Within the past week, the six active members of Phi Kappa Sigma (Phi Kaps) chose to disband after 84 years. This marks the second time a Greek organization has dissolved during the past academic year, following the disbanding of Kenyon’s Delta Phi chapter earlier this fall.
“It’s really unfortunate,” said Phi Kappa Sigma President Pearson Hague ’22. “It took a lot of talking through, and having to be open and honest about where the chapter is, where it’s been and where it’s possibly going.”
The group’s decision came after a disappointing 2021 fall recruitment season, in which Phi Kappa Sigma received no new members; this followed three consecutive recruitment cycles disrupted by COVID-19. According to Evan Wagner ’22, a member of Delta Tau Delta (Delts) and vice president of Greek Council, this loss is concerning for Greek life as a whole.
“This is unfortunate for all the groups,” said Wagner. “We want to make sure Greek life is healthy in all respects, and the success of all groups depends on the success of individual [groups].”
Interest in Greek life at Kenyon has broadly decreased over the past five years, with cumulative recruitment numbers falling from the high 170s in 2016 to 141 in fall 2021 despite significant growth in the student body. This comes as the Kenyon population has increased nearly 20% since 2014. While small incoming classes are nothing new for the Phi Kaps, Hague saw this semester as a critical juncture for the organization’s future.
“The Phi Kaps have always been a smaller group,” Hague said. “When I joined in the fall of 2019, we were sitting at about 10 members and then we got a pledge class of five, which was a big deal. … We just didn’t see the organization continuing in a healthy spot [after fall recruitment] — we’ve got two juniors and four seniors.”
Opportunities to meet incoming first years and sophomores interested in Greek life have been limited during the COVID-19 pandemic, which hampered Phi Kaps’ ability to attract new members. Hague also emphasized that the transition to remote recruitment and rising dues for members were important factors in their disbandment, although this semester’s recruitment was in-person.
“Virtual recruitment doesn’t really work unless you’re at a bigger school with stronger ties to other organizations on campus. … Dues have [also] become a significant burden on folks. The financial commitment is intense,” Hague said. “One of the big reasons that [potential members] have dropped was because of the financial dues.”
While the Phi Kappa Sigma International Fraternity reduced dues temporarily, they returned to pre-pandemic rates this fall.
Particularly amidst the disruptions caused by COVID-19, Hague recognized that first years and sophomores might choose to join larger Greek organizations, which are more visible on campus.
“Our plans at the beginning of the semester were to throw a couple house shows, throw a couple more events, but we went right into a quiet period,” Hague said. “First years want to be a part of something that’s already established, already has ties to a handful of other things going on on campus. So [larger] groups like [Alpha Delta Phi], Delts and [Beta Theta Pi] are finding success right now.”
Hague also mentioned these groups have recognizable buildings affiliated with their organization, and may have an easier time offsetting dues through their larger membership and sizable alumni networks. Losing touch with alumni was another devastating byproduct of the pandemic for Phi Kaps. Before COVID-19, Phi Kap alumni would return to Kenyon in the spring, to participate in initiation and connect with new members.
“That just hasn’t happened,” Hague said.
Wagner sees the departure of the Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity as part of a trend of larger Greek organizations growing bigger, and smaller organizations struggling.
“I think during the pandemic, there was simply less of that opportunity to connect with the current freshmen and sophomores,” Wagner said. “Larger groups [got larger] and the smaller groups are getting smaller.”
Recent College policies are also changing the landscape for Greek organizations; the College’s decision to ban new local Greek organizations on campus in 2020 has reduced options for groups trying to detach from national organizations for the purposes of lowering dues and changing traditions.
Despite the group’s formal disbandment, Hague remains optimistic about the future and the strength of the connections formed in Phi Kappa Sigma.
“We’re all still friends, we’re all still going to hang out,” said Hague. “I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault — that’s been the hardest to accept. … It’s just the situation we were handed and we did the best we could.”