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Alabama's sorority leaders (before the controversy broke)

Cracking the Door Open?

September 17, 2013

Fifty years after the notorious "stand in the schoolhouse door" to keep black students out of the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, the president of the institution is trying to get sororities to open their doors.

With the university facing nationwide criticism for maintaining a segregated Greek system, President Judy Bonner met with the leaders of the various chapters, and has ordered them to all use a rush system that could allow them to quickly admit some black members, a spokeswoman confirmed Monday night.

The new system -- known as "snap bidding" or "continuous open bidding" -- is one in which sororities can offer membership to a student who has not gone through the entire rush process. Sororities can extend such offers any time during the year. Traditionally, the system has been used by sororities that did not meet their membership goals. Requiring all sororities to use the system theoretically makes it possible for all of them to admit black members, even after failing to do so in the traditional rush process, year after year.

Most university presidents don't focus on sorority recruitment, but at Alabama, an article in the student newspaper -- The Crimson White -- has created a furor and raised questions about the university's climate for black students. The article detailed the way the official sorority system -- an extremely influential part of student life at Alabama -- has remained all-white, and how alumnae have pressured sororities to keep black students out.

Asked whether the university would take additional steps, such as seeing whether sororities actually offer membership to black women, or banning from the process alumnae who have reportedly enforced segregation, the spokeswoman declined to comment.

Whether the move by the administration to expand this alternative rush process will lead to change is unclear. Some press reports said that sororities were voting Monday night on whether to expand their membership so they could use this process even if they had already accepted a full slate of members.

It is also unclear whether the change in rush will satisfy critics who are outraged that the segregation has been permitted to go on decade after decade after the university officially desegregated. The Crimson White on Monday published a letter from a group of concerned students and faculty members demanding that the university take more dramatic steps, and more overtly distance itself from the elements of the Greek system that have kept black students out. The university's leaders must "publicly, transparently, and directly acknowledge that our Greek institutions are largely segregated and that this segregation is, by its very nature, racist," the letter says.

Further, the letter says that the university should end "all ties" to Greek alumni "who perpetuate this continuing segregation," and should actively "implement protection for these women who have been bullied, intimidated or otherwise coerced by alumni members into believing that it is unacceptable to welcome women of color into their sisterhood."

Ross Green, an Alabama student who was among those who wrote the letter, told AL.com that expanding the rush system doesn't address the underlying issues. "Going out and offering bids to girls that have already been cut is putting a Band-Aid on a larger issue," he said. "We see a need for the administration to come out and make a statement that racism is not tolerated on our campus."

The debate has also brought into public view many more stories of how people -- either through overt acts or failing to stand up for others -- contributed to the sorority segregation. One former rush counselor (who helped new Alabama students navigate the sorority system) wrote a blog post to describe how she was summoned by sorority leaders and told that she needed to tell a black woman that she could not continue with rush:

"I had been given the task of telling one of the girls in my group that she would need to drop out of rush immediately. They told me that she would certainly 'not be receiving any invitations back,' and that basically the sooner she was gone the better for all involved, including herself.  This girl was bright, attractive, and had an absolutely wonderful and infectious personality. She was also African American. And they were worried that if she was not invited to pledge a sorority, that there could be a huge backlash from the black community," the post says. "I don't know how the meeting ended, or what, if anything, I may have said. I do know that I was the only person in that room who knew her at all, and I never opened my mouth once to speak up for her. I don't even remember her name. I regret all of that to this day."

The post goes on to say how the counselor, as ordered, told the black student she could not continue rush.

It is not clear that everyone at Alabama agrees that there is a need for change. Comments posted on the letter from concerned students and faculty members include one saying that sororities were rejecting black women for their "culture," not their race. "Are we really going to pretend that there is anything but a miniscule percentage of black women on campus that share a lot in common with white sorority girls? The segregation for the most part has been based on culture. That is not 'by its nature' racist because that doesn't fit with the actual definition of racist," the comment said.

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