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Letter sparks campus fraternity debate

After a group of women led by Bethany Hindmarsh submitted a letter to KSU council about King’s-based fraternity Kappa Alpha on Jan. 26, people on both sides found themselves under a sometimes uncomfortable spotlight.

[box type=”info”]DISCLOSURE: Though he has no editorial influence, our current treasurer Quinn Harrington is a member of Kappa Alpha, the fraternity discussed in this article. [/box]

The University of King’s College A&A Building. (Photo: Evan McIntyre)

An hour in council. Sixty-three comments on watchmagazine.ca. Snide remarks. Direct threats.
One letter.
After a group of women led by Bethany Hindmarsh submitted a letter to KSU council about King’s-based fraternity Kappa Alpha on Jan. 26, people on both sides found themselves under a sometimes uncomfortable spotlight.
Conversation was all Hindmarsh had in mind for her letter when she first wrote it. However, many are feeling the heat.
Hindmarsh said the women who signed the letter were accused of being “a kind of secret feminist cabal.” The women were unwilling to speak on the record about threats a number of them have also received.
“Our guys haven’t been attacked, but it’s definitely been just sort of all around us, this discussion,” Kappa Alpha member Matt Buckman said.
“But I think that’s incredibly valuable, and to a certain extent people on campus have a right to be curious, and we’ll be accommodating in answering questions they have, but same time, we are a private organization, we’re also entitled to our privacy.”
As well, King’s students in sororities – particularly Omega Pi according to Dalhousie’s Greek Council president Evan Hallward – felt targeted by Hindmarsh’s letter.
The letter didn’t come as a surprise to the KA, though.
“Honestly, I’ve been expecting something like this for a while,” Matt Buckman, a member of the KA, said.
“We’ve had a lot of discussion with people that were uncomfortable with this on campus. A lot of long discussions pertaining to the same things that came out of that letter. I think it’s actually incredibly valuable that it’s out in the open now, and that we can have public discussions with people.”

“I think there just needs to be a disassociation between the typical understanding of fraternities and what fraternities can actually be.”

-Matt Buckman, Kappa Alpha member

The Kappa Alpha Society, established in the United States in 1825, was the first college fraternity following structure of initiation, symbolism and chapters. The chapter established at King’s and Dalhousie in 2009 currently has 15 members, composed of mostly King’s students, and meets in an apartment for poetry readings, dinner and drinking.
But in recent months as a junior don in Alex Hall, Hindmarsh has heard and experienced women on campus being threatened, not feeling safe at fraternity parties, being spoken to in a demeaning manner and being excluded, she said.
The Risk Management Policy for the Kappa Alpha society states it “does not tolerate or condone any form of sexist or sexually abusive behavior on the part of its members, whether physical, mental or emotional” and includes any demeaning actions to either men or women in this definition.
“I truly think the fact that women are excluded from that group on its own, that it’s a secret group from which women are excluded, that’s tied to a history of a kind of culture, and history of fraternity life in North America that’s kind of problematic, that in itself is a reason to be concerned,” Hindmarsh said.
“Not least because it provides the basis for all of the other, more concrete violations, large and small, mental and otherwise.”
However, she said these violations were not indicative of every member in the society, and each person should regarded as an individual – something that members of the Kappa Alpha also seem to agree on.
“I’d honestly just ask that everybody sort of judge KA based on the individuals that are in KA. I mean, it’s pretty well known, I think, who’s in it,” Buckman said.
“We’re a pretty small, tiny community – King’s is – we all know each other, we all talk to each other, we’re all friends.”
Hindmarsh said her letter primarily focused on the structure and influence of fraternity culture rather than on particular examples from the KA.
“The criticism that there weren’t enough concrete examples was surprising, because it was for the sake of the members of the frat that I didn’t offer them,” she said.
“A lot of those examples are anecdotal, they’re circumstantial and they’re sensitive.”
Hindmarsh said the structure of the fraternity gave certain members “license and reinforcement to engage in the type of behaviours that are ultimately really not helpful to women on this campus.”
“The nature of what I see to be the fraternity structure is to reinforce already existing social hierarchies and a lot of ways people flaunt privileges that they already have received in virtue of being cisgendered, heterosexual, largely white males.”
Hindmarsh’s views on the structure and perception of fraternities were the focus of much of the discussion surrounding the letter.
“I felt they very much, more than anything generalized the Greek system and Greek organizations,” Hallward said. His Greek Council is comprised of members of all fraternities and sororities at King’s and Dalhousie, although notably not Kappa Alpha.
“That is, every fraternity, every sorority is like this, like that, which is very much not the case. Even though we work together and collaborate, and have a lot of things in common organizationally, we’re very different, we’re very individual organizations, every individual has its kind of own culture, personality, they have their own set of values, functionality.”
Buckman agreed, the letter “accus(ed) the culture, but us(ed) us as an example.”
“I don’t think we’re a very good example of the fraternity culture that they’re discussing.”
Tara Antle, Omega Pi sorority vice-president, agreed the KA is an unusual fraternity.
“My concern about Kappa Alpha is how everything can be so secret,” Antle said.
“I think with groups you really need to be public and semi-transparent about what you’re doing, let people know what they’re getting into. You can’t be exclusive like that.”
“We’re as secret as any fraternity aims to be,” Buckman said in response to that statement. “I think most of that understanding comes from the fact that we’re not members of the Greek Council and don’t necessarily associate with other fraternities or sororities as such.”
Buckman calls the KA “a bunch of guys that read and drink together.” Their website reflects this description: the KA describes itself as based in “the spirited interaction of intellectual debate.”
However, this only attempts to move the target of the conversation, according to Hindmarsh.
“When they say, ‘Oh, we’re just a literary society, we’re not a fratty group,’ then it’s actually even more sensitive to suggest that women can’t read literature with you,” she said. “So, when the conversation moves the target in that way, it doesn’t shift out of a misogynistic tone.”
The idea of opening up the fraternity to women has been discussed within the KA, according to Buckman, and some of the conversations have “become very heated at times.”
“I’d be open to it,” Buckman said, “but it’s not something that can happen with the snap of a finger. It’s going to take a couple years to get the right people on board.”
“There’s always going to be resistance to a big amount of change, especially in a society that is all about tradition.”
Although Hindmarsh is happy to see the fraternity discussing ways to make it “more just from the inside,” she said this was not her goal.
“Ultimately what I want to see is members of the frat leaving it. … I have no interest in shutting them down; that seems like way too much energy for me. And what people do in their free time is their business.”
“What I’m interested in is the conversations with our colleagues, where we say ‘You’re involvement in this is probably not a good thing for campus,’ and they listen, and they think about it, and they leave.”

By David J. Shuman

David is a second-year journalism student at King's, is engagement/news editor of The Watch, and a copy editor of The Pigeon. He writes on student politics, campus happenings, and school news. 

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