As Americans began a fresh reckoning with systemic racism this summer, some college students, kept home from school due to COVID-19, began to view campus life through a new lens. They questioned whether Greek life—particularly chapters within the Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Council, which govern fraternities and sororities—were troubling manifestations of exclusion and privilege at their colleges.
In a new video for TIME, students at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, one of the first schools to see the ‘Abolish Greek Life’ movement take hold, speak out as they grapple with whether abolishing longstanding fraternities and sororities would be an important step toward equality—or not.
Vanderbilt’s Greek life has been historically popular—with nearly a third of students participating in the Greek system—but that popularity began to come under threat when students started dropping out of the organizations they had once pledged themselves to after the murder of George Floyd. “In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, no one in my sorority had talked about it. And in a space where I had once considered community and I had called these girls my sisters, I couldn’t justify continuing to do that. I was like, ‘I’m done,’” says Taylor Thompson, a Vanderbilt senior.
Thompson and a number of other disillusioned students, both ex-Greeks and not, began to organize. They created an Instagram account that shared people’s negative experiences with the Greek system, from racism to sexual assault to sexism to homophobia. Students at other colleges, like Northwestern University, Duke University and the University of Richmond, created accounts in the same model, sparking a nationwide debate over Greek life’s place on campuses.
In recent years, a number of high-profile incidents tied to Greek life have occurred at colleges around the country, including a racist chant at the University of Oklahoma and a video of fraternity members mocking slavery at the University of Georgia. While some argue these problems are systemic and inherent to the Greek system, others counter that abolishing the Greek system is too hasty—and instead advocate for reforming the system to address its problems.
In many ways, it’s a conflict that echoes the debate over policing in the U.S. Jared Bauman, a Vanderbilt senior and fraternity member, spoke out against abolishing the Greek system in a July op-ed for the student newspaper. “You actually have chapters on campus who have done wonderful things, more so than other parts of non-Greek campus, when it comes to combatting sexual assault and combatting racism,” he tells TIME.
After a tense summer, Vanderbilt resumed some in-person classes for the fall semester, with strict limits on student gatherings. It was a lesson perhaps learned this past spring, when the school dealt with a COVID-19 outbreak, with many cases traced back to St. Patrick’s Day celebrations commonly known among students as “St. Fratty’s.”
Since the pandemic began, a number of other colleges have also traced outbreaks to Greek life. John Hechinger, author of True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities, says this isn’t surprising. “Greek life has really, for generations, been a public health problem, and I think that’s coming to the fore in the era of COVID-19. At one point, an organization of insurers rated fraternities as just above toxic waste dumps.”
Despite such concerns and liabilities, experts say that college administrators have an incentive to keep Greek life going. “Many administrations are really loath to confront fraternity and sororities in outright ways because they’re worried about alumni who tend to be supportive of the organizations and tend to give money, or hold back their money when universities criticize the organizations,” says Nicholas Syrett, author of The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities.
Moving forward, even if colleges are hesitant to abolish the Greek system, chapters may struggle with bruised images as students look at fraternities and sororities with new scrutiny. Vanderbilt’s Greek rush process, in which potential new members are sorted into fraternities and sororities, will conclude at the beginning of the upcoming spring semester. It will be a test for Greek life and the Abolish Greek Life movement alike. Regardless of how many students choose to reject or join the system, the conversation on campus is an indicator of how a new generation hopes to bring about change.