'Socially Awkward' Told to Leave DePauw Sorority
When a psychology professor at DePauw University surveyed students, they described one sorority as a group of "daddy's little princesses" and another as "offbeat hippies." The sisters of Delta Zeta were seen as "socially awkward." Worried that a negative stereotype of the sorority was contributing to a decline in membership that had left its Greek-columned house here half empty, Delta Zeta's national officers interviewed 35 DePauw members in November, quizzing them about their dedication to increasing recruitment. They judged 23 of the women insufficiently committed and later told them to vacate the sorority house.
The 23 members included every woman who was overweight. 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. Six of the 12 were so infuriated they quit.
"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," 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."
Holloway is not the only angry one. The reorganization has left a messy aftermath of recrimination and tears on this rural campus of 2,400 students, 50 miles southwest of Indianapolis.
The mass eviction battered the self-esteem of many of the former sorority members, and some withdrew from classes in depression. There have been student protests, outraged letters from alumni and parents, and a faculty petition calling the sorority's action unethical.
DePauw's president, Robert G. Bottoms, issued a two-page reprimand letter to the sorority. In an interview in his office, Bottoms said he had been stunned by the sorority's insensitivity.
"I had no hint they were going to disrupt the chapter with a membership reduction of this proportion in the middle of the year," he said. "It's been very upsetting."
The president of Delta Zeta, which has its headquarters in Oxford, Ohio, and its other national officers declined to be interviewed. Responding by e-mail to questions, Cynthia Winslow Menges, the executive director, said the sorority had not evicted the 23 women, even though the national officers sent those women form letters which said: "The membership review team has recommended you for alumna status. Chapter members receiving alumnae status should plan to relocate from the chapter house no later than Jan. 29, 2007."
Menges asserted that the women themselves had, in effect, made their own decisions to leave by demonstrating a lack of commitment to meet recruitment goals. The sorority paid each woman who left $300 to cover the difference between sorority and campus housing.
The sorority "is saddened that the isolated incident at DePauw has been mischaracterized," Menges wrote.
Asked for clarification, the sorority's public relations representative e-mailed a statement saying its actions were aimed at the "enrichment of student life at DePauw."
This is not the first time that the DePauw chapter of Delta Zeta has stirred controversy. In 1982, it attracted national attention when a black student was not allowed to join, provoking accusations of racial discrimination.
Earlier this month, an Alabama lawyer and several other DePauw alumni who graduated in 1970 described in a letter to The DePauw, the student newspaper, how Delta Zeta's national leadership had tried, unsuccessfully, to block a young woman with a black father and a white mother from joining its DePauw chapter in 1967.
Despite those incidents, the chapter appears to have been home to a diverse community over the years, partly because it has attracted brainy women, including many science and math majors, as well as talented disabled women, without focusing as exclusively as some sororities on potential recruits' sex appeal, former sorority members said.
"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."
But over the years DePauw students had attached a negative stereotype to the chapter, as evidenced by the survey that Pam Propsom, a psychology professor, conducts each year in her class.
That image had hurt recruitment, and the national officers had repeatedly warned the chapter that unless its membership increased, the chapter could close.
At the start of the fall term the national office was especially determined to raise recruitment because 2009 is the 100th anniversary of the DePauw chapter's founding. In September, Menges and Kathi Heatherly, a national vice president of the sorority, visited the chapter to announce a reorganization plan they said would include an interview with each woman about her commitment. The women were urged to look their best for the interviews.
The tone left four women so unsettled that they withdrew from the chapter almost immediately.
Robin Lamkin, a junior who is an editor at The DePauw and was one of the 23 women evicted from the house, said many of her sisters bought new outfits and modeled them for each other before the interviews. Many women declared their willingness to recruit diligently, Lamkin said.
A few days after the interviews, national representatives took over the house to hold a recruiting event. They asked most members to stay upstairs in their rooms. To welcome freshmen downstairs, they assembled a meet-and-greet team that included several of the women eventually asked to stay in the sorority, along with some slender women invited from Delta Zeta's Indiana University chapter, Holloway said.
"They had these unassuming freshman girls downstairs with these plastic women from Indiana University, and 25 of my sisters hiding upstairs," she said. "It was so fake, so completely dehumanized. I said, 'This calls for a little joke."'
Holloway put on an outlandish wig and some John Lennon rose-colored glasses, burst through the front door during the recruitment event, and skipped around singing "Ooooh! Delta Zeta!" and other chants.
The face of one of the national representatives, she recalled, "was like I'd run over her puppy with my car."
The national representatives announced their decisions in the form letters, delivered on Dec. 2, which said that Delta Zeta intended to increase membership to 95 by the 2009 anniversary, and that it would recruit using a "core group of women."
Elizabeth Haneline, a senior computer science major who was among those evicted, returned to the house from campus that afternoon and found some women in tears. Even the chapter's very active president had been kicked out, Haneline said, while "other women who had done almost nothing for the chapter were asked to stay."
Swisshelm said she overheard one woman seek to reassure a friend: "I think you're plenty pretty, no matter what nationals say," the woman said.
Six of the 12 women who were asked to stay left the sorority, including Joanna Kieschnick, a sophomore majoring in English literature. "They said, 'You're not good enough' to so many people who have put their heart and soul into this chapter that I can't stay," she said.
In the months since, Cynthia Babington, DePauw's dean of students, has fielded angry calls from parents, she said. Robert Hershberger, chairman of the modern languages department, circulated the faculty petition; 55 professors signed it.
"We were especially troubled that the women they expelled were less about image and more about academic achievement and social service," Hershberger said.
During rush activities earlier this month, 11 first-year students accepted invitations to join Delta Zeta, but only three have since sought membership.