Dumped: Inside DePauw’s Sorority Meltdown

In all honesty, Carolyn Thatcher, a senior theater major at DePauw University, doesn't see how she fell short of the standards of a Delta Zeta sorority girl. "I don't think I am unattractive," she says, although she admits she can be "introverted," is not blond and wears jeans and T shirts to class instead of designer outfits. In fact, she was chapter president, but even that didn't save her in December when the national DZ office, alarmed by a drop in pledges at the DePauw chapter, concluded that the way to prop up its failing fortunes was to purge 23 of the 35 women in the house. Thatcher was promoted to what the sorority euphemistically called "alumnae status" even though, as a size 8, she made the unofficial weight cut. "There's no one left in that house bigger than a size 10," says Joanna Kieschnick, who left of her own accord.

It's not news that the social life of a heavily Greek campus—like DePauw, with 2,400 students, in a rural part of Indiana—is ruled by snobbery. Nobody would take note if a sorority rejected 23 of 35 girls who tried to join. But members are rarely asked to leave without good reason, and a purge like this was unusual enough to attract the attention of The New York Times, and to call down a denunciation from DePauw's administration of "actions that so negatively impact our students." Although DZ's national executive director, Cindy Menges, insisted that hair color and dress size played no role in deciding who stayed, it did not go unnoticed that among those invited to leave were the chapter's only black member and two of the three Asian women. But "it wasn't about race," says senior Danielle Elsner, one of the 23. "It was about social image, appearance and weight." Of the 12 keepers, according to Thatcher, half were blond, and all were beautiful. It might have been easier to swallow if it had been about race. Sophomore Lyndsay Moy says she kept hearing from her friends: "Well, I guess I wasn't pretty enough."

But why was DZ having trouble recruiting pledges in the first place? Cindy Babington, DePauw's dean of students, may have given a clue in describing DZ as filling "a great, eclectic niche." Typically, women join sororities to experience conformity, not eclecticism. Before the cuts, officials visited the house and interviewed the members; Menges insists that the only criterion for staying was a commitment to recruiting new members. But some of the 23 said they were eager to help rebuild the chapter. You might think that a house of 35 members would be more attractive in any case than one with only 12 left in it. But if the national office wanted to project an image of exclusivity, it got its wish, and then some: as of last week, six of the 12 had left on their own, out of solidarity with their departing sisters.