At Duke, a Call to Abolish 'White Greek Life'
Fraternities and sororities at Duke University have been under fire in recent months. In August 2020, the Duke Chronicle ran an open letter calling for the abolition of “white Greek life” – all of Duke’s fraternities and sororities, save those explicitly for racial minorities – to undo the “white supremacy, misogyny, classism, homophobia and transphobia” allegedly inherent to such organizations. The resulting fanfare led roughly 400 Duke students to disaffiliate from their Greek-life organizations.
The controversy escalated in February when nine fraternities voted to disaffiliate from Duke’s Interfraternity Council. The move was prompted by university administrators’ decision to prohibit Greek and other selective-living organizations from recruiting freshmen, along with other changes to the structure of Greek life on campus.
“The consensus amongst the nine chapter presidents is disaffiliating from the University is the lesser of two evils,” Rohan Singh, the former president of Duke’s IFC, told the Chronicle at the time.
Then, in March, a university-wide coronavirus outbreak was blamed on off-campus fraternity members who participated in rush events. Will Santee, president of the Durham Interfraternity Council, a coalition of disaffiliated Greek organizations, said that the outbreak was an aberration.
“Up until the outbreak in March, there had been very, very few cases,” he maintained. “Every week there would be 20 or so cases [at Duke], but it would never get big. I think this one was somewhere over 150 [cases at Duke], which is not good, but thankfully it stopped there once [Duke instituted] the stay-at-home orders. So, I definitely commend Duke for doing that and commend the Greek-life community for not making it any worse than it was.”
Duke’s administration, which Santee praised for its handling of the pandemic, is seen by many students as being unduly punitive toward Greek organizations. According to the Survey of Greek Organizations on Freedom of Speech and Association sponsored by RealClearEducation, some students involved in Greek life at Duke feel their organizational freedoms are being restricted by administrators. The survey, which included responses from more than 4,500 Greek-involved students at over 500 colleges and universities, measured students’ perceptions of organizational freedoms, administrative fairness, and free speech on campus. Responses were coded and scored, and institutions were assigned letter grades based on their performance relative to the other colleges and universities participating in the survey.
Duke received an ‘F’ grade, indicating that surveyed Duke students felt less “free” in several capacities than their peers at rival schools. While the sample size was relatively small – the survey included only 16 Greek-involved students at Duke – some of the findings are consistent with media reports of discontent among Duke’s fraternities and sororities.
For example, 43 percent of Greek-involved Duke students felt that student organizations were not free to determine their own membership, values, and mission without interference from administrators. Seventy-five percent of surveyed students felt the administration treated student groups unequally.
Santee said that while Duke administrators generally give groups basic organizational freedoms, they harbor a bias against Greek organizations.
“There was definitely a kind of bias against Greek organizations. We were always kind of seen as ‘the outcast.’ I was a tour guide, and the big thing is, you’re not allowed to say that you are in a Greek organization. You aren’t allowed to talk about Greek life,” Santee said.
That messaging could have a chilling effect on students’ right to free association. Zach Greenberg, a senior program officer at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), said that a college or university’s promise of organizational freedom should extend even to off-campus groups, such as Duke’s disaffiliated Greek organizations.
“The freedom of association generally protects the right of students to join and form off-campus groups, including social organizations. Universities that promise their students freedom of association may not punish their students merely for joining off-campus social groups, such as unrecognized fraternities and sororities,” Greenberg said.
Santee feels that the Duke administration, whatever its intentions, doesn’t understand the needs of students as well as the students themselves.
“At the end of the day, the Duke administration kind of knows Duke students, but we know ourselves better than they know us. So, we feel as though, now that we’re independent, we can kind of make these decisions on our own and do what’s best for us.”
Duke University did not respond to a request for comment.