The acronym “CAFSA” didn’t mean anything one year ago. But as summer ended and students returned to Penn for the fall semester, mentions of CAFSA appeared in flashes. A poster by the elevator in Harnwell. A recommended account to follow on Instagram. It started slow, but the group’s presence was soon impossible to ignore. On October 30, students walking past Van Pelt saw a bloody sheet, the Button plastered with posters, and a mattress covered in clothes and a sign that read “IT WAS NOT CONSENSUAL.”
The Coalition Against Fraternity Sexual Assault (CAFSA) aims to shock. The anonymous testimonials on its website have much the same effect, documenting instances of harassment, racism, hazing, and assault from fraternities on Locust Walk. But the upsetting nature of CAFSA’s website and protests have a purpose. For members of CAFSA, the prominent presence of fraternities on Locust Walk is a shocking reminder to survivors of the trauma they’ve experienced.
“The fact that people functionally are required to walk past sites of trauma is a problem,” says Claire Medina (C’22), a CAFSA board member. “If you get assaulted at one of [the fraternities], you can’t avoid it.”
CAFSA was founded in the spring of 2019 as a movement with the mission of transforming “fraternities on Locust Walk into cultural and wellness centers in order to foster positive and safe environments for students with minority and historically underrepresented identities,” according to their website.
Their demands include diversifying Locust Walk by giving space to cultural centers like PAACH, La Casa Latina, and Makuu, and wellness environments such as Penn Violence Prevention (PVP) and a satellite Counseling and Psychological Services center. They also call for the University of Pennsylvania to implement Callisto, a sexual assault recording and reporting system that helps survivors detect perpetrators.
The 6B, Penn’s main minority coalition, currently works directly with the administration to try and achieve some of these demands. The 6B consists of the Asian Pacific Student Coalition (APSC), Latinx Coalition, Lambda Alliance, Penn Association for Gender Equity, United Minorities Council, and UMOJA. Though there’s significant overlap between students in 6B and CAFSA, CAFSA advocates for a different approach—it hopes to work outside of administration and partake in direct action on campus such as sit–ins and protests to gain support, according to CAFSA affiliate Tanya Jain (C’20).
Like many universities, the issue of sexual violence is prevalent at Penn. The 2019 AAU climate survey reported that from 2015 to 2019, the percent of undergraduate women who had experienced sexual assault declined from 27.2 to 25.9, less than a two percent decrease. Meanwhile, the percent of undergraduate men who’d experienced nonconsensual sexual contact increased from 5.5 to 7.3 percent. The survey also reported that 28.6 percent of such cases occurred in fraternity houses, the most frequent location on campus.
The criticism of fraternities’ prevalence on Locust isn’t new. However, the issue’s complexity—involving competing interests with regards to land and the broader issue of sexual violence on campus—makes it one that’s not easy to solve. Though there’s a diverse range of perspectives among student groups and administrations, for CAFSA members, their vision of recentering minorities and wellness spaces on campus is one that’s worth fighting for.
Fraternities occupy significant real estate on Locust. As of this semester, 24 of the 32 fraternity and sorority houses are operated by the University, which means they’re owned by Penn or leased from University City Associates, according to an email from VPUL Chief of Staff and Chief Communications Officer Monica Yant Kinney.
Eleven of the 24 houses are owned by the University. This includes Kappa Sigma, Phi Gamma Delta (FIJI), and Psi Upsilon (Castle).
Another 11 of the 24 houses “have Reversionary agreements, meaning that Penn has title ownership, but not equity ownership. Legal agreements dating to the 1920s state that if the buildings ceases to house fraternities, Penn must use those buildings for student housing or pay fair market value to purchase,” according to the email. This includes Delta Phi (St. Elmo) and Phi Delta Theta. Eight of the 32 houses are privately owned, including Alpha Chi Rho (“Crows”) and Delta Psi (St. A’s).
Phi Kappa Sigma (Skulls), an inactive fraternity, is privately owned by the organization and leased to Penn “for temporary use by tenants such as Office of General Counsel, PVP, and Undergraduate Admissions. The owners have the ultimate authority to determine utilization, per zoning,” according to the email.
All of the fraternity houses listed above are located on Locust. Their various ownership statuses make CAFSA’s goal of evicting the fraternities and replacing them with cultural and wellness centers practically difficult.
Despite the long odds, CAFSA has garnered support from groups across campus who feel like they aren’t being heard by Penn’s administration. CAFSA has built up a coalition of 27 organizations who support its mission, including all 6B organizations except for the United Minorities Council, as well as various cultural, political, and LGBTQ groups. CAFSA hopes to leverage this student support “into pressure that is unignorable,” Claire says.
In 1991, the Committee to Diversity Locust Walk published a report urging the University to take steps to relocate fraternities off of Locust. If Penn wanted to maintain a community of “equal access and opportunity,” it wrote, “it could no longer ignore the symbol and the reality of exclusivity and, too often, incivility, that stood at its physical heart.”
Though what CAFSA’s pushing isn’t novel in itself, Claire says it’s still important to act now. “I've been assaulted at a frat house,” they say. “My friends have been assaulted at frat houses.”
Claire adds, “We're all only here for four years, and I don't want to spend my four years uncomfortable and unsafe and unhappy.”
Creating more space for cultural centers is just as important a part of CAFSA’s mission as moving the fraternities out. Currently, three of Penn’s cultural centers Makuu, La Casa Latina, and the Pan Asian American Community House (PAACH) share the basement of the ARCH on Locust.
In January’s University Council meeting, Penn administration offered the groups in ARCH the ability to expand to ARCH’s upper floors, according to both Sarah Kim (C’21), the chair of the Asian Pacific Student Coalition (APSC), and the meeting minutes. However, members of the 6B were hesitant to accept. To them, it indicated that their long–term goal of moving into a house on Locust would be less likely.
They ultimately rejected the offer. Administrators “were acting like they were giving us a lot of space, but in reality, they weren't,” says Kim. ARCH is also home to the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships (CURF), Ben Franklin Scholars, University Scholars, and Student Performing Arts.
“They told us that we're next in line to fundraise for space, but one, it might be on Locust and two, that could take years,” says Kim.
However, Kim notes the importance of recognizing that APSC and CAFSA aren’t anti–frat, but pro–culture and wellness. Brennan Burns (C’20), who spoke as a representative for CAFSA at a University Council Open Forum last December, echoes that CAFSA’s goals aren’t about abolishing Greek life, though people generally perceive it to be much more “radical than what it’s trying to be.”
Tamara Wurman (C’22), a Daily Pennsylvanian multimedia staffer and the Vice President of Penn Democrats, the latter of which is also part of the Coalition, says that a majority of their board is involved in Greek life in some capacity. But for reforms to happen, she says, “it requires a critical mass of students signing on, and that must include people who either have no problem with Greek life or are in it themselves.”
Responses to CAFSA haven’t always been as positive, particularly from those involved in Greek life. From the spring of their freshman year to the fall of their sophomore year, Claire was a member of the Alpha Delta Phi Society, which is under the Interfraternity Council (IFC), one of three governing bodies of Greek life at Penn. They remember a meeting they attended with the heads of the IFC in October of 2019—right after the AAU climate survey came out. The “general lack of gravity” with which these results were addressed made Claire uncomfortable.
At this meeting, various IFC elected officials said they were scared the “CAFSA problem” would harm their reputation on–campus, as well as recruitment efforts. They wanted to put together a committee to fix the “image problem,” Claire remembers.
Moreover, a lot of the meeting surrounded fraternity members’ indignance at the fact that they weren’t allowed to throw beer games in their houses, which they thought was a “violation of autonomy,” Claire says. At the end of the meeting, Claire remembers an Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life representative telling the fraternities they’d made enough progress on issues like sexual assault that they could afford “to focus on the little things like beer games.”
From there, Claire tried to spearhead the process of having the Alpha Delta Phi Society leave IFC, though members were hesitant, citing “concerns about institutional privilege” and “interpersonal benefits that we were going to be losing.”
The way this was handled ultimately convinced Claire to leave the fraternity. Brennan, the former president of the same fraternity, also de–brothered.
Since its creation in the spring of 2019, CAFSA has mostly worked underground, though, in January, a few members decided to forgo their anonymity. The Coalition originally functioned anonymously because of a “fear of reprisal” from the Penn administration, Brennan says, claiming that Penn has a “contentious relationship” with groups who have advocated for political change in the past.
Sarah Payne (C’22) worked as a liaison for CAFSA last year and currently works on the board of Abuse and Sexual Assault Prevention (ASAP), a student awareness group. At the time, it didn’t feel right for CAFSA not to be anonymous, due to fraternities’ deeply entrenched institutional power at Penn, according to Payne. Specifically, members were scared they’d get marks on their transcripts or that the University would leverage their power in ways that would hurt individuals. Payne says ASAP is still hesitant to be too involved in CAFSA, since doing so might jeopardize their staff advisor’s position.
But at this point, Claire says CAFSA is confident that they have enough support for some members to reveal their identities, though it’s important for others to still remain anonymous to “carry on that institutional knowledge” if anyone “does get screwed over.” Brennan and Claire claim that Penn has already tried to weaken the credibility of the organization, citing instances of mischaracterization on the part of the administration.
"Penn is trying to misrepresent CAFSA on some levels, particularly the amount of communication that they have,” Brennan says. In the Jan. 29 University Council meeting, the administration stated how it “has offered to bring CAFSA and Greek student leaders together for a joint discussion; however, CAFSA has declined,” according to the Jan. 29 University Council minutes.
Claire, Brennan, and Tanya say Penn administration hadn’t contacted CAFSA before the meeting on Jan. 29. In fact, Penn administration reached out to CAFSA on Feb. 10, according to Claire, though they didn’t ask them to meet with fraternity leadership—only to sit down with administration. CAFSA has not yet responded to administration.
Tanya, who has also worked with Penn administration on 6B, says that although she thinks the administration “can be allies” and was proactive in calling up meetings with the 6B, no concrete steps were taken. These meetings with 6B, Greek leaders, and administration “were really frustrating and didn’t seem to lead anywhere,” Tanya says.
On Feb. 12, Penn Violence Prevention, a program under VPUL, moved back onto Locust, following backlash from students when it moved from 3539 Locust Walk to 3535 Market St. last September due to "limited campus space.” Though this is an “important first step,” Payne also wonders “if it’s the easiest thing that they can do to save face.”
Nonetheless, Malik Washington, the director of PVP, says he’s seen substantial progress in sexual violence prevention at Penn, especially since PVP’s inception in 2014. In the past six years, PVP has grown from one person to three, though they’re looking to hire two more.
Specifically, PVP works closely with Penn Anti–Violence Educators (PAVE), a peer education student group “focused on how to be an active bystander,” according to the VPUL website. Other efforts that PVP is working on include making Thrive at Penn more targeted toward combatting sexual violence in addition to putting on “Speak About It,” a scripted performance about consent education and sexual assault prevention that’s shown every year at NSO.
However, CAFSA says that “‘Speak About It’ is not enough.” The group wants to expand mandatory education programs about consent for all students.
Specifically regarding PVP’s work with fraternities, Washington says that education requirements for all new IFC members now include going through a Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault (MARS) presentation.
Matthew Sydney (C’22), who’s a member of Sigma Alpha Mu, says these presentations have helped create a “certain pressure” from everyone in the fraternity to make sure all the brothers are “upholding these standards.”
Washington personally works with chapters “on issues about masculinity, gender, and interpersonal violence,” and he encourages students and “particularly members of fraternity chapters to see themselves as leaders and recognize the responsibilities that they have.”
However, Washington notes the importance of not excluding other narratives about sexual violence on campus by confining PVP’s focus to “male fraternity members or athletes,” he says. “We want to make sure that the narrative is always inclusive of everybody's experiences.”
Though Washington isn’t involved with CAFSA, he says PVP is “always supportive of students who are advocating,” and he encourages people to be passionate about these issues.
In the past few months, the response to CAFSA has gotten better, Brennan says. As some fraternities “listen genuinely to what CAFSA is trying to say, they're realizing this is actually not a really scary set of changes.”
Due to the new housing policy that requires all sophomores to live on campus starting with Class of 2024 students, fraternity houses will be more empty than they are now. “If less people are living there,” Kim asks, “isn’t it also wasted space in some ways?”
In light of this, pushing for fraternities to not be abolished but rather moved off campus where they’re not occupying “such a prominent space on Locust is not a super radical change,” Brennan says.
The reaction to CAFSA within the Greek life community has been diverse. Louis Galarowicz (C ‘21), IFC president, says that while the organization supports CAFSA’s efforts to create a greater dialogue around sexual assault, the IFC doesn’t agree with the “forcible removal” of fraternities from Locust Walk.
“Many IFC members are troubled by CAFSA’s persistent framing of this issue as a fraternity problem,” he wrote in an email to Street, adding that focusing on fraternities prevents CAFSA from addressing the broader issue of sexual assault. He also emphasized the need for individuals to be accountable for their actions.
“Change will come when more individual students choose to hold others accountable and be personally responsible for preventing sexual misconduct,” he wrote.
Sahitya Mandalapu (W’21), president of the Panhellenic Council, is also skeptical that removing fraternities from Locust Walk will decrease sexual assault.
“One fear I have is that taking fraternities off of Locust Walk will only push sexual violence further away from campus and create an even more dangerous, off–campus environment,” she wrote in an email.
But Claire says that a few fraternities—including some under the IFC—have reached out to CAFSA about joining the Coalition as well as putting forth public support for the adoption of Callisto. Though fraternities have largely not cooperated with CAFSA, Claire hopes that the organization will grow to be a “cross–University mobilizing force,” much like movements like Fossil Free Penn and the Student Labor Action Project (SLAP).
CAFSA also wants to focus on community building. Since survivors come from all backgrounds, the organization wants to ensure it coordinates in their efforts to be as unified as possible. It also seeks to continue hosting town halls to discuss fraternities as institutional bodies, as well as what it expects from fraternities that are not on Locust, Claire says. Likewise, Kim adds that members of APSC hope to put pressure on administration by encouraging alumni to write letters.
Right now, however, conversations about what long–term benefits Greek life provides are “longer and more difficult conversations that we’re not necessarily trying to answer”, Claire says.
Though pushing fraternities off campus definitely doesn’t eliminate the sexual violence that occurs in them, CAFSA believes relocating these fraternities will help eliminate the idea that these fraternities are “institutions of Penn that you can’t avoid,” Claire says. In this way, CAFSA hopes to reduce fraternities’ ability to “leverage power over other people in ways that lead to sexual violence.”
Currently, fraternities on Locust are as unavoidable as ever. For some students, they’re places to live, study, and party. For others, they’re places of trauma. Sandwiched between class buildings, cultural centers, research labs, and dorms are houses stamped with Greek letters.
ATO. Harnwell. Sig Chi. Commons. Huntsman. McNeil. Kappa Sigma. Phi Delt. Steiny-D. Castle.