Updated: Mar 27
On our complacency with a popular system of abuse.
By Adrienne deFaria
Go stand outside this Friday. Or Saturday. Or any weekend for that matter. Take yourself to 114th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam. We all know this street well: It’s one that’s central to campus life. Carman Hall looms, naive and bustling. Fraternity houses pulsate as crowds beg for entry. The doors of Special Interest Communities open and close. 114th Street is alive.
Beta Theta Pi’s fraternity house stands a gangly five or so floors. It seems to be crumbling: coats of garish red paint crack to reveal the facade underneath. They’re the only fraternity allowed to paint their house–they own it and are unassociated with the University. The comedic recklessness of Beta’s decor almost distracts from what lies inside: just one of many chapters built on “Developing Men of Principle for a Principled Life.” But we’ve all been inside. Many of our first weeks at Columbia were likely punctuated by “Men of Principle” looming over an overcrowded, open fraternity party, our plastic cups filled to the brim with jungle juice. Or, what we expect to be jungle juice, given that the fraternity prides itself on its “responsible conduct, integrity, mutual assistance, and intellectual growth.”
One early September night, Catherine (a pseudonym) took the 1 train uptown to visit her friend at Barnard. As freshmen, they both wanted to experience a real fraternity party, the kind of affair that pervades college lore. Like many freshmen, they ended up at Beta together but were split up when Catherine wanted a drink. Shadows casted on anonymous faces made it difficult to identify anyone. She ran into a Beta brother while she was wandering. He handed her a red cup, which she sipped on casually. Then he asked Catherine to go upstairs with him. She declined and left the party. After that she completely blacked out. Hours later she woke up sick and confused. Catherine explained that she must have been drugged; she had only had a few drinks that night.
Now-deleted posts from @cusurvivors detailed the culture of sexual and intimate violence that, resulted in five accounts of sexual assault associated with Beta in 2020. Beyond Beta, @cusurvivors revealed that fraternities represented 58% of the assaults reported to the account—a whopping 44 total. All fraternities had at least one assault associated with them. This is not to condemn Columbia fraternities alone: One 2007 study reported that men in fraternities are three times as likely to commit rape.
To make matters worse, the institutionalized secrecy surrounding sexual assault that characterizes frat culture is rampant within Beta. While all current brothers contacted declined to comment, three Beta alumni referred to one, and only one, incident in 2018 in which a brother was dismissed due to sexual assault allegations. However, the fraternity’s handling of this case lacked assertiveness, reported Gabe (a pseudonym), CC ‘20, and Ben Greenspan, CC ‘19.
“There was very much a blind eye policy,” Gabe says. The dismissed brother just “stopped showing up, ” and Gabe later learned that he was a habitual assaulter. “Why didn’t they call a meeting?” he wondered. “They’re associated with us and we allowed it to happen. They never acknowledged it.”
Greenspan, who was on the executive board at the time, promised that there was a unanimous consensus that the assaulter shouldn’t remain part of the fraternity. However, he cited legal issues with simply “kicking out” members. “We couldn’t legally, without a trial, expel him from the fraternity, but we made it clear he wasn’t welcome.”
According to Fraternal Law Partners, a firm that specializes in fraternity and sorority law, it is perfectly legal to expel a member from a fraternity as long the violation is clearly communicated and both a trial and hearing are held. But trials are timely ordeals that involve organization and participation by the executive board and do not always suit the urgency of some violations. Perhaps it is unsurprising that social ostracism is preferred.
Trials and proceedings constitute the ethical infrastructure of Beta, yet these procedures are not easily accessible to non-board members like Gabe and non-affiliates. Whenever an outsider gains access to the Beta microcosm, they are immediately sanctioned. Conversely, insiders can be exiled swiftly and without warning. Irene (they/them, a pseudonym), a Barnard upperclassman, explained the degree to which secrecy is upheld within the Beta social sphere. After Irene was sent a seemingly harmless screenshot from the Beta group chat, they were banned from all social events, turned away from the house at the door, and blacklisted indefinitely. The member who shared the screenshot was kicked out of the fraternity. “It’s their house, their rules, they’ll treat you how they want,” Irene remarked. “Even if you think they’re a bunch of better guys, it’s a system.” Irene explained that a rule of Beta’s is that all messages are contained to their sacred group chat.
Brothers themselves are not exempt from Beta’s extreme social penalties. Gabe recalled a drinking game during pledge week where all new Beta members were lined up, passed a handle of vodka, and expected to down the bottle by the time it reached the last pledge. “You’re not allowed to sit out,” Gabe remarked. Whenever he vocalized issues, other brothers regarded him as a buzzkill. He left the fraternity in his sophomore year. As of 2021, almost 70% of Columbia’s Beta Theta Pi chapter supported some form of hazing for new members.
While Beta is perhaps campus’s best-known fraternity, it is just one of many in a network of Greek organizations that perpetuate sexual assault. Phi Gamma Delta (commonly known as FIJI), for example, was once exiled by the administration in the ’90s for their reputation of misconduct. @cusurvivors cited FIJI as having a campus-high of 12 sexual misconduct cases. Recruitment Chair Diego Ampudia, SEAS ’24, declined to comment.
Beyond sexual violence and social coercion, fraternities epitomize social exclusion. Kappa Delta Rho, Columbia’s “athlete frat,” has faced multiple counts of racism and misogyny beginning in 2016 when screenshots of messages sent by members of the wrestling team—many of whom were in KDR—were leaked. The screenshots revealed countless messages degrading women, particularly women of color, on their physical appearance, including the use of racial slurs and epithets. Protests erupted outside the KDR house when the screenshots were made public. As recently as September of last year, Khi, CC ’25, told me that he watched KDR deny dark-skinned Black students entry to their party one night as white women and light-skinned people flew by. After being denied entry himself, Khi lingered on 114th as a young girl stumbled out of the party and collapsed. Public Safety came. When Khi told one officer that they should make sure no drugging had occurred, he remembers the officer smirking, as if to say this is nothing new.
Columbia and Barnard students tend to either disbelieve that such violence occurs on campus or are deterred by the impenetrable secrecy upheld by these groups. But many exposés have divulged the corruption of fraternities, and many groups have formed in reaction. @cusurvivors, @abolishgreeklifecu, and No Red Tape have caught student attention, exposing horrific stories of sexual assault, physical abuse, and racism within Greek Life. Yet these organizations seem to have lost their momentum: @cusurvivors has deleted their posts, @abolishgreeklifecu hasn’t posted since 2020, and No Red Tape hasn’t been active since 2015.
Partying and drinking in college is inevitable. Unless there is rampant social transformation, sexual assault will be too. So why have fraternities, spaces we know are riddled with this sort of violence, become a fixture of so many of our college experiences? What makes us keep going back?
The draw of Greek Life is understandable: it’s exclusive and comes with benefits. Alumni networks can be vital resources for students’ careers. Beta itself has earned a reputation for garnering advances in coveted finance and consulting careers for its members. In a world where friendships between men are contentious, fraternities provide a dependable social space. At a school where most housing is at best damp, brownstones with their own kitchens, bathrooms on each floor, large rooms with windows, and large shared living rooms offer a desirable alternative.
Further, on-campus parties offer an easy social alternative to elite New York City nightlife, especially for low-income students. Combine $2.75 for a subway ride downtown, $50 for an outfit, upwards of $20 for two drinks, $60 for a good fake ID, and $50 for an Uber home, and going out becomes far less feasible. Fraternities are a default option, more open and available.
But in a space so unrestricted and student-run, questions of accountability abound. Social experiences are entirely controlled and defined by the rules of the (often non-diverse) house members. Free flowing alcohol lowers the inhibitions of all who partake. Fraternity houses are an entirely male-controlled space, often leaving women and queer people vulnerable from their moment of entry. Jennifer Hirsh, a Columbia professor of sociomedical sciences, explains that the prevalence of fraternities as party hosts “effectively gives men control over party spaces and the distribution of alcohol, and funnels younger women into spaces controlled by older men.” In male-dominated spaces, an unchecked upstairs bedroom can become a space for exerting control over a vulnerable partygoer just as easily as it is as space for privacy.
Greek houses are central to life in Morningside Heights. They are closer than many residence halls and Special Interest Communities. The example of Beta demonstrates the active value placed on fraternities. Wide open parties draw in freshly transplanted first-years, doors crowded with herding brothers and itching students. Beta routinely offers showy gatherings that are rarely shut down by Public Safety. In fact, Public Safety cannot legally enter Beta’s house. Beta’s ownership of its brownstone endows them the rights and protections that institute more secrecy.
This stands in stark contrast to brownstones that house affinity groups for marginalized students such as Indigehouse, Q House, and Casa Latina. They rarely host parties because Columbia makes their contracts feel like a favor. On December 2, an Indigehouse party was shut down by the hall director. At the beginning of the fall semester, Casa Latina hosted a party where the fire alarm was pulled; the group stopped hosting for fear of losing the space. A Black Residential House was only just confirmed for next year. These groups had to fight for space while fraternities have had space guaranteed for decades through probations and reclamations. Students of color applying for brownstones have all had to present their case for needing a space to Columbia’s administration, a process which places groups in competition for access. While marginalized communities fight to obtain and keep space, fraternities mostly made up of wealthy, white men hold on to that which they were handed years ago, in spite of a proven inability to use it responsibly.
Our complacency with fraternities is not just due to convenience; rather, it is long-embedded in our social hierarchies. It often feels impossible to distance oneself, especially at the beginning of the year, from the pull of a fraternity party. Your friends are rushing and your other friends are attending, all participating in a strained attempt to find and maintain social lives. Fraternities provide a straightforward remedy for freshman insecurity. If future Columbia generations choose to wear the fabric that participants in Greek Life have sewn, the cycle is bound to continue.