Haley Smith said she never thought that much about race until she walked into her first sorority recruitment event.
The African-American Medill sophomore said there were few women of color in Norris University Center that day in Winter Quarter 2014, when she and hundreds of other students were split into potential new member groups for recruitment.
“I remember looking around and feeling a bit intimidated,” Smith said. “It just made me more aware. Being in a white-majority campus, you’re always aware you’re a minority.”
However, Smith, now a member of Kappa Alpha Theta, said she is glad she joined Greek life and does not feel out of place. She said diversity in Greek life is a topic she is still figuring out.
This month, Panhellenic Association is also reflecting on diversity and inclusion, with plans to add new positions and resources to its 12 sorority chapters.
Impetus for change
The initiatives were first introduced in PHA president Frances Fu’s public apology regarding Kappa Kappa Gamma’s canceled “Jail N’ Bail” philanthropy event. In the statement, Fu asked the student body to forgive the Greek community for any harm caused by the event’s planned mock jail imagery, which students criticized online for being insensitive on socioeconomic and racial grounds.
Letters to the Editor published in The Daily in response to “Jail N’ Bail” pointed out PHA and Interfraternity Council’s 71 percent white demographics, collected from a winter 2014 Student Affairs assessment. In contrast, Northwestern’s total undergraduate population was 54 percent white last academic year, according to the Office of Enrollment.
Relative to their proportions to the NU student body, black students were the most underrepresented, followed by international students, then Asian and Pacific Islander students, then Latinos, who were almost equally represented.
The PHA and IFC community as of Winter Quarter 2014 comprises about 35 percent of NU’s undergraduate population, according to the Student Affairs survey. About 2 percent of students are in the other two Greek councils for multicultural-interest fraternities and sororities.
Smith said she is one of the few black students in Theta and that it is “obvious I don’t look like a lot of the other girls in my chapter.” She said she realized during recruitment that most minority students don’t join PHA.
“I think it matters,” Smith said. “Does it make me feel like I don’t belong? No. But it does make me feel like there could be more of an open discussion amongst all of us why that is.”
In an interview Tuesday, Fu told The Daily that PHA is working to address diversity in its chapters.
A memo distributed to all PHA presidents at a meeting Tuesday outlines a preliminary plan to establish a diversity and inclusion chair in each chapter.
The chairs will be tasked with evaluating inclusivity in the chapters and their public relations. The document also encourages the diversity and inclusion chairs to work on aligning each chapter’s values with other organizations on campus.
Though the recent controversy was centered around race and socioeconomic status, the memo addresses many different types of diversity, Fu said. It begins by defining diversity to include race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, physical and mental ability status, religious beliefs and political ideology.
Fu said PHA does not want to dictate an explicit set of rules for all chapters to follow. She believes the new position would be most effective if each chapter works individually to mold the new position to its internal needs.
Some chapters will start looking for a chair as early as Winter Quarter, but there is no hard deadline, Fu said.
“There’s no time limit on diversity and inclusion … although there definitely is a sense of urgency and immediacy,” said Medill junior KK Doyle, incoming president of PHA. “We need a lot of collaboration, and that takes a little bit of time.”
The new initiatives will also implement PHA-wide Sustained Dialogue discussions. The first panel will consist of representatives from each chapter. Fu said ideally PHA would establish a monthly dialogue on different issues, depending on community needs.
Looking to the future
Doyle, who will continue the movement after Fu finishes her term at the end of January, said the “Jail N’ Bail” incident was an “unfortunate impetus to a conversation we have been meaning to have and are excited to have.”
PHA also met with IFC after the cancellation of “Jail N’ Bail,” which was co-hosted by Zeta Beta Tau. IFC president Kyle Sieber said his executive board will also encourage adding a diversity and inclusion chair for fraternities.
Sieber, a Weinberg senior, said before the “Jail N’ Bail” incident, IFC was planning to meet with Lesley-Ann Brown-Henderson, director of Campus Inclusion and Community, to talk about how its chapters could better portray an inclusive environment for recruitment and outreach. The meeting, which is slated to take place this quarter, will now also discuss the “Jail N’ Bail” event and how to move forward.
Fu said the day the “Jail N’ Bail” Facebook event was posted, she was well aware of online backlash, especially as someone from an “activist background.” She reached out to the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, PHA’s executive board and Associated Student Government leaders for ideas on how to address the situation.
“Obviously anyone who spoke out had any right to do so, and we respect anyone who did that,” Fu said. “At the same time we had sympathy for Kappa because this wasn’t a malicious act … it was an act of ignorance.”
Changing the culture
Weinberg junior Aditya Raikar, a member of Sigma Nu who helped recolonize the chapter, said he believes the key to improving inclusivity in Greek life is for people to be honest about who they are and to be open to diversity.
Raikar, an international student of Indian descent, is also the vice president of International Student Association. He said he noticed his fraternity has a reputation for attracting more international students, a group he says is not as aware of Greek life, which originated in America.
“At the end of the day people are going to go where they feel comfortable,” Raikar said.
An Asian-American member of an IFC fraternity, a Weinberg junior who asked not to be identified, said he believes the Greek system is less to blame for diversity issues than NU itself.
“When you talk about Greek life, you also got to talk about college accessibility in general,” the student said. “I don’t believe it’s fair to blame a particular system when it’s a structural issue larger than Greek life.”
He said NU has grown from days when the student body had to discuss the acceptability of racial incidents such as the use of blackface but added that is an inadequate standard.
“I will say that compared to three years ago, my chapter personally has more people who are sensitive and care about issues of diversity,” he said. “I have also seen a couple of other chapters approach recruitment in a more positive light.”
Smith, the Theta member, said she believes after the recent tension, the Greek community and the non-Greek population must decide how to proceed. Many students have strong emotions and must meet in the middle, Smith said.
“We’re at a standstill now,” she said, “and don’t know what’ll happen next.”
Previous stories on this topic:
PHA to establish diversity, inclusion chair in each chapter after ‘Jail N’ Bail’ controversy
Kappa ‘Jail N’ Bail’ philanthropy event canceled after criticism
Assessment shows Northwestern Greek life is majority white