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Untitled Protest Speech

Hi, I’m Melina Bell, a faculty member. I speak today only for myself, not for any department or program or the university. I’m here to support the principled, courageous students who’ve called us together today. I acknowledge their legitimate grievances and I support their demands.

I stand witness to the power disparities they refer to in their manifesto, which exemplify how this campus was not built for them and continues to exclude them. The fraternity system with which this institution has entangled itself was created hundreds of years ago to promote white supremacy, and now it continues to do so without trying. The charters of many organizations explicitly admitted only men who were white and Christian, and the system’s mid-1900s growth spurt was a backlash to the civil rights movement. Now, I want to be clear that the Divine Nine Black Greek letter organizations are in an entirely different category, organized to progress civil rights forward. They’re known more for their genuine commitment to service than for their drunken antics, and they’re not the subject of my critique. Predominantly white sororities are subordinate to the predominantly white fraternity system, which establishes the real rules they live by. I don’t think anyone’s in doubt about how the white fraternity system dominates campus life.

Besides being white supremacist, the fraternity system is gender polarizing and heterosexist. It’s an organized system of heterosexual predation. It’s one of the four primary risk factors for high rates of sexual assault, attempted rape, and rape on college campuses; another is a drinking culture, which it also cultivates. Being a gender polarizing system of heterosexual predation, it doesn’t welcome LGBTQ people.

Why has the institution where we study and work entangled itself so tightly with this fraternity system, using it to distribute housing, provide meals, and even make policy decisions, by giving members of that system a seat at the Student Affairs Committee table, and authority to adjudicate their own hazing violations?

Perhaps it seems normal and acceptable to institutionally embed a sexist, heterosexist, white supremacist system like this because this is a university whose name and grounds are a shrine to the Confederacy, a literal burial ground for a Confederate general and his family. Or because it didn’t co-educate the undergraduate campus until backed into a corner by an applicant pool that was shrinking in quality and quantity.

Or maybe it’s not the university’s reactionary culture that keeps it in the embrace of the fraternity system, but a desire to abdicate responsibility for bad student behavior by outsourcing legal liability to fraternity house corporations. Bad behavior occurring there can be handled by their expensive lawyers and insurance. The National Association of Insurance Commissioners ranks fraternities as the sixth worst insurance risk in the country, after hazardous waste disposal companies and asbestos contractors. That’s why these organizations have such expensive membership fees, making them accessible only to the wealthy - Some of whom, as wealthy alumni, bribe the university with their donations to do what they want, instead of what is best for students, employees, and the institution.

Not every student who belongs to a sorority or fraternity is a bad person; many are wonderful. So many first year students tell me, when I meet them in the fall, they don’t plan to join. Later, they sheepishly report that the pressure was too great, it was the only way to get good housing, it was the only way to be fully included in university life. They are the relatively privileged who can choose whether to be fully included or not.

It’s time for this university to do the right thing and disentangle itself from the Confederacy and its white supremacist offspring, the fraternity system. Thank you, Student Organizers, for pressing your just demands. May the number of allies willing to take on a share of this work and stand beside you continue to grow.

Prof. Bell Giving Speech at W&L Protest to Demand Systemic Change - Photo by Nolan Zunk

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