Short version of this post: At my alma mater, Swarthmore College, documents have recently been revealed that describe a lot of awful behavior by members of the two fraternities on campus. Eventually, both fraternities decided to disband.
Much longer version follows.
Swarthmore is a small liberal-arts college in Pennsylvania. For decades, it’s been home to two fraternities: Delta Upsilon and Phi Psi. During my time at Swarthmore, I had very little interaction with the frats. Their parties were the places to go on weekends if you wanted heavy drinking and loud music, but since I didn’t want either of those things, I avoided those parties.
There were good aspects to the frats’ histories. For example, when DU was founded, one of its principles was “Advancement of Justice," and it had a no-hazing policy. And in 1963, Phi Psi left the national Phi Kappa Psi organization because the Swarthmore chapter wanted to admit a black student, which the national organization wouldn’t allow.
But there’ve been complaints about the frats for decades. DU even got kicked off campus for a couple of years in the ’80s. But for the most part, the administration tolerated the fraternities. (I would guess that that’s partly because some very prominent alumni donors had been fraternity members. Which is unsurprising, given the prominence of the fraternities in campus life until the late 1960s; in 1968, 52% of male Swarthmore students were fraternity members.)
There was a third fraternity, Phi Sigma, during my time at Swarthmore, but the college shut them down in 1991, when the college discovered that the organization had failed to pay $15,000 in debt, and had done $85,000 worth of damage to the frat house (which was leased from the college) over the years.
In 2013, the college held a referendum about whether the fraternities should be allowed to continue on campus. In the end, the college decided to allow them to stay. The fraternities said at the time that they were cleaning up their act, doing training about consent, moving past their old bad behavior.
In 2016, some Phi Psi members were among the students who participated in creating a video about the importance of consent, called “It’s On Us.” The college used the video as part of its incoming-student orientation.
In recent months, a Task Force on Student Social Events and Community Standards has been preparing a report on the fraternities; I think it was supposed to present its findings to college president Valerie Smith this past week.
Sometime in the past couple of months, someone anonymously sent a set of “Historical Archives” pertaining to Phi Psi to at least two student publications: the Phoenix and Voices. The archives included “minutes” written in 2013 and 2014, apparently documenting Phi Psi members’ behavior. The minutes include, as Voices put it, “racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, classist, and transphobic comments (including curse words and slurs).” The archives also included photos and videos of Phi Psi members engaging in various kinds of bad behavior. They also included descriptions of tasks that new pledges had to accomplish to become part of the fraternity; some of those tasks probably constituted hazing, which is against the rules of the college.
The 2013–2014 minutes make clear that during the period of the abovementioned 2013 referendum, at least some Phi Psi members were continuing and celebrating their bad behavior at the same time as the frat’s leadership was saying that the organization had reformed.
On April 18, 2019, the Phoenix and Voices both published extensive articles about the archives, including contextual information about the 2013 referendum. (For links to these and other articles, see below.)
Shortly thereafter, someone created a petition for alums to sign, pledging not to donate money to the college until the fraternity-house leases were revoked.
The issue began to make headlines outside of the college. Meanwhile, in late April, two student organizations began a sit-in protest at one of the frat houses. And someone sent “minutes” from DU (similar to the Phi Psi ones, and from roughly the same time period) to Voices.
Also, a Tumblr was created where students and alums could anonymously post information about harm done to them by the fraternities.
And this past Tuesday, both fraternities voluntarily disbanded.
I was especially impressed with the public statement that Phi Psi made about their decision to disband. They had previously pointed out that the current members were in middle school when the 2013 minutes were created, and they had said that Phi Psi has reformed and this kind of thing doesn’t go on there any more. But that rang kind of hollow, given the revelation that Phi Psi had previously said the same thing during the period when the minutes were written. So I figured that Phi Psi was going to just continue to maintain that there wasn’t a problem. But instead, they disbanded, and made a public statement saying that they could no longer in good conscience stay affiliated with an organization that had done so much harm. I feel like that was a remarkable thing to do.
(I should note that if the stories on the Tumblr are true—and I have no reason to disbelieve them—then at least some current DU and Phi Psi members have continued to behave badly, including engaging in sexual assault. So I don’t mean to absolve all current members of all wrongdoing by praising their action and statement.)
Here are a bunch of links about all this. I’ll repeat the content warning from Voices: most of these pieces quote from the fraternities’ “racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic, classist, and transphobic comments (including curse words and slurs).”
There have been plenty of other articles as well; these are just the ones that caught my attention and that I thought were worth linking to.
- Cult of Misogyny: Leaked Internal Documents Reveal Silence Around Harmful Culture at Phi Psi
- (April 18) Main Phoenix article about the archives. Content warning: includes extensive awful quotes from the documents. And the top of the page includes an unlabeled photo which turns out to be an unpleasant reference to urinating on the Intercultural Center.
- Phi Psi Leak Suggests Evidence of Hazing
- (April 18) The Phoenix’s discussion of the tasks that Phi Psi assigned to pledges, which may meet the college’s definition of hazing. Content warning here, too, for both the article and the photo at the top.
- Editorial Note: Our Process on the Phi Psi Coverage
- (April 18) The Phoenix’s discussion of the editorial choices they made in publishing the above two articles, and the verification process that they went through.
- “Phi Psi Historical Archives” Leaked Amidst Campus Tensions Around Fraternities
- (April 18) Voices’s main article about the Phi Psi archives. Long article; includes a fair bit of information that isn’t in the Phoenix article. Not clear to me whether the two news organizations each knew that the other had also received the archive material.
- Phi Psi Leak Sparks Questions About Fraternity Culture
- (April 25) Followup article from the Phoenix about the question of whether the fraternities really have changed since 2014. Among other things, a current woman student says: “I think there’s an emphasis on being a chill girl and being okay with a lot of the stuff that happens and I definitely felt that pressure.” The same student says that her ex, who was a Phi Psi member, told her that he couldn’t stand up against his frat brothers’ behavior because if he did, “they won’t be my friends anymore.”
- Why Swarthmore's Fraternities Must Go
- A Tumblr for people to anonymously share their experiences with the fraternities. Content warning for descriptions of rape and lots of other bad behavior.
- Swarthmore College Students Are Occupying a Frat House to Protest Fraternities on Their Campus
- (April 29) Teen Vogue article says that “student advocacy groups Organizing for Survivors (O4S) and Swarthmore Coalition Against Fraternity Violence staged a sit-in and protest inside and outside the Phi Psi house.”
- Swarthmore Students Demand Closing of Fraternity That Boasted of ‘Rape Attic’
- (April 30) New York Times article about the situation. Among other things, a current student notes that she has tried to tell the college administration what’s been going on with the fraternities, but they haven’t listened.
- Phi Psi disbanding announcement on Facebook
- (April 30) “[…] the brothers unanimously voted to dissolve Phi Psi fraternity on Swarthmore’s campus following a week of deliberation. […] We cannot in good conscience be members of an organization with such a painful history. […] the wounds are too deep to repair, and the best course of action for all those involved is to disband the fraternity completely and give up the fraternity house. We condemn sexual violence, racism, homophobia, misogyny, and discrimination in all of its forms, and we will continue as individuals to work to create a campus where these issues are eradicated completely.”
- Swarthmore Delta Upsilon Disbands after Decades of Harm Accusations and Anti-Frat Activism: “Newsletters” Circulated in 1983, “Minutes” from 2013 Leaked, Tumblr Story Revealed
- (May 2) Followup article from Voices about the disbanding. Focused primarily on DU rather than on Phi Psi. Includes discussion of the DU minutes that someone anonymously sent to Voices a few days after their article about Phi Psi.
- Swarthmore College Fraternities Disbanded After Student Organizers Held a Multi-Day Frat House Sit-In Protest
- (May 2) Followup article from Teen Vogue. Includes some discussion of the need for the administration to take a stand.
- We don't need fraternities. Swarthmore was right to shut theirs down
- (May 4) Followup opinion piece in the Guardian, by Jill Filipovic, about fraternities in general.