Opinion | Abolish Greek: Sisterhood sold as commodity, not community

Opinion by Noor Fakih
Jan. 31, 2021, 9:39 p.m.

 Alpha Chi Omega (AXO) no longer exists on Stanford’s campus. 

On Dec. 14, 2020, AXO National Council, a group composed of the sorority’s national president and five vice presidents, unanimously voted to revoke the Zeta Iota chapter’s charter. This action reveals that traditional sororities are intent on selling sisterhood as a commodity instead of building community, and that reform is impossible due to the involvement of their national organizations.

Last summer, Stanford’s AXO chapter faced a mass exodus. After failing to secure a unanimous vote to force AXO Headquarters (HQ) to consider revoking our charter, many members left. The vote was organized due to the chapter’s repeated failures and inability to bring about substantial reform from within. By the winter quarter, only four members remained in the chapter. Those who stayed believed they could bring about the reforms they felt would result in an inclusive AXO, one without interference from HQ. But those who disaffiliated had realized, after years of attempted reform, that the core issues with our chapter — financial inaccessibility and restricted membership — are at the very foundation of how sororities operate. 

Financial inaccessibility is foundational because the majority of membership dues go to national organizations, rather than internal chapter expenses, which makes abolishing dues logistically impossible. Anything less than removing dues entirely is still a barrier to entry for potential and current members. While there are resources, such as Stanford’s Opportunity Fund, to help pay dues, they rarely if ever are able to cover the full cost and impose an additional cost on students — in time and effort — that prevent sororities from being accessible and welcoming to all. All this cannot be reformed within the current set up of sororities as national organizations. 

Similarly, social exclusivity is upheld by membership recruiting practices taught by HQ. Active members train for countless hours to become the ideal brand ambassadors and recruiters. Almost every moment of a conversation with potential members is planned in order to ensure the chapter receives women who will increase their social standing on campus, and in turn, become their new brand ambassadors. The comparison of sororities to a business is not my own — in fact, it was inspired by the way AXO Headquarters referred to the sorority themselves in a recruitment powerpoint: “In order to get others to buy into what we’re selling, we have to believe in it and be confident that our product is the BEST product worth investing in on that campus. If we don’t believe that we’re selling the best experience, why would anyone else?” For more information on AXO Headquarters influence on the local AXO chapter, refer to my previous op-ed “Confessions from an Ex-Sorority President.”

The more time you spend in a sorority, the clearer it becomes that you cannot just reform your chapter and be the exception. Reform requires fundamentally changing how the sorority operates nationally, which requires rewriting every contract, doctrine and rule book it has. Last year, the idea of reform quickly became a pipe dream for most AXO members, and disaffiliation with the possibility of creating a Voluntary Student Organization (VSO) seemed like the only way to spend their short time at Stanford being a part of communities more reflective of their ideals: namely, total inclusivity and accessibility.

The Stanford chapter continued to exist until Dec. 15, 2020, when it received an email from AXO Headquarters notifying members that the charter had been revoked a day prior by the National Council. The email attempted to justify the decision by stating, “The chapter has experienced decreasing levels of member involvement, turnover in leadership and low overall morale. The collegiate members have expressed concern for their own well-being and noted concerns about not having the bandwidth nor capacity to maintain the experience.” More notably, “the chapter fell to a size where the Alpha Chi Omega experience was no longer viable,” meaning that it wasn’t financially viable. 

In a FAQ attached to said email, AXO Headquarters explain how “The Zeta Iota chapter has been given a great deal of support that far exceeded the level of support given to most chapters,” such as a full-time/part-time chapter consultant who lived near campus, recruitment-related in-person support and various other discussions about finances, chapter growth and more. HQ goes on to write that it no longer felt that the chapter was worth spending further time or money on.

HQ’s message reveals that sororities are a business marketing sisterhood. The Zeta Iota chapter no longer promised them visibility at a prestigious university. What’s more, it threatened reform as its condition for remaining affiliated. It became clear that AXO’s business model was no longer sustainable at Stanford and it was time to liquidate.

The FAQ stated that “While the chapter conducted ongoing discussions about the sustainability of the chapter experience, the National Council’s review of the chapter’s progress and current state resulted in a unanimous vote to withdraw the chapter’s charter…” This means that they took it upon themselves to end the chapter while the members continued to attempt to keep their chapter alive.  They also made it very clear in their FAQ that there was no ability to appeal the decision to revoke the charter as “No [the decision can not be appealed]… Ultimate responsibility for closing a chapter by withdrawing a charter rests with the National Council by unanimous decision.” 

So what happens to those who were in the chapter at the time? Without recognition from HQ, the Zeta Iota chapter of AXO can no longer officially claim to be a collegiate chapter. Due to university guidelines, the chapter will also not be recognized as a Greek organization as it must be backed by a national organization and is no longer considered a student organization on campus. Beyond this, AXO Headquarters will refund the membership dues paid for Fall quarter and transition those members to alumnae status. The fact that members were still required by their national organization to pay dues despite being in a literal pandemic, off-campus, and with a limited capacity to offer community is another prime example of how national organizations continuously attempt to commodify community instead of truly providing it. 

Despite being depicted as a student organization, it is clear that students in Greek organizations have no real say in whether or not the organization is allowed to exist on campus. Even if no one on campus wants to be a part of the Greek organization, the national organization can still attempt to force its presence on campus as it is ultimately up to the national organization if or when it revokes a charter. A charter serves a contract between the national organization and the university, and similar to a contract for ad space, the former is entitled to it whether or not people want to see it. Tellingly, they call the process of reestablishing their presence on a campus and recruiting new members during a period when the chapter has no current members as “re-colonizing,” while “colonization” is a similar process conducted when they first come to campus (example of usage by AXO). Even their terminology demonstrates an attitude of commodification and extraction — it reveals the business and corporatist mentality of Greek life. 

AXO HQ’s behavior only cements the fact that sororities exist to sell the promise of sisterhood and view each chapter as a financial investment. Once a chapter no longer becomes a lucrative investment, they cut their losses and move on to the next university willing to open their doors. As someone who once bought into this scheme, I am furious. Despite leaving in the summer and wanting the charter revoked, I still held love for the members and for what sororities could truly be. For Headquarters to take it upon themselves to take away a Stanford student organization is an immense breach. The idea of a sorority is beautiful — women banding together to help each other navigate college, encouraging one another to make philanthropy a normal part of their lives, pushing each other academically and providing the comfort knowing they are always at home when they are with one of their sisters. Instead, it has been tainted by a need to rise to the top of an arbitrary social hierarchy, classism (requiring membership dues), exclusivity (requiring recruitment) and lack of authenticity (having a national organization dictating how and if your sisterhood exists).

Reform will continue to be impossible if the structure of IFC/ISC organizations are not altered. Stanford chapters are viewed as a prized commodity, not a community. Any attempt to truly change the core problems of these organizations (classism and exclusivism, which also intersect with sexism and racism) cannot take hold due to their national organizations. If IFC and ISC organizations are truly interested in rooting out these problems on the Stanford campus, they must unhouse and disaffiliate from nationals. Abolish Stanford ISC/IFC Greek.

Contact Noor Fakih at nfakih ‘at’ stanford.edu and Abolish Stanford Greek at abolishstanfordgreek ‘at’ gmail.com or @AbolishStanfordGreek on Instagram.

Contact the opinions editors at opinions ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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