It was one month after the killing of George Floyd and Payne-Reichert, vice president of his fraternity, kicked off a virtual meeting that would break up the chapter he once adored.
For two hours, the virtual group of 26 men discussed the lack of diversity in their fraternity chapter and the Instagram pages that shared anonymous accounts of racism and sexual assault at their school. The meeting ended with a unanimous vote to disband the chapter of Delta Tau Delta.
“The pressure was on those of us in Greek life to justify our existence and we couldn’t do it,” said Payne-Reichert, 20. “I realized that remaining complicit in the system was a moral issue, and it was one I could not live with.”
That day, Payne-Reichert and his brothers joined hundreds of students at more than a dozen elite colleges and universities nationwide who have cut ties with their fraternities and sororities over the past three months, saying the organizations with histories of sexual assault and White exclusivity are out of line with growing demands for social justice.
At Duke University, a Black sorority sister took off her lettered sweatshirt when grieving Floyd’s death. At the University of Richmond, every member of the Panhellenic Executive Board, which governs campus sororities, resigned. And at Tufts University, the school’s Panhellenic Conference said on Instagram it suspended recruitment to “reflect on the space held by Greek life at Tufts.”
Since first emerging in the 18th century, Greek life has been a cornerstone of college campuses, surviving for generations despite public outrage over high-profile sexual assaults and hazing deaths. But now, inspired by the nation’s racial reckoning and accelerated by the pandemic-induced social isolation, students once affiliated with Greek life have built a new movement calling for its abolition.
The movement, however, has met resistance from national organizations, university administrators and some students, who have pushed for change and increased efforts to expand diversity as an alternative to dismantling Greek life altogether.
The result is a confrontation increasingly familiar on college campuses: establishment leaders and students who support them believe they can help create change from within, while other students are determined to dismantle the institutions they say have failed them.
As students returned to campuses for an unprecedented school year, they got on group texts and inter-school Zooms, trying to figure out how to harness the energy from their summer of activism to take down the fraternity and sorority chapters that still stand.
“We are in a climate where traditionally White institutions are being targeted, and there is nothing more traditional and White and elitist than fraternities on a college campus,” said Alan Desantis, author of the 2007 book “Inside Greek U” and a longtime fraternity adviser. “This movement is without a doubt stronger than it has ever been.”
'We don't need to commit to the systems in place'
Greek life first appeared on college campuses in the late 1700s, when students at the College of William & Mary formed a club reserved for wealthy and White Christian men to discuss philosophy in secret. Sororities blossomed a century later, creating spaces exclusively for White women.
The current movement against Greek life singularly targets organizations built on a history of Whiteness, as opposed to other facets of the system such as historically Black sororities and fraternities that formed in the 20th century.
Calls for restructuring White Greek life are not new, but cries to abolish them have sharpened in recent months. After Floyd’s killing in police custody and amid national protests against racial injustice, new Instagram accounts began to surface at more than a dozen colleges nationwide. They shared anonymous stories of racism and sexual assault experienced on campuses, many of them allegedly involving members of Greek letter organizations.
“Once I had sex with a white guy in a fraternity and afterward when we came downstairs everyone high-fived him and say he finally lost his ‘Black virginity’ as if I was nothing more than a box to be checked off,” one post read.
At Washington University in St. Louis, more than 300 students joined a July 14 virtual town hall to discuss the future of Greek life. Earphones in, they listened intently as Nkemjika Emenike, the 18-year-old diversity and inclusion chair for the student union, questioned campus administrators who resisted abolishing Greek life.
“What I am hearing is that there is a need to center student voices and student and administration collaboration,” she said, responding to administrators who pleaded with students to join them in “active dialogue” to figure out how to best address the community concerns about Greek life. “But one thing we have heard from those student voices . . . is the need to abolish Greek life.”
Emenike, who is Black and Asian American, was once a key player in advancing the types of internal change that administrators were promoting that day. She knew firsthand that sorority recruitment could be daunting for women of color — especially for those such as she who could not afford a new outfit for each event. But she had been pleasantly surprised when she walked into a campus building to find a diverse group of women greeting her at the door.
“The presence of people of color in the room made me feel included and safe right away,” she recalled.
During her first semester in her sorority, which she declined to name to protect the privacy of her sisters, Emenike found best friends, mentors and secured a $1,500 academic scholarship.
But the more time she spent in Greek life, the more she noticed its dark underbelly.
Upperclassmen would warn her to avoid certain fraternity houses where “there were increased chances of sexual assault.” Members of the LGBTQ community would describe feeling isolated in their sororities. And invite lists to Greek life parties seemed at times to automatically exclude women who looked like her.
Caught between gratitude and resentment, Emenike at first tried to improve the social system herself. She spent hours re-engineering social events to be more inclusive and spoke at roundtables with campus administrators to discuss decreasing the financial burden of Greek life, which she hoped would improve diversity.
But Emenike’s eye toward reform shifted after people around the world reacted to Floyd’s killing by calling for an entirely new system of policing. If she could help take down one system, she thought, she might as well try to do the same for a different kind of system on her college campus.
She has yet to drop her sorority because of logistical challenges but says it is only a matter of time before she officially leaves.
Since June, all nine sororities at Washington University in St. Louis have talked about whether they should permanently disband. They have also begun to discuss a new social system that could replace Greek life, suggesting fraternity houses could transform into cultural spaces for marginalized groups on campus.
“I truly loved my experience in Greek life and I wanted to make it more equitable for people,” Emenike said. “But then there was this cultural shift that showed us we don’t have to commit to the systems in place. We can replace them with new and better systems.”
'I saw more value in staying'
The process of dismantling a historic system — made up of loyal university donors, a vast network of graduates and powerful public figures — is complicated.
When Payne-Reichert and his brothers voted to disband the Delta Tau Delta chapter at American University, they thought they had effectively ended its campus presence. But that was not the case.
As they learned, a national Greek letter organization can decide to preserve a chapter by sending one of its own representatives to campus to recruit a fresh class of brothers.
Jack Kreman, CEO of the national Delta Tau Delta organization, did not allow American University’s chapter to disband simply because Paye-Reichert and his brothers voted to end it.
“No decision has been made regarding the future of the chapter at American University at this time,” he said, adding that “the level of diversity in the local chapters is determined by the choice and preference of the local members.”
The national organization’s decision can only be challenged by members of university administration or a school’s Panhellenic Conference or Interfraternity Council — both groups that have historically supported Greek life as a hallmark of campus life and promoted its restructuring rather than eradication.
Judson Horras, president and CEO of the North American Interfraternity Conference, said the question of abolition is not worth consideration.
“It is not going to happen. These are very large institutions,” he said in an email. “Where we are going to make the most difference is our members’ commitment to positive change.”
“That is what we have always done, change to meet the needs of members and their campus community,” said Dani Weatherford, CEO of the National Panhellenic Conference, adding the board of directors is in the process of appointing an “equity and access advisory committee.”
By the fall, hundreds of chapters that had voted to disband learned that national organizations would keep their charters alive. There has yet to be a college or university to publicly ban Greek life in response to the mounting calls for abolition.
With influential institutions resistant to systemic change, students bent on ending Greek life say they are increasingly relying on social pressure to minimize the status and prestige that gives power to campus chapters. But not all students want Greek life to disappear.
Sean Woytowitz, a 20-year-old student at Duke University, was sitting in his car in San Diego one day in July, midway through his Instacart shift, when he scrolled through Instagram and saw a classmate calling for the end of Greek life. He felt a wave of dread wash over him.
Alpha Tau Omega had been the bedrock of his college experience, introducing him to friends that were as funny and loyal as the tightknit group he had struggled to leave behind in high school. The fraternity had also helped him feel more confident in his own interpretation of masculinity by connecting him with other men who “didn’t conform to cookie-cutter ideals and were really just a weird group of people.”
In his car that day, Woytowitz struggled to reconcile his love for his brotherhood with the stories of racism and sexual assault in Greek life that flashed on his phone screen. Distraught by what he was reading, he considered for a moment leaving Alpha Tau Omega and resigning from his position on Duke’s Interfraternity Council, where he served as director of inclusion, health and safety.
But then Woytowitz contemplated what Greek life would look like if he and his friends dropped out. He shuddered to think about what would remain without the brothers and sisters who had been advocating for change.
“In the end it actually was a pretty easy decision,” he said. “If everyone wasn’t going to drop, then I personally saw way more value in staying and reforming.”
Woytowitz has since helped launch an affinity group for men of color in fraternities to share experiences and crowdsource ways to make Greek life more inclusive. The group is working to establish channels of communication between fraternity men of color and first-years of color who are interested in joining Greek life. They are also in the midst of establishing a new racial bias policy and protocol to help prevent incidents of sexual assault.
“I don’t want Greek life to be abolished and then four years later there is another problematic system in place,” he said. “So we see value in students leading reform because students know the student experience.”