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Across the United States, students are calling for the disbanding of Greek life. Yet, even as several fraternity chapters at Northwestern University have disbanded in recent years, 40% of undergraduate students are members of Greek life in some capacity.

Northwestern suspended recruitment and social events at on-campus fraternity houses in September 2021 due to alleged druggings that occurred at their houses. Two thousand students protested outside of Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) and Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) on Sept. 26.

The suspension was in effect for an academic quarter, which ended Jan. 3 of this year. AEPi and SAE were not expected to be allowed to recruit new members for the winter quarter, as they had not met the required 80% participation rate, but the university announced on Jan. 5 that the houses could resume.

More than five months after the alleged druggings, the university has not completed the conduct process nor updated the students on the case. With SAE and AEPi offering bids to potential new members, business resumes as usual.

Jon Yates, spokesperson for Northwestern, said in an email to the RoundTable that the Office of Community Standards has investigated the allegations of the September druggings at SAE and AEPi, but has not concluded a full conduct process.

“In order to maintain the integrity of the process, and honor the privacy of those involved, Northwestern does not comment on an active conduct process,” he wrote.

For the Northwestern students who have watched the beginning of the possible eradication of Greek life, sexual assault accusations and what one student calls “a lack of transparency and accountability,” this fight is only beginning.

Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE), 2325 Sheridan Rd. (Photo by Sam Stroozas)

‘A slap on the wrist’

As a senior at Northwestern, Emma Stein has watched for the last few years as Greek life members and houses have deactivated, students reacted to alleged sexual misconduct and the group Abolish NU Greek Life shared hundreds of stories about what happens inside Greek life on their Instagram account.

Stein never considered joining Greek life, but it still played a role in her collegiate experience. In her freshman dorm, she said, it felt like she and her roommate were the only two women on the floor not trying out for sororities.

“It was like out of a movie,” she said. “You couldn’t have written it to be more stereotypical. But I still felt pressure to join because it was so suffocating.”

Stein’s parents had advised her against participating in Greek life prior to beginning college, and as she heard about the alleged activity that exists near Sheridan Road, she knew she had made the right choice.

While she wasn’t at Northwestern in 2017 when two alleged sexual assaults and four druggings occurred in the SAE house, Stein says the history of the house is notorious on campus.

“Sexual assault expected” – what in-person and online protesters regularly call SAE – doesn’t come from the fraternity’s actions at Northwestern alone. The phrase appeared in The Hunting Ground, a 2015 documentary about sexual assault on college campuses.

SAE was founded at the University of Alabama in 1856, just before the start of the Civil War. In 1929, SAE established its headquarters at 1856 Sheridan Rd. in Evanston. In addition to previous accusations of racism, dangerous alcoholic consumption and hazing, allegations of sexual assault have been made at more than 10 SAE chapters at different college campuses across the country.

On Northwestern’s campus, SAE has faced two incidents in the last five years: the 2017 allegations of two sexual assault accounts and four druggings, and the 2021 allegations of druggings.

SAE was suspended in April 2017 but faced no disciplinary action from Northwestern. SAE returned to campus on probation in 2018 after a one-year suspension and rejoined the Interfraternity Council (IFC) in September 2021 as an associate member, but did not have IFC voting power.

In November 2018, Tommy Vaughn, then president of SAE, wrote a letter to the editor in the Daily Northwestern asserting that the new SAE would be one of accountability.

“We are returning to campus because we want to be a part of the solution to the problems facing the Interfraternity Council and the NU community,” Vaughan wrote.” I chose to be president because I know that every member of the new chapter is committed to making SAE a fraternity that has a positive impact on the community. On a personal level, I want to leave an impact on this campus that I am proud of, and there is nothing I would be more proud of than if our work makes NU and its Greek community a safer environment.”

Less than three years later, alleged druggings occurred at SAE on Sept. 24, 2021, and AEPi on Sept. 23.

Along with her peers, Stein said she began hearing about what happened in late September. “It was horrifying,” she recalled.

But the worst part, she said, was that she was not surprised.

“It was the least shocking tragedy that could happen. It just always felt like a matter of time before the same pattern of behavior happens again with the same people,” she said.

Stein had thought that the allegations made against SAE and AEPi could be a turning point for Greek life at Northwestern. She noted that Abolish NU Greek has more than 4,000 Instagram followers, which may spur Northwestern to take a step forward in eliminating the Greek system. Instead, she says, students haven’t heard anything from the administration.

Exclusivity, loyalty and behavioral expectations

When Ava and Matthew arrived at Northwestern as freshmen last fall, they said they didn’t expect accusations to occur in Greek life so quickly.

“We started here in September and within the first month, there was an incident,” Matthew said. “So I saw that I need to do my part in order to change a system that is obviously broken and has serious fundamental problems.”

Ava and Matthew, who asked to share only their first names, recently joined Abolish NU Greek Life. On July 22, 2021, the organization made its first post on its Instagram page, where it shares anonymous stories that Northwestern students submit.

Stories include incidents of classism, racism, sexism, hazing, drinking culture, sexual assault and more issues that caused Ava and Matthew to join the organization as freshmen.

Ava said that before she came to Evanston, she was told that Northwestern Greek life was “different.”

“They said it was safe and then I was really disappointed and it made me feel angry that this is still happening on a campus I thought supported women,” she said.

Both Ava and Matthew would have liked to know what happened at AEPi and SAE after the alleged druggings and quarter-long ban, such as instituted sexual assault training or bystander intervention dialogue. Yet, they said they haven’t heard from the university since the initial announcement of the ban.

“At the moment, it seems like the university is taking zero responsibility for the organizations they provide housing to,” Matthew said. 

“I don’t think the ban on Greek life is enough. Anywhere else in this country outside of the university scene a crime of that magnitude would have a much more explicit punishment. If this is what the university will allow them [Greek life] to do when things like this happen, I hesitate to think what the university will be okay with going forward.”

After the events of late September, Riley Brennan, a Chicago sex educator and former sorority member of Kappa Kappa Gamma at Simpson College, hosted an event with the on-campus group Northwestern College Feminists.

Six weeks after the events, Brennan led “Let’s Talk Greek Life” with the student organization. As a former sorority member, Brennan has based much of her work around sexual assault prevention and a large part of that stems from Greek life, as male Greek life members are 300%  more likely than their peers not in fraternities to commit sexual assault, according to a 2007 research paper.

“It’s a really common and reflective cycle we go through,” Brennan said. “A fraternity allegedly does something, the members apologize, the national headquarters says it is not reflective of who they are, an investigation is supposedly done by the university and then things fade from the mind and go back to normal, until it happens all again the next year.”

In the most severe cases, charters are revoked or fraternities are banned, as happened to SAE, but a few years later, they often re-join. Brennan discussed with college feminists three inherent systems and structures of Greek life that perpetuate harm: exclusivity, loyalty and behavioral expectations.

Brennan encouraged college feminists to think about the benefits of Greek life and brainstorm other ways that existing student organizations or alumni networks can offer similar support.

“Very few actions are taken to create permanent change in these structures,” Brennan said. “There is not a lot of accountability taken by anyone, it is a cycle, it has continued and will continue until we disrupt it.”

Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi), 584 Lincoln St. (Photo by Sam Stroozas)

Looking for answers

AEPi and SAE were allowed to recruit new members over the month of February and to offer bids to prospective members. Besides the quarter-long ban, neither the fraternities nor the individuals who allegedly drugged house guests have faced repercussions.

Jonathan Pierce, who manages AEPi international media relations, said that the allegations made against the Northwestern chapter of AEPi were proven to be unfounded. Yates could not verify this statement and referred to his original comment.

“Alpha Epsilon Pi takes seriously our responsibility to protect our members, guests and the campus community. The allegations made against the chapter and its members have proven to be unfounded and we look forward to continuing to fulfill our mission of developing the future leaders of the Jewish community on the Northwestern University campus. 

“With this incident in mind, we will redouble our efforts to train our members and our broader community in bystander intervention and sexual assault and harassment identification and response,” Pierce wrote in an email.

SAE headquarters, located on Sheridan Road in Evanston, did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Sam Stroozas

Sam Stroozas is a reporter and the social media manager at the Evanston RoundTable. She covers small businesses, social justice and human interest stories. Contact her at sam@evanstonroundtable.com and...

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