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Credit: Carly Ryan

As ongoing calls to ban historically white Greek organizations sweep universities across the nation, some Penn students are calling for the abolition of campus greek organizations and advocating for the re-designation of on-campus fraternity houses as cultural spaces.

On July 17, several Penn students created an anonymous Instagram account called Greek Free Penn to bring the “Abolish Greek Life” movement to the University's campus. Students involved in Greek life believe there is room for reform, while those involved in the movement disagree because of Greek life’s long history of alleged racism, classism, and sexism.

About 29% of Penn's student body is involved in Greek life.

The movement has gained traction at various college campuses — such as Vanderbilt University and Tufts University  — in the past few weeks as various Greek organizations have come under fire for allegations of perpetrating discriminatory behavior among its members and others outside of Greek life. 

At Penn, a member of the Psi Upsilon fraternity was accused in early June of allegedly yelling the n-word in a viral video from five years ago. In 2017, a member of the University's Phi Gamma Delta fraternity named his beer pong team "VietPong," prompting backlash from Penn's Asian community and one year prior, the Sigma Nu fraternity was accused of racism within their internal disciplinary system. 

The movement aligns with the Coalition Against Fraternity Sexual Assault’s and UMOJA's demands to expel fraternities from their houses on Locust Walk and replace them with cultural centers and wellness spaces. 

Nationwide calls to abolish Greek life are focused on the Interfraternity Council, with 25 men's fraternities and two co-ed fraternities at Penn, and the Panhellenic Council which is composed of eight women’s sororities at Penn. The councils have about 1,400 members each.

“Greek life represents an institution that is intrinsically exclusionary, built on a history of reinforcing the privilege of wealthy, straight, white men at the expense of the safety and success of marginalized students across our campuses,” the first post on Greek Free Penn’s Instagram reads.

Rising College senior and President of Delta Tau Delta, an IFC fraternity, Matt Garber said that while he recognizes the concerns of Greek Free Penn, he does not think they ring true of all Greek organizations. 

“Dismantling the entire system is not the solution on account of the fact that there is so much positive that comes out of it,” Garber said. “I think smart and thoughtful leadership like we have in so many of our chapters at Penn can be the solution to bringing Greek life to everyone that wants to be involved.” 

Rising College sophomore Pierre Peters, who participated in fraternity recruitment as a first year, said Greek Free Penn’s description of Greek organizations is true. 

“It starts with dues being incredibly expensive,” Peters said, “Then it moves on to other examples being activities for pledging that different fraternities and sororities make their pledges do that may be offensive to a lot of different students.”

Peters cited an occurrence in 2019 when members of Penn’s Kappa Alpha Theta sorority allegedly shouted “Build a wall” to a Latinx Wharton first year as part of their hazing process.

“These are just examples of exclusionism, elitism, racism, sexism, that are rampant in ways that don't need to be anymore,” Peters said. 

Despite this, Peters said he thinks Greek organizations remain popular on Penn's campus particularly because of the difficult transition between high school and college and the desire to form new, deep friendships.

“That was certainly something I was looking for when I had originally tried to rush,” Peters said. “It's not like a wholesome sort of ‘brotherhood or sisterhood’ as it's really advertised to be.” 

But for Garber, his fraternity has become a second family, a quality he was looking for when he rushed during the spring of his first year at the University. 

“Greek life is important for being that outlet, that family on campus, that kind of level of friendship and support that goes beyond what you can get from a regular club or people you meet in classes,” Garber said. 

Rising College junior and member of Sigma Alpha Mu, an IFC fraternity, Allan Cate said he joined a fraternity in Spring 2020 for the social opportunities that come with being a member.

“As a transfer, you're kind of behind the curve on finding groups on campus and meshing into the social scheme so I felt it was going to be beneficial for me to involve myself in a very social system,” Cate said. 

He agrees with Peters that financial obligations play a role in why people are calling to end Greek life on Penn's campus, although he does not think the Greek system is irredeemable.

“I understand that Greek life can be for more of the elite class because of the dues requirement,” Cate said. “I know that not everybody is capable of paying that kind of money to be a part of an organization, and that creates these small groups of privilege, where people share different Chegg accounts and test answers, and it's further privileging the privileged.” 

Instead of abolishing Greek life as a whole, Cate said there needs to be a shift in campus culture of Greek life to prioritize philanthropy and community involvement. 

“Fraternities and sororities could make a concerted effort to contribute to campus culture, contribute to the larger community more and be considered these pinnacles of community responsibility and cultural inclusivity, but at the place that they’re at, they’re valuing social opportunity and mingling,” Cate said.

Calls to end Greek life are a result of the current political climate in the United States, rising College sophomore Toluwalase Akinwunmhe, who follows Greek Free Penn’s Instagram and supports the movement, said. 

“We're looking at the history of certain organizations and systemic racism, then we need to look at Greek life in that way as well,” Akinwunmhe said.

She said the movement is part of a wider movement to take down organizations and structures that historically support white people and white supremacy. 

“I think when you look at fraternities and sororities and Greek life culture, a lot of their principles were built by white men in the 1800s,” Akinwunmi said. “And because of that, a lot of the ways in which they interact socially with people translates into things like racism and sexism.”

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