Of all student organizations, fraternities and sororities may stand to lose the most due to COVID-related conduct policies.
Events that were once everyday parts of the Greek experience — drinking at crowded bars, taking pictures with dozens of unmasked sisters or hosting massive house parties — are now conduct violations worthy of suspension.
The day after classes began, Chancellor Donde Plowman released a statement warning student organizations against hosting social events that could endanger the campus community.
But less than a week later, on Aug. 26, the Office of the Chancellor released another statement announcing that six student organizations had been suspended due to violations to COVID-19 safety policies.
The announcement left out the fact that all six organizations were Greek: fraternities Alpha Tau Omega, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Delta Tau Delta, Pi Kappa Alpha and Kappa Alpha and sorority Chi Omega.
Though the office of Student Conduct and Community Standards is unable to comment on ongoing investigations and many students in suspended fraternities and sororities are not permitted to speak out on the issue, some students involved in other chapters report that Greek organizations are taking COVID guidelines seriously for the most part.
Charlie Evans, junior and member of Sigma Nu fraternity, says that his chapter and many others have made changes to adapt to life with COVID.
“I’ve been to the house a few times and guys do wear masks like they’re supposed to … obviously that isn’t the case for the few fraternities that are under investigation,” Evans said.
“There are a bunch of signs in the house about wearing a mask, and there’s a max capacity for the house that’s being enforced, and our chapter’s meetings are on Zoom.”
Acknowledging that fraternities are likely taking fewer precautions than sororities, Evans still thinks that the majority of Greek organizations are respecting the new guidelines.
He also hopes that the recent suspensions will be a warning to other fraternities and sororities to take the new regulations seriously.
“I think it is pretty fair to be trying to limit fraternities in this way … just because as a whole, that’s a big student organization that UT can limit and regulate,” Evans said. “I imagine if there were no limits or restrictions on Greek life, the cases would be a lot higher in Knoxville.”
According to Associate Dean of Students Lamar Bryant, who oversees the Office of Sorority and Fraternity Life, the guidelines for Greek organizations are the same as for any other student organization.
When asked if he believes Greek organizations pose a unique threat to the safety of UT’s campus, Bryant emphasized that all student organizations have potential to spread the virus.
“Student organizations in general inherently have various forms of risk, which is why we do our best to educate students on how they need to manage their organizations, and things that they can do to mitigate some of the risk, especially in light of a pandemic,” Bryant said.
The guidelines given to student organizations are based on information from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention and on UT’s policies, both of which are subject to constant change.
In a “Virtual Engagement Guide” released by the Center for Student Engagement, which is also overseen by Bryant’s office, the center delineates new requirements for student organizations, which include a 50-person limit on in-person events and mask wearing.
Several of the new requirements ask fraternities and sororities to maintain a new level of control over their in-person gatherings.
“In order to keep record of student contact, we are requiring student organizations to take an account of who is attending their events,” one policy on the guide reads.
Policies such as these indicate that the bar for student conduct violations from organizations has seldom been lower than it is now, when fraternities and sororities are expected to keep track of who walks through their front door, an idea that may have been unthinkable to many Greek organizations only a year ago.
One area of Greek life that was deeply affected by COVID regulations was recruitment, wherein fraternities and sororities choose new students to join them, often through large-scale social events. Though much of the process happened online, it was at the end of this recruitment process that six Greek organizations were suspended.
Bryant says that the Interfraternity Council (IFC) generally has less structure and guidance than Panhellenic, and that while certain rounds of fraternity recruitment were virtual, there were lapses in caution throughout the process.
“I do think that efforts were made, but I also know that we weren’t perfect, you know, the groups weren’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination,” Bryant said. “When you’re looking at new perspectives and new ways of doing things, there’s gonna be hiccups along the way.”
Efforts on the part of the Office of the Dean of Students to rein in dangerous social gatherings include monthly meetings with administration, advisors and student leaders on how best to assist student organizations in engaging students through this time and everyday on-the-ground oversight by the OSFL.
Bryant says that any reports of student conduct violations will be taken seriously, especially those that pertain to COVID-19 safety.
“Anything that could be perceived as putting our community at risk … we take that very seriously,” Bryant said. “And that’s why we have been looking, or Conduct has been looking at things brought to their attention.”
Bryant struck an optimistic tone when he discussed the opportunity of this moment for Greek organizations to reevaluate their very purpose for existing. Perhaps the party culture that has come to define fraternity and sorority life will no longer be the life blood of Greek organizations in a COVID-19 world.
“What we’re trying to do is help our student organizations understand this is a great opportunity to lean into the ‘why’ of fraternity and sorority life,” he said.
“When we think about why these organizations were created, they were created to provide space for young men and young women to find community in very productive ways that were centered around brotherhood, sisterhood, service, academic excellence.”
“Some of the social pieces that we typically have become accustomed to as related to fraternity and sorority life definitely will look different because of COVID, but it doesn’t change the other pieces that are really important to this experience," Bryant said.
It is tempting to believe that a world in which crowded house parties are no longer socially acceptable is not a world for fraternities and sororities.
But, according to Bryant and other leaders of student engagement, a raucous party life is not the true core of what a Greek chapter is.
“When done right, fraternity and sorority life is a really great leadership development opportunity for students on campus,” Bryant said. “We have a place on campus to help all students feel like this is a place for them.”