Sexual assault cover-up ‘encouraged by fraternity system’

Former sorority member at Vanderbilt University explains how concept of ‘brotherhood’ forces fraternity members to not report assaults

April 1, 2021
Katherine Deegan

Students are being encouraged to cover up incidents of racism and sexual assault by the quasi-familial structure of influential social societies found on US campuses, a conference has heard.

About 700,000 students at US universities belong to fraternity or sorority societies, primarily as a way to make friends and form social groups, with members asked to take a lifetime vow to a specific organisation whose chapters operate nationally. After graduation, these so-called Greek societies can provide useful social networks for professional advancement.

But Katherine Deegan, a student at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee, who has led efforts to “abolish Greek life” at her institution because of concerns over exclusionary practices towards minorities found at some societies, told Times Higher Education’s THE Live event that she had become aware not just of “discriminatory practices” by societies but also behaviour to cover up unacceptable incidents on campus.

Ms Deegan, a former sorority member, said she believed the family-like structure of Greek societies put pressure on students to not report “discriminatory practices” or bad behaviour by fellow members.

“This understanding of brotherhood and sisterhood – there is an institutional protection that comes with these organisations, and that is what distinguishes these exclusionary and discriminatory practices [from those] found in a regular student organisation,” said Ms Deegan.

“By institutional protection, it can be as simple as a fraternity brother being accused of sexual assault and all of his brothers covering it up for the sake of ‘brotherhood’ – that is really common,” she continued.

At a national organising level, Greek organisations have also directed university chapters to deny incidents of racism by fraternity members, even when they had been filmed, said Ms Deegan, who explained that many leading US universities had faced calls to ‘abolish Greek life’ in the wake of the death of George Floyd in May 2020 amid claims that theses societies worsened racial inequalities.

“Only 2 per cent of the US population are involved in Greek life but 80 per cent of Fortune 500 executives are, 76 per cent of US congressmen are members, 85 per cent of Supreme Court justices have been and all but two US presidents since 1835 have been involved in Greek life,” explained Ms Deegan.

“It shows the social advantage that Greek life gives to some people over others and, while sororities can be empowering for women, they were designed for white women,” she added, saying marginalised groups such as black, LGBT and disabled students were routinely excluded.

However, Alison Griffin, senior vice-president of consultancy firm Whiteboard Advisors and a former executive board member at the Tribeta sorority, said it was wrong to overlook the beneficial role of institutions that enabled women to self-organise.

“Many sorority chapters were founded in the 1880s to early 1900s [to allow] people to come together to collectively address a number of things confronting them in a changing world,” said Ms Griffin, who said her own sorority ties with other alumni in her home city of Denver had provided friendships, professional networks and opportunities to raise money for charity.

“The dates of the calendar are certainly different now [compared with the 19th century] but the opportunity and experience provided by social and academically focused organisations is still to unite voices around problems in the community and in the contemporary world,” she said.

Brandon Busteed, president of Kaplan University Partners, who has worked with a number of fraternities to tackle issues of binge drinking and associated harms, said Greek societies should not have to shoulder responsibility entirely for a number of social problems found at elite non-diverse universities which were “initially designed to serve…white wealthy male students”.

“This is not to take fraternities off the hook in terms of what they need to do…but we are all grappling, at every institutional level, with systemic racism right now – it is corporate America and Congress, for example, where there is also very little representation that looks like the United States,” he said.

“We all have a lot of work to do,” he added, saying fraternities and sororities at a national level had been involved, via Kaplan, in reducing binge drinking on campus, which, in turn, had reduced incidence of drink driving and sexual assault.

“I don’t think it’s as easy as saying ‘let’s throw out the whole thing’ – it is about aggressively addressing and owning some of these issues,” said Mr Busteed, who called on student society leaders to play their part.

However, Ms Deegan, from Vanderbilt, said sororities and fraternities seemed unwilling to embrace reform to address discrimination.

“I was told that I was valued for my advocacy but, time and time again, I was shown the opposite – every time I spoke out it came back to bite me,” she said.

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