On the decline: investigating greek life at Whitman


Bex Heimbrock, Opinion Editor

Editor’s note: We as editorial leadership erroneously removed an aspect of the piece, which we have now corrected.

After Whitman College’s external review of Greek life returned an extensive list of recommended improvements and noted the presence of students “who were adamant that Greek life should be abolished at Whitman,” the College’s purported commitment to Diversity, Equity and Inclusion was put to the test. While Whitman decided against total abolition of Greek life, one year after the release of the review, the inequities which prompted it in the first place have yet to be resolved.

In response to the review’s recommendations, Whitman’s administration hired a new Associate Director of Student Activities: Sorority and Fraternity Life (SFL) and Student Leadership, Stace Sievert. A New Mexico State and University of Mississippi graduate and Zeta Tau Alpha alumna, Sievert oversees and coordinates Greek life on campus. Sievert functions as a sort of middle-man between students and the administration.

While Sievert provides communication and organizational help for SFL student leaders, she admits that the transition period has been intense.

“There’s been no one really in my chair for two years,” Sievert said.

The disorganization that Sievert inherited is the result of multiple structural issues, which predate both her arrival on campus and the current batch of student leadership.

From the moment of their inception, fraternities (and, later, sororities) had an inescapable dividing presence on university campuses. In 1836, at the very start of what would go on to become one of the largest, wealthiest organized groups in America, college presidents across the country called the budding groups “un-American”: they were a tool for young rich white men to separate themselves from their “less desirable” classmates.

The patriarchal, exclusive culture bred by fraternities has long since become a norm on college campuses. As author and Tulane University Professor Lisa Wade writes, the proof of this toxic cultural norm “is in the knee-jerk insistence that they are too formidable to fight.”

Sororities at Whitman are perhaps the most impacted by this legacy of misogyny, with the most glaring example of this being sororities’ reliance on on-campus residence halls for housing.

Prentiss Hall is home to every on-campus sorority, in addition to housing non-affiliated students. Specific areas in Prentiss are dedicated to individual sororities. All sections have lounges and chapter rooms, but due to declining interest and member retention, the sororities often have non-pledges living in their sections – something fraternities don’t have to deal with. Even the administration seems to be unable to deal with the problems on-campus sororities pose.

The Wire was invited to attend a Greek leaders meeting, where Sievert had organized a Narcan training. At the training, boxes of Narcan were distributed, alongside signs with arrows to help identify the Narcan storage location.

Sorority leaders immediately identified a problem.

“We don’t really have a space that I think would be good [for Narcan storage]” said one of the sorority presidents, who explained that it would more than likely go missing in a shared environment like Prentiss and that they would have to remove the Narcan frequently to bring it with them to events – as they are unable to host their own.

Sievert did not have a solution for the sororities – advising them to “put it near” the section’s fire extinguisher.

President of Kappa Kappa Gamma and sophomore Ainslee Newman says that there are few, if any, adequate spaces for the sororities both on and off campus.

“It is very gendered,” Newman said. “What’s the point of being in a sorority if you don’t have your own place and your own space?”

While the community aspects of sororities are one of the main attractions for prospective pledges, these aspects of sorority life at Whitman are largely relegated to fraternity houses.

When planning parties, “the fraternities are where we usually turn to,” Newman said.

For Newman, the social dynamics at these parties, hosted in an unfamiliar, male-dominated space, reinforce misogynistic power structures.

“They’re the ones who have the rules and the power about what we can do,” Newman said.

Because of this, according to Newman, “people normally consider the sorority parties as just another Beta or Sig party, even though we’re the ones organizing the whole thing.”

The gender-based inequity was briefly acknowledged by the external review, though they write that, “Fraternities and sororities are both privileged enough to have space on campus, which did not seem to be afforded to most student organizations on Whitman’s campus.”

Sievert echoes this belief, “do I think it’s a problem that they’re different? No.”

Sievert’s assertion that “the sororities don’t recognize what a sweet deal they have in Prentiss” is disheartening to sorority leaders, who have been blowing the whistle on this inequality for years.

An anonymous sorority leader believes Sievert’s assertion is unfair.

“It’s not that we don’t realize how good it is,” they said. “It’s that equitably we deserve more than that.”

Sororities’ symbiotic relationship with fraternities means that, even if they were to receive perfectly equal treatment, they would still be complicit in the problematic culture of Greek life itself.

The Greek system has big pockets, with fraternities owning about three billion dollars worth of real estate across 800 American campuses.

Fraternities and sororities have their own exclusive rituals and initiation processes. They can have “closed,” exclusive parties. As an organization, they can dodge accountability when it matters most.

While student members of sororities and fraternities at Whitman staunchly defend their participation in the tradition, the exclusive nature of the groups is fundamentally antithetical to the College’s inclusive mission.

As such, any DEI efforts from student leaders and administrators are bound to fall short – precisely because they are cementing institutional structures that are exclusive by the very fact of their existence.

This was rendered obvious when, in the Spring 2022 report card, Kappa Alpha Theta was listed twice: first as having 34 “women” sorority members, and then again as having two “men”; singling out Kappa Alpha Theta’s two trans members and forcing them into an offensive label.

In an internal email obtained by The Wire, Sievert presented the President of the sorority with two choices for how to move forward: “I can take a sharpie and black out the row for [the sorority] under “men,” wrote Sievert.

The second option, however, was to “distribute it as it is.”

“The advantage of this is that the report looks clean, and doesn’t have a weird black sharpie line across it.”

The unnamed sorority leader remembers having conversations with the impacted sorority when the report was released. She reported that Sievert was initially opposed to blacking out the discriminatory row.

However, in an interview with The Wire, Sievert remained firm that the decision to black out the error was entirely hers.

The anonymous sorority leader recalls feeling like they weren’t being listened to during the back-and-forth between leadership and Sievert.

“No one cares if it looks messy, it shouldn’t be there,” they said.

An anonymous sorority member told The Wire that this is “a reoccurring issue.”

“Specifically administrators release stuff like this.” They said this is something they’ve experienced “over the years as a member of Theta.”

The anonymous source said that they are “thankful for my sisters for pushing against this in particular when it occurred,” though they expressed general frustrations with the way discriminatory errors are handled.

“It’s difficult trying to push against something as unfeeling as Whitman and the sorority administration.” Sievert admitted that this is her first time working at an institution with trans SFL members: “This is a first for me. But, I knew when I saw it that it wasn’t acceptable, and I tried really hard to make it right. I’ll take the heat for having not.”

The immediacy of the administrator’s concerns over widespread knowledge of this document’s existence was not reflected in Stace’s initial suggestion to Kappa Alpha Theta leadership to have a report that “doesn’t have a weird black Sharpie line across it.”

Ultimately the error was fixed, which Sievert credits to Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion Dr. John Johnson, who got involved after students brought their concerns to him.

Johnson told The Wire that he believed it was his “moral, ethical and professional responsibility to help resolve that issue.”

“What happened was wrong, could not and should not happen again and seemed to be the result of structural failures that I was in a position to help address,” Johnson said.

While Johnson finds the question of Greek life’s detriment to DEI issues “subjective and largely about execution more than existence,” he notes that “a progressive decline in the number of students involved with Greek life” at Whitman “speaks volumes.”

As both the Narcan training and report card show, even the most basic attempts at addressing the structural issues of Greek life end up reinforcing the problems.

After a year of implementation, it seems the external review was only able to place administrative bandaids on structural wounds. According to Johnson, “there’s no viability without diversity, equity and inclusion.”