A Timeline of Swarthmore Fraternities: A Century-Long History of Activism and Administrative Failure
On Thursday, April 18th, I frantically ran out of our school’s local coffee shop.
I left my boyfriend at a table by the window where my laptop was open, the screen still showing the contents of the leaked Phi Psi documents that I had started to read only a few minutes earlier. Nothing can quite describe the immense feelings of horror, disgust, despair, and anxiety that formed in the deepest pit of my stomach while I tried to comprehend not only the fact that a “rape attic” existed, but that fellow Swarthmore students actually gave it this name.
The second I left the coffee shop, I broke into tears and started to run. I felt like I needed to escape - like I was trapped and somehow had to escape the terrible things I had just read - so I ran and ran until I couldn’t breathe and the only thing on my mind was the sound of my rapid heart beating ferociously in my ears.
When I finally calmed down enough to actually process the documents, one question kept returning to me.
The objectification of women, explicit descriptions of sexual assault, blatantly racist comments, homophobic attitudes - these are things that my mind could not rationalize or understand.
But I wanted to understand. More importantly, I needed to understand in order to find it in myself to forgive the people responsible.
So I set out on a research project to gain this understanding and to answer the questions racing through my mind - What could have possibly motivated anyone to commit such heinous acts? Why were these things allowed to occur in the first place when students have been begging the administration for systemic change since 2013? How many sexual assaults have taken place since the first call for administrative action, and how many of these assaults could have been prevented?
I wanted to specifically examine the “institution” of Swarthmore Greek life. We constantly mention how fraternities are ingrained into our current systems, but what does that really mean?
Below is a timeline composed of Swarthmore student journalism and activism against the fraternities, as well as countless instances of administrative failure to protect marginalized students from harmful behaviors perpetuated by these groups. My research goes back as far as the 1880s, and includes excerpts from various student publications and links to relevant video content when available.
I realize that the content below is text-heavy, but have no fear! The research is done for you, and I have emphasized the parts of each time period that are particularly significant. My research shows that the fight against fraternities is not a new fight by any means, but one that has lasted for more than a century, and this “institution” is far more ingrained into our campus than the administration is willing to recognize.
I was going to start my conclusion with how tired I am - tired of fighting for basic things like safety and respect - but if I have learned anything from reading through decades of Swarthmore voices calling for change, I know that there is nothing I can say that hasn’t been said before.
Carrie Cornsweet wrote the following in The Phoenix on January 28, 1980:
“Maybe you're tired of it. So am I. I'm tired of reading about vandalism, harassment and crowding. I could just stop reading it. I could say what the hell, I'm graduating in four months and getting out. But I can't say that, I can't write Swarthmore off, because in spite of all of the problems, I love Swarthmore and have loved it since I came here. I love the standard Swarthmore represents, or represented, for me and for many of my friends. I love being here, among people who share my values, who, in spite of confusion and post-Thanksgiving crunch, know what they want out of Swarthmore. But I’m almost afraid to say it; I feel it slipping away.
Last year in the beginnings of widespread cynicism I held out against my friends morbid predictions; I refused to let myself believe the problems added up to more than some circumscribed deficiencies. But since September my faith has been chipped away, and I can’t ignore these problems any more; they worm their way into my life every day: at Sharples, in classes, reading The Phoenix, talking with friends. I am furious too much of the time not to stop and think about where these apparently isolated problems lead.”
I have learned a lot from my research - and I hope everyone can find something to take away from this - but the real lessons I learned took place while I was sitting on the grimy floor of the former Phi Psi fraternity house. I will do my best to share them with you:
I have learned countless words to songs of courage and resilience.
There’s nothing quite like looking around and seeing a crowd of people clapping their hands in unison - friends smiling at each other when they mess up the lyrics and strangers offering comfort when the intensity and passion in the room becomes too overwhelming and eyes start to glisten.
I have learned how to use my anger - how to channel it into something good. Something productive. When I first read the Phi Psi documents, I was appalled.
I am still appalled, but now I can form rational thoughts about it. I can empathize with all parties involved, no matter how difficult this process was for me.
I have learned that our voices matter, and that the time for change is now.
As I type this sentence, I can not ignore the reality that the walls surrounding me in this ex-fraternity house have known so much violence. They have hidden so much pain. I have started to question things about myself that I have never considered before. The world as it currently exists is not one that I feel safe in, so how can I possibly protect my little cousins before they grow up and go to college themselves? Can I justify bringing another human being into this world unless significant changes are made first? And what kind of person would I be if I didn’t fight like hell to make these changes happen?
I learned what justice feels like.
When I saw the Facebook post announcing the DU’s disbandment, I started to run from my room in Wharton. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was feeling or who I was looking for, but when I saw people cheering and crying tears of joy on fraternity row, I ran faster.
I turned to strangers and hugged them fiercely, feeling incredibly happy and overwhelmed that something had finally happened.
I turned to my friend and asked her, “Do you realize what this even means?”
We were both quiet for a moment, before she responded, “The freshmen next year will never have to experience the frats.” And then we both fell on the ground and sobbed.
Lastly, I learned that the work is not finished.
While both fraternities decided to disband themselves, let us not forget that this has happened before, and we must learn from our previous mistakes.
What is to stop the administration from allowing the fraternities to return in five years again like they did in the 1980s? We are told time and time again that we must be patient and allow due process to ensure justice.
But why should we trust the Swarthmore administration to make the right decision and abolish fraternities permanently, when there is more than a century of history showing an apathetic inability to do so?
There is an opportunity here for significant change with the abolishment of the fraternities, but at the end of the day, O4S are just students. We can point to the problems we see, but we ultimately lack the power to make institutional change. That power belongs to the administration alone, but what they decide to do with that power is up to them.
Imagine having this power. You could decide with the snap of your fingers that the fraternities will never again return to Swarthmore’s campus, and ensure the safety of countless future students. It is astounding to me that someone could even have this type of power to implement change at the institutional level.
It is even more astounding that someone could have this power, and choose not to use it to protect those who have been harmed.
I’m not ready or willing to discuss my individual experiences with sexual violence, but this whole fight has been extremely triggering for me. This is made worse by the fact that no matter how hard I try or how long I contemplate, I can not seem to understand something.
How could someone have this power to eliminate the fraternities, knowing the immense harm they have and continue to cause, and actively choose not to use it?
The fact that I know individuals who were sexually assaulted in the fraternities when the administration has had ample opportunities to break this cycle of violence literally shatters my heart. So many of these rapes were preventable.
President Valerie Smith, this decision should have been made years ago, but we can remedy these failures now. This is an incredible opportunity to align word with action, to protect those you claim to care about.
Only then can our community truly begin to heal.