Saturday, Oct. 2, members of the College of William and Mary’s chapter of the Kappa Sigma fraternity allegedly used racial slurs, including the N-word, during a mixer with Chi Omega. Later in the night, a member was overheard making derogatory comments using homophobic and antisemitic language toward members of another fraternity.
The response from the College’s sorority and fraternity chapters, as well as the Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Council, has varied. Following allegations of systemic racism in white Fraternity and Sorority Life amidst the protests and movements during the summer of 2020, many chapters have recently implemented diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives. Still, these accountability mechanisms have yet to be put to the test.
Abby Kitila ’24, a member of Chi Omega, said she heard the comments firsthand.
“It was a song that came on, and it was very difficult to make out faces — it was more auditory,” Kitila said. “You can hear it being said over the music.”
She said that there was no immediate reaction from the attendees, but that the mixer was spaced out, causing many people to be unaware of the situation. She and a few other Chi Omega members came to the decision to leave shortly thereafter.
“I didn’t say anything until the morning after,” Kitila said. “It came up to me that I should probably say something.”
Sunday morning, Kitila told another member of Chi Omega what she heard, who then informed the chapter’s DEI chairs. The chairs met about Kitila’s report on Sunday evening, deciding to suspend homecoming activities, as well as social events, with Kappa Sigma for the immediate future. Kitila believes that Panhellenic and the Chi Omega president, Katie Cullen ’22, responded appropriately.
Oct. 6, Kappa Sigma left a typed letter on the porch of each sorority and fraternity house, apologizing for the incident.
“We are sorry for the harm that this has caused and are committed to short and long term organizational goals to prevent this sort of behavior and foster the inclusive culture we all strive for,” the letter said.
But Kitila said the letter was severely inadequate.
“On the Kap Sig side, seeing that letter was very disappointing to say the least,” Kitila said. “I think it might have been five sentences. What they plan to do in the future to minimize these problems was not said. I think it could’ve been more genuine, in a sense.”
Kitila also noted that an apology was not made beyond white Fraternity and Sorority Life and urged Kappa Sigma to apologize to members of the community that were directly affected by these comments, particularly people of color. Halting social events is one thing, but real systemic change requires more time and dedication, Kitila said.
“If I weren’t to say anything, would anything have been said?” Kitila said. “What if there are still things not being said?”
President of Kappa Sigma Max Moore ’23 said in a statement to The Flat Hat that one of the individuals involved was expelled from the chapter. He did not indicate whether the multiple members heard saying racial slurs during the mixer had been identified or disciplined.
“The Nu Chapter of Kappa Sigma Fraternity does not condone and will not tolerate any type of discriminatory language or behavior,” Moore wrote. “Upon hearing of the events that transpired on 10/02/21, our chapter acted swiftly to terminate the membership of the individual in question. We have since implemented a series of internal DEI initiatives, and are in the process of implementing a campus-wide advocacy program, inviting all student organizations to proactively administer a no tolerance policy regarding hate speech and discriminatory behavior.”
President of the Panhellenic Council Carter Hall ’23 said the council is not involved in fraternity or conduct cases, but pointed to a recent email in which she discussed resources available to members. Due to rules regarding the sovereignty of each chapter to make decisions, neither the College nor Panhellenic Council can forbid social events with Kappa Sigma.
“Panhellenic’s guidance continues to stress the importance of mixing with other organizations who continuously demonstrate and uphold the same values of your own,” Hall wrote in an email.
The “chapter sovereignty” rule derives from the Panhellenic Council’s bylaws, which state it may conduct business related to the overall welfare of the Panhellenic Association that does not violate the sovereignty, rights and privileges of member organizations. While the council seeks to uphold “high social and collegiate standards,” individual chapters make decisions on who may be a member and with whom those members will socialize. Similar language does not appear in the IFC constitution or bylaws.
College spokeswoman Erin Zagursky pointed to the College’s own reporting mechanisms, including an online form, that are independent of the Interfraternity and Panhellenic Councils.
“As noted in our policies — including our student code of conduct — William & Mary does not condone discrimination, harassment or hazing,” Zagursky wrote in an email. “This standard of respect holds true across our community. At W&M, a core value is creating a welcoming and caring community. People with diverse backgrounds and perspectives should feel a sense of belonging and treat one another with mutual respect.”
Caroline Donnelly ’22, a member of Pi Beta Phi who has helped spearhead the Panhellenic Council’s recent Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives, said accountability for incidents like this one has been a long time coming.
“The fraternities have been really reactive instead of proactive, and that needs to change,” Donnelly said. “That speaks volumes about how DEI is being prioritized and people’s commitment level to it — that the only time it’s being addressed is when something blows up in your face.”
Donnelly and Helen Tariku ’21 co-founded the College’s Panhellenic Committee for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in June 2020. Since then, the committee has worked to ensure access in recruitment, implement training on microaggressions and inclusive language and set up accountability mechanisms for Fraternity and Sorority Life, including a complaint form.
While the work of the DEI committee continues, Donnelly’s position has yet to be formalized, though she has proposed an amendment to the Panhellenic Council’s bylaws. The IFC recently added the similar position of vice president of diversity and inclusion, which is currently filled by Joshua Ramdass ’23 of Delta Chi.
Following the incident with Kappa Sigma, Donnelly set up a document summarizing the incident and Kappa Sigma’s response. Donnelly commended the efforts of Ramdass and emphasized outside accountability, in this case, is appropriate, but said that individual fraternity chapters are lagging behind in committing to DEI work. Ramdass was unavailable for comment upon request.
“The bigger issue that emerged was that this was such a gendered effort to reform Greek life,” Donnelly said. “People identifying as women who were in Greek life at William and Mary were bending over backwards to create these new positions, come up with these new educational opportunities, brainstorm accountability measures, truly trying to think critically about what we could do to change things, and that was just not reflected in the fraternities at all really.”
Tariku spoke to the presidents of every fraternity, and former Assistant Director for Student Leadership Development Joe Wheeless, on Oct. 20, 2020. The Panhellenic DEI committee created a presentation, which included information on setting up DEI initiatives within chapters, avoiding tokenism and performative allyship and implementing accountability, including reporting forms.
Donnelly and Tariku included specific demands — creating a DEI representative for each chapter, drafting action plans and setting up a meeting with the Panhellenic DEI committee. For the large part, Donnelly said the fraternity chapters did not follow up on issues discussed at this meeting.
“No one from IFC contacted the Panhellenic Committee immediately following this meeting except Joshua Ramadass (who’s in D-Chi and is VP of Inclusion for IFC) to talk about our impressions on how the presentation went,” Donnelly wrote in an email. “This isn’t to say chapters in IFC haven’t been making efforts on measures relating to DEI since then, but updates on the kind of work individual IFC chapters have been doing hasn’t been streamlined or put down anywhere for other people to see.”
Interfraternity Council President Garrison Chura ’21 assured that the IFC is prioritizing the implementation of a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council. Though formed last semester, Chura indicated many of the processes are still under development. A DEI reporting form exists, though how complaints about specific organizations are dealt with is still to be determined. Complaints about individual members will immediately go to the College, Chura said.
“Because it’s new, we’re starting to lay out the mission of it as well as the engagement we’re getting and just gauging how to really optimize that,” Chura said.
In response to action taken by the Panhellenic council, Chura said that he believes he has never been formally asked to become involved in joint DEI initiatives by Panhellenic executive members.
“In terms of the councils I’ve been on, no one’s gotten asked,” Chura said. “We’ve collaborated with them because we initiated the conversation, and we noticed what they were doing and we wanted to get involved, but there has been no reaching out from Panhellenic as far as I know.”
As for this incident, the IFC is taking no direct action. Chura said the IFC believes that the next step for Kappa Sigma should be education, as well as a greater acknowledgment of the severity of this situation. He also urged students to utilize the DEI report form and DEI conduct form in order to hold members and organizations accountable.
“Kappa Sigma has stated to the IFC that they are handling things themselves for right now,” Chura said. “There has been no formal arrangement between Kappa Sigma and the Interfraternity Council. I do know from the words said by leadership in Kappa Sigma that those steps are being taken, but what exactly those steps will come out to, we will have to see.”
Donnelly urged this incident to be a case study in reform.
“There are accountability measures that exist and I want us to use them, and I want us to put them to the test,” Donnelly said, “The culture shift that is needed, that’s going to take so long. My goal is for them to make more of an active effort about talking to their members about how those things are tangibly reflected in their recruitment process.”
Disaffiliate for Change, an organization founded in January 2021 by nine former members of Chi Omega, has called for the abolition of white Fraternity and Sorority Life at the College. Representatives Lauren Casella ’21 and Yasmeen Attia ’22, who had been DEI Chair for Chi Omega before disaffiliation, said reform just isn’t possible.
“Numerous people have tried to reform this, numerous people have worked really hard — I did absolutely everything I could to change it and it’s like talking to a brick wall,” Attia said. “There are so many hierarchies, there are so many steps to take in order to implement any change. Any organization that is founded on white supremacy can’t be really reformed, and white Greek life is an organization that you do by choice — white Greek life isn’t something you need in order to survive.”
Disaffiliate for Change’s Instagram page has posted numerous arguments for the abolition of Fraternity and Sorority Life, highlighting structural racism, hazing, classism, homophobia, ableism and eurocentrism, among others. Casella said the recruitment and rush process subjects potential new members to all these forms of discrimination. It can also be difficult to assess whether a candidate believes in the ideals of diversity and inclusion that chapters tout.
“The whole entire recruitment process, it really makes it impossible to get to know someone and see their true colors,” Casella said. “On top of that, a lot of these organizations make it really impossible to kick these people out.”
Still, Donnelly argued fraternities and sororities can be powerful spaces for educating members on issues of diversity and inclusion, especially since many of those individuals may not receive similar training elsewhere. Sororities and fraternities hold social capital, for better or for worse, Donnelly said.
Donnelly said the work was fatiguing, mainly because the College does not employ a dedicated DEI advisor for Fraternity and Sorority Life. The existing advisors are not adequately trained, she said, and turnover is frequent. Wheeless, who had been involved in the DEI discussions led by the Panhellenic DEI council, left the College on Oct. 5 — just three days after the incident with Kappa Sigma — for a position as Director of Fraternity & Sorority Life at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“I’m so, so upset that the only reason that there has been any progress on the reform front is because of the work of unpaid, undergraduate students,” Donnelly said.
Donnelly said she reached out to Joe Wheeless and Assistant Director of Student Leadership Development Anne Strickland about this lack of support, which was also discussed in a subsequent Zoom meeting. Wheeless and Strickland would not allow Donnelly to record the meeting for transparency purposes upon request.
“William and Mary is so incredibly happy to profit off of our work in the sense that they get the reputation of the school that has Greek life that’s different from other schools, but they have done nothing to support us,” Donnelly said. “It has been entirely student-done until this point.”
Director of Student Leadership Development Anne Arseneau said that although this incident isn’t actionable within her position, she is still able to have conversations within the Greek community to help them navigate this issue.
“Without really knowing the context of what’s being navigated, I have a hard time predicting if that’s something that I think will end up coming to us,” Arseneau said. “Certainly anytime a student organization is navigating something that is generating interest, or concern, or complaint, part of our role in supporting student organizations is to provide a resource to both the members of the organization and to the leadership of student organizations who are navigating complex situations. So we would make ourselves available to that, but that is also in a less direct advising capacity.”
Ultimately, Donnelly underlined that educational work surrounding DEI in Fraternity and Sorority Life and action taken to hold members and chapters accountable is not a punishment, but rather a learning opportunity.
“The other thing that I want out of this is for all of the fraternities to be treating what happened in KapSig as though it had happened in their chapter and not wait for that moment to come around, but to anticipate it and be taking steps to prevent it in the first place,” Donnelly said.
CORRECTION: This article was updated 10/22 to clarify that Tariku gave the presentation to fraternities on Oct. 20, 2020. Tariku and Attia, who was involved in Panhellenic DEI at the time, created the presentation.