Administrators at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa say they are working hard to overcome racial segregation, but scrutiny of the Greek system has some professors and students arguing that they must do more.
Many had thought that the integration of the university’s sororities and fraternities would progress after Carla Ferguson, an African-American student, was offered membership in the Gamma Phi Beta sorority in 2003. More than two years later, Ferguson remains the only black woman to have been accepted into any of the 15 “traditionally white” sororities. The situation is similar at the approximately 30 “traditionally white” fraternities on campus, where students say that only one or two African-American males have ever been admitted.
“Most kids in the Greek system [here] have strange boundaries,” said Samantha Perry, a senior and former member of Alpha Delta Pi. “Their mentality is like, ‘I’m not racist, I have black friends -- but I don’t want to recognize them as a sister or brother.’”
Race is a sensitive and important issue in Alabama, where the university’s segregationist past is well known and where black undergraduate enrollment now stands at 2,000 (out of a total undergraduate enrollment of about 17,000). The Greek system, with approximately 4,100 undergraduates, tends to play a major role in influencing social issues.
Because Perry has chosen to speak out on the racial issues she sees in the system -- and has been vocal in The Crimson White student newspaper about Ferguson’s experience -- she has violated the sorority’s oath. She hasn’t been officially asked to renounce her national membership, but said she no longer personally identifies with the sorority.
She explained Friday that she was at a chapter meeting in 2003 where sisters in the Greek system debated whether to allow Ferguson to get a bid at one of the campuses white sororities. After an initial vote to block Ferguson’s admittance, “people talked and decided to keep her around to boost public image,” said Perry. “To not appear racist.”
Ferguson’s admittance to a sorority was widely hailed by Alabama officials at the time -- so the discussion of exactly what transpired at the time does not convey the image of progress the university has wanted to put forward.
Another sorority sister -- who wished not to be identified because she remains in good standing -- explained that Ferguson’s admittance has done little to rectify the segregation problem in the Greek system at Alabama. “If anything, now Greeks [here] have used Carla as a poster child,” said the sister. “But the same issues as before never went away.”
According to the sorority sister, racism and sexism are prominent among those issues. “Basically, if we let one black friend in,” she said, “we’re not strong enough, socially, to support that member.”
The sister explained that fraternities and sororities on campus have “swaps,” where they host parties for each other. Both the sister and Perry said that many students in sororities believe that admitting a black student tends to limit a sorority’s swapping ability and, in turn, limits its popularity. The Crimson White also recently interviewed women with similar allegations.
Perry said that the situation is indicative of not only racism, but also sexism. “Frats aren’t the be all, end all, of the status you have,” she said. “If a sorority was truly committed to its ideals, they wouldn’t allow frats to push them around.”
Leaders with both the fraternity and sorority systems on campus did not return calls and e-mail messages for comment throughout the weekend. In the past, leaders have argued that the Greek system at Alabama is open to diversity and that integration is a slow process.
Despite the fact that frats and sororities are private organizations, paid for by student dues, some say that administrators should be taking on integration issues more directly.
“Integration hasn’t happened,” said David Roskos-Ewoldsen, a professor of psychology who has been at the university for 15 years. “And the university hasn’t made the kind of commitment to it that it should.”
He is especially concerned that most sororities and fraternities are able to rent buildings from the university at a very low rate, in some cases as low as $1 per year. “We might not be able to say, ‘You have to integrate,’” said Roskos-Ewoldsen. “But we can say that we’re not going to underwrite racism. As a public university, we have an obligation to make all sororities and fraternities open to all people, if we’re going to charter them.”
Despite the professor’s ideas, Perry is cautious about administration involvement. “If administrators were to try to force [integration],” said Perry, “it would probably have an adverse impact on any black students who were let in.”
Administrators, too, want to err on the side of caution. “I think we’ve had a lot of progress,” said Kathleen Cramer, senior associate vice president for student affairs at the university. “We see integration [in the Greek system] as something that we would never want to force.”
Instead, Cramer said that the university has pursued Greek “multicultural awareness” programs that will “help students understand that they are the ones who have to make the change.” The programs encourage Greeks to think about minority issues and to invite speakers on racial issues.
Cramer also noted that the university has “other options” for minority students who wish to be part of the Greek system. There are four traditionally black sororities and four traditionally black fraternities at the university, she said. There are also two multicultural sororities and a Latino fraternity is currently in the process of being established.
“I’m proud of our system,” said Cramer. “Our goal is to have the best Greek system in the country, with a wide variety of options for students.”
“I don’t think this is a case of student racism,” added Cramer. "I think that as they interact more, it will take care of itself.”
Norm Baldwin, a professor of political science at the university who has pushed for Greek integration for several years, isn’t so sure that unmediated interaction will be the cure all.
He said that the university should be doing more to help break down the “institutional racism” surrounding rush times. Black sororities tend to hold rush in the winter, while white sororities do so in the early fall. “The university permits the separation of the rushes,” said Baldwin. “And it doesn’t have to be that way.”
“I’m not satisfied with the state of progress,” added Baldwin. “But I know our administrators don’t want this issue to be resolved in the press. There's a lot of concern about legacy.”