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Northwestern Greek Life Is Imploding

Citing histories of racism and classism, multiple sororities at the university are threatening to go dark — and one has already done so.

Northwestern’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon, pictured in February 2017. The fraternity was suspended for a year following probation violations and allegations of sexual assault.   Photo: Chris Walker / Chicago Tribune

Bookending Northwestern’s lush Evanston campus are two cities within a city. To the north are the frats, big brick buildings bearing massive Greek letters. To the south are the sororities, packed in a neat stone mini-quad with a courtyard at the center. Some look like North Shore mansions, others like small turreted castles. All are grand — stately, even — and a little imposing.

In more than the physical sense, Greek life is the sprawling suburban college’s keeper. In the 2019–2020 academic year, 35 to 40 percent of undergraduates were affiliated with a fraternity or sorority. Though alcohol is technically forbidden, the fraternity houses dominate the party scene, making them an integral part of the university’s social landscape.

Suffice to say, it’s hard to imagine Northwestern without Greek life. But that’s exactly what some students and alumni are doing.

On August 3, members of the Gamma Phi Beta sorority at Northwestern voted to relinquish their charter. At least one other, Delta Gamma, held a vote on disbandment, but decided to stay, according to social media posts. Over the summer, the Daily Northwestern reported that all 12 of Northwestern’s sororities had met about disbandment in some capacity. And on September 1, the school’s Xi chapter of Chi Omega — the largest sorority in the United States — published an open letter calling on the national organization to explicitly promote diversity, inclusion, and anti-racism, providing a deadline of September 22 to respond. If Chi Omega leadership refuses, most current Xi members will deactivate, effectively ending the chapter’s nearly 120-year-long run at Northwestern.

The open letter is signed by current and alumni Xi chapter members, as well as members of other Chi Omega chapters. It calls for fundamental reforms of the sorority’s recruitment process and financial policies, eradicating female- and Christian-specific language in ceremonies and statutes, and implementing a “Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion Chair” across chapters. The letter also advocates for “mandatory, monthly programming that confronts the intersection of Greek life and race, class, sexuality, religion, etcetera.”

The letter is part of a larger nationwide call for the abolition of Greek life at American universities. Sparked in the wake of racial justice protests earlier this year, the movement takes to task hierarchical policies upheld by fraternities and sororities across the nation, with iterations at universities like Vanderbilt, Duke, Tufts, and the University of Pennsylvania. Some students have called on their universities and national leadership to make reforms; others believe that Greek life can’t be reformed, and should be scrapped completely.

On July 22, an Instagram account called @abolishnugreeklife began posting anonymous students’ experiences at Northwestern’s frats and sororities, sending backlash against Greek life to a fever pitch. Gamma Phi Beta Epsilon met with its international council earlier this summer about reforming chapter dues and gender identity restrictions, among other issues. However, Epsilon felt that the council did not fully support their ideas.

“People are finding out the very real flaws in the way the system was designed,” Lily McClain, Epsilon’s former financial vice president, told The Daily Northwestern. “I can’t see a world in which GPhi is going to come back in a few years.”

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

@nuchiomega @chiomegaxo

A post shared by Abolish NU IFC/PHA Greek Life (@abolishnugreeklife) on

Sheridan Bernard, a junior at Northwestern and Vice President of Chi Omega’s Xi chapter, says that while the creation of the Abolish Greek Life account was “the straw that broke the camel’s back,” the chapter had been in meetings regarding racism and exclusion for the past year. She points to Chi Omega’s 2019 Firesides convention (an annual leadership conference that takes place around the country) as a recent catalyst. While at the conference, many in Xi felt that one of the chapter’s three Black members “was being tokenized on a national level,” Bernard says.

“There were a lot of pictures of her in promotional materials, and [Chi Omega] would be reusing the same photos. We were like, ‘Okay, this is fishy. This is uncomfortable.’”

Then, last year, Chi Omega was roiled again when a group of new members learned of the sorority’s “ranking system” for potential pledges. Currently, the sorority ranks aspiring members as “gold,” “silver,” or “bronze” following interviews during the rushing process.

An anonymous member who identified herself as a “gold” recruiter — responsible for wooing Chi Omega’s most coveted rushers — says this process happens across the sorority’s chapters. She says Chi Omega places particular emphasis on recruits’ social media profiles, a practice she calls problematic. “There are so many factors that could contribute to someone not having a developed social media platform,” she says.

But most controversial is Chi Omega’s legacy policy, which gives preference to those with family members in the sorority. The Xi chapter’s letter says this “gives a clear advantage to those who have families that attended college and could afford to be a part of Greek life for generations.” The letter also calls for a sliding scale for national and chapter dues to “lessen class barriers” within the sorority.

Alumna Erica Aultz says such a scale would have been a relief during her time at Northwestern. When Aultz was inducted in 2002, Chi Omega gave her a discounted fee but later made her repay the difference. She says she had to beg a relative to help pay her dues.

“It was another little reminder of like, ‘Oh gosh, what did I get myself into joining this place? I can’t afford to do this,’” Aultz says.

The Chi Omega Xi house on the Northwestern campus     Photo: Courtesy of Chi Omega Xi

Xi’s letter wasn’t written in isolation. Bernard says that the chapter worked with other Chi Omega chapters who’d established Abolish Greek Life movements on their campuses, such as Washington University (Tau Mu) and University of Rochester (Xi Mu).

Since releasing the letter, many Xi members have buckled down to defend the chapter, while others have gone public with experiences of discrimination and exclusion. Bernard says she even hears from members of other Chi Omega chapters, saying they’d like to incorporate some of Chi Omega Xi’s demands in their own reforms.

“We’re hoping to keep the letter as a living document to reflect the needs of 180 chapters,” Bernard says. “We wrote it from our perspective at Northwestern, which definitely isn’t the same as another school’s.”

While the Xi chapter can’t vote to formally disband — Bernard notes that would revoke students who voted against the measure’s membership without their consent — most are planning to deactivate if the Supreme Governing Council doesn’t concede to their demands. Then, they’ll encourage members of other chapters and alumni to do the same.

“There’s no way that Greek life could disappear within a year or within 10 years,” the anonymous member says. “We thought it was more realistic for us to say, ‘OK, Greek life is still going to exist; Chi Omega is still going to exist.’ But we can standardize changes that will hopefully make recruitment less harmful to people.”

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