UO Greek Life Strives for Change
The student-run Sexual Violence Prevention Leadership Board aims to shift the culture of the university’s fraternities and sororities.
It’s a brisk, bright day on the University of Oregon campus. Most students are having lunch or enjoying the fresh spring air, but a group of fraternity and sorority members sits inside, about to discuss how sexual violence affects their day-to-day lives.
Nearly 40 undergraduates fill the room, shifting about and dragging chairs around as they attempt to form discussion groups. Eventually, two large circles form on opposite sides of the room.
The men take their seats around the edge of one circle, the women around the other. They begin to talk, but the room remains still. Occasionally, laughter or snaps of approval will ripple across the classroom, but it’s not a loud or raucous affair. These are deliberate discussions, not the off-the-cuff wanderings one might expect from a group of 20-somethings.
The conversations border on the intimate, both in content and demeanor. The students are debriefing on presentations they attended the week prior. The women talk about self-defense and how to set boundaries; one student brings up the importance of walking with confidence, another talks about the right to say “No,” and how “No” never requires an explanation. The men, meanwhile, have a kind of heart-to-heart, ruminating on the influences of toxic masculinity and how to have serious discussions about it and related topics with their brothers.
These conversations are part of the efforts made by members of the UO Sexual Violence Prevention Leadership Board (SVPLB), a group endeavoring to create a meaningful culture shift within Greek life on campus.
College Greek life has often been associated with sexual violence: Multiple studies have found that men in fraternities are far more likely to commit sexual assault than those who are not, and some researchers have posited that fraternities foster an environment of toxic masculinity. While there are sexual violence awareness programs on campuses across the country, the SVPLB is unique in its members’ deep commitment to establishing change.
“I think there’s no denying that fraternity and sorority life perpetrates a culture of drinking, of partying and of rape. That’s why the SVP board was created,” Daniella Lituanio, UO’s director of the Panhellenic Council, said. “It was created because we looked at this problem and we’re not trying to hide behind it, and if [Greek organizations] still want to exist in the modern day, of this Me Too movement day, then we need to be ready to be held accountable for what we’re doing.”
It wasn’t always this way, though. The board started as the Fraternity and Sorority Life Task Force for Sexual Violence Prevention, created in 2014 in response to issues happening on UO’s campus and other campuses nationwide.
The task force was purely reactionary and was designed to last only for one year. As Kerry Frazee, the board’s institutional liaison and the director of prevention services at UO, explained, it was the students’ investment in the process that transformed the task force into the board.
“They wanted to leave an impact and make sure the community was doing something; not just saying they were involved in violence prevention, but really being proactive to be part of the solution,” Frazee said.
That student-driven proactiveness can be seen in both the board’s membership and in the various initiatives it has put on. Frazee may be the board’s institutional liaison and advisor, but she takes a decidedly hands-off role.
“The student directors for each term are really guiding the content that we’re learning about and how we’re integrating it into the community,” Frazee said. “These are folks who are really interested and really dedicated to making sure that this board is sustainable.”
The board’s entire membership, save for Frazee, is comprised of students. There are delegates, representatives from each on-campus chapter who attend the meetings and report back the discussions to their houses. There are also the student-held positions on the board’s executive council, populated by the university’s directors of the Panhellenic and Interfraternity Councils (PHC and IFC) and the directors of communication and administration.
In its current form, the board is a multifaceted organization whose efforts include facilitating the above discussions, holding weekly meetings with the delegates and planning informative events for both non-delegate brothers and sisters and broader campus audiences. Discussions have covered a wide range of topics, including consent, bystander intervention and alcohol abuse as well as broader umbrellas, such as how to be a good friend and crisis intervention.
In February, the SVPLB held a tabling event for Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month with activities to get students talking about what a healthy relationship looks like.
This included filling in the blank on pins reading, “Love is…,” as well as filling in notecards labeled “recipe for a healthy relationship.” Many of the on-campus events for Sexual Assault Awareness Month, which happens every April, are also partly organized by the board and its delegates.
Sexy Sundaes, an event which teaches consent by having students assemble ice cream sundaes, and various “3,250” displays originated from the board. According to the UO Office of Prevention Services, 3,250 is the estimated number of students that will be assaulted during their time at the UO.
“We want to change the statistic, because that’s a huge statistic. One in 16 men and one in five women, that’s too many,” Lituanio said. “Look at the national news, Greek life isn’t doing well. But, because we’re not doing so well, what are we doing to change it?”
Although delegates are required to report back to their houses, the board lacks a way to track whether this is actually happening. Thus, it is trying to implement an accountability measure to ensure all chapters receive presentations. The plan includes involving chapter presidents via the SVPLB Facebook page, making them aware of what needs to be presented on and guiding the delegates on how they should present.
This accountability measure is the latest way board members are trying to, as Frazee said, “live out” the conversations they have at the meetings. Originally, the board noticed a lack of fraternity presence in the meetings. To combat this, the PHC delegates issued a community agreement that if a fraternity misses two meetings or more, the sororities would no longer hold functions with that house.
The SVPLB holds ongoing discussions about ways to make sorority members feel safer and how fraternities can help. They’ve implemented a new initiative where fraternity sober monitors at functions wear Hawaiian shirts, jerseys or vests so sorority women can clearly identify who they can talk to if they feel threatened or uncomfortable.
Moreover, while the bylaws only mandate that one delegate from each fraternity or sorority come to the weekly board meetings, multiple members often attend. Just as important as the attendance surplus is the commitment the delegates have. Each official delegate is chosen by their house, and Frazee said board executives have had conversations with various organizations if they felt that that house’s delegate was performing at a subpar level.
“They didn’t want it to just be a warm body in a seat, they wanted true culture shift. They wanted someone that’s invested, who’s going to share back,” Frazee said. “That’s completely the students wanting to say, ‘we want the people here to be reflecting the values [of the board].’”
One factor Frazee attributes to the success of the board is the creation of a safe space for members of the Greek community to talk about these issues. According to Frazee, sexual violence is “one of those issues where you need to know the right language,” and because of that, people often can be pushed out of discussions if they are unfamiliar with the topic or don’t say ‘the right thing.’
“When I started, there was a stereotype of who was allowed to talk about violence prevention,” Frazee said. “Being in the Greek community almost assumed that you weren’t one of those people who cared enough to talk about it.”
In meetings, members are encouraged to learn and ask questions. Frazee said she has seen the dedication of the men in the board increase over the years. According to Frazee, these men have worked to bring conversations from the SVPLB into their own chapters to help facilitate community change.
Working with the board as its institutional liaison, Frazee helps to provide both structure and memory to the group. Her association with the group started when the board was still known as the task force, when she offered her services to assist the students in making that transition.
Much of the board’s first year focused on educating members and giving them the groundwork they needed to have meaningful discussions. As a facilitator and researcher, Frazee is able to bring in both the pertinent data as well as help translate it to the board.
Another effect of Frazee’s position as liaison is that she functions as a kind of institutional memory for the SVPLB. Even the best and most committed delegates or executives will only be on the board for four years, mirroring their time as an undergraduate student.
Frazee states that while other campuses may have similar programs, without a staff advisor, those groups may have a difficult time passing down information and processes. With Frazee as an advisor, the board has someone who can remember not only technical details, like how the meetings are run, but also larger ideas, like the values and ethos of the board, ideas and knowledge which Frazee can then report to new members as they come in, giving the organization a sense of continuity.
“To have someone like me, or an administrator, is helpful. It creates sustainability,” Frazee said. “While some chapters on other campuses may create something, they need to tie it back into someone that will be there beyond them.”
Joey Alongi is a former board member who endeavored to initiate such a project, one that would extend its reach outside of the handful of Greek life members who are board delegates or are on its executive council. During his time as a board delegate, Alongi, a member of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity, proposed an initiative which he calls “The Transparency Policy.”
The idea of Alongi’s proposal is that fraternity and sorority presidents, as well as risk and health & safety chairmen, would have the right to release names of a student dropped from the recruitment or rushing process for sexual misconduct. The policy would allow chapters to be fully aware of a rusher’s previous actions or behavior and thus allow them to make an educated decision on whether or not to welcome that particular rusher into the chapter.
Ultimately, Alongi couldn’t find a simple path to implement his policy, in large part because he was told it conflicted with FERPA, a federal student privacy law.
“The process he was suggesting was both a violation of FERPA for the university to publicly share that record and a violation of our Title IX investigative processes by having student organizations find students responsible without going through a formal investigation,” Frazee said.
Alongi feels that the policy got buried in the legal technicalities and that people lost sight of the original purpose of the proposal.
“Always consider that these are people,” Alongi said, “and these are people getting hurt.”
Back in the classroom, the circles give way to the larger group, as the sorority women and fraternity men gather together as a whole.
When asked if they thought the prior week’s workshops were beneficial, 40 hands shot up.
The rest of the meeting is standard fare: recapping old business, looking ahead to future events and a guest presentation from Protection Connection, a new on-campus initiative that delivers safe sex supplies for free.
When the guest presenters finish, the delegates focus their attention on Lituanio as she explains that the houses might start a pilot program in collaboration with the new organization. The board members listen intently, preparing to bring back these conversations to their houses to continue the discussion.
The delegates treat everything as a learning experience, and that’s something that Lituanio thinks has made a difference.
“I know that as a woman, I can be one in five, that so many of my peers are one in five, and that nothing is preventing me from becoming one in five,” Lituanio said. “Except for my education, the information that I’m getting and trying to give out through the board.”