When University of Chicago student Anna Li ran for president of the school’s Panhellenic Council in 2017, her goal was to reform what she saw as a deeply flawed system. She pointed to the white, wealthy origins of Greek life as evidence of structural problems of exclusion.
“After my first time going through recruitment, I was so displeased with how racist and classist it was,” she remembered. Still, she remained hopeful.
“There was a silent majority that was more inclined to structural change,” she said. “If I [wanted] this to change then I [needed] to put myself in a position of power to change it. University of Chicago Panhellenic president seemed like the most obvious way to do that.”
Her tenure as Panhellenic president, however, demonstrated otherwise; she realized that the structural inertia of Greek organizations was too entrenched to produce the change she wanted — the system would rather stick to its roots than address inequity.
Now, Li is calling for the abolition of Greek life, both at the U. of C. and on the national level.
And she’s not alone. After their own repeated attempts to reform Greek life from the inside while occupying the highest Greek position on campus, two other former Panhellenic Council presidents are calling for the same.
Another, Elena Barrera-Waters, resigned her position this year. In her resignation letter, she wrote that she had “blindly believed ‘UChicago Greek Life is different’ because of its size and our school, but it cannot be that different because of how the system is set up.”
Hannah Pittock, a sorority member who graduated this past year, also released an open letter calling for Greek Life to be abolished. “I do not believe that an institution built on foundations of preserving white privilege can be reformed to be anti-racist.” she wrote. “As is the case with the police, systemic problems require systemic solutions and in my opinion that means Greek life must be abolished.”
In some sense, the cascade of demands to end Greek life at the U. of C. echoes the national moment, where calls for abolition of police and prisons have gained a newfound foothold in the mainstream. But in this case, the push to dismantle the institutions is coming from those who have already worked to reform the institutions themselves — current or former students and sorority members who say there is no hope of decoupling Greek organizations from their white, wealthy and exclusionary past.
Li said that her presidency was the final push: “My term as UChicago Panhellenic president is what really radicalized me, which I think is so ironic.”
The Panhellenic Council is made up of four of U. of C. sororities and bills itself as “the largest women’s organization on campus.” (Other sororities, such as the Black-interest Alpha Kappa Alpha, are part of the co-ed Multicultural Greek Council, which has a separate and distinct history from the traditional Panhellenic sororities.) As a governing body, Panhellenic outlines rules for, and presides over, fall recruitment, when hundreds of prospective members vie for a spot in the quartet of sororities, and are ranked and sorted by the sisters in the organizations.
Having seen racism and classism during recruitment as a member of her sorority, the newly minted 2018 president sought to make permanent strides towards inclusivity. But when Li took over the organization, she discovered the powerful bureaucracy in place above her; each level of leadership — local, regional, national and international — had to give approval before any bylaws could be changed.
And any one adviser in that web could hold up the entire process.
“I applied, I interviewed, I was elected, and I was not able to do anything,” she said. “Despite trying 110% of the time with 110% of effort, it is not an institution that is meant to reflect the beliefs, the values of its individual chapter members on campus.”
“I felt that if I were given a position of power as a queer woman of color, clearly, I should be able to do something. And clearly, if I'm in this position of power, there is some sort of level of faith and trust in me to be able to speak on behalf of this organization and that felt like a huge confidence. But I think the institution of Greek life highly weaponized its bureaucracy and time and oversight in a way that completely squanders anybody's ability to make any considerable change.”
It’s not just Panhellenic that has a stifling structure: each of U. of C.'s four sorority chapters also has its own executive board and set of local, regional and national advisers who can shut down a bylaw change. According to all of the former members with whom the Herald spoke, almost all of these advisers were white; members cited that lack of diversity as another obstacle to reform.
Li said the office of Panhellenic president came with a tacit understanding that you were not supposed to make changes. You could not shape the organization to be what you wanted; being a “good” president was simply executing your assigned responsibilities: “You answer to so many people that your job becomes answering to those people”
Barrera-Waters, who resigned at the end of the 2019-20 academic year, released a statement on June 15 in which she expressed her frustration at being unable to bring about the changes she wanted.
She noted the pressure to adhere to the bylaws— the same pressure Li felt from regional advisers. “I have also undoubtedly fallen into the patterns that are emphasized within our own chapters of following protocol,” she wrote. “I am resigning because I cannot, in good conscience, allow myself to fall into anything that prioritizes these rules and systems over what people really need.”
This is not the first time the Panhellenic Council has encountered trouble while attempting to address racial issues. After learning about a racist Cinco de Mayo party in which members of the U. of C. chapter of the Phi Gamma Delta (Fiji) fraternity dressed up as ‘Mexican’ construction workers, 2017 Panhellenic Council President Lauren Smith faced internal dissent over how best to respond.
“We’re all students, we’re 21 or 20, we’re not trained or certified in racial sensitivity or any of that kind of structured conversation,” she recalled. “People didn't know how to navigate the issue in a way that made people feel safe or that their emotions were valid.”
Aisha Suhaiba, a Black U. of C. alumna and former member of the Delta Gamma (DG) sorority, remembers members of her sorority brushing the ordeal off as a joke, and calling the intense campus reaction unwarranted: “They were just incredibly apathetic, it wasn't addressed for a very long time after it happened.”
Pittock is very familiar with that incident. “Instead of being empowered by Headquarters to speak up, a representative was sent to our chapter meeting to tell us we needed to calm down, focus on our studies, and that we were not to discuss the incident, even on our personal social media accounts,” she wrote.
Although Fiji’s racist party took place over three years ago, Pittock wrote that nothing has changed. “That spring’s response was the same as it is now: Headquarters needed to approve any statement that the organization wanted to make, which resulted in a far weaker response than most of the chapter was comfortable with then, and likely will be now.”
In a statement, National Panhellenic Conference CEO Dani Weatherford said: “In this moment, it’s particularly important that we recognize that the intersection between national discussions about systemic racism and the sorority experience is one that demands our focus and, most importantly, a shared commitment to action.”
Weatherford further said that “college Panhellenics on campuses nationwide are increasingly engaged in efforts to reconsider approaches and structures that too frequently benefited white women and others with privilege, while empowering members and volunteers to engage directly on issues of racial justice.”
But Barrera-Waters pointed to the national protest movement this spring and summer as another time Panhellenic nationals impeded individuals at the college level. “The fact that any statement made on a Panhellenic social media must be approved at the national level is indicative of this—we should not have to ask permission to state that Black lives matter,” she wrote in her statement.
Smith contends that reconsidering approaches isn’t enough— like Pittock, she has realized that the problem of addressing such racial problems is institutional. “In retrospect, now I can see, well, there's actually a bigger problem, which is just the institution itself is problematic, including Panhellenic and female Greek life.”
Another institutional problem Panhellenic presidents have encountered is their ties to campus fraternities. Saachi Gupta confronted this first-hand in 2015, when she was vice-president of Panhellenic. Like Smith’s experience mediating after the Fiji party, she had to respond to problematic fraternity behavior.
That fall, a Delta Upsilon (DU) fraternity member sexually assaulted a woman at the fraternity’s house. Later, when Gupta was president in 2016, her administration responded to leaked emails from the Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) fraternity, which revealed widespread racism, casual usage of racial slurs, and rampant sexism among their members and received national attention.
Somewhat controversially, Greek organizations are not officially recognized student organizations at the U. of C. — earlier this year, the Chicago Maroon’s editorial board criticized the university’s administration for “(crying) ‘non-recognition!’ when it wants to avoid association with Greek life’s less savory aspects,” while simultaneously using the cachet of fraternities and sororities to fundraise from alumni.
In a comment, a university spokesperson said that “Recognized Student Organizations must comply with University policies for RSOs, including the requirement that they be open to all interested students.”
Whatever the university’s motivations, Greek life’s independent status means that the onus to “punish” fraternities for their behavior often falls on the women in sororities—a power all of the women made clear they didn’t have. The most sororities could do to punish fraternities was suspending social events with them.
For Gupta’s administration in 2016, the question became one of making fraternities hold themselves to higher standards so that they were not creating an unsafe environment for the student body. “We tried to make them have an interfraternity council, we tried to help them put together a code of conduct,” she said. “None of these things ended up working or being sustainable.”
And despite the guilt falling on fraternities, Gupta says that sororities took the brunt of the punishment. The year of the AEPi incident, the U. of C. rolled out a new policy making it substantially more difficult and costly for non-recognized student organizations to use University spaces and access funding for their events.
This policy impacted sororities, who do not have houses and rely on university space for their meetings, far more than fraternities, who have their own houses and large endowments. “That policy was definitely implicitly to punish Greek life as a whole for fraternities not holding their members accountable.”
Smith’s 2017 administration faced the same fraternity struggles as Gupta; Smith had run for president to work on addressing problematic behavior from fraternities. “When you're on the inside, you're faced with this insurmountable mountain of problems. Toxic masculinity isn't something that Panhellenic or women's organizations can change.”
The racist AEPI speech Gupta dealt with is no new occurrence for fraternities at the U. of C. In 2012, a Confederate flag hung from a window at the DU fraternity house. That same year, the Alpha Delta Phi Fraternity had its first-year pledges mow the lawn while wearing sombreros and playing Latin music.
A few weeks later, DU, threw a party called “Conquistadors and Aztec Hoes [sic],” and asked attendees to come with “an unlimited need to conquer, spread disease, and enslave natives.” These incidents accompany a slew of sexual assault accusations against fraternity members in fraternity houses over the past few years, which the university tends to describe as “off-campus” incidents.
The institutional problems sororities face also come from within. Specifically, Gupta took issue with sorority recruitment practices. She believes that the categories for admission are used to discriminate: “I do definitely think that words like culture, fit are used to discriminate on purpose or not on purpose.”
Like Gupta, Li believes that “this language is just a proxy for white supremacy and the ways in which whiteness is coded into palatability and desirability.” She actively instructed sorority members in recruitment to avoid using them, arguing that concepts like eloquence, beauty and poise are “specifically built around a concept of whiteness that is integral to Greek life.”
“When we're asked to decide who we want to be in our organization, it is undoubtedly bound to those qualitative evaluations,” Li said. “I probably knew that at the time, but found, like many people in Greek life, ways to justify it, ways to … make justifications for a continued involvement in the institution.”
Even in cases when women bonded over some specific activity, Li asserts that privilege prevails; she used the example of golfing.
“For many women that manifests itself very specifically— ‘Oh, I love that she's really interested in this and I really love this as well,’” Li said, poking fun at two women chatting during recruitment. “Oh, so both of you guys like golfing? Again, [that’s] something that is so coded in a sense of whiteness and privilege. And this is not new to us, but I think we are so willing to let those things slide as ways of exceptionalizing individuals as opposed to seeing those as markers of a certain social status.”
Despite Li’s best attempts to put a stop to recruiting centered around whiteness and wealth, it remained a persistent problem. And its continued presence was not because of an absence of effort on the parts of individual sorority members; it was in spite of it. “I truly believe that every single chapter goes into this so adamant about actively being diverse and actively being inclusive,” Li said, “and that's why I absolutely think the system needs to go—because no matter how hard we have tried, it will still always be white and will always be a way of consolidating wealth and social networks that are wealthy.”
Gupta felt that other institutional keys such as dues — recurring fees that members of Greek life must pay to their national chapter, and a hallmark of Greek life — were intrinsically exclusionary.
Smith’s conception of dues is similar to Gupta’s. Noting that people had disaffiliated in the past because they were unable to pay, she said that “that barrier, that financial exclusivity, obviously is classist, you're going to have a group of women who can afford it.”
Suhaiba disaffiliated only six months after joining. One reason her tenure at DG was so short was because she was misinformed of the costs, and she could not afford it. She had asked prior to rushing what the cost would be; the Herald verified through message receipts and invoices that the Panhellenic Council had told her the cost would be in the range of $650-800 for the year, yet she was charged over $900.
Although cost was an issue, Suhaiba's main reason for disaffiliating was the racism she faced while in her sorority, an institution she says does not value its Black members and members of color. "If you are only getting White people, maybe that's indicative of the fact that your institution only values White people."
And she does not believe that there's any way to change that. "There's just not really a good way to increase diversity without inherently marginalizing the people that you recruit."
Smith thinks the pay-to-play model is here to stay because of the national organizations’ reliance on it. “This is why the system itself isn’t going to change: because nationals want dues,” she said.
Li believes that the reforms Greek life needs would rock its very core: “For Greek life to be anti-racist or anti-classist, the reforms necessary to make that happen would make it so that it was no longer recognizable as Greek life.”
Two years before Li, Gupta, too, had tried to make change, and could not. “Being Panhellenic president was the most painful year of my life. It was so difficult. It was so sad. It was so frustrating because you see the best intentions of your peers and their desire to do something and change and that coming into conflict with their national organizations or the UChicago administration.” She came to the same conclusions as her two abolition-minded presidential counterparts: the largely old, white and wealthy national chapters were a barrier to reform.
The solution? Gupta says disband Greek life and create an alternative women’s space. “Sororities are exclusive because of dues...that's the hardest part of having a network and if we're advocating for an end to a network that benefits some, but not all, we need to think about what is going in its place to benefit all,” Gupta asserted.
“I feel very strongly that Panhellenic really tried to find a way for Greek life at UChicago to be more inclusive,” Gupta said. “I think that we made progress but didn’t solve the problem, and if abolishing sororities is what it takes to make progress, then I support that.”
Li still reflects on her own role in perpetuating a system she now wants to dismantle. “I feel very responsible having been Panhellenic president in 2018— a quarter of the girls who are in Greek life at UChicago, I personally helped put them into the system and I was the first face they saw as part of UChicago Panhellenic” she said. “I feel very responsible for advocating for a system that I do not think is the best place to support them anymore.”