Strapped By Institutional and Cultural Barriers, AUSG Drops Greek Life Abolition, Pursues Reform
Interviews conducted by Meagan Keefe and Benjamin Mermel
The prospect of complete Greek Life abolition has died, replaced by a series of proposed reforms extending and making more accessible resources for victims of sexual assault and racial abuse.
Beginning in June of 2020, in the midst of nationwide outrage over police brutality spurred on by the deaths of Ahmad Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, students at American University were met with social media campaigns attacking the community’s complicity on issues of sexual assault and racism. With the creation of multiple Instagram accounts, members of the AU community were forced to reckon with jarring, public accusations that left the whole campus reflecting on the integrity of its institutions and culture. The Instagram accounts offered anonymous and primary source testimonies of assault, discrimination, and insensitivity on campus, going so far as to specifically name perpetrators of sexual and racial abuse.
[Read: "Two Instagram Earthquakes Rock AU"]
Several major AU student organizations experienced internal convulsions, including Greek Life oversight organizations such as the Interfraternity Council, AU College Democrats, and AU Student Government, as well as fraternities and sororities themselves. Many individuals removed themselves entirely from Greek Life and became advocates for total abolition, while others remained silent and resolute in the face of these unprecedented allegations. These postings also drove a wedge down the middle of the AU Student Government—which includes a large number of elected officials involved in Greek Life—shedding light on the prevailing existence of serious conflicts of interest. Pressure was levied by a newly organized Coalition to Abolish Greek Life on members of AUSG who were still part of fraternities to disaffiliate.
The Instagram turmoil of the summer sparked campus-wide dialogue about the relationship between Greek Life and sexual assault at AU, a topic which AUSG has been forced to consider in the following months in the midst of the community’s calls for stronger regulatory measures, if not complete abolition.
The Instagram postings in the summer of 2020 led to the resignation of then-president Nik Jok, a former member of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, for mental health reasons. Run-off elections were held in the Fall between three candidates and current president Eric Brock, who had campaigned in the initial Spring race but had lost to Jok, was elected. Brock campaigned heavily under the promise to reform and even abolish Greek Life, and has continued to vocalize his support for the issue. However, there have been no tangible steps taken by him or AUSG to advance that agenda. Brock told the Agora in an interview last November that he feels the Senate has been “uncooperative” in that regard, and that the executive and legislative branches of student government do not seem to share the same fervency for the issue. In that vein, one of Brock’s cabinet appointments during the Fall 2020 semester, Omi Hassad, was voted down by members of the Undergraduate Senate solely because of their expressed desire to advance a policy of abolition, which was regarded as an indication of their incompetence with the AUSG structure. When asked about this, Brock responded, “When someone asks me, ‘Why haven’t you done anything on abolishing Greek Life,’ I tell them, ‘I can’t legislate,’ especially if I can’t even get my Chief of Operations confirmed for holding an ideology of such.”
Senator Ishita Jamar, the Undergraduate Senator elected last year to head the Senate’s Commission on Preventing and Handling Sexual Assault Cases, stated there has been little to no communication from Brock himself regarding the issue. There are several political hurdles that Brock himself acknowledged must be mounted before any real change occurs. Firstly, the Senate is not a single-minded body by any stretch, but rather is made up of diverse ideological groupings. Not all senators agree that abolition or a large degree of reform is necessary—something Senator Jamar also made sure to specify, stating that her own opinions on Greek Life do not reflect those of the body as a whole. Many in the Undergraduate Senate take the position that Greek Life offers a mostly positive social environment to students and an important element to the university experience.
On the other hand, Brock has clearly stated his opposition to Greek Life institutions in their discrete capacity as protectors of abuse and of racism. “[Jamar] and I simply don’t agree on Greek Life and its role on campus, and that’s okay.” In congruence with his position on defunding AUPD, he also said, “I have no vested interest in maintaining structures that perpetuate white supremacy.”
However, Jamar and Brock agree on one principal notion: that the prevailing cultural order, which in many ways buffered the AU’s community’s impulse urge to rid AU of all its Greek Life institutions in light of damning social media allegations, suggests that Greek Life isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Additionally, there is an added difficulty of navigating Greek Life reform: the AU administration. Even if AUSG agrees to pursue reform or abolition, there are a number of steps that must be taken to initiate and continue the process successfully, something which requires a certain amount of support and attention from the AU administration.
“The administration is not really taking a stance on [Greek Life] and there's no progress on what's happening with Greek Life. We had chosen that it would be better to find reforms rather than abolish it, because we felt like with that policy, we'd come to a standstill,” Jamar said. “Like, well, 'we asked to abolish it and it's not happening. So this is the end of it.' Whereas when we felt like if we came up with reforms, we'd be helping [victims] and we'd be kind of meeting in the middle [with the administration] in a way.” When asked to choose between a “watered down bill of Greek Life reform that is doable or a progressive wet dream that is impossible to pass,” Brock responded, “I’d pursue it in the sense that it’d be a transition toward what we’re fighting for. I’m not interested in just reform but if it leads to abolition in the long run, it’s something we want to work on.”
Indeed, many students at AU continue to find their experience with Greek Life to be positive. There are additional concerns that President Brock may be the wrong standard-bearer for this cause, as he himself has been found by the Judicial Board to be in violation of campaign by-laws surrounding inappropriate statements made during the Spring campaign trail. However, the commission has not aimed the majority of its focus toward that issue, and its jurisdiction regarding legislation on the issue is debated.
“I think there’s a lot of limitations that come with Student Government. The problem we are constantly running into is that the administration leaves us to meddle these things out ourselves when we don't have the power to take action,” Brock said. “What can we actually do? The way [Jamar and the Title IX commission] approached it and the best way they could due to the limitations was to make a proposal to the administration. If you want to get something done, you have to agree between students first and then negotiate with the administration. That’s not the way we would like it, but it’s the way things are.”
The way negotiations take place between the administration and the student body, Brock explained, already takes place at a disadvantage for student advocates. When AUSG members have convened in discussion, arrived at conclusion, and brought the issue to the administration, they will oftentimes be met with a restriction or a procedure that was not known before. “[The administration will] tell me policies from the university that we as students don’t know about. They have some procedures they don’t disclose,” Brock continued. “From the student side, we say, ‘This is what we’d like to see. We know you’re held back but this is what we’d like to see.’ Typically, [the administration] will say, ‘We can’t do everything you’re asking. But given our limitations, this is what we can do.’ And that’s how things get done on this campus.”
In the months following the dissemination of these Instagram accounts, AUSG was forced to consider the relationship between Greek life organizations and the perpetuation of rape culture on AU’s campus. However, according to a disclosure by a prominent AUSG member, head of the Center for Student Involvement Ayanna Wilson met with the Undergraduate Senate early on and informed them that they were not sufficiently equipped with dealing with this issue on a broad basis, that at the end of the day, the Senate had no real say in the Greek Life affairs on campus, and that the most productive avenue for reform would be through a student government-led commission that would, at most, suggest policy changes to the larger administration.
Senator Jamar, after deliberations with Senators Noah Burke and Eduardo Nogues, was chosen by her peers to lead reform efforts as the chairperson of the Title IX commission. The other members include Victoria Vena, the Director of Health and Mental Wellness; Thamara Aridou, the Director of Women’s Initiative; Abbie Sklencar and Chris Orjuela of the Panhellenic and Interfraternity Councils respectively; Cassie Moore, the Director for the Center of Advocacy and Student Equity; Ben Holtzmann, the student trustee; Reagan Roffink, a representative from AU Pride; Adriana Doria, the other Undergraduate Senator; and Natalie Harder, a representative for AU College Democrats; Noah Burke, a representative for AU College Republicans; Diana Salazar, of the Intercultural Greek Collective; Chyna Brodie, head of the Committee on Student Rights and Services; Jaqueline Martinez, of Peer Health Educators. All of these individuals worked in tandem to put together the set of proposed reforms published late last semester.
An effort was made to get the student community involved, but to no avail. “Our motive was to make sure that we had as many voices as possible,” Jamar said. “We had also made the meetings public and I had a Student Government Instagram post about it a few times, like one or two times I posted on my personal Instagram, but there was never really anyone that came.”
President Brock also proposed a commission initiative through the AUSG executive branch regarding policy avenues on campus focused on defunding AUPD and reforming Greek Life. The aspect of the commissions dealing with AUPD are meant as supplemental work to the organizing of on-campus organizations such as the AU NAACP. “We don’t want to trample on the work of other Black organizations,” Brock said. “We’re trying to make sure AUSG is included with other grassroots organizations.”
The Senate Title IX commission helmed and organized by Jamar is made up of student government members, representatives from student clubs on campus, university peer health educators, as well as health service groups who specialize in sexual assault cases such as HPAC and OASIS. The commission was started by the Senate, Jamar told the Agora, but the whole point was so that more people would come to it, hence the collective of representatives from many different on campus clubs and health organizations. Brock’s “community commissions” are specifically aimed at garnering the dialogue of the general student community who are not necessarily directly involved in campus affairs. These efforts announced last Fall semester and starting this Spring semester will be directing those who express an interest in Title IX issues to the Senate Title IX commission. “We’re going to talk about open positions, there will be an opportunity to start putting their name on the interest forms. I’ve worked with Ish in a new way in terms of people who want to be involved, and we’re going to loop them in with her.”
A comprehensive, preliminary report from the Title IX commision authored largely by Senator Jamar and Victoria Vena, the head of Health and Mental Wellness, was recently presented before the Senate in late December of 2020, offering six step recommendations to be taken in the interest of offering support, guidance, and resources to those affected by sexual assault on AU’s campus. The report does not mention Greek Life abolition or measures to increase oversight and responsibility in Greek Life governance.
The recommendations included in the commission’s report include an improved, exhaustive resource list to be posted on all syllabi, including but not limited to the reconfiguration of Hurst Hall as a wellness center for AU students, peer support groups with trained facilitators, increased requirements for student organizations through CSI, focus groups and collaborations with LGBTQ+ students and organizations, and increased training for staff and faculty regarding trauma, depression, and support. “This is not just about the heterosexual male,” Jamar said. “We’re having a conversation about how to include, for example, power-based violence in LGBTQ+ relationships not only between a man and woman.”
An anonymous Agora writer who had assisted a friend in the period following a sexual assault reported in an April 2020 article that:
“The hospital at Georgetown is unequipped to carry out a rape kit procedure, and so is AU. When we went to the A.U. Student Health Center and asked for a rape kit, they said they didn’t have a physician available to administer the test. When my friend arrived at her appointment the next day, Health Center employees informed her that they don’t have the kits on campus, nor a SANE nurse, who has been specially trained to administer the exam.
“AU’s only available medical support consists of STI testing and counseling services. They cannot actually perform the rape kit examination. Not only is this lack of resources unacceptable, this information was relayed far too late during the process. With sexual assault cases, there is a critical 72-hour window for collecting evidence from the victim, which SHC staff shortened by delaying direction to a facility that could actually perform the necessary tests. To make matters worse, the school did not offer to have someone accompany us to the hospital or to a place that offered the necessary tools.”
On the topic of rape kits, Senator Jamar expressed difficulties with the legal conditions for administering immediate evidence collection on campus. “I know the University of Michigan will do rape kits because they have their own hospital. Not really like [Georgetown] MedStar, it's more of a legal thing rather than it's a school thing,” Jamar said. “And I think the issue that was run into with this, like with the student that was going through that crisis, was that no one was ever told that—the fact that it wasn't offered at the school until it was too late because of a strict 72-hour period.”
These recommendations are all in hopes to increase support for survivors of sexual assault but do not directly confront the relationship between rape culture perpetuation and Greek Life at AU. Perhaps the most compelling recommendations are those regarding an updated and exhaustive list of resources, as well as increased regulations for campus organizations through CSI. According to Senator Jamar, the bylaw requirements for all campus organizations, set by the CSI, only include two mandatory bylaws regarding diversity and equity, and the goal is to mandate the inclusion of a bylaw regarding sexual assault handling and prevention, or at least to heavily encourage the inclusion of one. It is this recommendation that holds the power to be useful in Greek Life reform, as it would require fraternities and sororities to actively take a stance against sexual assault, and could require them to engage in prevention.
Senator Jamar also stated that the Senate does not technically have the power to actually mandate this type of change, but is able to motivate the organizations to comply through campus exposure. In regards to the recommendation for an updated and exhaustive resource list, Senator Jamar noted that the current OASIS resource lists—displayed in all campus bathrooms and advertised as AU’s one-stop-shop for sexual assault resources—is actually severely lacking. She told the Agora that while AU actually does have sufficient resources for victims of sexual assault, those resources are drastically undercommunicated by the university.
Furthermore, there have also been instances noted in which individuals have attempted to utilize the resources outlined in the OASIS flyers, specifically the phone number for the hotline, and have found the line to be unavailable or disconnected. Through the creation of this new and exhaustive list, Jamar and her commission seeks to fill the gaps left by the current flyers and to make readily available the resources that AU has failed to advertise as heavily. Her team’s proposed policy—which has been released to the campus community and is currently the substance of deliberation between the commission’s members and Vice President of Campus Life Dr. Fanta Aw, as well as Dr. Traci Callandrillo, the head of the Counseling Center and HPAC as well as the new Ass. Vice President for Title IX and Equity—also aims to make this list as easily accessible as the current list, by displaying it on all AU syllabi, with the inclusion of a scannable QR code.
Senator Jamar stated that while she believes Greek Life reform to be an issue that should be considered, there has been a lack of communication between the Senate and President Brock on the issue, and that the issue of Greek Life reform does not lie solely within the Senate’s jurisdiction. She continued, stating that other campus organizations such as HPAC, AU Administration, and CSI are all involved in this reform, as well as the Greek Life organizations themselves as members of the Title IX commission. To a certain extent, reform will rely on fraternities and sororities’ own motivations for implementing lasting change within their organizations, in addition to HPAC, CSI, and AUSG’s mandated improvements, such as the additional required bylaws regarding sexual assault for all campus organizations.
The motivation for the Title IX commission was purposed on reform rather than total abolition, which the founders and organizers believe to be more productive of a long-term goal. President Brock, who began his term unrelenting in his pursuit of an abolition policy, now shares this sentiment as well as a more cordial relationship with the student government legislative branch. Senator Jamar, who has since been elected Speaker of the Undergraduate Senate, sees this commission as a jumping-off point and the first step in a long process of reform, something she believes holds the potential for AUSG to continue to expand upon in the future.
Meagan Keefe is a sophomore majoring in Public Relations and Strategic Communications. She is the Deputy Editor for Campus Affairs at the Agora.