BY: AQSA RASHID
Content Warning: Sexual assault, sexual abuse.
In early July, President Sylvia Burwell announced the creation of a new office that will handle complaints related to racism, discrimination, harassment and sexual assault. In September, Leslie Annexstein was appointed as the inaugural Assistant Vice President for Equity and Title IX.
That office is called the Office of Equity and Title IX and was intended to replace the Title IX office.
Amidst rising complaints over sexual violence are new guidelines, published by the Department of Education, for the way universities handle Title IX issues. Previously, the university used an investigative model, in which an investigator determines whether or not the accused individual is responsible.
This differs from the hearing model, in which the investigation is concluded with a conduct hearing in order to determine whether or not the respondent is responsible. On August 14, these regulations went into effect and are now enforced by federal law.
These changes were introduced this summer, after several social media pages dedicated to amplifying sexual assault survivors' voices started posting anonymous submissions of students' experiences at American University. Currently, over 170 submissions have been posted, many of which name alleged abusers involved with Greek life, American University Student Government (AUSG) and other powerful organizations on campus.
Students called for members of AUSG involved in Greek life to resign, along with supporting the abolition of social fraternities and sororities on campus. Previous AUSG president Nikola Jok announced his resignation from the position in late June, describing his desire to prioritize his mental health. Jok later disaffiliated from the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, one of many fraternities facing sexual assault allegations on the Instagram page.
Mulan Burgess, speaker of the Undergraduate Senate told the Eagle he "respects Nik's decision for resigning" and that he thinks "we need to have a serious conversation with whoever runs about what race, diversity and equity looks like at AU." Following his statement, he also stated that there needs to be reform in Student Government and Title IX.
After his statements, Burgess was also accused of sexual abuse via the @exposingauabusers Instagram account in two separate posts. One, detailing a "coercive sexually abusive relationship," and the other detailing an inappropriate experience that a student had in his GOVT class with him.
A Facebook page, named "Dear Mulan Burgess," was created by a group of students to document the sexual harassment they experienced from him. Since the creation of the Facebook page, it has been taken down, and students have taken to Instagram to try to bring awareness to the issue.
A number of other names were repeated several times on this page as well â€” for example Ben Black, who had been accused of sexually assaulting both men and women in several different posts. Fraternities such as Pike and Sig Ep, were also mentioned multiple times for hosting certain members accused of sexually assaulting others.
The page has received several threats over the course of its existence and has changed regulations for the ways submissions are posted, which includes restricting students from submitting names. It has been inactive since the month of July now.
Several students find these initiatives to not be doing enough in terms of combatting sexual violence on campus, and thus, the coalition to abolish Greek life at AU has remained active over the course of the last couple of months. Several members who were originally members of Greek life themselves are now advocating for others to leave due to internal experiences of discrimination they observed or received.
Senior Raisa Siddique was a member of Alpha Xi Delta for two years before choosing to leave, saying she made the decision based on the way that she was treated by her sisters.
"Over the course of my membership, it became clear to me that the way the sorority chose to enforce its policies was not decided by holding all members to the same standard, but rather by your social standing within the organization, and your popularity amongst other members of Greek life."
Furthermore, she spoke to the discrimination that people of color have said they feel within fraternities and sororities on campus.
"While all sororities at American University tout themselves as centers of diversity, inclusion, and female empowerment, I found this to be very conditional," Siddique said. "Many people of color expressed to me that to fit in, they felt they needed to "act white". I also experienced a lack of understanding of the way people of color speak and joke to deal with their pain."
Siddique clarified that while she thinks many members mean well, they will never know what it's like to be a person of color. "The irony and lack of understanding of these white social justice champions I think underscores the problem within sororities. Their treatment of people of color seems more based on their social media activism, and watching a couple of Vox videos, rather than actually trying to understand our perspectives."
Siddique has also been involved in the organizing to abolish Greek life, and has said that she thinks her chapter is taking a step in the right direction by choosing to disband. At the same time, she said there are some things harder to see than others.
"It is hard for me to see people who treated me, and other people of color poorly for years suddenly jumping on this bandwagon. I want to believe they come from a genuine place, but it is impossible to know."
Junior Muskan Kaur, one of the leading members of the coalition, said that "choosing to leave Greek life was like trying to convince myself that the toxic relationship I was in simply wasn't worth staying."
When asked about the way she felt her sorority discriminated against people of color, she explained that it was a build-up of things.
"During orientation, we discussed what the founders of our sorority would think of our chapter today and for me, I instantly knew they would feel some type of way about a brown girl being in their chapter," Kaur said. "That's not what they envisioned when they established the sorority, so how could it manifest to empower me when it wasn't made to serve me?"
Since being involved in leading the coalition, Kaur said she has felt very passionate and motivated about helping in her capacity, amidst acknowledging the difficulties.
"The hardest part I believe would be convincing the administration why abolition is possible and needed," Kaur said. While their demands calls for the abolition of social Greek life with reform for many of AU's survivor services, she also mentioned that there has been an overwhelming amount of support and victory from other students willing to compile resource docs, statements, and FAQs.
"Sometimes the hard parts feel achievable through the words and revolutionary support of the coalition. I am so proud."
Students have also been in touch with people at Swarthmore, Vanderbilt, and other universities who have worked to end Greek life on their campus.
With a virtual school year, student groups will have to explore different avenues of activism to get the university's attention. The traditional sit-ins that groups may have done in the past on campus may not be done now, but the coalition is nonetheless dedicated to exploring how their demands for abolishment can manifest into the lives of the AU community.
"We hope to keep the mission of the coalition to include perspectives that further deeper understanding of issues on our campus, and to provide sustainable solutions to address them."