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Sororities to return to Swarthmore College for first time in 80 years

Matt Slocum / AP

Swarthmore College student Julia Melin says a sorority is "about having a social support system during college and after college."

PHILADELPHIA -- Nearly 80 years after women at Swarthmore College voted to ban sororities because they were too exclusive, a group of female students will reinstate Greek life this spring after weathering months of polarizing debate on campus.

The future sisters of Kappa Alpha Theta pledge that members will be welcoming, diverse and dedicated to civic engagement and community service. The sorority will also provide valuable national networking opportunities, supporters say.

But some students at the liberal arts school near Philadelphia contend not much has changed since 1933. Sororities are still elite clubs, they say, and flout the college's Quaker roots emphasizing inclusion.

"It's just a really stupid system that shouldn't exist," senior Maya Marzouk said. "I think Swarthmore is better than that."

The highly selective college with about 1,500 students prides itself on rigorous academics, open dialogue and a commitment to social justice. It was co-founded in 1864 by Lucretia Mott, a prominent abolitionist and activist for women's rights. 

Campus officials said they are simply facilitating the creation of a group that students want and that the federal regulation Title IX demands. This requires colleges to provide equal opportunities for men and women, and Swarthmore has two fraternities.

College senior Julia Melin said she helped to start Not Yet Sisters — the group that will become Kappa Alpha Theta — out of a sense that female students needed better mentoring and wider professional connections. Swarthmore's alumni association is relatively small, Melin noted.

Sorority critics "thought it was more about having a space to party in, and it's really not about that at all," said Melin, from nearby Abington, Pa. "It's about having a social support system during college and after college."

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The Greek revival at Swarthmore appears to be unique, said Nicki Meneley, executive director of the National Panhellenic Conference.

But she also noted that, as higher education enrollment has grown, sorority membership overall is at an all-time high: More than 300,000 undergraduates belong to chapters at about 665 campuses across the U.S. and Canada.

Matt Slocum / AP

Swarthmore College student Maya Marzouk says sororities "shouldn't exist."

At Swarthmore, a Kappa Alpha Theta chapter originally established in 1891 was the first sorority on campus. Several other sororities followed, and by 1931 about 77 percent of the college's female students belonged to the Greek system, according to school archives.

Yet some groups discriminated against Jews. That led student Molly Yard — who later became president of the National Organization for Women — to campaign for a campus-wide female vote on abolishing sororities. It passed in 1933.

'Unfairness'
In an article on Swarthmore’s website, under a section called “The Meaning of Swarthmore,” Yard, who was initially a member of Kappa Alpha Theta, wrote that her “greatest experience” there was organizing the campaign to abolish sororities.

“I got into the campaign because the sororities were unfair and discriminatory,” she said. “In my class, there was a Jewish student from Chicago, Babette Schiller, who was extremely clever and talented ... So appealing was her work that I and several of my classmates wanted Kappa Alpha Theta to invite her to become a member. But our sorority leaders would not consider her. Was it because she was Jewish? They refused to say why.”

After this incident and others, she said “some of us decided we should eliminate the source of such unfairness, and we organized the abolition campaign, making sure that we had representation from each sorority, as well as from women students who were left out of the system. We educated all women students on the unfairness of the sorority system and gradually got more and more of them to agree with us.”

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Yard was president of the National Organization for Women from 1987 to 1991 and died in 2005.

A male vote in 1951 to abolish fraternities was defeated.

This year, sorority opponents including Marzouk, a psychology major from Great Neck, N.Y., circulated a petition to demand a similar referendum; they say the student body had little input in the decision to revive the clubs.

Heated discussions in campus news outlets have included suggestions to form a "women's union" instead, or even to ban Greek groups entirely.

Diversity, inclusivity
But Title IX is the sorority's trump card, school officials said.

Liz Braun, the dean of students, noted Swarthmore has a written agreement with the national Kappa Alpha Theta organization to ensure the new chapter will uphold the college's founding principles of diversity and inclusivity. In this case, that includes allowing students who identify as female to join the sorority, regardless of their actual gender, Braun said.

"Each chapter takes on kind of its own flair ... based on the campus it's embedded in," she said.

That's partly why concerns about possible hazing and binge drinking have not been a large part of the conversation. Swarthmore is not considered a party school; Braun noted that Kappa Alpha Theta is dry and has a strict anti-hazing policy.

Also, the college's two fraternities are not residential, though they host events at rented houses on campus. About 6 percent of male students are affiliated with the groups.

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Melin said about 30 to 40 students have expressed an interest in joining the sorority, which will have its first official intake in the spring. The group won't have on-campus housing, and leaders are still looking for dedicated meeting space.

The chapter's campus adviser, Satya Nelms, said she expects the controversy will eventually quiet down.

"I'm really confident that once the sorority is actually on campus, a lot of the concerns that people have ... will be eased," Nelms said.

A national spokeswoman for Kappa Alpha Theta said the organization is pleased to return to Swarthmore, but referred all other questions to the college.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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