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Ginnie Graham: Harvard's banning of sororities and fraternities doesn't fix problems of discrimination, sexual assault

Ginnie Graham: Harvard's banning of sororities and fraternities doesn't fix problems of discrimination, sexual assault

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Alpha Phi was the last sorority to buckle under Harvard University’s actions to rid the elite school of single-sex social organizations and final clubs.

This is my sorority, and it saddens me these women lost their support group. Historically, that’s why all-women groups were formed and a big reason they continue to exist.

Contrary to pop culture stereotypes, there are significant social, academic and emotional benefits to sorority life. It’s not all parties and secret handshakes.

In May 2016, former Harvard University President Drew G. Faust sent an email to undergraduates stating the members of these organizations would be barred from holding campus leadership positions, participating in varsity team athletic captaincies and receiving endorsements for prestigious awards like the Rhodes Scholarships.

Those are steep sanctions for a competitive student body.

The argument is that single-sex groups are institutionalized discrimination; therefore they need to shift into co-ed memberships for inclusivity.

The fallout has been largely on women.

Currently, at least nine all-male groups, including fraternities, continue to operate at Harvard. Meanwhile, all the all-women groups have folded or turned into gender-neutral organizations.

Worth noting: Harvard’s all-male clubs were founded as early as the 18th century while the first Harvard sorority chapter — Kappa Alpha Theta — wasn’t established until 1993. Sororities didn’t acquire off-campus housing until 2011.

It’s likely the older male groups have more resources to wage a longer battle.

This week, I received an email from the Alpha Phi headquarters with the hash tag #StandUpToHarvard and the website with news it has filed a lawsuit against the school. In quoting the Harvard members, it stated:

“We realize now that in compliance with Harvard’s sanctions, we are complicit in the unjust destruction of women’s spaces and women’s rights on our campus. To sit back and allow this to take place is not who we are as women of Alpha Phi. We are determined to fight against the blatant inequality present on our campus and we know now that the best position to do so is together, as a chapter, a united sisterhood.”

The Alpha Phi Harvard chapter began in 2013 and left campus in August. It returned last month out of defiance and is currently the only all-female group on campus.

I’ve never been more proud of my sorority.

The governing groups for Alpha Phi and Delta Gamma sororities filed a lawsuit alleging Harvard’s policy violates the state laws.

A separate lawsuit has been filed in federal court by several plaintiffs including the sororities Kappa Alpha Theta and Kappa Kappa Gamma and fraternities Sigma Alpha Epsilon and Sigma Chi. It alleges violations of Title IX and the U.S. Constitution.

Some clubs are using Washington, D.C., lobbying firms for a legislative route to protect the right to exist.

The campus newspaper, The Crimson, reported on an October 2014 complaint with the Office of Civil Rights about the all-male final clubs being potential sites of sexual violence. That launched a Title IX federal investigation.

One lawsuit claims officials sought to deal with the problem by eliminating all single-sex social groups.

That sounds about right: a knee-jerk reaction related to sexual assault instead of addressing behavior and attitudes within an organization.

Banishing the entire system doesn’t change the root of those problems, it’s just moves them around and underground.

Harvard is pushing for this change at a time when sorority and fraternity membership is exploding, including on its campus.

The National Panhellenic Conference, an umbrella organization for 26 sororities, reports a 62 percent increase in undergraduate membership since 2008. The jump in new members (previously known as pledges) is 56 percent.

To meet demand, at least 70 chapters have opened on campuses in the past five years and more continue to be added each year. Harvard was posting more new members each year until the policy announcement.

The North-American Interfraternity Conference, representing more than 70 fraternities, has experienced about a 45 percent increase in new members since 2005.

Just as important is a look at the origins and purposes of the groups.

Sororities were founded between 1851 and 1917 out of a need for solidarity among women on campus when few were allowed to be students in higher education.

Biographies of sorority founders are inspirational. At a time when they couldn’t vote, these women were trailblazers in equality and social justice in various fields.

Sorority life looks different today, but the core values of education, leadership and opportunities remain. Many women who lead industries and serve in elected office boast of sorority membership.

For me, joining a sorority meant being around a group of diverse women on a large campus where I knew only three people. It provided a sanctuary when things got tough and perspectives outside my field of study.

The same could be said of other social organizations bringing together students with commonalities, such as the strong historical network of all-black fraternities and sororities or those based on religion or professions.

Since the lawsuits were filed, #StandUpToHarvard has been spreading across the social media to all the groups that could be impacted.

Social clubs must evolve to survive. Cultural and economic pressures integrated country clubs with minorities, women and diverse faiths.

The same thing occurs among campus groups, but that comes from changing societal norms and expectations. There hasn’t been clamoring from men to join sororities.

Also, many co-ed campus groups remain available and are flourishing.

Harvard’s policy is the wrong solution to problems of sexual violence and discrimination based on sex and gender. Students should not be punished for joining off-campus, single-sex groups.

Women still face issues that sometimes take other women to understand and counsel.

This policy is just another form of discrimination by eliminating a place where women assembled in a unified voice.Kappa

Ginnie Graham 918-581-8376

Twitter: @GinnieGraham

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