A sorority’s failed reforms prompt a mass exodus.
By Gabe Garon.
This summer, as Black Lives Matter protests filled streets nationwide and calls to social distance and ‘flatten the curve’ filled social media feeds, a new call reverberated on college campuses nationwide: abolish Greek life. The call quickly became a movement, circulating through school-specific, student-run Instagram accounts—@abolishgreekusc, @abolishvandyifcandpanhellenic, @abolishgreeklifecu, and others. They posted anonymous reports of racism, homophobia, sexism, sexual assault, ableism, and other forms of discrimination that students experienced in the world of Greek life—at rushes, parties, and events. Articles, informational resources, and suggestions for direct actions toward abolition accompanied many posts, cementing the accounts’ missions. At Northwestern University and Washington University in St. Louis, among other schools, mass disaffiliations and chapter disbandments followed.
Columbia was no exception. In August, around 50 members of the Barnard-Columbia Gamma Tau chapter of Sigma Delta Tau (SDT) disaffiliated or went inactive (not paying dues or participating in the organization for the semester) after weeks of discussion about reform and disbandment—a local iteration of the national conversation about systemic anti-Black racism. A disaffiliation of this size was unprecedented in the history of Greek life at Columbia.
Columbia is home to six Panhellenic sororities, ten fraternities recognized by the International Fraternity Council (IFC), and 11 multicultural Greek organizations. The sororities are composed of students from all four of Columbia’s undergraduate colleges. All IFC and Panhellenic Greek organizations have experienced dramatic increase in membership and participation over the last ten years, according to the Columbia Spectator and Columbia’s office of University Student Life. This may be due to many students seeing Greek life as a solution to the ‘community problem’ that plagues life at Columbia–frats and sororities provide friends, communities, and even networking opportunities.
To understand SDT’s mass exodus, I spoke with three former members who led the conversations about reform and disbandment: Kayla Koffler, BC ‘21; Ibby O’Carroll, CC ‘21; and Sidney Rojas, BC ‘21. Aja Johnson, CC ‘21, was also a primary leader, but declined to be interviewed.
The exodus began in June as a casual conversation between Johnson and Koffler. Both were frustrated by the organization’s handling of a racist Instagram post made in response to protests in Minneapolis by a new member on Juneteenth. “This summer, everyone thought about the communities they were in and the harm that those communities were doing,” Koffler recalled. “And with this conversation, I was like, ‘Oh my God, why am I a part of this?’ And I was thinking about disaffiliating but I’d put so much time and energy into this, and I didn’t want to silently leave. This shouldn’t exist anymore.”
Rojas agreed. “It was a tipping point for me,” she said. “Previously, all of us knew that there were problematic members in our sorority and recognized that, but I think it exposed that there was a systemic issue in our chapter in terms of holding people accountable. People would immediately jump up and get defensive, and say that people were bullying members by calling them out.”
After talking with Johnson, who Koffler mentioned had already been vocal about wanting to disaffiliate, Koffler and Johnson decided to start the conversation about SDT’s role in perpetuating racism, sexism, homophobia, and other forms of oppression. With Johnson and Rojas, they organized a series of four chapter-wide discussions on Zoom. The topics—money and wealth, SDT’s relationship with fraternities, race, event attendance—drew on the responses to an anonymous form sent out to members, a strategy Koffler borrowed from a friend working on a similar project at Wash U.
The goal, Koffler said, was clear: “What are the things we need to be talking about? Let’s have a conversation about things we don’t talk about in this chapter. The conclusion won’t necessarily be ‘disband,’ but we need to talk about why people disaffiliate or why people want to disband.”
Through the form, Johnson and Koffler gathered information about harm that their organization had inflicted on its members. Some responses detailed SDT’s ableism through their use of spaces that weren’t accessible to everyone. Others expressed discomfort about the organization’s relationship with fraternities due to their homophobia, racism, and sexism.
A large issue for many in the organization was the racism, elitism, and classism they saw and experienced in the recruitment process. “The way you’re supposed to dress is according to a very white, wealthy standard,” Rojas said, adding that various events required straightened hair and a specific color of dress, jewelry, or shoes, with the expectation that all potential new members (PNMs) owned these or were able to procure them on short-notice. Speaking about the conversations that PNMs have with current members during recruitment, Koffler said, “You just rate the conversations based on a ‘vibe’ you have with someone. It’s just up to your discretion. So a mostly white sorority recruits a mostly white pledge class, both because people of color might not rush as much for obvious reasons and because for the people of color that do rush, the way that rush goes allows people’s worst biases to come out… If you’re rushing a sorority, whether you get accepted or not is based on race and money.”
Racism at SDT didn’t only plague the recruitment process. In the past calendar year, two presidents of the sorority–both women of color–stepped down from their posts, citing microaggressions from other Executive Board members. The current president of SDT, Sarina Maurice, BC ‘21, is white. (Maurice did not respond to multiple interview requests.)
In addition to hosting the conversations in June, Koffler, Johnson, Rojas, and O’Carroll circulated a document containing links to Instagram posts and articles that detailed the arguments for reform and disbanding, as well as a number of articles published in the Spectator and the Huffington Post describing racist incidents at Columbia’s Greek life organizations.Their report also outlined the history of Greek life’s complicity in ableism, elitism, classism, homophobia, and sexual assault. At the very bottom of the document are three talking points:
“Why do people join SDT? To find community on a campus seen as severely lacking one. That is not to be understated or dismissed. I ask you to consider, however—is the community to which you belong worsening the campus climate for others? Are you seeking inclusivity and “sisterhood” at the expense of your peers outside of greek life? The national SDT organization does not accept nor recognize trans women and non-binary people. How can we, as individuals, continue to support an organization so heavily steeped in transphobia and heteronormative gender dynamics? What does that say about our values and willingness to be true allies? The issue of diversity: To my knowledge, there was only one black woman in the 2019-2020 pledge class. Out of 40-plus people.”
The conversations, however, did not go as the four had hoped. “I don’t think any concrete things came out of it,” O’Carroll said. “Every time we asked what the reforms were going to be, there was nothing that I saw that was a solution.”
Their disappointment was perhaps most pronounced on the topic of fraternities. Survey respondents and conversation participants pointed to SDT’s relationships with frats as sources of heteronormativity and a risk for sexual assault. During a discussion, Black members of SDT shared their experiences of racism at events involving fraternities–frat members giving them dirty looks, or not believing that they were a part of SDT.
Members also wondered if mixers with frats were safe. As Koffler pointed out, “We have a risk manager and a risk team–we force people in our sorority to manage risk and make sure nothing bad happens, but that’s conceding that there is inherently a risk. Why are we throwing parties where there are risks? Why don’t we just make these spaces safer?” But when the idea of severing ties with fraternities was proposed, leadership ultimately shot it down.
This seemed to be a common occurrence. Whenever an issue was brought up, whether with the members of the Columbia SDT chapter or with their national advisor, discussions would ensue, but no actions would be taken. Rojas first experienced this when trying to talk to the chapter’s nationally-appointed advisor about legacy admission policies. “There was this wall that was in a lot of ways impenetrable, and it was going to be impossible to make any kind of systemic change while we were still a part of this organization that was taking hundreds of dollars from every member every semester and that has historically excluded marginalized people, especially women of color,” Rojas said. “I realized I was stuck in this whole bureaucratic system where [our advisor] was going to maybe bring it up in some meeting with the higher-ups and it was going to get shot down because the alums have too much power.”
Koffler felt similarly frustrated about SDT’s shortcomings and complacency at the national level. “My narrative of SDT was always like, ‘Sororities are stupid, but Columbia’s are an exception,’” she said. “I never thought about the overall project of sororities as an institution. It took me a while to connect the fact that being a part of SDT at Columbia meant being a part of that whole thing.”
At the local level, Koffler said, “The conversation was never able to be one where we talked about past wrongdoings. It was always, ‘We should disband because of this, we shouldn’t disband because of that.’ And I do think it did push some people over the edge towards disbanding”
Nicole Kaiser, CC ‘20, a recent alum of SDT, is exactly the kind of person Koffler was talking about. At first, she’d felt uneasy about the concept of disbanding, reasoning, “If we really cared about this chapter or sisterhood we were going to have an internal reckoning and we were going to put the work into the chapter to make it right. Disbanding was the easy way out.” After participating in some of the conversations, her position changed. “That moment of ‘Let’s fix SDT!’ passed very quickly and it became ‘We need to burn this down and start again,’” she recalled. “It doesn’t take long to just be quiet and listen and catch up and get in the loop. I hadn’t read the bylaws because I didn’t care to. I didn’t know that half the stuff in the bylaws is stuff I would never stand behind.”
These conversations were also an important way for information about the sorority’s inner workings to be shared with new members or those who hadn’t been in leadership positions. For one current SDT member, these conversations were especially enlightening. “The most shocking information I received was about recruitment,” the member, who asked to remain anonymous, told me. “It was really disheartening to hear. I knew that it was happening but I wasn’t truly made aware of it until I realized how many people were sworn to secrecy and not allowed to talk about it, and that it was finally coming out and we were finding out about it. It was really sad that there wasn’t transparency there.”
Dialogue within SDT about reform and disbandment continued late into the summer. At some point, the latter became an impossibility for the time being. In order to fully disband the sorority, every member of the Executive Board of Columbia’s chapter would have to agree to reach out to the national SDT organization and petition to disband, or every member of the Columbia chapter would disaffiliate at the same time, as chapters of Greek organizations at Northwestern, Vanderbilt, Duke, and Wash U did. But at Columbia, when the August 23 deadline to disaffiliate passed, around 50 SDT members disaffiliated or went inactive. Many who wanted to disband left the chapter because they simply couldn’t imagine staying in the organization. “I think people were so much quicker to drop because of the pandemic,” Koffler clarified. “A lot of people were like, ‘What am I paying dues for?’” In addition to losing about half of their membership, most of SDT’s leadership changed as well, with many of the former Executive Board members disaffiliating or going inactive.
For Kaiser, this break felt like a polarization of the two sides that had emerged during the conversations: reform versus disband. “The establishment protects itself. They closed the doors, they didn’t tell us when events were happening, they took us off listservs,” she said. “It wasn’t just alums, it was people that were disaffiliated too. The information doesn’t cross that line, you can no longer participate or share or call people out. It closed itself off to criticism if you chose to leave.”
Within SDT, conversations have continued, albeit with fewer voices and perspectives. “It’s not that they are completely ignoring the issue,” said the anonymous member. “There are some members who are still active who still think reform is possible, who are trying to make a difference. They have made more of an effort to continue having talks about antiracism. They’ve also involved some of the Panhellenic leaders and they’ve been more involved with SDT specifically. Unfortunately, the turnout to those conversations have been very minimal.
She added, “While these conversations are good and beneficial, they aren’t enough. After hearing how many bad things nationals have made us do and how much disagreement we’ve had with nationals in the past, the clear solution in my opinion is to try to separate from nationals, which would make us lose a lot of privileges. It was clear that members of e-board and members that stayed didn’t want to do that. In that sense, considering that they aren’t thinking about the best possible solution, they’re doing the best they can.”
Illustration by Mwandeyi Kamwendo
Now, a few months after their departure from the organization, Koffler, Rojas, and O’Carroll feel some disappointment with how their efforts turned out. According to Rojas, “We really expected it to take a few conversations, and then we’d disband. We thought the majority of members would be on board. I knew some members would be defensive, but I didn’t know to what degree they’d be defensive. That surprised me as well. It was hard for a lot of people to look inward and take stock of the organization that they were a part of.”
For those dedicated to reform, it is difficult to let go of the SDT they know. “That’s what makes this so tough,” Kaiser said. “When people are benefiting from an established institution, they’re not going to want to get rid of it. Greek life protects a lot of systems that we should not want to uphold. Any time someone tries to ruffle the feathers, there isn’t space for it. It gets covered up. And that’s what’s been happening.”
As fall semester has progressed, SDT has continued to operate almost as usual by holding an informal recruitment intended to increase enrollment to its previous heights. For the anonymous current member, this has also been a source of disappointment: “Most of the people recruited were friends, roommates, people they knew. I think that that was wrong. We had a chance to diversify our pledge class and the people present in SDT. We had a golden opportunity and we didn’t take advantage of that.” She also pointed to the national organization’s hand in recruitment, noting, “During recruitment, the advisor was pushing to get us to accept girls that looked a certain way or acted a certain way. There was a lot of conflict between our chapter and our advisor.”
The chapter’s relationship with SDT’s national organization has been a sticking point for many who have advocated for disbandment. According to Yvonne Pitts, the Associate Director for Fraternity and Sorority Life at Undergraduate Student Life, if SDT were to break from the national organization, they would no longer be able to use their name and would have to apply as a new club or organization, just like any other new club. They also would lose access to their prized brownstone on West 114th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam. These are privileges that many current SDT leaders and members don’t want to lose.
Even if every member of the organization were to disaffiliate as a means to disband or abolish the sorority, there would still be a four-semester time period during which the organization could be revived by any individual or group of individuals who wanted to revive it. Alumni and members of the national organization would have the ability to recruit current students, making permanent abolition all the more difficult.
Like other Greek organizations, SDT is currently working with its advisors at Undergraduate Student Life to reform its organization, with a goal of inclusivity. Change, however, is slow. “We’ve been having conversations about diversity, inclusion, and representation for quite some time now,” Pitts said. “Change takes a lot of time, and what we’re really trying to focus on is not incremental change, but structural changes, which really take time to reflect on… Right now, it is really about identifying exactly what the issues are, where the gaps are, and then trying to fill in those missing pieces.”
Though Koffler, Johnson, and others were not able to lead SDT toward a total disaffiliation and disbandment this summer, they too see their work as far from over, and they’re hopeful about the future. They have initiated conversations within other Panhellenic organizations at Columbia by circulating the information and literature they gathered for their efforts this summer. Despite her disappointments, Rojas was cautiously optimistic: “I think if you talk about it, you’ll be successful. It’s so obvious that it’ll be somewhat successful. I’m disappointed that it wasn’t everyone agreeing. I just don’t believe that if you have a genuine conversation about it that you won’t have what happened here. I don’t think there’s anything special about SDT.”