Fraternity parties seemed tantalizing to Abby Zelvis in the early weeks of her first year at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She loved dressing up, strolling around with girls from her dorm, hearing the music blast from the mysterious dark dance floors.
Then one night came an encounter she will never forget. As she and some friends waited to enter a party, a fraternity brother who served as bouncer stopped them. All of the girls but one could come in, he said.
“You’re too fat for us,” Zelvis, now a third-year, remembers the boy telling her friend.
Zelvis and other critics of fraternity culture at UMass say encounters like this at the door to parties are common — and underscore a larger problem. The social scene at the state’s flagship campus has long empowered fraternities as gatekeepers, many students said, and the 15 organizations represented by the Interfraternity Council, which are all-male and predominantly white, have cultivated an exclusionary and at times dangerous culture, especially for women, LGBTQ+ people, and people of color.
“You think we live in a culture that’s becoming more aware of consent, and starting to change to be more equitable, and then you go to frats and it literally all disappears,” said Jessica Gordon, a UMass senior.
In recent years, particularly since the social justice protests last year in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, calls to ban or reform Greek life have become more insistent at UMass, echoing demands at campuses across the country. At Tufts University, several Greek organizations disaffiliated with their national organizations so they could foster a more inclusionary club. Last month, demonstrations at Northwestern University led to a campus-wide suspension of fraternities. Ongoing student protests at the University of Southern California have spurred legal recourse and administrative action against fraternities and their members.
At UMass, an anonymous accusation on social media of a sexual assault at Theta Chi this fall ignited large protests outside the fraternity and demands from students that the administration take action against the organization and Greek life more broadly, and take steps to discipline perpetrators of sexual assault.
In response, some fraternities have made statements condemning sexual assault and emphasizing the training in prevention that they provide their members.
“The Interfraternity Council acknowledges and is devastated by the presence of sexual assault and harassment within the UMass community,” that group wrote in an Instagram post.
Besides public statements condemning sexual assault, the fraternities at UMass have been largely silent in the recent debate about their culture.
‘You think we live in a culture that’s becoming more aware of consent, and starting to change to be more equitable, and then you go to frats and it literally all disappears.’
Jessica Gordon, a UMass senior
UMass administrators have heard the calls for reform, and promised some measures, but there is no sign that the institution will take broad action anytime soon.
“Fraternities and sororities are part of the university community, and like all other registered student organizations they are expected to make a positive contribution to social, service and academic activities,” spokesman Ed Blaguszewski said in an e-mail.
Blaguszewski rejected the idea that fraternities dominate the social scene at UMass; he said just 6 percent of men are in fraternities and 8 percent of women are in sororities, totaling about 1,600 of the school’s 22,745 undergraduates. Five fraternity chapters have their own private houses and 129 students live in them, he said.
Greek life is not as prevalent at UMass as at some other schools, especially in the South; at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, 79 percent of the campus belongs to a sorority or fraternity. The figure is 39 percent at MIT, according to US News & World Report.
Some UMass students, however, said that suspended or unofficial chapters still host parties near campus, and that the fraternities exert an outsized influence on campus culture, especially for first-year students. The fraternity houses, located off campus but adjacent to it, are reliable sources of alcohol, students said, giving the organizations an outsize social role and a place in the UMass experience that long outlasts graduation. On a campus in a small town where nightlife is minimal, they are seen as a bulwark of the “ZooMass” party scene.
University of Michigan sociologist Elizabeth Armstrong said many universities rely on that kind of “party school reputation” to attract affluent, mostly white students who have parents willing to pay full tuition for the “quintessential American college experience.”
But she said fraternities are problematic because they’re inherently exclusive, and operate contrary to the values of diversity and inclusion that most schools trumpet.
“The selection process of rush is precisely organized to create social hierarchy,” said Armstrong. “It’s baffling that they exist on these university campuses.”
Research has also tied fraternities to a higher frequency of campus sexual assault. A 2019 study found fraternity members and athletes are significantly more likely to commit alcohol-involved sexual violations than the general student population.
Following the controversy at Theta Chi, two UMass students launched the Instagram account @ShareYourStoryUMass, which posts anonymous stories from survivors of sexual violence. Similar efforts on Instagram to compile such stories have emerged at universities across the country, including Northeastern, Brown, and Washington University. The administrators of the UMass account, who requested to remain anonymous, said 90 percent of submissions are allegations of assault perpetrated at a fraternity house or by a member of a fraternity.
While the account has broadcast nearly 100 stories in just a few months, only 41 sexual assaults have been officially reported at UMass since January 2018, according to information provided by the university in response to a public records request. Of those, the university said, 31 cases were formally investigated; eight students involved in 11 cases were ultimately disciplined. Of the 41 reported incidents, one took place in a fraternity, the university said; it did not result in a sanction or discipline.
In addition to attracting applicants with a “party school” reputation, the financial entanglement of fraternities and universities discourages schools from cracking down on Greek life, said Tracey Vitchers, executive director of It’s On Us, an anti-campus-sexual-assault organization. Fraternity-affiliated alumni often donate to their alma maters, and attempts to shut down the clubs can alienate those donors.
“Fundamentally there is a strong financial benefit to institutions having Greek life on their campus, and it also then creates challenges for holding Greek life accountable,” Vitchers said.
In interviews, a dozen UMass students described jarring experiences and troubling behavior, including verbal sexual harassment and sexual assault.
One woman said she was told she couldn’t enter a frat party unless she had sex with one of the pledges. She and other women said fraternities often enforce “ratios” on party nights, limiting the number of men who can enter a party so that there are many more women.
They said first-years who often don’t yet have a strong friend group and yearn to experience the infamous ZooMass culture are especially vulnerable. The method some brothers use to lure first-years into sexual encounters is known as “farming.”
At a forum this fall, sophomore Zoe Lee-Davis described how, earlier this year, a Theta Chi member guarding the door to a party asked to feel between her legs before he let her in, to make sure she did not have male genitalia.
“That’s just kind of the culture that you’re immediately shown any time you go out,” Lee-Davis said. She is a leader of a newly formed student group, the Survivor Justice Coalition, which is pushing to disband Theta Chi.
Activism is still running strong even as classwork and exams consume more of students’ time, Lee-Davis said. The group has become more strategic when it protests to avoid burnout, she said. They are planning another sit-in early next semester.
Administrators have responded to calls for reform by saying they plan to adopt a version of a policy drafted by students in 2015, the Survivors Bill of Rights, which would suspend Greek life chapters involved in sexual allegations, open criminal investigations, and expel students found guilty of sexual misconduct. They also plan to conduct a review of sexual assaults going back seven years.
Blaguszewski, the university spokesman, said fraternities are accountable to the student code of conduct whether their activities take place on or off campus, he said.
But, in accordance with Trump-era Title IX amendments, federal law limits universities’ ability to pursue violations that happen off-campus. Critics say the 2016 changes to the law force students through a grueling review process that favors defendants and often retraumatizes victims.
Some students have called on the university to abolish fraternities altogether, but that’s more complicated than it sounds. The clubs are private organizations and exist on private property. Blaguszewski said the university could choose not to recognize fraternities as registered student organizations, but that would not preclude the national organizations from maintaining their private properties, nor would it prohibit students from living in those off-campus houses.
UMass staff provide education, support, and guidance to fraternities in a variety of ways, Blaguszewski said, including frequent meetings with chapter presidents and chapter house directors, discussions with new members, weekly e-mails to Greek life members, and “Off Campus Knock and Talks” at residences.
Staff discuss expectations for behavior at house inspections each semester and in other training with the Amherst town police and fire departments.
Amherst Police Chief Scott Livingstone said the department doesn’t specifically target underage drinking primarily because it does not have lawful authority to enter private residences just to check IDs. If officers are called to a party for a specific complaint, like noise or an assault, and witness underage drinking, they have discretion to make an arrest, he said. Police also provide alcohol education to new students, he said, which has led to fewer underage drinking incidents.
“However that being said, like any college and or university, it will never completely be out of the new student experience,” the chief wrote in an e-mail.
‘Fundamentally there is a strong financial benefit to institutions having Greek life on their campus, and it also then creates challenges for holding Greek life accountable.’
Tracey Vitchers, executive director of It’s On Us, an anti-campus sexual assault organization
Blaguszewski also outlined a number of anti-sexual-assault initiatives the university has in place for all students, which are part of a larger residential life program. Several students interviewed by the Globe, however, said those initiatives were insufficient, and many couldn’t recall any takeaways from the curriculum.
They and others said the university should do more. Armstrong, the University of Michigan sociologist, said UMass should equalize access to space on campus so that students — particularly those with marginalized identities — can have safe and welcoming spaces to gather. At UMass, sororities, Black, and multicultural fraternities do not have official houses provided by their national organizations.
Armstrong said she sees little change in the culture at UMass since she was invited to host a conference for faculty following the 2014 “Blarney Blowout,” a St. Patrick’s Day party that turned into an unruly confrontation between police in riot gear and hundreds of violently intoxicated UMass students.
Repeated attempts to speak with leaders at local chapters of the UMass fraternities were unsuccessful. Last month, the UMass chapter of Theta Chi posted a statement on Instagram saying it “firmly stands against sexual assault and condemns any form of sexual assault and sexual violence.” It said there have been no formal complaints filed against the chapter or its members.
Following the recent accusations of sexual assault at Theta Chi, the UMass Interfraternity Council held a mandatory sexual assault prevention seminar in a ballroom on campus for fraternity members.
“We do not tolerate any sexually abusive actions from our members and will work with the University to make sure that these issues do not go unnoticed,” the group wrote on Instagram, noting that it has offered other training this year as well and supports the Survivor’s Bill of Rights.
Spokeswoman Andrea Benek at the national headquarters of Zeta Beta Tau, a fraternity that has a UMass chapter, declined an interview and instead offered a statement: “ZBT International Headquarters is constantly working to ensure that brothers have a fun, safe and healthy fraternity experience. The fraternity prioritizes educating our brothers on the common pitfalls of student life and making healthy decisions.”
But first-year Prishya Dayal, one of the active organizers on campus, said she has faced harassment and intimidation from fraternity members online and while walking alone on campus at night.
Unlike some of her peers, she doesn’t just want sexual assault policy reform or Theta Chi to be held accountable: she wants all Greek life abolished.
“I don’t think it can exist in a capacity that is safe and equitable. It’s built on bringing in rich white people and creating a community for them,” Dayal said.
Julia Carlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.