Before fall 2020 recruitment, Yara Manasrah almost committed to rushing. She was about to turn in her $250 deposit when she saw the testimonials.
As a rising freshman, Manasrah didn’t have any close connections with Greek life, especially at the University of Georgia. Her parents are Middle Eastern immigrants, so she didn’t have any familial ties to a sorority. Manasrah said she was interested in the “sisterhood” and philanthropy aspects of sororities.
“Theoretically, it was a way for girls to bond, and I thought that sounded great,” Manasrah said. “That’s a way for me to connect with other people and make lifelong connections and friendships.”
While Manasrah was aware of the systemic racism on college campuses, she said she did not realize “how deeply ingrained it was within Greek life” until she read the testimonials.
A total of 179 anonymous testimonials were published, beginning June 6, by the organization Pledge Against Racism (PAR). The testimonials detail experiences of racism within Panhellenic Council sororities and Interfraternity Council fraternities at UGA. PAR is led by former members of UGA Panhellenic sororities who collectively issued a petition to hold these organizations accountable.
The testimonials, recounted by current and former Greek life members at UGA, cover a wide range of experiences — from witnessing racial slurs shouted at parties to enduring microaggressions within the chapters.
“I was shocked. I was ashamed that I was even thinking about rushing,” Manasrah said.
A recurring theme in the testimonials is the process of rush. The words “recruitment” and “rush” are mentioned in about 70 testimonials.
While the testimonials and petition were not publicly addressed, UGA Greek Life organizations responded in July by creating a Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, as well as educational sessions presented to Panhellenic about recruitment.
However, this response came too late for some of this year’s potential recruits. Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) students, such as Manasrah and Janae Cote, chose to forgo fall 2020 recruitment, upset by the stories and the silence from these organizations.
“I remember just clicking on it and being really disappointed because it kind of confirmed my subconscious fears about it,” said Cote, who identifies as mixed race, about seeing the testimonials for the first time.
Recruitment, otherwise known as rush, marked one of the first actionable steps for both Panhellenic and IFC to commit to the diversity and inclusion initiatives announced over the summer. These councils, which include several chapters with roots from the segregation era, have historically relied on practices of legacy, recommendations and other means of connections to recruit new members.
“They’re missing out on some of the best pledge class candidates they could ever have,” Cote said. “And I honestly kind of feel sorry for them if they can’t see past it and can’t let themselves start to change. That’s on them.”
These practices contribute to the majority white demographic in Greek life organizations and fail to include and recruit more BIPOC students at UGA.
“Simply put, if an organization is not going to fully accept me for who I am, my heritage, my race, my ethnicity — all of these facets that make up who I am — then I don’t want to be a part of that organization,” Manasrah said.
A historic legacy
Before August, Panhellenic potential new members’ (PNMs) and IFC rushees’ fates can be predetermined by a number of factors. For Panhellenic, legacy and recommendation letters from former members can bolster their preference status.
In Panhellenic, PNMs can begin collecting recommendation letters from former members prior to rush. While only four chapters require recommendation letters, favorable letters can aid PNMs’ chances of receiving a bid. Certain Panhellenic chapters also employ a legacy process to give preference to people with relatives in the chapter.
However, the use of legacy and recommendations as factors in recruitment excludes those who do not have prior connections to Greek life. While incoming freshmen in a student-run Panhellenic GroupMe were discussing legacy and recommendations from parents and sisters, Cote said she would have had to go through her father’s college friends who were in sororities to get a recommendation.
“I remember they were talking about ‘Oh, just get a rec from your mother and sister and someone in a sorority,’ like it was that easy,” Cote said. “I remember being like, ‘My mother didn't even go to college.’”
Beyond legacy and recommendations, there’s rush itself. During a non-pandemic year, rush begins the week before school starts, as PNMs line up on Milledge Avenue in sweltering heat to speak with the 19 chapters. Each day, recruiters talk to PNMs, rank the women they speak with, cut or invite the PNMs back and repeat the process for four rounds. Rush culminates in bid day, where the PNMs learn the chapter that they’ve matched with.
Emma Husk, a former member of Panhellenic and an advocate for PAR, rushed in fall 2018 and recruited for her chapter the following year as a sophomore. Husk said that in her experience, recruitment is referred to as “the worst of it,” where PNMs are reassured that once they “get through recruitment, everything else will be fine.”
“To me, that rhetoric surrounding the foundation of an organization is so scary,” Husk said. “You build your organization with this process called recruitment, and if that’s the worst of it, if that’s when people’s true colors come out, if that’s when it’s most aggressive and harsh, then how can you expect that the general attitude of the sorority is going to be happy and welcoming?”
Husk officially resigned from her sorority in August, partially due to what she perceived as a lack of change regarding racism and diversity in her chapter and Greek life as a whole this past year. Husk specifically pointed to the aftermath of a Snapchat video of UGA Tau Kappa Epsilon members using racial slurs in March 2019 as a catalyst for her resignation.
“Recruitment is debilitating because there is no sense of reality, and there is no way to foster an actual relationship,” Husk said. “There is no way to deem someone worthy of a spot in your organization based on the minimal conversations that you get to have with them.”
There had been a push over this summer to remove the preference of legacy, particularly within Panhellenic. PAR has included this in its list of demands to local and national chapters.
While the national headquarters of certain chapters, such as Alpha Omicron Pi, have suspended the preferential treatment of legacy as a factor in recruitment, no formal council-wide efforts have been implemented yet. Both UGA Panhellenic Council President Jennings Brooks and UGA IFC President Brennan Cox said policies regarding references and legacy are at the discretion of the organizations’ national levels.
“There has to be overcompensation for something that is historically wrong ... and I just don’t think that that is of emphasis whatsoever during recruitment,” Husk said on the lack of diversity initiatives for recruitment.
The high school connections
In a similar vein, IFC also relies on connections and a process that primarily happens prior to the fall semester's formal rush process.
“I think it all goes back to recruitment,” said Joseph Wargo, president of the UGA chapter of Delta Tau Delta. “People who join fraternities tend to be a certain type of people — predominantly white. That just leads to a cycle where people will tend to be friends with people who look like them.”
For IFC, the informal process of recruitment — confirmed by Wargo and Cox — begins in high school. Recruitment depends heavily on pre-established high school connections, which contributes to the lack of diversity.
Rushees first pay a registration fee of $100 to put their names on a “rush list,” and fraternities then contact rushees on the list. A rushee with pre-existing connections to a certain fraternity, however, can effectively forgo the list and connect directly with that fraternity after signing up and paying the fee.
During the summer, IFC chapters host incoming freshmen at their houses in Athens. While the coronavirus pandemic disrupted some aspects of recruitment, fraternities were still permitted to hold summer recruitment events under the UGA Greek Life Office and IFC guidelines. Wargo said while there is a formal rush similar to the one Panhellenic hosts, most of the process happens before August.
Wargo pointed to delaying IFC recruitment to spring as a way to encourage diversity in the process. Wargo said spring recruitment would help alleviate the dependency of the rush process on high school connections, as people will have time to form connections at UGA.
Under this solution, fall recruitment would be reserved for sophomores who did not participate in spring recruitment, Wargo said. IFC at some other universities, such as the University of North Georgia and Mercer University, employ a similar model by delaying recruitment from the start of school.
“Panhellenic and IFC recruitment, even with the changes to the legacy preference programs underway, still have much change to be done,” PAR said in a statement to The Red & Black, emphasizing that UGA Panhellenic and IFC's anti-discrimination and diversity policies and initiatives are not enough.
“UGA students deserve more than the bare minimum,” PAR said in the statement.
A verbal commitment
The five UGA Greek Life councils released a statement on June 10 acknowledging its separation of the five councils as a product of racism and called for justice for the murders of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd.
On July 13, more than a month after PAR began publishing testimonials about experiences with racism, the UGA Greek Life Instagram page announced a new Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
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This student-drafted and led Committee will conduct its important work in a transparent fashion, welcoming and engaging with suggestions from members of the Greek Life community as well as the University community-at-large. Further information on the Committee and updates will be provided here: https://greeklife.uga.edu/content_page/diversity-equity-inclusion-initiatives-content-page
The committee’s mission, according to the announcement, is to research discriminatory behavior and conduct demographic analysis of Greek life. This committee will also facilitate training to recognize racism and discrimination.
UGA Student Affairs spokesperson Stan Jackson said in an email that ahead of recruitment, educational sessions were presented to leaders in Panhellenic — including chapter presidents, the Panhellenic executive board and recruitment counselors. Jackson said the sessions were conducted in private when The Red & Black requested copies.
Jackson said in the email the committee will facilitate an “open dialogue” about diversity, equity and inclusion in the community throughout the year. Cote said transparency about racism should be the first step UGA Greek Life takes.
“For starters, they need to admit they have a problem,” Cote said. “It's very obvious to everybody that they have a problem even before [the] testimonials.”
In a statement to The Red & Black, Brooks acknowledged the testimonials published by PAR and said Panhellenic is “actively assessing and investigating these issues.”
“Panhellenic has read the testimonials posted on the Pledge Against Racism website and are disheartened to understand that these injustices against BIPOC individuals have gone unaddressed for so long,” Brooks said in an email. “We are grateful, however, that these individuals have now felt the comfort and strength to bear their stories. It is with their testimonies that we are able to address these issues with concrete and intentional action.”
Cox also provided a statement on behalf of IFC to The Red & Black about the testimonials and the newly formed Committee on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
“We genuinely desire for any member of the university community to feel welcomed in Greek Life and within our chapters,” Cox said in an email to The Red & Black. “We acknowledge that Greek organizations have fallen short of this aspiration in the past, and we have much work to do to ensure we fully achieve this goal moving forward.”
The Multicultural Greek Council and National Panhellenic Council presidents are also members of the committee. The presidents did not respond to The Red & Black’s multiple requests for comment.
Wargo, who is a member of the committee, said he has not received training about recruitment. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Wargo said many of the initiatives have been delayed, and discussions so far have been “preliminary.” While Wargo said he was drawn to DTD for its diversity, he acknowledged the shortcomings within his own fraternity.
“Even though we are a very diverse fraternity, we’re still nowhere near the diversity numbers for UGA’s campus as a whole,” Wargo said. “The fact that even the most diverse chapters of IFC fraternities aren’t really even approaching campus levels — I think that is very indicative of the problem.”
Cote hasn’t ruled Greek life out of her college career yet. She said hearing experiences about rush this semester from her friends and upperclassmen has “reaffirmed [her] faith in rushing just a little bit.” However, Cote still wants to see change from Greek life organizations.
“Treating women of color fairly — that’s all we’ve been asking for,” Cote said. “It’s a bit disappointing that it’s taken so long to get there. We want a fair rush experience like everyone else gets.”
For Manasrah, however, she said “very little would have me change my mind” to rush for a Panhellenic sorority at UGA in the future.
“All of the testimonials that I saw in which there was racism happening and nobody talked about it,” Manasrah said. “I would need to see the sororities I hypothetically pledged to talk about it openly and say, ‘Hey, this is wrong. We want to do something about it. We want to have a conversation about it, and we want to end it.’”
This story is part of a series about issues of racism and lack of diversity and inclusion in UGA Greek Life. If you have any news tips or would like to talk about your experience, please contact Sherry Liang, firstname.lastname@example.org.