College

After rape accusations, fraternities face protests and growing anger

At big universities with powerful fraternity cultures — like UMass, Northwestern, Nebraska, and Iowa — many students are demanding an end to Greek life.

UMass students participate in a sit-in protest over allegations of a sexual assault at the Theta Chi fraternity, inside the Whitmore Administration building on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021. Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe


At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, hundreds of students protested outside a fraternity house in August after a student reported a sexual assault by one of its members to the police.

At Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois, demonstrations erupted Sunday after several students said they had been drugged at two fraternities. Northwestern suspended recruitment and social events at on-campus fraternity houses.

At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, rumors about a sexual assault prompted hundreds of students to show up outside the Theta Chi fraternity house, chanting an expletive, middle fingers raised. Some protesters overturned a car, and two students were arrested.

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These protests were just part of a series of similar demonstrations against fraternities that have occurred this fall — not at small liberal arts colleges, but at big universities with powerful fraternity cultures, like Syracuse University in New York and the public universities of Kansas, Iowa and Mississippi.

Some protests are responding to recent formal reports of sexual assault. A few are driven by anonymous reports on social media, which fraternities say lack credibility, and which universities say they must take seriously, given the reluctance of some victims to report an assault.

But many protesters are not fighting what they see as a single case of rape or violence. Nor are many interested in disciplinary measures, doled out case by case.

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Sexual assault was widely discussed on platforms like TikTok over the past year of the pandemic, said Shivali Mashar, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. – Yehyun Kim / The New York Times

Rather, many students, feeling newly empowered after the #MeToo movement and the Black Lives Matter protests, say they want an overhaul of campus life.

“A lot of students on campus want to see the fraternity completely abolished,” said Rebecca Evans, a sophomore at the University of Iowa who helps run U for Us, which supports sexual assault victims at the university.

Fraternity officials say they understand the depth of the students’ anger about sexual assault, but that protesters are not seeing the whole picture.

“We have our challenges no doubt, just like the governors of states, just like people who are in media, just like pro athletes, just like entertainment,” said Judson Horras, president and CEO of the North American Interfraternity Conference, the largest trade association of fraternities. He added, “We are being labeled for a problem that is frankly much larger than a fraternity issue.”

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Fraternity officials say that while police and university investigations are continuing, their chapters have acted swiftly and decisively. The accused student at the University of Nebraska dropped out of school and is no longer a member of the chapter, according to the Interfraternity Conference.

“So many fraternity men are appalled by this behavior,” Horras said, adding that fraternity brothers who expelled members should be supported and encouraged, not targeted by protests.

“They did the right thing,” Horras said. “The protests should be directed at the behavior.”

Horras said the Interfraternity Conference had taken specific steps to stop sexual misconduct. It requires fraternity members to receive sexual misconduct education, and since the fall of 2019, it has banned the consumption of hard alcohol at fraternity parties and houses.

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Fraternity members are told, he said, “You report the incident immediately because we want to have a culture of openness and accountability of individuals.”

But fraternities have impassioned opponents. The protests are in a similar vein to “Abolish Greek Life” movements that have sprung up over the past year at universities like Emory, American and North Carolina. And the entering class of college students seems more intense and unyielding than that of the students who entered just before them, students say.

Sohaila Ammar and Katie Robertson, both first-year students at UMass, used Instagram to build support for demonstrations on their campus after a friend passed on the accusation that a woman had been drugged and sexually assaulted. They think the pent-up energy of the coronavirus pandemic has been transferred to the protests.

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“People are conditioned to be, ‘Oh, that’s how it is, that’s college culture,’” Robertson said. “My generation is a lot less tolerant of things that have happened in the past.”

“I feel like we’re a lot more radical even than the juniors and seniors, a lot more bold and forward,” Ammar said.

Nicola Wood, Sohaila Ammar and Katie Robertson, left to right, used Instagram to tell students about protests at UMass. – Yehyun Kim / The New York Times

Sexual assault was widely discussed on platforms like TikTok over the past year of the pandemic, said Shivali Mashar, 21, a senior at UMass. And, she said, the suspicion of historically white, male-dominated institutions — like the police — has been mobilized against largely white, male-dominated fraternities.

“Whether it be girls who have experienced sexual assault at a fraternity party or Black Americans with the police, both of these groups have been violently targeted in different ways,” she said. They are not the same, she said, just that, “for a long time, this has been swept under the rug.”

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Fraternities point out that they are part of a vibrant campus life — by giving students a sense of belonging on a big campus, by raising donations and helping students in their careers.

“I believed in the stereotype that this wasn’t for me, that those guys are basically jackasses,” said Tyler Adolfo, a junior at UMass and member of Kappa Sigma, which has not been singled out by protesters. But once he joined, he said, he found that “everyone just wants the best for each other.”

His fraternity began a campaign to increase awareness about sexual assault, and he himself put in dozens of hours of research “because I wanted to get it right,” he said.

While sexual assault on campuses is said to be underreported, research on fraternities and sexual violence is thin. Some data shows that more than a quarter of female undergraduate students — and almost 7% of their male counterparts — will “experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation,” according to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, an advocacy group.

But some research also suggests that violence is more closely tied to alcohol abuse and peer support than to anything intrinsic to belonging to a fraternity.

Recent protests have coincided with the return of the anonymous messaging app Yik Yak in mid-August after it was discontinued four years ago. While the app is popular on college campuses because it is location-based, the anonymity it thrives on does not make it easy for protesters, administrators or police to substantiate any accusation.

But the protests at UMass show how little trust — and how much anger — some students have in the authorities to handle a rape accusation.

Leonard Bonn, a first-year student, said that he and his friends found out about the accusation when it was posted the next morning on Yik Yak. He recalls a message along the lines of either “‘I was assaulted at Theta Chi’ or ‘Someone was assaulted at Theta Chi.’” He is not sure.

By noon that day, hundreds of protesters began gathering outside the fraternity. Calls to police reported that the protesters were “storming the house,” throwing bottles and tearing down an American flag. “Protest turned violent,” the police report says.

As darkness fell, protesters battered a fence and broke a window, callers to police reported. Video on social media shows a group overturning a car.

The assault rumor may have been started by an ambulance run to the fraternity house around midnight that Saturday. Edward Blaguszewski, a university spokesman, said an ambulance picked up a student outside of the fraternity house and took the student to a hospital. From information gathered so far, he said, “This is not a sexual matter, but potentially alcohol-related.” The university is asking for any witnesses to an assault to come forward.

The fraternity’s international headquarters said it was not aware of any formal complaint corroborating the anonymous claims of sexual assault. In a letter to the university on Sept. 24, it said the fraternity men “are being tried in the public square by a violent mob.” The letter demanded the expulsion of any student found to have committed violence or property damage against Theta Chi.

The responses of the administration and the fraternity may not quell the protests. Women who attended the demonstrations said that even if the latest allegations could not be confirmed, they had been through enough.

One of them was Mashar. She joined the protest outside Theta Chi at noon Sunday and was impressed at how many male students were there.

Mashar said the talk of rape victims resonated with her because she had been “roofied” — had a drug slipped in her drink — while attending a party at another fraternity her freshman year, though she had not been assaulted.

“Not every girl is that lucky,” she said. But her experience — which she said she reported to the university — has heightened her sense of risk.

She did not attend the later, more violent protest. But she confessed to mixed feelings on seeing the video.

“I don’t think it’s correct for them to flip a car, absolutely not,” she said. “But I can’t say that I’m mad that it happened.”

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