Delta Dysfunction: Sorority Sisters’ Image Doesn’t Make the Grade

By Christine |

The New York Times offers a fascinating look at the mindset of a national sorority that sought to boost recruitment at DePauw University by boosting its members’ sexual appeal.

The national office of Delta Zeta house decided to clean house by kicking out members who didn’t fit a very specific look — white, thin and attractive to frat guys.

The 23 members who were asked to leave — via a letter declaring that “a membership review team has recommended you for alumna status” — included everyone who was overweight (the NYT story doesn’t define “overweight”). Sam Dillon writes:

They also included the only black, Korean and Vietnamese members. The dozen students allowed to stay were slender and popular with fraternity men — conventionally pretty women the sorority hoped could attract new recruits.

“Virtually everyone who didn’t fit a certain sorority member archetype was told to leave,” said Kate Holloway, a senior who withdrew from the chapter during its reorganization.

“I sensed the disrespect with which this was to be carried out and got fed up,” Ms. Holloway added. “I didn’t have room in my life for these women to come in and tell my sisters of three years that they weren’t needed.”

It seems that the DePauw chapter of Delta Zeta — headquartered in Oxford, Ohio — has a history of attracting “brainy women, including many science and math majors, as well as talented disabled women,” according to former members; “socially awkward,” is how some DePauw students describe the sorority, according to a recent campus survey.

And that didn’t fly with the national office. In fact, for one recruiting event, writes Dillon, national representatives “asked most members to stay upstairs in their rooms. To welcome freshmen downstairs, they assembled a team that included several of the women eventually asked to stay in the sorority, along with some slender women invited from the sorority’s chapter at Indiana University.”

National officers say the young women who were asked to leave were not committed to meeting recruitment goals, a point with which the women vehemently disagree. The university president sent a letter of reprimand to the national office, and faculty members circulated a petition, calling the action unethical.

“We were especially troubled that the women they expelled were less about image and more about academic achievement and social service,” said Robert Hershberger, chair of the modern languages department.

You’d think Delta Zeta would have learned from its mistakes by now. In 1982, the DePauw chapter of Delta Zeta did not allow a black student to join. And in 1967, the chapter tried unsuccessfully to keep out a women with a black father and a white mother.

In the cutline of the second photo from the top on this page, Elizabeth Haneline, who was among those evicted, is quoted making this observation: “The Greek system hasn’t changed at all, but instead of racism, it’s image now.”

For all the story elements that inspire an incredulous, you’ve-got-to-be-kidding response, what I found particularly charming about this unfortunate turn of events is that six of the 12 girls who were asked to stay quit, angered by the treatment their sisters received.

And I loved this quote:

“I had a sister I could go to a bar with if I had boy problems,” said Erin Swisshelm, a junior biochemistry major who withdrew from the sorority in October. “I had a sister I could talk about religion with. I had a sister I could be nerdy about science with. That’s why I liked Delta Zeta, because I had all these amazing women around me.”

Sisterhood can be wonderful. Too bad Delta Zeta didn’t value the women who valued its true meaning.

Media Update: Kudos to DePauw University News for tracking local and national media coverage — an obviously smart move, but it’s still difficult to conceive of every university taking a public stand. Check here to download video and for media updates. As of Monday afternoon, it looks like some of the former members will appear on CNN’s “Paula Zahn Now,” which airs at 8 p.m. EST, as well as on Tuesday’s 8 a.m. segment of ABC’s “Good Morning America.”

The Office of Fraternity & Sorority Life features the latest correspondence between the university and Delta Zeta on the future of the sorority chapter at DePauw.

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