Students at Vanderbilt leave fraternities and sororities, alleging racism and insensitivity

"It is seen as morally unacceptable to contribute to the culture these organizations have created," one Vanderbilt student who left her sorority said.
Vanderbilt Commodores
Benson Science Hall on the campus of the Vanderbilt Commodores in Nashville, Tennessee circa 2012. (Photo by Vanderbilt/Collegiate Images via Getty Images) *** Local Caption ***Vanderbilt / Collegiate Images via Getty Images file

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By James Wellemeyer

More than two months after George Floyd's death sparked nationwide protests, unexpected consequences have arisen at some leading universities: Students are leaving their fraternities and sororities over what they perceive as a lack of sensitivity on issues of race, sexism, classism, homophobia and other issues of discrimination or inequality.

Since June, about 200 sorority and fraternity members at Vanderbilt University, in Nashville, Tennessee, have left their organizations, said Daniel Wrocherinsky, a rising junior at the school who recently quit the fraternity Delta Kappa Epsilon. Other students cited the same number in a recent presentation they created on reasons for abolishing Interfraternity Council fraternities and Panhellenic Greek life.

At the start of the school year, Vanderbilt fraternities and sororities collectively had 2,197 members, according to a report from the school. NBC News has not independently confirmed the numbers of students who have left Greek life at Vanderbilt.

“Nearly 200 is the official number who have left their organizations, but the true number is much higher,” Emma Pinto, a rising senior at Vanderbilt who left her sorority, Zeta Tau Alpha, said. “It’s hard to keep track of who has dropped because students are not on campus right now.”

Many students shared their reasons for leaving their organizations on their Instagram accounts or on @abolishvandyifcandpanhellenic, an account an anonymous group of former Vanderbilt sorority members started at the end of June. It has gained more than 2,000 followers and includes stories from more than 50 Vanderbilt students explaining why they left Greek life.

The student-driven effort spread to other schools, as well. Organizers at Washington University in St. Louis created @abolishwashuwpaandifc, which has over 2,000 followers. There are similar accounts, where students speak about their experiences in Greek life and why they are leaving, for Duke University, American University, the University of Richmond and more.

The initial push to leave Greek life came after Floyd's death at the end of May when five Black women in Vanderbilt's Kappa Kappa Gamma chapter left their sorority.

"It seemed like no one in our sorority group chat was talking about George Floyd's death or how we could support the Black Lives Matter movement," said Taylor Thompson, one of the first five students to leave. She said previous experiences in the sorority also contributed to her decision.

"Whenever there was a conversation about race or discrimination, I or another woman of color was initiating that conversation," Thompson said. "I asked myself, 'Do my values align with these women I'm in a sorority with?' and I decided to leave."

"I didn't want to be part of an organization in which people didn't seem to care when I was hurting."

Taylor Thompson

When Thompson dropped out of Kappa Kappa Gamma, she shared her experiences on social media but did not anticipate that it would lead to a larger trend.

"I left for selfish reasons," she said. "I didn't want to be part of an organization in which people didn't seem to care when I was hurting."

Kappa Kappa Gamma did not respond to a request for comment.

Soon after Thompson left, however, a video from March surfaced showing white members of Vanderbilt's chapter of Delta Kappa Epsilon using the N-word.

"We know this week has been a challenging one, following an incident in which a member of the Greek community was recorded using a racist slur derogatory to African Americans," Mark Bandas, Vanderbilt's associate provost and dean of students, wrote in an email to Vanderbilt students.

Bandas condemned the "use of this language" and said the university is investigating.

Just days after the video drew attention, racist posts that claimed that "Black people are a stain upon our democracy" and that they are "animals who vote for whoever gives them the most welfare" appeared on Vanderbilt's page of GreekRank, a blog for members of sororities and fraternities. The posts were written anonymously, and GreekRank has not responded to NBC’s request for comment.

“When student conduct violations occur, we take action, investigate and hold perpetrators accountable – both individuals and organizations. Currently, five Greek organizations are suspended at Vanderbilt for student misconduct,” a spokesperson from Vanderbilt told NBC News.

But the incidents spurred members of fraternities and sororities to begin leaving Greek life en masse, students said.

"The five women who dropped Kappa Gamma told their stories on social media at the height of Black Lives Matter protests," Pinto said. "The video and GreekRank posts that came out afterward reinforced what they said and made people reconcile why they were contributing to Greek life."

Katherine Deegan, a white student at Vanderbilt University, wrote about why she left Zeta Tau Alpha in an Instagram post on an account named @abolishvandyifcandpanhellenic.

"About two weeks after George Floyd was murdered, I expressed on my private story my frustration that some members of Zeta (who I did not name) had not only been silent after the murder of George Floyd, but had been posting pictures of their lattes and friends as if nothing had happened," Deegan wrote.

A member of sorority messaged Deegan and asked her to "watch your social media presence" because chapter members felt "shamed," Deegan said.

"If members of your chapter feel shamed by my posts condemning racism, why are you silencing my acknowledgment of their complacency rather than condemning the complacency itself?" Deegan asked.

The post detailing her story got over 1,000 likes. Zeta Tau Alpha did not respond to a request for comment.

"I left my fraternity after I realized the system was unreformable," said Wrocherinsky, who also posted on @abolishvandyifcandpanhellenic.

Wrocherinsky said many of his brothers were not receptive to conversations about racism that he had sought to initiate after Floyd's death. He also became concerned over their attitudes toward sexual assault.

"When we brought up the fact that one of the houses didn't have enough lights, one member of the frat made a joke that we shouldn't get new ones because that was the point," Wrocherinsky said. "Even if I am trying to change that culture, I am still contributing to it by being in the fraternity."

Delta Kappa Epsilon did not respond to a request for comment.

The ongoing push to end Greek life

Efforts to abolish Greek life are not new. There have been movements to dismantle the pay-to-play organizations at many campuses, but the efforts typically have been led by outsiders, Pinto said.

"The difference between this push to end Greek life and previous efforts is that this is internal," she said. "People within these organizations have decided they no longer want to be involved."

Ten to 15 of the original 120 women remain in Thompson's former sorority, Kappa Kappa Gamma, she said. The rest left over the past two months.

"People started to ask themselves — if I don't leave my Greek organization, am I a bad person?" Thompson said. "I would never call someone a bad person for their affiliation, but to be part of an organization that is harming others is irresponsible and harmful, as well."

Delta Tau Delta, a fraternity on campus, voted to disband after many of its members dropped out in recent weeks.

"It is impossible for us to ignore the fact that empathy and kindness are incompatible with the racism, misogyny, sexual assault, classism, homophobia, violence and transphobia that have been woven into the fabric of our former Greek chapter and community over the years," former members of Delta Tau Delta wrote in a guest editorial in the student newspaper, the Vanderbilt Hustler. "Our primary call is for the abolition" of Interfraternity Council fraternities and Panhellenic sororities. These include all fraternities or sororities aside from historically Black organizations.

"Delta Tau Delta Fraternity is aware several members wish to disaffiliate from the local chapter," Jack Kreman, the chief executive of Delta Tau Delta's national office, told NBC News after the group voted to disband. "We are committed to supporting the men who remain."

"It has become anti-clout to be a part of these organizations at Vandy."

Emma Pinto

More than 100 former members of Greek life at Vanderbilt communicate in a group chat on the popular messaging app GroupMe about their efforts to abolish historically white fraternities and sororities at the school. The group has no formal leader, Pinto said.

"It has become anti-clout to be a part of these organizations at Vandy," Pinto said. "It is seen as morally unacceptable to contribute to the culture these organizations have created."

Thompson agreed. "No one is proudly repping their sorority or fraternity flag right now," she said. "There are people who want to keep the organizations going, but I would say they are more embarrassed about their involvement now, and nearly everyone is listening to those who have been harmed by these organizations."

Historically Black fraternities and sororities exist on Vanderbilt's campus, but their memberships are small, and they have not been affected by the effort to end Greek life.

“They serve a different purpose and no one is trying to get rid of them,” Pinto said. “They are not IFC fraternities or Panhellenic sororities.”

Bandas wrote in an email that the university is aware of "the continuing conversations related to the Abolish IFC and Panhellenic movement," but he made it clear that the university will not choose a side.

“We respect the right of students to join or disaffiliate with any registered student organization,” the Vanderbilt spokesperson said.

"No student should be made to feel unwelcome or unsafe on our campus — this extends to bullying or harassment for participation in an approved student organization or for students' choice to abstain from participation," Bandas wrote.

As fraternity and sorority membership declines dramatically at Vanderbilt, some question what the future of college social life may look like.

Pinto believes she has an answer.

"Other people had social lives at Vanderbilt," she said. "They just didn't have the organizational protection of the university to drink, and I hope that with Greek life ending, people will actually join clubs that interest them."

Wrocherinsky, on the other hand, does not think Greek life at Vanderbilt will end so easily.

"I think some Greek life will continue to exist," he said. "Many donors to the school were in Greek life, and Vanderbilt may not want to upset them by ending it."