Every August, Milledge Avenue and its grand houses fill with prospective pledges, excited to meet their new best friends and gain personal and professional connections. With thousands of members of 66 sorority and fraternity chapters representing four different Greek councils, University of Georgia Greek life is thriving.
However, the Greek institution has faced increased negative attention in recent months. Dozens of anonymous Instagram accounts created this summer and fall call for a total abolition of Greek life. They highlight Greek life’s inattention towards the COVID-19 pandemic and alleged racism, as well as exclusionary origins, in testimonials of primarily anonymous student experiences and resources on abolition. With @abolishgreeklifeuga’s creation this August, the University of Georgia joined the ranks of other notable universities, such as Vanderbilt, Duke, UNC Chapel Hill, and Richmond that have similar accounts.
“I think it (the account) has caused people to reevaluate how they see Greek life. Before it was one of those things, everyone thinks things happen, but seeing them in screenshots and pictures and the exposing of the culture and the mindset within it made people willing to speak out against Greek life,” one of the owners of the account, a student at UGA, said.
Greek life is rooted in and perpetuates irreversible issues, @abolishgreeklifeuga says, but the impact of philanthropy, one of the pillars of the Greek institution, is too significant to be ignored.
“There are a lot of really good ideas within Greek life. Philanthropy, for one. They’re very aware of the PR they get from that. In speaking to organizations in Athens that have benefited from large donors like fraternities and sororities, it does have an impact on them. But I think you can have service organizations and philanthropic organizations and clubs at UGA without them being shrouded in racial gatekeeping, homophobia, sexism, binge drinking, rape culture,” said an account owner.
Philanthropic reach and the Greek influence
Greek life is the largest volunteer cooperative in the U.S., with members donating over 10 million hours of service and raising $7 million for charity annually.
UGA Miracle, the official philanthropy for UGA Greek life, has raised over $9.8 million for the Children’s Hospital of Atlanta, with more than $1.25 million being raised from 2020’s annual dance marathon. The UGA Interfraternity Council also boasts several other service projects, such as blood drives with the American Red Cross, volunteering with the Boys and Girls club and organizing events with Trunk or Treat and Toys for Tots. The UGA Panhellenic Council requires every sorority to have a local and national philanthropy, and chapters individually raise thousands of dollars for their charities every year.
With over 9 million current members, Greek life is arguably the most influential and widespread social institution in American universities. 75% of alumni donations to universities are from former Greek life members.
Cedar Shoals even has a high school version of Greek life, Sigma Alpha Phi, or SAPS. Similar to the college Greek experience, “bigs,” mentor “littles,” and members have an initiation, hold events and do community service.
“I’ve actually met some of my best friends through SAPS, so it’s been pretty positive,” senior and big Kaylin Lawrence said.
2020 Cedar Shoals graduate Tristan Lankford, now a freshman at UGA studying business management, recently joined Delta Sigma Phi. He credits the guidance and advice of his fraternity brothers for their impact on his academic success.
“It is a whole community that looks after one another. They’ve helped me decide my major and pick my classes for next year. I can always ask the older guys. It’s just nice to talk to older people who have been here and done this before,” Lankford said.
Lambda Chi Alpha and racism in UGA Greek life
This Sept., group chat screenshots from members of UGA’s Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity chapter leaked to social media, exposing numerous uses of racist, homophobic, sexist and antisemetic slurs. Photographs of women in public were also sent in the messages, without the women’s knowledge or consent. The chapter has since been suspended, but the impact of their words remains.
Lankford describes being shocked and unsettled when he read Lambda Chi Alpha’s messages.
“I was like, ‘They’re not in my fraternity, but I don’t want to go to school with these people if this is what they say behind phone screens.’ It was very disheartening to read, to see that,” Lankford said.
Lankford condemned the actions and words and says he would not tolerate that behavior with his own brothers.
“If someone started texting on my fraternity group chats like at Lambda Chi, I would leave,” Lankford said. “If they were even talking to each other that way in person, if I saw them taking pictures of girls and all that disgusting stuff, it’s not something that I would want to be a part of.”
UGA sophomore Alex Harvill had a stronger reaction, choosing to disaffiliate from Delta Zeta after the Lambda Chi incident reinforced her own frustrations with her sorority.
“Honestly, I’m really disturbed. When all that stuff about Lambda came out, we all knew that there’s horrible stuff said, but to see it for real – like we have the screenshots, we have the receipts, and to know that there’s definitely way worse stuff said within their frat. That’s only one example,” Harvill said.
Harvill expressed that her experiences with fraternities support the narrative that the Lambda Chi Alpha messages perpetuate: that fraternity culture is vulgar, hateful and largely unregulated.
“I don’t think that everyone in a frat is a racist or homophobe or a rapist or something, but I’ve heard nasty things come out of their mouths. Sexist, homophobic, racist slurs and the derogatory terms,” Harvill said. “It’s just thrown around like it’s nothing. Even if there’s a frat guy who you deem to be good, is he really good if he’s complicit with his racist fraternity brother? Not really.”
Ari Exposes UGA
The Lambda Chi messages were originally released on junior political science major Arianna Mbunwe’s Twitter account. Over the last four months Mbunwe has become a vocal and recognizable local critic of UGA’s COVID-19 response and Greek life.
“I feel like they (UGA) don’t want to take responsibility for the wrongs they’ve made, or they just want to brush past it and hope that students don’t say anything. It’s irresponsible for them. I just want them to take responsibility. It’s the bare minimum they could do if they’re trying to bring kids back next semester,” Mbunwe said.
The screenshots Mbunwe released include derogatory comments directed towards Mbunwe in response to her criticisms of UGA and denials of her claims of coronavirus’ disproportionate impact on Black communities.
Messages include a member calling Mbunwe a “foul and miserable creature” and another asking for “the strength to not call that woman a racial slur.” One message from a member named “Ghost of Aunt Jemima” reads, “I guarantee you she has a crusty vagina and just sits in her room saying how white people are racist because she’s mad she didn’t get a bid.”
The messages did not shock Mbunwe.
“I wasn’t surprised that they felt bold enough to say this about me because UGA kind of gave them a path essentially, never really standing up for what they say they do when it comes to racial justice. I was disappointed that someone who is also a university student would feel this way about someone else just because they’re asking for accountability from people for their actions,” Mbunwe said.
Mbunwe emailed Lambda Chi Alpha’s national organization and spoke to the national President a week after posting the screenshots, and he assured her that an investigation was underway and she would hear from them again in four weeks at the most. She has not gotten an update on her case from the UGA Greek life office or Lambda Chi Alpha’s national office two months later. Mbunwe expressed frustration and confusion about the lack of a response from Greek leadership.
“There’s been lots of push back, and I just think they’re expecting this to go away. I mean that’s what they do best. They sweep it under the rug and hope no one calls attention to it. It really makes me upset to know that eventually no one’s going to remember,” Mbunwe said.
The UGA Interfraternity Executive Board and Lambda Chi’s UGA chapter president did not respond to requests for comment on the situation.
Mbunwe has spoken with former members of non-UGA Lambda Chi Alpha, who denounced the messages as a representation of the fraternity and apologized. No members who participated in the messages have reached out to her.
“I knew they were probably getting advice from other people to stay as far away from it as possible. Within my eyes it made them look more guilty. I will be surprised if they ever try to apologize to me,” Mbunwe said.
Although Mbunwe recognizes the impact of her recent activism and posting the Lambda Chi Alpha messages, she feels the momentum should not end with her.
“There’s more to be done and more criticisms to be heard from people who have dropped Greek life and also people like me who have never personally been in it but have been the victims of their decisions. I’m not the end all be all of this situation and my activism at UGA. I’m not satisfied by anything, but I’m happy with what my small four months of complaining on Twitter has done. There’s definitely a long way to go,” Mbunwe said.
UGA Greek Life and COVID-19
Mbunwe is one of many criticizing UGA and Greek life’s COVID-19 response. As of Dec. 7, 16 UGA fraternities have been fined a cumulative $32,500 for violating social distancing guidelines.
Lankford says his fraternity screens visitors and requires masks. However, he feels a fraternity with such protocols is not liable for any contractions of COVID-19 as a result of group gatherings.
“Let’s say you have a scenario that someone chooses to walk into a fraternity, where they have protocols but you’re still around a group of people. If you were to get COVID, I don’t believe the fraternity would be responsible or necessarily respond to that situation because you chose to openly put yourself at risk. You’re not going out to the grocery store, you chose to walk into that fraternity house,” Lankford said.
Former Delta Zeta Harvill also experienced Greek life’s pandemic response from within. She was appalled by her fellow members’ negligence and felt alienated when she questioned the need to hold in-person, non-socially distanced events.
“I was like, why am I the only one who cares? I felt like I was the only one awake in a horror movie. Everyone else was like ‘When are we having events, when are we having date night?’ and I was like, we’re not, stop planning this. I was texting all of the leaders. It shouldn’t be up to the sorority members to keep them from causing a super spreader event, that’s just insanity,” Harvill said.
Harvill was a member of Delta Zeta, whose primary philanthropy serves the speech and hearing impaired, for one year. She shared her disaffiliation letter on the @abolishgreeklifeuga account in October, describing her experiences of being silenced and reprimanded for attempting to hold her Delta Zeta sisters accountable for discriminatory actions and practices. She elaborates on her disgust at fraternity culture, sororities’ complicity towards it and the lack of COVID-19 safety she witnessed.
“I was just so unhappy with the place I was in and the community I was a part of, and I didn’t want to be associated or represented by anyone who’s hateful or any system that perpetuates hate. So while I wanted to be a part of it for the good stuff, I also thought if I’m gonna drop and leave this toxic environment, I’m gonna let everyone know why and encourage other people,” Harvill said.
Previous to her disaffiliation, Harvill founded the chapter’s diversity and inclusion committee this past summer with sophomore Jade Jarencio, a current member of DZ and international affairs and sociology student. Harvill and Jarencio were enthusiastic and fully believed they could make their sorority more inclusive through education.
“I just really wanted a space for girls in our sorority to talk about these things and raise awareness. It was a DM (direct message) that me and Alex had over Instagram. We were saying all these girls claim they care about these things, but they don’t and there’s so many issues that they’re not aware of. We were like, ‘We should try to create something to bring those issues to light,’” Jarencio said.
One of the initiatives of the diversity and inclusion committee was to post a pride graphic on Instagram in support of the LGBTQ+ sisters and community. According to Harvill, this was the first post to ever be voted on, and at first there was no option to post permanently: either no post at all or a 24 hour Instagram story post. She made an impassioned argument for a permanent post, but on the second vote, the story option won the majority again. Harvill was shocked and upset at her sisters’ decision to support the queer community for just 24 hours.
“There was clearly so much underlying homophobia. I was like ‘Okay, I’m not gonna stay in a sorority where you don’t even like me because I’m gay,’” Harvill said.
Harvill has joined multiple clubs and organizations she feels are great alternatives to being in a sorority. Developing new friendships in communities that she describes as sincerely working to be diverse and supportive of social justice initiatives has helped her to find her place as an open-minded activist.
“I’ve been struggling with this feeling, like I’m embarrassed of UGA. I don’t want to be associated with the COVID people or with the racist people or with the Greek life people, but being a part of all these clubs with people who are like-minded and passionate about the same things that I am and have the same morals as me, it makes me feel proud. Even though I’m in a place where I don’t agree with the majority of the people around me, I’ve found communities where I can make a change,” Harvill said.
The feasibility of Greek abolition
The message “abolish Greek life” leaves little room for compromise or debate. @abolishgreeklifeuga defends their resolute demand as the only option for tangible change within the Greek system.
“Any radical language is going to get criticism, especially from those who are currently in the system. Of course, members still involved and still benefiting from the system that sees so much inequality, racism, sexism, homophobia, they’re going to want to try and push for something that still allows that structure to remain intact. However, we believe that reform is not possible within Greek life. Within the hierarchical structure of chapters and nationals and internationals, from what we’ve seen at different schools, it just doesn’t seem possible for a system so large and pervasive to completely change in a way that will have a meaningful impact,” one of the account owners said.
Lankford feels abolition is too intense of a response to Greek life’s problems. Rather than termination, he says compromises could benefit both members and critics.
“It (abolish) is a very strong word and I do think that turns people off when they see ‘abolish Greek life’ because it seems so divisive, it automatically turns people off to want to pay attention. It just seems like there’s no compromise here, we completely just eradicate it,” Lankford said.
Mbunwe supports @abolishgreeklifeuga’s message and believes Greek life is unredeemable and that reform is not enough to save a fundamentally exclusionary institution.
“I’m not going to make it the same as abolishing the police or anything, but it’s the same thought process of at a certain point. How much reform and how much money can we pour into a system that continues to oppress other people for the benefit of themselves?” Mbunwe said.
The challenges of achieving this demand, especially at UGA, where Greek life has a large and prized presence on campus, are copious. If abolition were to happen today, almost a quarter of UGA’s nearly 40,000 students would be dismissed from their chapters, and dozens, if not hundreds of events would be cancelled, many being fundraisers. Furious alumni would close their wallets and the university would suffer intense repercussions.
Mbunwe and Harvill believe that Greek life abolition at UGA is very unlikely.
“Greek life is such a huge part of UGA. There’s so many good things about it, and obviously college students aren’t going to be like ‘Oh, I shouldn’t join this. It’s inherently racist.’ If you’re in a sorority, your life kind of revolves around it. So, for that to just be wiped away from UGA, I just don’t even see that as a possibility,” Harvill said.
@abolishgreeklifeuga themselves recognize that their call for total termination is far-fetched, but they believe their message is not void. Abolition is the long-term goal, but facilitating conversations and awareness has a valuable impact as well.
“All of us are hopeful for it happening eventually, but we’re realistic in knowing that it probably won’t happen for another couple years, if not decades. Ultimately though, I think if enough people pay attention, and if enough people actually consider the tangible effects that Panhellenic and IFC have on minority students at PWIs (predominately white institutions), hopefully that will be a bigger agent for change,” one of the account members said.