Sigma Chi president Clay Wooley and student Abby Bruce discuss how to positively address sexual harassment on the Ole Miss campus. Credit: Larrison Campbell, Mississippi Today

OXFORD — Five days after her Facebook post accusing the Sigma Chi fraternity of sexual harassment went viral, attracting national headlines and launching a Title IX investigation on campus, Ole Miss sophomore Abby Bruce sat in a classroom across from the fraternity’s president, Clay Wooley. Between them, Bruce’s computer was open to a Google document with pages of ideas for changing the climate of gender discrimination on campus.

Flying largely under the radar of the administration and the fraternities and sororities publicly addressing this issue, Bruce and Wooley met Tuesday and Wednesday nights, along with Bruce’s friend Alexis Smith, a sophomore, and Wooley’s friend Taylor Treece, a junior. They said they had created this informal group to take advantage of the discussions springing up in the wake of Friday’s incident.

“It’s about keeping up the conversation, not letting it die, especially through the summer,” Smith said. “There’s got to be a group of students who are dedicated to being leaders in this movement and continue pushing it forward, and I think there are students who are very dedicated here.”

Bruce, who is a member of a campus sorority, wrote the post early Saturday morning after leaving a Friday night dance competition for Derby Days, Sigma Chi’s annual philanthropic event in which sororities compete against each other in several activities. She said she and other female students were too disturbed by the sexually suggestive questions being asked women representing their sororities to stay through the event.  By Saturday afternoon, her post had been shared on Facebook more than 1,000 times.

Bruce and Wooley may seem like unlikely allies, but Bruce said she wrote her post on Saturday hoping to change the climate of the Greek system, not dismantle it. Wooley, for his part, said he’s eager to address each of these issues.

“A lot of people are surprised I’m not just trying to sweep it under the rug. But I don’t want people to stop talking about this,” Wooley said. “I’ve been walking around with a smile on my face this morning for the first time since Friday, and it’s because I think we’re really going to do something to make things better.”

Other students, however, are more cynical that change will come to a male-dominated dynamic they said is as old as Greek life itself.

Although many students said they were surprised to see or hear of fraternity members harassing their female classmates in such a public forum, few were surprised that harassment occurs. Females in every class told stories of hearing sexually suggestive comments yelled by fraternity brothers from car windows or going to a fraternity party and having a guy they thought of as a friend make an offensive remark to them.

“Sexual harassment is part of the culture,” said freshman Courtney Elliott. “I think that’s why a lot of girls don’t join sororities.”

Derby Days are the “epitome of all the problems,” Bruce said. “It is not just an isolated case of all the issues that brought it to light. It does a very good job, if you want to call it that, of showing how everything is interconnected here.”

Approximately 35 percent of students at Ole Miss are members of fraternities and sororities, according to the office of student affairs. But many students and administrators acknowledge that their influence is much stronger than that minority percentage would suggest.

“I don’t think they do a good job as the biggest voice on their campus, and I think as a group we can change that,” said Treece, who is not a fraternity member.

The negative attention generated by the Derby Days incident had a ring of truth familiar to many students and faculty. In February 2014, three members of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity were arrested for hanging a noose on the neck of a statue of James Meredith on the campus. Meredith was the first black student admitted to the university.

Some at the university said that the dialogue generated by the backlash to the incident made the school better at handling sensitive racial issues, such as the decision to take down the state flag. In October, student senators voted 33-15 to have the university remove the banner because it contains the confederate emblem.

“It had a positive impact,” said Dr. Charles Eagles, a history professor at Ole Miss. “The awareness of everybody, particularly people in the administration, is raised when an issue like that gets a lot of negative publicity.”

Still, Treece said, its important to take advantage of each event individually.

“I think the flag being taken down helped bring the campus together in a very special way, but I think that was almost momentary. I don’t think there was much longevity to that,” Treece said. “I don’t think we need incidents like the James Meredith statue to know what basic human rights are. But that’s why we’re meeting right now. Regardless of whether or not the university takes advantage of this moment, the students definitely are.”

Some faculty members cautioned that it will take more than one incident of bad publicity to change a Greek culture almost as old as the university itself.

“Did this surprise me? No. Disappoint me? Sure,” said Carrie V. Smith, a professor of psychology who taught a class last semester on gender and Greek culture. “And why I say not surprising, when I go and teach this class, I’m not striving real hard to find things to talk about. There’s a reason gender and the Greek system are kind of at this confluence.”

“I think that there’s a lot of people who say “ban Derby Days. I don’t know if that’s the right answer. Can we make it better? Yes,” said Smith.

The university administration says it is trying to take advantage of the dialogue incited by this event to make the fraternities a safer space for women. At 7 a.m. Wednesday, Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Brandi Hepner Labanc called students on the Interfraternity Council as well as presidents of all IFC fraternities to a meeting and handed them a page of issues the administration has asked each fraternity to address before the next school year.

Still, Hepner Labanc said that while the university can offer guidelines, she thinks the burden for change needs to rest with the students themselves.

“It was looking in general at what I’m seeing coming out of fraternity events. I don’t want to generalize but there’s been bad behavior and that’s not what they’re about,” Hepner Labanc said. “So I told them I’m taking a taking a leap of faith here. I am extending a lot of trust to you all and I hope and pray that I don’t have egg on my face because I could be criticized for this approach.”

Neither the administration nor the members of Sigma Chi has suggested cancelling next year’s event. But Wooley acknowledged that another one of the group’s priorities would be making significant changes to it, possibly by opening the competition to fraternities or students outside the Greek system. Bruce acknowledged that the current structure, where sororities compete against each other for the benefit of one fraternity, is inherently unequal.

As Bruce typed into the Google doc, Wooley went to the dry erase board and began writing another list of fraternity-specific issues.

“As we’re talking, I’m having trouble visualizing how we’re going to make changes to the culture here, while also changing Derby Days,” Bruce said. ” But that being said, if it can be done, I won’t be disappointed.”

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Larrison Campbell is a Greenville native who reports on politics with an emphasis on public health. She received a bachelor’s from Wesleyan University and a master’s from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.Larrison is a 2018 National Press Foundation fellow in public health, a 2019 Blue Cross Blue Shield Foundation of Massachusetts fellow in health care reporting and a 2019 Center for Health Journalism National Fellow.

One reply on “Students confront sexual harassment beyond Derby Days”

  1. as an observer, there appears to be a pattern. Greek system raises a ton of money for philanthropy – good. But Charity Bowl, Diamond Days, and Derby Days (and probably others?) seem to be set up for the men to enjoy the event (play the football game or watch in front row seats) the women to do the thousands of hours in skit and cheer preparation, and the men to sit in judgement to determine the best acts. Not good. Sororities should wake up and plan their own charity events where they get 100% of the credit.

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