UVA Faculty Want Abolition of Greek System, Emails Reveal

Protestors in front of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at the University of Virginia / AP
November 25, 2014

University of Virginia faculty members are floating the abolition of Greek life on campus after an explosive Rolling Stone article on sexual assault, emails obtained by the Washington Free Beacon reveal.

The emails, culled from the History Department’s listserv, show the pressure faculty members are putting on the administration, which has come under fire for failing to remove sexual predators from school grounds.

Full disclosure: I’m a UVA graduate and part of the third of the student body involved in Greek life. (My house was not mentioned in Rolling Stone.) Disgust and disbelief prevailed during a discussion I had over the weekend about the story with fellow alums.

Rolling Stone’s exposé centered on the story of "Jackie," a pseudonymous freshman who claims to have suffered a brutal sexual assault. The details of the attack are horrifying. Jackie said a junior in Phi Kappa Psi, a prestigious fraternity, groomed her for weeks prior to the assault, lured her into a dark room during a party, and watched as seven other men raped her for three hours as part of what readers are led to believe was a fraternity initiation ceremony.

Immediately following the alleged attack, Jackie said her friends—whom she had called after leaving the fraternity and who saw her face bloodied and clothes torn—discouraged her from contacting the police out of fear that they would not be allowed into fraternity parties going forward.

Facing nationwide outrage and a faculty in revolt, last weekend UVA president Teresa Sullivan announced that all fraternity activities were to be suspended for the rest of the year.

The gesture is largely empty. Given holiday and exam schedules, there are relatively few Greek activities during the last few weeks of the semester. Still, to those of us who belonged to a house where no such activities had taken place—indeed, where no such activities would have been tolerated—the move felt like nothing so much as collective punishment, designed to distract from the administration’s failure to do a better job of punishing rapists.

Judging by the emails given to the Washington Free Beacon, the faculty has yet to be placated.

A resolution circulated on the history department’s listserv called for radical changes to be implemented and, if the administration could not change the culture, for the abolition of the Greek system altogether.

"Change is long overdue at the University of Virginia. We must choose to end the many repellant, even criminal, aspects of our community life that are too often justified by reference to ‘tradition,’" read the proposed resolution, which was not adopted following a flurry of amendments and technical objections.

"We urge that, absent the resolution of all currently outstanding Greek-system related sexual abuse cases, the President and Board of Visitors take steps to abolish the Greek system."

Associate professor Neeti Nair forwarded a petition to abolish the Greek system, while associate professor Brad Reed wrote that the history department "needs to make not just a statement but a bold one. The suspension of all Greek activity would be a minimum. The abolition of the Greek system would be preferable."

Others on the listserv wrote that the alleged atrocity should not be considered surprising.

"As somebody teaching the history of gender and sexuality at this university I, for one, find this an appalling refusal to recognize the historical roots of our problem," wrote Corinne Field, a lecturer in the Corcoran Department of History and Women, Gender, and Sexuality Program.

Field described as "unacceptable" Sullivan’s invocation of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States and the school’s founder, as an authority on honor.

"I would greatly appreciate leadership from the history department in challenging this latest refusal to acknowledge what Jefferson stands for to many in this community," she wrote.

John Edwin Mason, an associate chair in the department and an associate professor, wrote that he and his colleagues must "write like historians" rather than simply excoriating fraternities.

"We'll need to point out that many of the traditions that the university reveres—the Cavalier, the ‘Virginia gentleman’—are rooted in slavery, patriarchy, and class privilege," he wrote. "As many people have pointed out, rape culture has been UVA culture for a very long time. … The culture is implicit in the very idea of a university that was built to serve the sons of wealthy slave-owners."

The source who provided the history department’s emails to the Free Beacon, citing the Duke lacrosse scandal, did so out of fear that due process rights are likely to be trampled in a rush to implement sweeping changes and make the story go away.

That 2006 incident involved a woman who accused three Duke University students of gang raping her during a party hosted by the lacrosse team. In response to a media firestorm and pressure from the school’s faculty, the university canceled the lacrosse team’s season and forced the resignation of the coach.

The accusation was later proven to be false.

At UVA, campus unrest has grown as students and faculty marched in protest following the revelation in Rolling Stone that no UVA student has ever been expelled for committing a sexual assault.

Threats against university offices have been forwarded to the FBI, and campus police warned those on grounds to pay attention to their surroundings and avoid "cell phone conversations, listening to music or engaging in other activities that distract your attention from your surroundings."

Additionally, the Phi Kappa Psi house has been vandalized by students calling for expulsion from the university to be the only penalty for those guilty of rape.

But the university is in no position to adjudicate Jackie’s case. Gang rape is a police matter that should have been handled by them from the beginning.

That the alleged victim was not strongly encouraged to go to the cops is a failure on the part of the administration, a failure that will, in all likelihood, cause some to lose their jobs.

And the fact that no one has been expelled from the university for sexual assault under the tenure of Dean Nicole Eramo is rather shocking. Not because there are a surplus of gang rape initiation ceremonies at fraternities, mind you, but because there are, undoubtedly, horrible human beings that drug and rape college girls. Some of them are in fraternities. Some of them live in apartments off campus. Some of them live in university-owned dorms.

This doesn’t mean expelling everyone who is merely accused of a crime, and it doesn’t mean accepting that innocent people will be punished for crimes they did not commit. It means taking action stronger than a one-year suspension for rapists.

That being said, the use of this tragic story by faculty members to attempt to dismember Greek life on grounds is, to borrow a word, problematic. It is odd, for instance, that we did not see a similar outpouring of angst when an actual employee of the university murdered a university student. It is almost as if portions of the professoriate have seized upon Rolling Stone’s report to argue for a policy they have long preferred.

Worse, the focus on Greek life helps the administration duck responsibility for its inability to protect (and obtain justice for) women on campus. It obscures the fact that the vast, vast majority of fraternity brothers—like the vast, vast majority of men, period—would never commit, and have never committed, a sexual assault.

Those who perpetrate heinous crimes such as the one described in Rolling Stone should be tried and, in my opinion, hanged if found guilty. But we shouldn’t allow the article to be coopted in the long-running battle against a fundamental aspect of student life at one of our nation’s flagship universities.