi. Wagner quit along with most of the brothers during a reckoning over racism and sexual harassment in Greek life. "In the end," he said, "it can't really be safe."

Washington University students are leaving their sororities and fraternities in large numbers, saying the organizations they were once a part of contribute to racism and sexism on campus.

Students who’ve left say they could no longer ignore the warning signs they’d previously overlooked or felt it was not possible to reform their fraternities or sororities from the inside. They’re also discouraging younger students from joining and pushing the university administration to banish most Greek letter organizations from campus.

Nana Kusi pledged a sorority her sophomore year, looking to expand her social circle. Kusi, who is Black and originally from Ghana, said she knew joining a historically white sorority could be problematic but was told by classmates that the ones at Wash U were different.

“There were definitely red flags,” said Kusi, who eventually joined Alpha Phi. “But a lot of those were sort of just calmed by the environment which you're in. It's very peppy, there's a lot of chanting, everybody's smiling, everybody wants to get to know you.”

The extroverted Kusi, now a junior, said she initially got a buzz from meeting so many new people during the rush process but said, in retrospect, it felt “robotic.” She also noticed she and other Black students were being paired with sorority sisters who looked like her.

Kusi tucked those thoughts in the back of her mind, thinking she could help “buck the norm” of these organizations not being made for people like her. But, she said, “the rose-colored glasses of the experience wore off pretty quickly. I gained a lot of clarity as to the fact that a lot of these relationships weren’t genuine.”

Nana Kusi, a junior at Washington University, quit her sorority last year during a wave of deactivations from Greek life at the school. She's photographed on campus on March 16, 2021.
Ryan Delaney
St. Louis Public Radio
Nana Kusi, a junior at Washington University, quit her sorority last year after realizing she couldn't "buck the norm" of historically all-white social groups. "The rose-colored glasses of the experience wore off pretty quickly," she said.

Kusi quit Alpha Phi in July through a process known as deactivation. The wave of departures traces back to a social media post made last summer, a moment some students refer to as “the reckoning,” through an Instagram account @BlackAtWashU in which a student made a detailed accusation of racism in a sorority.

It sparked other students to share similar stories of discrimination and exclusion and led to the creation of other accounts and a student group called Abolish Greek Life. Hundreds of students have since deactivated.

A year ago, a little more than a third of students belonged to one of more than two dozen fraternities and sororities at Wash U. Since the summer, nearly half of them have canceled their memberships. Two sororities have completely folded, and other organizations have lost more than 80% of their membership.

Wash U is among several campuses having a reckoning over the role of the organizations on college campuses. Students at Duke and Vanderbilt, colleges with even larger Greek scenes, have had similar conversations and deactivations.

Wash U does recognize several historically Black and Latino organizations on campus, but students in the abolish movement say they’re focused on historically white frats and sororities.

The deactivation movement has gained more traction among women, who are leaving sororities at a faster rate than men from fraternities. And because fraternities have houses on campus while sororities do not, the physical presence of Greek life remains.

“In the end, when a group of a whole bunch of men own a house where you throw a party to mix with women, it can't really be safe,” said John Harry Wager, a former member of Beta Theta Pi.

Only a handful of men remain in Beta at Wash U since Wagner, a senior, and other upperclassmen left last year. Wagner initially rushed because he thought Beta was “one of the good frats” where he would not be pressured to drink too much and jeopardize his track career.

Wagner said he actively worked to make parties safer and other reforms, but “the problem I think we kept running into is the fact that the system is not made to create safety for the people within it, and comparably, the system is not made to be inclusive.”

Wagner said conversations with the national Beta organization last year left him and others frustrated.

“I just mostly remember leaving there feeling like they just didn't want us to drop, and they weren't really open to hearing our feedback,” he said.

National Greek letter orders and oversight bodies say they’re committed to making their organizations more inclusive and welcoming.

The national Beta Theta Pi organization formed a diversity and inclusion commission last summer. It recommended education around language and diversifying voices within chapters. “The ultimate goal remains the fostering of a welcoming environment for men from all walks of life and an even greater sense of belonging for all brothers,” said S. Wayne Kay, chairman of the national Beta’s board, in a statement.

Some sororities were already having conversations about improving diversity, and even more have begun since last summer, said Dani Weatherford, CEO of the National Panhellenic Conference, one of two sorority umbrella organizations. “These national conversations have really put that work on fast forward.

“The modern sorority woman or the modern Panhellenic sorority woman is increasingly diverse,” Weatherford added.

Rush, a sort of audition during which students visit different houses and chapters to get to know members and solicit a bid to join, did happen this spring, though it was entirely virtual under campus COVID restrictions.

Students in Abolish Greek Life have held their own virtual info session and rally on campus along “Frat Row” to advocate against new membership.

Wash U’s student newspaper reported that half as many students signed up to participate in Rush this semester compared to a year ago. University officials said it’s still too early to know the exact level of interest in fraternities and sororities, because the student affairs office hasn’t tallied how many bids to join a chapter were accepted.

 A fraternity house on Washington University's campus on March 16, 2021.
Ryan Delaney
St. Louis Public Radio
A fraternity house on Washington University's campus. Some former fraternity and sorority members are pushing the university to abolish Greek Life from campus. Administrators say they're willing to reconsider the use of the 10 university-owned houses over time. Currently, one has been repurposed for a Black student group after the fraternity leasing it was expelled for a rule violation.

A frat or sorority is typically only kicked off campus for a severe violation of university policy, such as hazing or underaged drinking. Rob Wild, Wash U’s interim vice chancellor for student affairs, said responding to concerns within Greek life is more complicated than that. Chapters could simply relocate or operate in the shadows, without university or possibly even national organization oversight.

“We're certainly listening to the students that are bringing these concerns forward,” he said. “And we always support our students to work to try to create the type of campus environment that they want as students.”

Wild said Wash U is committed to reassessing the use of the houses the university currently leases to fraternities but will not "proactively" end leases without cause. Currently, one of the 10 houses is reassigned to a Black cultural organization after the previous tenant, a fraternity, was expelled for a campus violation.

But for Kusi and other students, total abolishment from campus is the only solution for a social system built around exclusion.

“It's really a question about the value system that we have at this university,” Kusi said. “Are we going to choose to institutionalize systems of racism and misogyny and classism? If the point is to have people make friends, find connections and have a good social circle, I don't believe that should be a benefit that is only available to a select few.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.
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