Fraternities Disband, though Work Remains, as Media Spotlight Shines on Swarthmore College
Prior to Tuesday’s announcement of the disbanding of Swarthmore College’s two fraternities, the college’s campus and town center were buzzing this week with microwaves beaming live feeds to TV stations, and reporters for local and national media recording interviews with students at the college. The media claque began on April 18 with the publication of two articles in the Swarthmore College newspaper The Phoenix and a piece in the daily news site Voices, reporting in detail on disturbing conduct by members of the Phi Psi fraternity at the college, and energizing a student-led movement that resulted in the frat disbanding, and continues to press for further change in campus social and policy dynamics.
The Philadelphia Inquirer picked up the lead soon after the student publications broke the news, and by midweek, the story had been reported by the Washington Post and the Chicago Sun-Times; Slate and Rolling Stone; Bustle and Inside Higher Ed. “I expected the Inquirer to pick up on the story, but the New York Times getting on it was surreal,” said Laura Wagner, a Swarthmore junior and managing editor of The Phoenix. A team of reporters broke the story last week after receiving files recounting vulgar fraternity hazing practices for 2012-2016 pledges, and earlier but much more disturbing “minutes” describing acts and opinions characterized as racist, misogynistic, homophobic, violent, possibly criminal, and disrespectful of pretty much the entire Swarthmore community. The dossier added to research done by Organizing for Survivors (O4S), which had for years been shining a light on fraternity member conduct.
A sit-in, in and outside the fraternity, began April 27 with about 50 students, whose numbers have swelled and ebbed, but which was going strong at press time, despite the decision of Phi Psi and Delta Epsilon fraternities, announced this Tuesday night, to disband. Unlike earlier spring sit-ins at Swarthmore, this responds to very vivid accusations, pinned on a specific frat house, which demonstrators took over last Saturday afternoon, during a men’s lacrosse game involving many of the fraternity members.
That specific locale is the Phi Psi house on Swarthmore’s lower campus, the setting for the “Phi Psi minutes,” which were assembled in 2013-2014. Current representatives of the fraternity assert that the Phi Psi culture has changed radically for the better. A host of students say otherwise, and sought the banning, once and for all, of Swarthmore’s two fraternities.
What Happened at the Sit-In, and What’s Next?
About 50 of these students affiliated with O4S and a coalition of groups dedicated to fundamental change began an occupation of the Phi Psi house on Saturday. The coalition also includes Swarthmore Coalition to End Fraternity Violence, which was co-founded by Daria Uno Mateescu, a member of the class of 2020, who said, “We chose that time because there was a lacrosse game, and a lot of the members weren’t there. We were not engaging , not trying to confront them. We wanted a peaceful, nonviolent, respectful occupation.”
Mateescu said this Tuesday that her group’s demands included that the frats’ leases be terminated, and that Delta Epsilon and Phi Psi be banned from campus (though not all Greek organizations like the college’s lone sorority), and that the space now occupied by the frats “be reallocated to students who have historically been denied space and resources on this campus.” Near the Phi Psi entrance, she pointed out a conceptual “wishing tree” and plucked some of its leaves — notes with wishes expressed by occupiers and their supporters for future repurposing of the building: …”an inclusive community where we all feel safe and loved”… “a Swarthmore where we can heal, learn, and grow” … a place where “Swarthmore will center the experiences and values of marginalized communities.”
Those wishes apparently won’t come true without further work. In a message to the Swarthmore College community Wednesday, following the frat disbandment, President Valerie Smith said, “Regardless of their [the fraternities’] decisions, the work related to the Task Force on Student Social Events and Community Standards will continue as planned and as we have articulated. Still, as a community, we have much healing to do.
“We have heard heartbreaking stories from students who feel unwelcome to the point of wanting to transfer out of our community. Those stories have come from across the spectrum of our student body — from student protesters to fraternity members. Stories such as these reflect our failure to realize the values we so often espouse.”
The following day, after the disbanding announcement, Mateescu said, “We plan to continue our sit-in. We know organizing is how this happened, and we need accountability from administrators and a formal commitment that these spaces will be intentionally reallocated, not just democratized. President Smith’s email last night is … not enough.”