West Campus has been my home for the past several months since I transferred to UT Austin. Nestled gently between the Alpha Delta Pi house and Zeta Beta Tau house, I fell asleep most nights to the ambience of drunk college kids’ fervent yelling and tipsy sing-a-longs. While West Campus is located less than a mile away from the university itself, it often feels like a city of its own, separate from the outside world. It seems to be an untouchable bubble in which the laws do not apply, and its inhabitants operate in a Wild West fashion. However, this lawlessness was interrupted when Austin’s local news station KVUE deemed West Campus a ‘hot spot’ for COVID-19 due to the high number of cases spreading around the area. The cause: 49 members of Panhellenic and Interfraternity Greek life.
Members of Alpha Phi, Pi Phi, Zeta Beta Tau, and Texas Zeta, among others, have all contributed to the spread. This spike in COVID-19 cases was sparked by a decision made by a group of 211 college students, many of which were involved in Greek life, to take a spring break vacation to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. When the group returned on March 11, 28 of the students tested positive for the virus, a number that later increased to 49 cases, adding to West Campus’s overall infected population of over 200 people. While an official declaration of quarantine had not yet been set, UT’s extended spring break had already been announced at that point due to fear regarding the growing number of cases. Considering the university’s official messages, these students were certainly at least partially aware that there was a rapidly spreading virus but chose to prioritize their vacation to Mexico regardless. The decision to move forward with this trip was pushed heavily by the travel agency planning the vacation, JusCollege. Reportedly, the students were told that despite the growing number of infections, they would be perfectly safe on their trip and were urged to continue. This decision would ultimately affect the health of not only a good portion of the spring breakers, but their entire local neighborhood, making it difficult for other West Campus inhabitants to live in or return to their homes due to the amount of cases. The lack of consideration on the part of the members of these Greek organizations has caused a great deal of pain for their community, something very tragic but unfortunately not unusual for UT’s Panhellenic and Interfraternity Greek life.
While this specific incident is unprecedented, it does reflect a certain trend among participants in the Greek life community. Sororities and fraternities have, at times, been unfairly misrepresented by pop-culture stereotypes, and I do not mean to malign these organizations without cause. I do, however, mean to use the information available to make the insinuation that many members of these Panhellenic and Interfraternity organizations can and have exhibited a lack of accountability. I make this assumption based on evidence from past accounts of these Panhellenic and Interfraternity Greek organization members showcasing reckless, uncaring, and sometimes openly malicious behavior. A prime example of this occurred in the fall of 2012, when several students of color reported being attacked with bleach-filled water balloons when passing particular frat and sorority houses in West Campus. While multiple protests occurred in response to these actions, the perpetrators of this racist crime were never investigated any further. Similarly, Panhellenic sororities and Interfraternity frats have become notorious for throwing a plethora of racist parties and events, with one particular sorority being made to apologize for dawning a duo costume consisting of two T-shirts saying the words IMMIGRANT and BORDER PATROL during a ‘fiesta’ themed party. Many of these inconsiderate actions have been punished with a slap on the hand from UT’s administration. Although a simple trip to Cabo over spring break does not compare to the malicious nature of these acts in punishability, they do reveal a similarity in mindset. It seems that the perpetrators of these acts and the individuals who went to Cabo share a mindset that they are above the typical repercussions of carelessness. These spring breakers showed no consideration for the repercussions of the trip in the same way the individuals involved in these racist events seemingly had no consideration for the consequences they would face. There are many theories as to where this privileged behavior comes from. Mine is that of elitism, the idea that because you are richer, you are greater than those below you in economic standing, and therefore exist in a world above the rules.
While simply stating that all sorority sisters and frat brothers are upper class would be remiss, as a quick look at their dues system will provide sufficient evidence that the majority of them are. Semesterly dues for most Panhellenic and Interfraternity Greek organizations average $2,000, with some reaching $5,000. This is not to say that every member of these Greek orgs has their financial situation handed to them. Many Greek org members do have to pay their own way into the organizations. However, to put such a large amount of money into something like a Greek organization implies at least some level of financial security, a security that unites these members in a shared sense of elite status. It is no coincidence then that the majority of crimes/reckless behaviors associated with these UT Austin frats and sororities are skillfully covered up by UT’s administration. Panhellenic and Interfraternity Greek life is representative of UT’s upper-class elites, and a portion of UT’s financial security. To hold these Greek organizations accountable is to anger a very powerful demographic that could retaliate in a devastating way. Greek organizations have the air of being above the law because they essentially are above the law due to their economic standing.
Whether the cause be elitism or not, the reckless behavior of these individual Greek org members has reached a dangerous level. While a variety of subtly to aggressively racist antics may be brushed off as “minor” offenses to UT’s authority figures, the rampant spread of a dangerous virus is not something the university can get away with ignoring. This is what the Greek org members that made the Cabo trip this spring break are learning at the moment, as they witness the slow decay of West Campus as cases spread. As of now, the zip code 78705, which includes West Campus, contains a higher number of cases than any other zip code in Travis County. This has especially served as a situation for West Campus’s unique living dynamic that looks like student housing, but does not possess the cohesion of student housing. This has caused a great deal of anxiety and confusion for West Campus inhabitants who have not tested positive for the virus. One student reported to KXAN that knowing she had neighbors who had tested positive leads to a heightened sense of concern, confusion, and paranoia.
When the individual members of these Greek organizations made the decision to travel to Mexico during a pandemic, they did so with the assumption that their privilege would follow them there. Needless to say, it did not. As a result, the greater West Campus area now suffers from ‘hot spot’ status. This status is only greater dreaded due to the fact that there are very limited resources for COVID-19 relief to begin with. Austin Public Health has reported receiving 1,000 testing kits from the U.S. Department of Health and Services, which covers only about 2% of UT’s undergraduate population. In addition, many hurdles must be jumped in order to receive testing, including a screening and official referral. These extra requirements only make it harder for UT Austin students in West Campus to receive testing, contributing to the uncertainty regarding the rate of spreading as well as the paranoia experienced by West Campus inhabitants regarding their safety. This dilemma has plagued West Campus with a different type of untouchability. This untouchability comes from the fact that no one wishes to go near West Campus, shutting its inhabitants off to certain resources necessary to ward off or heal from the virus.
There is no doubt that the 211 college students who took this fateful trip do not represent the greater world of Greek life. There are unquestionably members of these Greek orgs who would have found such a trip absurd in the current circumstances. However, there does seem to be a common thread in the various incidents attributed to members of Greek organizations. That thread is an air of feeling as though they can get away with anything. What these students are unaware of is that fact that the Alpha Pi constitution does not mention immunity from viruses, and no amount of string pulling, trust-fund toting, or social media clout will be able to change that matter. It is time we hold these members of the Panhellenic and Interfraternity Greek circles accountable for their actions that affect all members of the UT Austin community, and quash this air of being above the law before we are all touched by the virus they have so carelessly introduced into our West Campus community.