Members and alumni of UR’s Alpha Phi Theta Kappa sorority chapter are demanding an end to biased recruitment practices — detailed in a July 5 letter to the chapter — including ranking applicants on appearance.
The July 5 letter from a recently disaffiliated chapter member said that in addition to potential new members being ranked by appearance during rush season, chapter members themselves would also be ranked by appearance by the recruitment team, and would be sorted into conversation groups with applicants based on their scores. The applicants considered the prettiest, the letter says, would likely be the only ones to make it through recruitment.
The letter was later addressed in group chat messages directed to chapter members by UR graduates Lydia Currie and Margaret Perry, ‘20, who both held leadership positions at Alpha Phi. They supported the letter’s claims.
“The process that [the letter writer] described has been something passed down for years with nationals supervising it and made it seem like something we had to do as part of our job,” Perry wrote. “I tried my best to be transparent and make changes that went against it but I realize now that standing with it in any way was being complicit and clearly wrong.”
Letter on recruitment practices
The letter came soon after its writer, who asked to remain anonymous, resigned from her position on the recruitment team and disaffiliated from Alpha Phi.
“I went back and forth on whether or not I could stay and fight for change, however, I do not feel that is possible,” she wrote, later adding, “I can no longer justify being a member of Greek [life], which is historically and still glaringly racist and discriminatory.”
In an interview with CT, the writer described Greek life as a barrier to integration during the late 19th century, when students of color began attending primarily white universities.
“[White people] still wanted to remain separate,” she said, “so sororities and fraternities became a lot more popular that way, just to have their own kind of secret society that people of color really were not allowed to join at all.”
The writer theorized that appearance-based recruitment practices like Alpha Phi’s may have had an impact on the admittance of applicants of color, as “the beauty standard in the U.S. is definitely a whitewashed one.”
In the letter, she praises seniors Alana Ferris and Molly Behan — respectively the President and the Director of Formal Recruitment for Alpha Phi — for their attempts to change these recruitment practices, and says Alpha Phi Nationals stifled their efforts.
Appearance-based recruitment practices came to light at the University of Michigan in 2018, when a blog post was published by a former member of that chapter of Alpha Phi. Nationals didn’t change their practices in response, the letter writer said, contributing to her decision to disaffiliate.
“I’m sure that was a document that Nationals was aware of, and I think the lack of response is extremely concerning,” she said.
CT reached out to Ferris, but all interviews and statements by Alpha Phi members have to be approved by Alpha Phi Nationals, which Ferris’ was not.
Despite what she described in the letter as “incredible action” by Ferris and Behan, the writer has come to believe that Greek life cannot be changed.
Senior Elana Leonis, a former recruitment chair for Phi Sigma Sigma at UR who is now disaffiliating, agrees.
“Even if Greek life at [UR] got a total revamp, we would have to go through Nationals, and Nationals does not care,” Leonis said.
According to Leonis, UR’s chapter of Phi Sigma doesn’t use appearance-based recruitment practices. But when the chapter was visited by a representative from Nationals at the start of the school year, she told Leonis to make “bump groups” — groups of around five sisters who speak to the applicants rated as prettiest.
“And then [the rep said] I should go through the list of […] all girls going through recruitment, and look at their pictures,” Leonis said. “And if I think I want to give them a chance, I should send them to the more attractive groups.”
Leonis said she ignored the advice, and UR’s chapter continued not to recruit based on appearance.
After that conversation, Leonis said she realized that when she was rushing, she was consistently matched with girls who looked like her. She still believed she could change recruitment from the inside.
But after recent discussions with other members of Phi Sigma, she no longer thinks Greek life can be fixed.
“It was founded on being a white-only club,” she said. “Sororities were founded to service fraternities. And no matter how much I can say, ‘Oh, I don’t care what the frats think of me,’ we are 100 percent in existence to be in their gaze.”
Leonis said that the few women of color who join Greek life are tokenized and treated differently by white members because of their race, and some disaffiliate because they feel unwelcome.
“You absolutely get taught that your campus world is going to become smaller and better and you’ll make more connections,” she said. “And it’s somewhat true, but the smaller campus you’re entering is whiter.”
Transgender women are also victims of biased recruitment practices, according to Leonis. She said that she’d seen transgender women be dropped by every sorority during the recruitment process. And she says that rushing, which involves moving quickly between sorority parties and engaging in fast-paced conversations with strangers, is difficult or completely inaccessible for people with a variety of physical or mental disabilities.
“There’s a lot of things that I think I personally justified that just aren’t okay,” she said. “You do get taught this elitism when you join Greek life.”
Responses to letter
In a statement to CT, Assistant Director of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs Casey Dowling said that UR administration was unaware of these practices.
A July 14 post on Alpha Phi’s Instagram listed measures the chapter would be taking to address concerns raised in light of the letter. These measures include no longer recruiting based on appearance, working with the Paul J. Burgett Intercultural Center to “redesign” their recruitment practices, contacting other chapters about their experiences with these practices, and meeting with Alpha Phi Nationals, who they say “has committed to developing a task force of collegiate members whose purpose is to create changes to recruitment at the international level.”
A petition signed by current and former Alpha Phi members calls for the sorority to completely renounce appearance-based recruitment and to implement anti-racist measures like systems of accountability for sisters who commit biased actions and mandatory diversity training. The practices were previously known only to the recruitment team.
The petition to Alpha Phi — written by chapter graduates Alessandra DiMauro, Shalini Shah, and Danae Alexandrou, ‘20 — was later replaced with a new version on July 14, created by the same writers with the help of other Alpha Phi members and alumni, that now includes a similar set of demands directed at Alpha Phi Nationals. The new petition also called for systems of accountability for the national representative dealing with recruitment as well as for the chapter advisor. The July 14 statement by Alpha Phi Theta Kappa advised members to sign this petition.
In her interview with CT, the writer of the original letter expressed hope for the petition, saying, “I definitely think that the petition has the power to make more of a national change, and not just a local change.”
But she remains convinced that Greek life can’t be reformed. She wrote in the letter that “in the current fight for ending racism in the United States I no longer believe being actively non-racist and being a member of Greek [life] can coincide.”
Leonis was similarly disillusioned with the idea of reforming Greek life, saying that even if UR presents a strong series of changes to Nationals, she doesn’t believe they’ll care.
“We’re not paying them enough money for them to be interested in what we have to say,” she said.
Editor’s Note (07/20/2020): Retaliation is defined by the University as “any adverse action taken by a member of the University community against a person because of the person’s participation in a complaint or investigation of harassment or discrimination that is intended to, or could reasonably be expected to, dissuade a reasonable person from making a claim or participating in an investigation in the future.” Any member of the University who engages in retaliatory behavior against individuals involved in this article — or anyone else — will typically be suspended from the University for at least one year. Those in need of support can refer to the Title IX website.
Editor’s Note (07/20/2020): The Editor-in-Chief is a recently disaffiliated member of greek life, and did not participate in editing this article due to that conflict of interest.