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Inside Swarthmore’s decision to close frats: The behavior of students who demanded it was an issue, too

The college commissioned two investigations following the uproar on campus last spring over fraternities. The first found no current students responsible for misconduct at the fraternities; the second called out aggressive behavior by student protesters.

Students sings songs inside the main hall of a fraternity house at Swarthmore College during a sit-in in April.
Students sings songs inside the main hall of a fraternity house at Swarthmore College during a sit-in in April.Read moreJose F. Moreno / File Photograph

Swarthmore College drew national notoriety last spring after a trove of internal fraternity documents describing horrendous behavior was leaked and published by two campus media organizations.

Students held multiple protests and demanded that the college’s two on-campus fraternities be permanently closed. The fraternities ultimately agreed to disband, and Swarthmore ended Greek life.

But reports from two investigations commissioned by the college, not previously reported, upend the narrative of how the school came to bar fraternities. They show that investigators failed to find evidence confirming misconduct by current students in the fraternities, and that the protesters’ tactics were at times so stark and aggressive that administrators feared for their safety.

Students lied to a public safety officer to gain admittance to a fraternity house for a multi-day sit-in, according to the report by lawyers Christina D. Riggs and Albert F. Moran, who were hired by Swarthmore to look into the April protests. Students video-recorded their confrontations with administrators — the videos are posted on the protesters’ website — and forced open a dean’s office door while he tried to close it and allegedly threatened to follow him to his car, the report said.

“By all accounts, the dean was visibly rattled and upset,” the lawyers wrote.

A Swarthmore task force had been contemplating changes to Greek life when the fraternity documents were released. The group ultimately recommended that Swarthmore stop leasing houses to fraternities. College president Valerie Smith went further and announced the end to Greek life.

It’s unclear what effect the protests had on her decision. Swarthmore declined to say whether fraternity members or protesters were disciplined, citing confidentiality.

In the aftermath, college officials are looking to engage students and others in “strengthening and expanding meaningful relationships within the campus community,” a spokesperson said.

The college hired lawyer Christine Wechsler to look into allegations of hazing and sexual misconduct at Swarthmore’s fraternities, Phi Psi and Delta Upsilon. The alleged misbehavior was described in fraternity documents, spanning 2012 through 2016, that were leaked April 18 and included in dozens of anonymous passages on a Tumblr account that went live April 1.

Wechsler did not uncover evidence of violations by current students, her report said, but rather "vague, unsubstantiated, and overly generalized allegations regarding conduct at both frats.”

Her investigation was hindered by students’ unwillingness to cooperate, she wrote. Only one former fraternity member agreed to be interviewed. Others interviewed had “cursory” or “speculative” information about alleged incidents, she wrote. Wechsler determined that one accusation in the Tumblr account was false.

Morgin Goldberg, a 2019 graduate and one of the protesters, called both reports “misleading" and said the one focusing on student protesters was one-sided. She said most protesters declined to be interviewed by investigators because Swarthmore wasn’t transparent about what discipline they could face.

As for how the group gained access to the fraternity house, she said it was unfair to say students lied.

“Of course, we did not and could not start a sit-in by saying, ‘Knock, knock, let me in,’” she said. “That wouldn’t have worked.”

And it was the students who were scared, she said, as police showed up.

Goldberg, who said she was raped by a fraternity member in 2015, also said protesters were fighting to keep students safe.

“We were desperate,” she said, “because we tried so many other ways for so long, and it didn’t work.”

She also said calling an allegation unsubstantiated “doesn’t mean it’s been proven false.”

The conflict left the campus divided.

“There are a lot of people here who hate us,” said one former fraternity member, who spoke on the condition that he not be identified. Though he agreed it was time to end Greek life, he said that the “mudslinging” was unfair to many current fraternity members and that the college didn’t do enough to mediate.

Others were concerned, too.

“The way we handled that transition last year could have been done without making the people who participated in Greek life feel threatened,” said Elizabeth Mickelson, 19, a sophomore from Montana.

It was “messy,” acknowledged Che Rodriguez, 19, a sophomore from Nebraska, who supported ending frats. Rodriguez was appalled at the fraternity documents, including meeting minutes that showed men had used racist, misogynistic, and homophobic language and joked about sexual assault. The documents also included references to a “rape attic” and “rape tunnel.”

Seven protests, led by Organizing for Survivors, a student group that advocates for survivors of sexual violence, followed the leak of the documents. During the first, about 100 demonstrators lined the hallway outside the college task force meeting. Attendees were “tense and rattled,” the report said.

On April 24 came the confrontation with the dean. Students demanded that Swarthmore not approve fraternity party permits and move students living in frats elsewhere. The dean told them it was under discussion. When he attempted to close the door to his outer office, “one student rushed toward and attempted to push it open," the report said. “This student was followed by another student who placed his hand on the door."

The dean more than once pleaded, “Please, let me close my door.”

Finally, he retreated to his inner office and locked that door. Student protesters slipped papers under it, including one that said: "Until he leaves follow him out not quiiiiiite to his car. Lol.”

Another administrator there during the demonstration described the situation as “a little scary,” the report said, “given the ‘sheer volume’ and 'level of rage’ by the students.” The dean ultimately “took a non-traditional route to his car accompanied by a colleague.”

The fraternity sit-in began when a protester asked a public safety officer to let her into the Phi Psi house, saying she had left her wallet, the report said. When the officer complied, other students entered and opened doors for more. Borough police showed up. Students occupied the house for five days; its lone occupant had to live elsewhere.

Finally, on May 2, students held a sit-in at the office suite of Smith, who wasn’t there at the time. Students gained entry by asking to deliver a letter to Smith, the report said. No letter was produced. Once two were in, they opened a door for others. A tussle occurred with a public safety officer, and an associate dean “was shaken” by an encounter with some protesters, the report said.

Eight days later, Swarthmore ended Greek life, a decision the college stands by, noting it “affirms our focus on ensuring that we are providing inclusive and equitable opportunities for all students.”