On April 30th, 2019, the last two fraternities at Swarthmore College disbanded. The fraternities, Phi Psi and Delta Upsilon, were housed in two on campus, college owned buildings. Their termination followed the release of past fraternity documents and protests by other Swarthmore students.
In April of this year, two Swarthmore campus publications, The Phoenix and Voices, released anonymously leaked internal Phi Psi documents from 2012 to 2016. According to Time Magazine, these redacted documents included “jokes about sexual assault; derogatory comments about women, minorities and the LGBT community; videos and photos of sexual encounters where all parties might not have known they were being recorded.” Among the more than 100 pages of documents leaked were minutes of fraternity meetings and lists from scavenger hunts. Also included among the documents were references to Delta Upsilon’s “rape attic” and “rape tunnel.” CNN reports that Delta Upsilon denies those things existed and called the terms a “sorry attempt at humor by a member of another Swarthmore Greek organization.”
As the New York Times relates, the release of the documents caused dozens of Swarthmore students to “storm the Phi Psi house in protest on Saturday” April 27th. The building is mainly used for Phi Psi parties and other social activities. On this same day Swarthmore President Valerie Smith sent a letter to the campus community announcing an external investigation of the fraternities was underway and that Phi Psi and Delta Upsilon had been suspended until further notice. Phi Psi, which is not affiliated with a national organization, was suspended in 2016 for violating Swarthmore’s alcohol and drug policy. It reopened for parties a year ago.
Calling themselves the Coalition to End Fraternity Violence, the students continued to occupy the fraternity house in a four day sit-in calling for the closing of Phi Psi and Delta Upsilon. According to Fox News, there were as many as 100 protestors at the house over the weekend and on Monday morning April 29th, despite students being in the midst of finals, there were still about 30 students sitting at the building. Protestor and Swarthmore senior Morgin Goldberg told Fox News, “We’re trying to force the college to make the right decision on this.”
Goldberg, along with some of her fellow students had begun a Tumblr blog in early April called “Why Swarthmore’s Fraternities Must Go.” The Washington Post reports that the blog consists of over 100 accounts by writers describing “how they were allegedly assaulted at [Swarthmore] fraternity events or by members between 2015 and 2019. Other posts detailed instances in which members allegedly exhibited homophobic, racist and sexist behavior.” The names of alleged assaulters and specific fraternities were not included. Shortly after this blog went up, the documents leading to the sit-in and closure of the fraternities were released. While the leaked documents are from several years ago, when Goldberg compared them to the more recent accounts on the Tumblr blog she found “themes started to appear.” However, Swarthmore has not been able to confirm any of the narratives posted to the Tumblr blog yet. Time reports that due to concerns over current students being wrongly accused or mistreated, Swarthmore President Valerie Smith “condemned what she called ‘unsubstantiated attacks directed at individual students or student groups … as too many students have recently endured,” taking aim at social media posts and “attempts to exclude students from open campus events based on their affiliations.’”
On the fourth day of the sit-in Tuesday April 30th, Phi Psi announced on Facebook that it was disbanding, stating that though its “current members were in high school and middle school at the time of the writing of these documents…We were appalled and disgusted by the content of these minutes, which led us to question our affiliation with an organization whose former members could write such heinous statements.” Later that night Delta Upsilon followed suit and posted its own message on facebook saying “disbanding our fraternity is in the best interest of the Swarthmore community. We hope that our former house will provide a space that is inclusive, safe, and promotes healing.” Both fraternities said the decision to disband was unanimous among the current members.
According to CNN on May 10th President Smith announced “[f]raternities and sororities ‘will no longer exist’ on the campus of Swarthmore College…Exclusive, dues-paying social organizations no longer effectively meet the needs of our residential liberal arts environment.” Her announcement followed recommendations made in a May report by the Task Force for Student Social Events and Community Standards. The only sorority at Swarthmore, Kappa Alpha Theta, may continue with its current members through the spring 2022 semester.
The New York Times states the release of the documents and the sit-in forced Swarthmore into a larger debate about sexual assault on campus. An extensive 2019 survey from the Association of American Universities said a quarter of college women had experienced sexual assault since their freshman year. Such assaults include three women at Yale who claimed to have been groped at fraternity parties, and five female students who claim to have been drugged while attending fraternity parties at the University of Colorado at Boulder. In response to such assaults, “schools across the country have introduced courses about sexual consent, reviewed the way they handle allegations of assault, and stepped up counseling for survivors.”
Sexual harassment and assault are not the only negative occurrences causing fraternities and sororities to have been a popular news topic over the past few years. In fact, CNN states more than 77 hazing deaths have occured in fraternities and sororities since 2005. Just a sampling of recent such deaths include, a University at Buffalo student who died in April, after what appeared to be a fraternity hazing incident, during which he was forced to do strenuous physical exercise while recovering from a respiratory illness. In 2017, a freshman at Penn State died from a hazing incident involving voluminous drinking of alcohol, which caused him to fall several times leading to his death.
Many argue fraternities are a positive source of camaraderie as students navigate their college years. Issues such as those reported from Swarthmore cause many others to be wary of them. With people speaking out and lessons taken from surveys such as the one by the Association of American Universities, perhaps more people will be able to see fraternities positively.
Swarthmore College students gather at the Phi Psi fraternity house during a sit-in, Monday, April 29, 2019, in Swarthmore, Pa. AP photo