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Swarthmore Frats Disband After 4-Day Student Sit-In

Leaked documents from Phi Kappa Psi, a fraternity at Swarthmore College, reveals a history of misogyny, racism and homophobia

Swarthmore College students sing during a sit-in at the Phi Psi fraternity house, in Swarthmore, Pa. Students at the suburban Philadelphia college have occupied the on-campus fraternity house in an effort to get it shut down after documents allegedly belonging to Phi Psi surfaced this month containing derogatory comments about women and the LGBTQ community and jokes about sexual assaultFraternity Protest, Swarthmore, USA - 29 Apr 2019

Swarthmore College students sing during a sit-in at the Phi Psi fraternity house, in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.

AP/REX/Shutterstock

UPDATE (5/1): Delta Upsilon and Phi Psi have announced that they will be disbanding, according to statements on their respective Facebook pages Tuesday night. “Since the start of our membership, we made it our mission to improve the culture and perception of Phi Psi,” Phi Psi said in a statement. “Unfortunately, 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.” Despite their decision, university president Valerie Smith said in a statement that the school would continue to investigate the behavior.

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Two fraternities at Swarthmore College, a small, highly competitive liberal arts school in Pennsylvania, have disbanded following the release of leaked documents featuring racist, homophobic and misogynistic language, including jokes about sexually assaulting women and claims of a “rape attic.” The documents from the fraternity Phi Psi prompted massive outcry and dozens of Swarthmore students to stage sit-ins at the Phi Psi fraternity house in protest.

Organized by a campus group called the Coalition to End Fraternity Violence, the sit-ins — which garnered national press attention — were the culmination of weeks of tension between many Swarthmore students and the members of the two remaining fraternities on campus, Phi Psi and Delta Epsilon, which the student activists argue are bastions of toxic male behavior. (Editor’s note: Phi Psi is not affiliated with the national Phi Kappa Psi organization, whose Virginia Alpha Chapter filed a defamation lawsuit against Rolling Stone that was later settled out of court. Phi Kappa Psi disavowed the Swarthmore Phi Psi’s actions in a tweet, writing, “the local group operating under the name of Phi Psi at Swarthmore is not affiliated with the national Fraternity. We are disgusted to read details surrounding their racism, misogyny, homophobia, and stand in support of the sexual assault survivors.”)

The activists are calling for Swarthmore to, among other things, terminate its lease for fraternity houses and ban both Phi Psi and Delta Epsilon from campus. “I absolutely believe we have the capacity to make the school comply to our demands,” Amal Haddad, 18, a first-year at Swarthmore who helped to organize the sit-ins, told Rolling Stone. “This is exploding nationally and internationally in ways that none of us could have predicted.”

As is the case with many small liberal arts colleges like Swarthmore, which are far better known for their ivy-covered buildings and stringent academic standards than their Greek life, tensions between Swarthmore’s fraternities and other members of campus have always been omnipresent. “I knew from day one I wasn’t welcome there,” says Haddad, who is openly gay. “People always tell you freshman year, ‘Oh, stay away from fraternities, you’re gonna get groped.'” Following similar complaints about misogynistic behavior from the frats last year, Swarthmore set up a task force to “focus on the status of the Greek Life organizations and their relationship to campus standards and social life,” which recommended that the administration put a temporary moratorium on leased fraternity houses; in a memo from Sept. 2018, President Valerie Smith opted not to impose the moratorium, out of concern that such an action “could be construed as prejudicing the work of the Task Force before it begins.” (Smith’s office did not return requests for comment.)

In March, a Tumblr called Swat Fraternities surfaced, garnering dozens of submissions from Swarthmore students alleging having witnessed or been subject to racist, misogynistic, and abusive behavior at the frats. Yet campus outrage truly began to swell earlier this month, when two campus newspapers, Voices and the Phoenix, published a redacted version of a 116-page leaked document dating from 2013-2016, purporting to be the “minutes” of Phi Psi. The “minutes” contained intimate details about female students fraternity members had hooked up with and details about hazing and pledging tasks (the school banned hazing in 2013, around the same time the “minutes” were written), as well as offensive language containing racial, homophobic and misogynistic slurs. The document also includes references to Delta Upsilon, the other Swarthmore fraternity, having a “rape tunnel.”

Following the release of the documents, Phi Psi issued a statement on Facebook effectively distancing itself from the document, writing that members of the fraternity “wholeheartedly condemn the language of the 2013 and 2014 notes, as they are not representative of who we are today. All our current brothers were in high school and middle school at the time of these unofficial minutes, and none of us would have joined the organization had this been the standard when we arrived at Swarthmore.” (Rolling Stone reached out to Phi Psi for comment, and will update if we hear back.) The statement did not appease campus activists like Haddad, who believes that former fraternity members were “passing down these attitudes and this structure of violence, homophobia, and racism through the leadership,” she says. Following weeks of protest and demands to meet with senior campus administration officials, student activists stormed the Phi Psi house on Saturday, where almost 100 students have joined the protestors at the peak of the action, according to Haddad.

On Saturday, President Smith issued a statement declaring that she had recently received the unredacted version of the original document, and that following a consultation with an outside investigator, “I have decided to suspend fraternity activities pending the outcome of an investigation.” In a follow-up statement, Smith wrote, “I absolutely condemn the language and actions described in the documents from 2013-16,” and added that the task force hired last year to investigate the fraternities would issue recommendations for the future of Greek life on campus on Friday, May 3rd. “I know that the questions of fraternity leases and the future of Greek letter organizations are of foremost concern to many of you. I intend to resolve those questions unambiguously when I share my decisions on the task force recommendations,” she said.

Haddad says campus activists are skeptical of Smith’s stated commitment to solving the problem, pointing to the fact that it took a week-and-a-half for the administration to request redacted versions the “minutes” after they were published by campus newspapers. Until then, she says, the protestors will continue occupying Phi Psi, with the full-throated support of many other students and faculty members, some of whom she says have brought food to the protestors. “Some professors have even held class here. They’ve come to donate food, they’ve been really generous with their time,” she says. “It really gives me hope.” 

Correction: An earlier version of the post referred to Phi Psi as Phi Kappa Psi in one instance. This piece has been updated to clarify that the Virginia Alpha Chapter, not the national chapter, sued Rolling Stone. 

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