May 21, 2011
Wrapped up in the hype surrounding the Title IX complaint and the recent drama of the DKE sanctions, Yalies sometimes forget that issues of sexual harassment and assault exist and are being dealt with on other campuses as well. Much of the debate surrounding how Yale should handle the Title IX investigation has revolved around the process of reporting crimes and Executive Committee punishment. Perhaps due to the most vocal participants in the conversation, discussion has focused on formal, administration-driven changes rather than informal, social avenues. Debate has centered around how administrative actions can impact campus sexual climate rather than on how we might change campus culture directly. However, recent actions taken at Dartmouth have shown that informal approaches can be effective, potentially even at Yale.
Leaving aside the discussions of formal processes, I would like to take a moment to applaud the innovative social sanctions announced by Dartmouth’s Panhellenic Council on May 16th. A recent assault by a Sigma Phi Epsilon brother who shouted obscenities at a girl, threw a bottle at her, and shoved her into a wall after she dumped a drink on him was apparently only one highly publicized example of problems within Dartmouth’s social culture. Frustrated with the administration’s lax response to assault and harassment and following a joint meeting with the Inter-Fraternity Council in which the IFC was uncooperative regarding the Sig-Ep incident, the sorority presidents at Dartmouth banded together to impose sanctions as a group. Any fraternity that refuses to investigate allegations of misconduct of its members will lose the privilege of social events with all campus sororities until an investigation is begun. As the excerpt below indicates, the sanctions rely on open communication, collective bargaining, and peer-pressure.
From now on, if we become aware of an alleged assault or threat committed by an affiliated student, we will notify his or her organization, after which the organization has 24 hours to initiate an investigative response. If the organization fails to do so, all eight Panhellenic sororities will cancel any joint events with that organization until it has taken action and finalized a response. In addition, if an organization becomes aware of an alleged assault or threat and does not communicate with us, we will consider their silence a violation of the transparency needed for Greek officers to ensure the safety of their members.
It’s unreasonable to expect fraternities to have the know-how or motivation to strictly discipline their members in a way commensurate with what a university disciplinary body would be able to do. As the announcement says, “It is not our intention for the policy to replace or interfere with the College’s Judicial Affairs proceedings, but rather to act as a complement.” However, it is not unreasonable to expect fraternities to have standards and by-laws regarding the conduct of its members, nor is it unreasonable to expect fraternities to investigate infractions of these by-laws.
According to three Panhellenic presidents with whom I spoke, the response from the IFC was “initially livid”; feelings ranged from concern about how the sororities would judge the adequacy of fraternity response to anger over a perception that the sororities expected specific outcomes. Particularly worrisome was the possibility that the sororities would require fraternities to “depledge” accused members, whereby a member would be kicked out of the fraternity forever (as opposed to being allowed to remain an alumnus of the fraternity). However, the fact that the fraternities can’t come out against an expectation of standards of basic human decency without looking like “tools” (according to the sorority presidents with whom I spoke) has apparently changed the campus dialogue. The IFC president published an op-ed publicly agreeing to work within the bounds of the sanctions. The sororities cannily brought their policy through at a moment of campus uproar about the Sig-Ep assault, and the combination of campus sentiment and the strong support of administrators and faculty pressured the fraternity leaders into accession. Furthermore, as the Panhellenic presidents pointed out, they have left the actual revision of by-laws in fraternity hands and turned over responsibility for enforcing the by-laws to fraternities as well: the sorority presidents correctly realize that the threat of social repercussions may be able to promote accountability where the Dartmouth administration itself has failed.
Would such a policy be feasible or even helpful at Yale? Yale and Dartmouth are very different places: 60% of Dartmouth is Greek, as opposed to 25% of Yale. The social scene of Dartmouth revolves around its fraternities, where most of the partying physically happens, and, to a lesser extent, its sororities. A collective decision between sororities at Dartmouth might therefore carry more clout than at Yale. However, Greek life at Yale does carry import disproportional to its size; it sets the tone for social and sexual culture for a large part of even the unaffiliated student population. Sororities and fraternities therefore have an obligation to do what they can to set a responsible tone for sexual interactions.
The Greek scene at Yale is currently in a furor over the New York Times “Room for Debate” on whether colleges should ban fraternities. Fraternity members who I contacted for another article had been instructed not to speak to any reporters, but many fraternity brothers have mentioned to me that they feel personally attacked by the Title IX complaint and the media attention surrounding it. The “hostile sexual environment” addressed in the complaint is not a product solely of the fraternity scene, nor is the Greek system entirely separate from it. But the smart response to increased scrutiny of the fraternity scene at Yale is not to withdraw and refuse to engage with the issues at hand. Many fraternity members have done valuable work to make the social and sexual climate at Yale more welcoming and more open. As a member of Pi Beta Phi, I have had overwhelmingly positive experiences with sorority and Greek life at Yale. Yale fraternities should own the positive work they’ve done and own up to the issues that still need addressing.
Implicit in the push-back I’ve felt from many members of the Greek community about the Title IX complaint is a feeling of alienation from the people (both men and women) who signed the complaint. There is a feeling that even if members of the Greek scene agree with the issues raised, they don’t necessarily agree with the way the issue has been handled or resent being “spoken for.” Even if Yale sororities represent only 10% of the undergraduate population, having a visible and fairly cohesive social group speaking out on Yale’s “hostile sexual environment” would be a positive push towards change.
It seems that the initial shock surrounding the Title IX complaint has passed at Yale, and the discussions about it have become more like discussions and less like heated shouting matches. More students are coming to recognize that Yale’s sexual culture is problematic, because whether or not all students feel threatened, any students feeling threatened is a problem. The administration needs to seriously address the complaint, but the undergraduate population of Yale can’t dodge its share of the responsibility. Dartmouth’s Panhellenic Council has shown that organizations previously regarded solely as “social outlets” can also be forces for change when they band together and demand standards of decency and respect.
Hope Weissler is a senior in Yale College. She is a contributing writer for Broad Recognition.