The title of a philanthropic event held this week by the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity, in collaboration with all 12 Cornell sororities, caused some students, professors and administrators to criticize what they called its sexist overtones and resulted in the fraternity changing the name of the event.
The event –– which was advertised with the title “Which Sorority Has the Best Water Jugs on Campus” –– encouraged each sorority to decorate a large water jug, which was then displayed Monday in the Robert Purcell Community Center and the Terrace Restaurant in the Statler Hotel. Passersby were encouraged to choose their favorite water jug and drop change into it to benefit Pi Kappa Phi’s philanthropic organization, Push America, which is dedicated to serving individuals with disabilities.
On Monday morning, the row of sorority “jugs” was on display in the Terrace lobby, along with signs announcing the “jugs”-themed event. However, on Monday afternoon, the name of the event was changed to “Penny Wars” after some students and administrators expressed reservations about the title’s derogatory implications.
Associate Dean of Students Travis Apgar said his office raised concerns with Pi Kappa Phi’s national organization on Monday morning after staff members noticed the large sign placed outside the Statler Hotel promoting the event. These concerns, in addition to complaints the office heard from other members of the campus community over the course of the day, led the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs to urge the fraternity to reconsider the event’s title, Apgar said.
“Especially in a year when there’s increased effort to address bias-related incidents, the title of this activity was inconsistent with all of the efforts that the campus community has engaged in, and really is inconsistent with what Pi Kappa Phi as a fraternity is truly about,” Apgar said.
Some professors, students and members of the Women’s Resource Center also criticized the philanthropy event within the context of reports of sexual violence on campus.
Ashley Harrington ’13, a member of the Women’s Resource Center advisory board, said the event’s name was unacceptable in its implied objectification of the women in each sorority.
“Jugs become what these brilliant, beautiful, talented women are relegated to,” Harrington said. “It becomes even worse when money is involved. The better the sorority’s jugs, the more money they get for their philanthropy. In this [way], women become a commodity masked in the name of philanthropy.”
Prof. Mary K. McCullough, feminist, gender and sexuality studies, similarly denounced the event as “pretty much straight-up juvenile and offensive,” but said she would have simply dismissed it as silly if not for her concerns about the event’s latent sexual implications.
She added that the presentation of women as only the sum of their body parts, even if no offense is intended, can contribute to a sexually violent culture.
“If you don’t think of women as complicated individuals with minds and bodies and spirits, then its easier to do things to them,” she said. “There are philanthropic efforts all over the world that don’t rely on racist or sexist or homophobic humor.”
Though some students and professors expressed disapproval, Steven Smolyn ’16 –– president of the Push America Club of Cornell and Pi Kappa Phi’s philanthropic executive –– stood by the original name, stressing the philanthropic nature of the event, in an interview with The Sun prior to the event and the name change.
Smolyn said that “Which Sorority Has the Best Water Jugs on Campus” is the “premier charity event” of the national Pi Kappa Phi organization.
The event was not held on Cornell’s campus last year, following a conversation between Pi Kappa Phi and the University, in which Cornell discouraged the fraternity from holding the event, noting doing so would be “unwise,” according to Apgar.
However, the event was popular for nine years prior to that time and had returned this year after requests from several sororities.
Smolyn defended the theme as an attempt to craft an effective fundraiser for the fraternity’s charitable work. The proceeds will benefit a variety of organizations, including Autism Speaks, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and The National Kidney Foundation, according to Smolyn.
“Bake sales don’t work anymore,” Smolyn said in an email. “Many other on-campus organizations have also started creative fundraisers that receive greater support and ultimately benefit the philanthropic cause. ‘Best Water Jugs’ is essentially a play on words behind a fundraiser that has raised a lot of money for many good causes.”
He added that, after an informal complaint from a student organization several years ago, the event name had been changed from “Best Jugs on Campus” to “Best Water Jugs on Campus,” and that to his knowledge, all dissatisfied parties were content with the revision, but that the fraternity was still open to suggestions for improving the event.
Still, sorority members and other students said they were not upset by the event’s name. Kathleen McArdle ’14, a member of Phi Sigma Sigma, said that while she understood that the event’s name was somewhat suggestive, she did not think it was particularly offensive.
“It would be one thing if the event was advertised with photos of busty, half-naked women or something along those lines, but it clearly shows a picture of a water jug,” McArdle said. “The event itself isn’t demeaning in my opinion, and I believe the slang term is just being used to draw attention to an otherwise charitable cause.”
Apgar said the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs had not been involved in approving or arranging the event, but urged organizations to be considerate as they organized philanthropy events.
“[I would urge organizations] to carefully think through the impact of messages, regardless of intentions, and to consider how it aligns with the goals of the activity and values [and] principles of the organization you are trying to help, and those of your fraternity,” he said in an email.
McCullough said she believes the University should make a strong effort to prevent offensive events such as the “Jugs” benefit.
“It’s a tough battle to fight, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be fighting it,” she said.
Original Author: Eliza LaJoie