‘Greek Brain’: Students voice concerns over sorority standards board proceedings involving discrimination, bullying
May 22, 2023
Aliyah Sula lived in Bruce Hall with six of her Sigma Delta Tau sisters in 2021, and every week the sisters would take turns ranking each other based on likeability by placing cartoon character representations of the others on a pyramid.
One week, a sister who Sula didn’t name on the record, placed her at the bottom of the pyramid.
“Okay, so there was Tweety Bird, there was Miss Frizzle and there was Bubblegum,” Sula said. “So this is me, Rifiki from the lion king, that’s a baboon.”
Sula, now a former member of the sorority Sigma Delta Tau and a Black student at Pitt, felt pushed out of the organization after being likened to a baboon, while the offender remained an active member within the chapter through her senior year.
According to Sula, the SDT president told her in a group chat that she should “try to keep this within the sorority,” referencing how Sula’s story circulated amongst sororities and a group chat for black students at Pitt. Sula has since been removed from her sorority group chat.
Sula said as far as she knows, the offender of her incident faced little to no disciplinary action. Sula said although she felt uncomfortable reporting the incident, fellow sorority members anonymously reported the incident on her behalf. Cases like this go before a Greek organization’s standards board, which is a disciplinary process within sororities. But Sula said although the incident directly involved her, the standards board didn’t ever call her in to be a witness. Sula said for the few remaining weeks she was in the sorority, she doesn’t recall the offender having faced any disciplinary action.
This problem happens surprisingly often. With no official oversight from the University, and a lack of clear intervention procedures from the National Organization, many allegations of discrimination, bullying and other violations of the student code of conduct are swept under the rug. The University keeps no record on how many standards board hearings occur, or what they are even about. Everything regarding how sororities handle bylaw violations and code of conduct violations remains completely “internal.”
The Pitt News reached out to Catherine Cao, the 2022-2023 president of Sigma Delta Tau, who did not respond to six separate requests for comment.
Sula said this incident and other incidents of bullying, racism and an overall lack of oversight are not uncommon in Greek life, and she attributes the lack of disciplinary action to one thing —- the standards board procedures for sororities.
Standards board is a process within Greek life chapters where sorority members conduct a judicial process in order to determine disciplinary action for their sisters. The standards board members, who are elected by popular vote, then rule over any disciplinary matter within their chapter, including cases of discrimination, bullying and racism. Each sorority at Pitt has their own standards board, with varying guidelines that are left up to the discretion of the members and their respective chapter.
The process, which often includes a hearing followed by consequences such as fines and exclusion from chapter activities, is unregulated by the University.
According to Rich Fann, the associate director for Pitt’s Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, Pitt does not require any chapter on campus to automatically report violation of student conduct to the University, but instead leaves it up to the discretion of individuals on whether or not they wish to report to the University. Since the standards board hearings remain the primary disciplinary procedure within sororities, some members, like Sula, say the standards board can lead to discrimination, bullying and harassment to go unchecked.
About 10 standards board hearings occur each semester within the Sigma Delta Tau chapter at Pitt according to former members, some of which have involved discrimination and bullying incidents. But, under the umbrella of Greek life, these incidents can and have continued to go unreported to the University, with no responsibility from sororities or the national chapter to notify the University of violations of the Student Code of Conduct.
A sister on trial
Amanda Carson, a former member of SDT who was in the sorority at the same time as Sula, said she saw firsthand a clear problem with the chapter’s disciplinary procedures.
Carson described a similar frustration about the underlying culture behind standard board proceedings, stating that sorority members adopt a certain mindset that she calls “Greek brain.”
“Now that I’m out of it and not so Greek brained, I think it’s actually crazy the fact that I didn’t go to Title IX and I didn’t do any type of legal matter for my situation,” Carson said. “Honestly it shocks me, I had so many of my friends tell me ‘Amanda you need to do more with this.’”
Carson went through the standards board process for a separate incident, which she chose not to publicly disclose details about. Carson said the process felt as if she were standing “trial.”
According to Carson, a standards board will typically decide if the accused violated a bylaw, and then impose a fine or suspension on the member. If the board can’t reach a decision, Carson said the otherwise student-run body will call in a representative from the sorority’s national board — but this is an uncommon occurrence.
The SDT president did not respond to The Pitt New request for copies of the chapter’s bylaws, and did not respond to any questions relating to the standards board procedures within the chapter.
Any member of the sorority can accuse, either anonymously or not, another of violating the chapter’s bylaws, according to Carson. The board, composed of two elected representatives from each college year, reviews any evidence before deciding whether to start the standards board process.
“If you don’t have friends on your side that are willing to go to bat for you, then you’re kind of screwed,” Carson said. “With almost 100% certainty, if my situation was handled better, and in a better manner, I would not have dropped my sorority.”
Both Sula and Carson said a culture of cliquiness and favoritism within sororities leads to discrepancies in how standards board hearings ultimately give out sentences. According to Sula, if a person called to standards is close friends with one of the judges, they hypothetically may rule “accordingly off of that.”
Carson said in her case, members of the SDT board pushed for her expulsion and when the board called in a representative from nationals, the representative said the standards board didn’t have the right to expel her from the chapter.
The SDT national representative declined to provide any details on Carson’s case.
So instead of expelling her, Carson said the standards board inundated her with a “whole hunkering list of provisions and sanctions.” These included suspension from all events, including philanthropy projects and recruitment activities.
Carson said throughout the standards process she felt trapped.
“It feels like you’re in a box that’s soundproof,” Carson said. “And no matter how loud you scream, no matter how hard you try to break out of it, unless you poke a hole and that’s going to Title IX, going to the University, calling the police, your screams are going to stay in that box.”
Pitt, Nationals show a lack of oversight
David Hunter, a compliance expert and law professor at American University, said he thinks universities avoid responsibility because of how it involves itself in disciplinary actions regarding Greek life.
“I think that it does [create a risk], the University gets to then wash its hands clean of a certain set of responsibility for the behavior until it blows up and is visible to the university,” Hunter said.
Both Melissa Kish, the national director for SDT, and Rich Fann, the associate director for Pitt’s office of Fraternity and Sorority life, said standards boards are “internal” to the individual chapter.
Fann said while all student organizations and students “in general are expected to uphold the Student Code of Conduct, as well as the Pitt Promise,” student organizations are “encouraged” but not required to make a report.
“For any student organization, if there is a violation of an internal student organization policy and not Code of Conduct or other University policy, they are not required to make a report,” Fann said.
Kish explained that a sorority’s national organization also does not provide any outline of a standards board procedure, but said each individual chapter is responsible for creating its standards board procedures.
According to both former and current members within SDT, standards boards are composed of their “sorority sisters” and peers with whom they go to events with, become friends with and oftentimes live with — which Carson said creates a major “problem” and potential conflict of interest.
The Pitt News found 2014 SDT National documents, which are publicly available and were published by SDT National, briefly outline standards board procedures. These documents also include a description on how the board should be composed and a suggestion that chapters avoid handing out fines as a form of disciplinary action, unless property damage is involved.
Kish said the 2014 documents acquired by The Pitt News should not have been publicly available and said “it is an old copy and we are working to see why they are still up.”
“They are not being used as they are 9 years old. Policies are often reviewed and updated,” Kish said
The 2014 guidelines, which have since been revised, included a “human dignity” clause that prohibited demeaning games and activities. It also states a local standards board must adhere to national policies and standards — a specification that is omitted from current bylaws.
“All sorority activities should promote self-worth, human dignity and a positive Greek image,” the 2014 guidelines state. “Sigma Delta Tau prohibits the sponsoring of, or participation in, any activities (including competitive games) which are destructive, demeaning, or abusive; which promote divisiveness among NPC member groups; or which promote a negative image of the Greek community.”
Kish directed The Pitt News to the “updated” version of the bylaws titled “Risk Management Policy.” In these bylaws, the human dignity clause has since been revised to include that SDT prohibits behaviors which “intend to be, or are reasonably foreseeable to be, undignified, threatening, intimidating, or harassing to another person or group or within member activities.”
Only the 2014 guidelines outlined disciplinary processes for these violations. The 2023 guidelines provide no such language, which might have called into question the pyramid activity where another sister likened Sula to a baboon.
In the current bylaws, members are given the option to report violations via an incident report form, but are not informed of what potential consequences could result from violations of the bylaws.
Additionally under the current guidelines, SDT National does not include bylaws governing how standards board hearings should be conducted. This leaves it “up to the individual chapter” to decide their standards procedures, Kish said.
Kish declined to comment on why the guidelines and references to standards boards were omitted from the updated SDT National risk prevention guidelines. She also did not respond to comment on if any of the standards board members were required to go through training, or have their guidelines checked by SDT National.
According to Kish, it is “up to the individual chapter” to create a fine system for conduct violations found through the standards process. She did not directly respond to comment as to why this power to the individual chapter is not outlined in current policies.
Though Kish said there is an appeals process for members who wish to have their cases reviewed, she did not respond to questions asking her to describe the process or provide the bylaws that mention an appeals process to The Pitt News. Additionally, according to the 2014 document, there is no mention of a national or University representative needing to be present in a standards board hearing, including in cases adjudicating over bullying and discrimination issues.
Fann said the University permits chapters to rule on incidences of discrimination and harassment internally through standards hearings.
“Such incidents can be ruled in a chapter’s standards board,” Fann said.
Fann added that only complaints filed separately to the University may then be concurrently investigated through the Office of Compliance, Investigations and Ethics in partnership with institutional partners, but the University will not otherwise get involved with standards board complaints.
When asked if the University is aware of the number of standards board hearings for sororities, if it creates any basic requirements for how the hearings are conducted, or is notified if any of the hearings involve racism or discrimination incidents, Fann said the process is “internal” and the University is “not aware.”
“There is no involvement with the University with standards board hearing, unless something is reported to the University as a violation of policy,” Fann said.
Under current University protocol, Sigma Delta Tau and other sororities are not required — by either the University or the national chapter — to report any violations to Pitt, even if they are brought to a standards board hearing.
Sula said in her case, there was no university involvement in the disciplinary action of her case. She said the office of residence life never asked her about the matter, even when she requested to be moved to Amos Hall after leaving SDT.
Hunter said one of the first areas of concern in the 2014 SDT documents, which mentioned standards board guidelines, is the clear lack of policies ensuring “fairness” in how standards boards are conducted.
“They’ve not done anything to check or to send the signal that there should be transparency other than the election, that there should be some transparency and fairness and the procedures,” Hunter said.
Problems within standards boards aren’t an isolated issue
This process is not just for Sigma Delta Tau, but is seen across campus for most Greek life chapters.
Teá Flynn said she often feels her sorority, Delta Delta Delta, will overlook incidental acts of discrimination because of fear that the national organization will get involved. She said as a result sororities try to keep standards proceedings “very private.”
“There is discrimination, there is racism, there is all of that throughout the entire recruitment process, whether people say it or not, people have their biases,” Flynn said.
Flynn also said she finds that the “popular girls” and those that have a “position” in Delta Delta Delta influence whether or not someone is held accountable. One woman in her sorority, she said, had “a couple instances” where insensitive comments were made about specific people over others.
“We’ve actually had a few instances with one member in our sorority that people think is racist,” Flynn said. “She has a position and because she has a position and she’s very popular amongst the older girls, nothing that I know of her going through [standards] has ever happened.”
The 2022-23 Delta Delta Delta President Rose Patrick did not respond to a request for comment.
The Collegiate Panhellenic Association is the governing body for all sororities on campus. If a sorority member felt her sorority mishandled their standards board hearing, they could file a complaint against their sorority to the Collegiate Panhellenic Association. Bianca Dunay, the chief justice who handles appeals cases at Pitt, said she has no access to bylaws governing things such as standards.
The Collegiate Panhellenic Association, under the 2023 National Panhellenic Conference bylaws, also cannot survey “to collect data that reflects a chapter’s internal information or [require] documents that are considered confidential material regarding the chapter’s internal operations.”
While an individual is able to complain about their standards board procedures to her, Dunay said, “I’m allowed to ask, but whether or not they choose to share that information is up to how their standards hearings are set.”
Dunay also said multiple times individual chapter bylaws outlining standards hearing procedures are “public.”
The Pitt News confirmed with both SDT Nationals, the University and the SDT chapter that they are not public information. Kish further declined to comment on why Dunay in her role as chief justice is not allowed access to individual chapter bylaws, and did not respond to requests asking her to explain how this impacts the ability for the chief justice to judge whether a sorority violated any rules.
The Pitt News also reached out to every sorority at Pitt under the Collegiate Panhellenic Association requesting chapter bylaws or information about the standards board process. They all either declined to provide information or did not respond.
Dunay said there is no official training for her chief justice role, so she relied on shadowing the past chief justice and “personally chose” to familiarize herself with the governing documents.
When asked if there are performance reviews for her position or if she gets tested on knowing the material and governing documents, Dunay said she was unsure.
“I don’t know if we do that, I feel like we should probably know the answer,” Dunay said. “I mean, we’ve never had an issue or someone wasn’t doing their job.”
Still, Dunay said, “our standards procedures [for appeals] have kind of been tried and true and work in the best interests of everybody in the organization.”
Flynn said although she’s met her “best friends” through her sorority, in her opinion, pervasive bullying, racism and cliqueness leaves the system to be beyond repair.
Since the Pitt News spoke to Flynn in December of 2022, she has since left her sorority.
When asked what could be done, Flynn said “I’m gonna be honest, I’ve heard this conversation a lot, I think it’s the elimination of Greek life.”
Correction:This article was updated to clarify that Aliyah Sula lived in Bruce Hall and moved to Amos Hall after the incident. The article has been updated to reflect this change. The Pitt News regrets this error.