Progressive” Duke parties under scrutiny
Female students invited as “hosts” at end-of-rush debaucheries of booze and sex, critics say.
By Eric Ferreri
DURHAM -- Some Duke University student activists hope to end a long-held practice where female students are plied with booze and encouraged to cozy up to new fraternity recruits.
It happens at "progressive" parties, generally held at the end of rush, the period during which fraternities and sororities evaluate prospective members. At Duke, the latest rush period concludes next weekend.
Female students are invited to be hosts at these fraternity parties. The Duke Chronicle student newspaper reported this week that the women's tasks at the parties can range "from bartending to providing sexual favors." The women often dress provocatively and are stationed in party rooms bearing such themes as "spring break" and "school girls," critics say.
Student activists call the parties exploitative and dangerous to the young women who take part. A new group, the Greek Women's Initiative, recently held a forum examining the issue, and petitions seeking to end the practice have garnered about 800 signatures.
Duke officials not only applaud this activism, they defer to it. Although administrators don't like the progressive parties, they can't do much about them because they're largely held off campus, said Larry Moneta, vice president of student affairs.
"Change is not going to be dictated by the administration," Moneta said. "We're joining with the students in targeting [the parties]. If a violation of university policy comes to light, they're going to be held accountable. The more students who can express their outrage - and the more we can help them express their disdain - the better."
Moneta is one of several high-ranking Duke administrators to sign petitions seeking an end to the parties. Others include Provost Peter Lange; Stephen Nowicki, dean of undergraduate education; and Sue Wasiolek, dean of students.
The petitions were gathered by a collection of students calling themselves Duke University Women's Respect. But members reached Friday declined to comment for the record.
Many won't talk
Likewise, several student leaders with Greek organizations and members of the Greek Women's Initiative either could not be reached this week or declined to comment. On campus, others also did not want to talk openly about the issue.
Duke senior Erskine Love, president of the Interfraternity Council, declined to discuss the matter. In a Duke Chronicle story this week, he is quoted as saying that while half of Duke's fraternities don't hold progressive parties, the recent public discussion gives those that do a new perspective.
Donna Lisker, associate vice provost of undergraduate education, said the progressive parties feed stereotypes that should be quashed. She credits the student movement with sparking campus debate.
"There's a lot of easy, misogynistic, old-fashioned ways to fall into roles," said Lisker, the former director of the Women's Center at Duke. "The challenge is to think and analyze and do better, socially. Part of being 18, 19, 20 is to try things out. But these are students now saying this is outdated and we can do better."
Still, students aren't united in their disdain for these parties. Michelle Sohn, a senior, has several female friends who have attended. Some liked them, others did not, and Sohn is wary of generalizing about the dangers of progressive parties or the roles played by women who take part.
"It's a complicated, nuanced issue," said Sohn, who has kept an eye on the public discussion through her role as gender issues liaison to Duke's student government. "I don't condemn it or laud it. I think it's something that goes on that needs to be talked about more."
Sohn said she has not attended a progressive party herself.
Each room has a theme
Progressives are known as such because party-goers progress from one room to the next, each room decorated with a different motif, such as a casino or military theme.
The women are often armed with party favors. In a long entry on Develle Dish, a Duke student website, one unidentified woman writes at length about attending a progressive party and being given chocolate syrup and squirt guns filled with alcohol.
The room-to-room party format isn't the problem, argues Mike LeFevre, Duke's student body president and a member of the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity. But the women who attend should never feel pressured to do anything they don't want to, he said.
"Nothing that is happening is illegal," he said. "Having a girl pour chocolate syrup on a guy, it's not illegal. Though it isn't something we'd tell our parents about."
Underage drinking is illegal. And while alcohol is prohibited at official rush events, Duke officials say they can do little about off-campus events.
And even if the university could wield a heavy hand, doing so might be counter-productive, Lisker said. She hopes the recent surge in interest by students who balk at the practice continues.
"We can issue rules and regulations all the time, but it has to be the students taking a stand," she said. "Often, telling them not to do something is the kiss of death."
Fraternity members know not to distribute alcohol at rush events, said Fred Dobry, director of risk reduction for Sigma Nu Fraternity, Inc., which is based in Lexington, Va., and has a chapter at Duke.
"We take allegations of misconduct very seriously," said Dobry, who had not heard about the Duke progressive party issue until this week. "We promote and teach our chapters to use a values-based recruitment model. Obviously, alcohol isn't part of the values."
Latest black eye
For many at Duke, this talk of ribald fraternity parties is the latest headache. It follows closely on a November plea to students for better conduct from President Richard Brodhead that was prompted by incidents including the ending of Tailgate, a drunken party prior to home football games. Duke pulled the plug after the teenage sibling of a student was discovered, passed out, in a portable toilet.
Officials insist this behavior is neither unique to Duke nor indicative of the current campus culture.
"There are [these] behaviors on campuses around the country, and I dare you to find one where I won't find an example of this," Moneta said. "This is not the vast Duke experience. What distinguishes us is that we have a group of Duke students who say it won't be acceptable."