Emory’s War on Greek Life

Starting around 2013, Emory’s administration embarked on an initiative to reform the Greek system.

In a Jan. 31 interview, Dean of Student Life Ajay Nair stated his goal was to “create a sustainable future” for Greek life. Nair arrived at Emory in 2012, the same time Emory began this initiative. As a member of Beta Theta Pi (Beta), I witnessed this firsthand.

In pursuit of this goal, administrators abandoned their vow “to uphold the dignity and rights of all persons through fair treatment, honest dealing, and respect” because persecuting Greek life was a higher priority than maintaining their ethical guidelines.

This is most evident in the way Emory investigated fraternities, using aggressive tactics that did not necessarily yield truth. Nobody was held accountable for violating student’s rights.  

Members of fraternities’ executive boards who experienced the conduct process highlighted how slow and opaque it was, and raised concerns about the conduct of the Conduct Office.

Thomas Tassin, President of SAE during an investigation for hazing in 2015, said that Emory investigators threatened to expel new members in an effort to get them to cooperate with the investigation.

Emory is not technically forbidden from threatening students like they did, but the Code of Conduct forbids students from “threatening, intimidating, or coercing any person,” meaning Emory engaged in behavior it forbids students from engaging in.

Head of Conduct Judith Pannell, did not respond to requests for interview. Nair declined to comment.

The formal hearing process fails to treat Greek organizations with fairness. In 2016, Beta was charged with drugging a female student at one of their parties. A long investigation ensued and a formal hearing was conducted, but mishandled.

“We were guilty until proven innocent,” said Julian Adler, president of Beta during the investigation. “After working with conduct and administration throughout a four month investigation, I do not believe their goal was for true justice. It felt like we were at the mercy of an agenda that didn’t want our chapter on campus.”

Beta was informed of the formal hearing one day before it occurred, despite the fact that the Code of Conduct requires notification a full week beforehand. A surprise witness, not on the official list of witnesses Beta reviewed as required by the rules, testified at the hearing.

Beta was never given access to the notes the Conduct Office prepared during the investigation of our case, despite the fact that the Code of Conduct gives accused parties “the opportunity to review all written information” when undergoing the formal hearing process. Without the notes, Beta could not find favorable witnesses or information to prepare a defense.

When presented with evidence of the violations, Head of Conduct, Julia Thompson attempted to blame Beta by claiming the fraternity  had waived the rights that the school had violated. The Code of Conduct clearly stipulates that waivers of rights must be made in writing, and  Thompson was unable to produce a written waiver when Beta requested to see it.

Emory eventually conceded that they had violated their own rules. Assistant Vice President of Community Suzanne Onorato wrote in a May 5 email to Beta parents and advisors that “we acknowledge that there were in fact flaws in the process” with Director of Greek Life Marlon Gibson and Nair CC’d.

Emory held nobody accountable. Julia Thompson, responsible for ensuring the conduct process is done correctly, remains Head of Conduct. Thompson and Nair declined to comment.

Administrators claim including students and alumni in Greek life reform is critical, but a closer look reveals that Emory only makes it appear as if Greek students and alumni agree with proposed changes.

The Greek Life Task Force (GLTF), convened by the secret society Ducemus as an effort to determine potential reforms, met and released an initial set of recommendations in January 2016.

Emory solicited feedback on the set of recommendations, which Ducemus compiled into a report.

Ducemus concluded that Emory was using the GLTF as a rubber stamp to get results they desired, writing in their report to the school, “Ducemus and [GLTF student committees] have become a veil for administration visions.” Consequently, they requested their name be removed from the process.

“I believe Emory is smothering Greek life,” one student wrote in their response to the recommendations, according to the Ducemus report. “We are at a very crucial tipping point and feedback like this form is great for perception, but more importantly feedback must be more than voiced – it needs to be incorporated.”

The report also revealed the intense alienation from the larger Emory community many members of Greek life feel.  

There is an “extraordinary level of discontentment. Change since 2013 has not included any student feedback, it is all surfacing now,” Ducemus wrote. Marlon Gibson refused to comment on the GLTF in our meeting.

After these revelations, it is clear that changes need to be made to the administration’s conduct. Emory has betrayed the trust of its students by failing to follow its ethical guidelines, and must take drastic and immediate steps to earn that trust back. If nobody is held accountable, Emory proves to its students that their guiding principles of ethics are not worth the paper they are printed on.  

Duncan Cock Foster is a College senior from Seattle, Washington.