In response to negative feedback from sororities about the sexism and elitism that occurred during earlier Derby Days, the Cornell chapter of the Sigma Chi Fraternity made efforts to improve this year’s event with a series of reforms, including the elimination of a controversial brotherhood auction.
Derby Days is an event hosted annually by Sigma Chi chapters nationwide to raise money for the fraternity’s philanthropy, the Huntsman Cancer Institute. This year’s event will take place from April 29 to May 4.
A member of a sorority — who asked to maintain anonymity since she felt uncomfortable being identified — told The Sun that she found Derby Days “disrespectful” in general when she attended the brotherhood auction event in 2015. The auction was a talent show in which girls would bid on the brothers based on their talents.
“While Derby Days may work on other campuses, Sig Chi at Cornell has not proved themselves able to put on an event that is truly philanthropic in nature,” she said. “Here, Derby Days perpetuates a negative culture in the Greek community of elitism, aggressive competition and social isolationism. The Tri Council has worked very hard to counteract this, and I think it shows insensitivity on the part of Sig Chi to continue the event in a way that is not markedly different.
According to Sigma Chi president Stefan Antonsson ’19, all the sororities on campus participated in Derby Days the year before he came to Cornell, but the number dropped to six two years ago, five last year and only four agreed to participate this year.
“[This is] really disappointing, because I did try to do a lot of outreach to a lot of sororities,” he told The Sun. “But I understand if girls have had negative experiences in the past, what we have to do is prove to them that we’re really dedicated to making this as good as possible.”
As part of the outreach efforts, Antonsson said that he and his team met with sorority presidents and philanthropy chairs to get feedback about their experiences with the event in past years and what changes could be implemented.
“The main crux of the argument was that Derby Days, in a lot of ways, pits sororities against each other, facilitates Panhellenic competition and has sexist undertones,” he said.
“As I said, before I got here, I don’t know to what extent those are true. But I know that this year, we’ve really been trying to get feedback on some of the things we can change,” he added.
Antonsson said that the two main changes this year are eliminating the brotherhood auction event and turning the grill-out event into a carnival.
Antonsson said that there were concerns about the difference between each sorority members’ socio-economic status. He said he hopes getting rid of it would reduce the competitive nature of the event. He also said that holding a carnival would help make the event a more “collective fundraising effort” since brothers would be actively participating by running the booths.
“Some girls felt like they were raising the money for us and we were just using them, and that’s something we don’t want to do this year,” Antonsson said. “We want to definitely make sure we take that out if that existed in the past.”
Antonsson also denied rumors that Sigma Chi previously embezzled the money they were supposed to donate.
“It’s really disappointing to me to hear that people would even entertain the idea that we’re taking money away from our national cause … for anything other than cancer research,” Antonsson said.
He showed documentation from the Huntsman Cancer Foundation to The Sun, which said that the Cornell chapter raised over $24,000 in the 2015-16 year and over $25,500 in the 2016-17 year for the organization.
Antonsson said that Sigma Chi used to rely mostly on the Derby Days event to raise money, but a change that they have made in recent years is to include internal fundraising efforts. According to the Huntsman Cancer Institute website, they have already raised over $17,000 this year, at least $16,000 of which was from internal fundraising, Antonsson said.
According to Antonsson, although he tried to encourage Tri-Council wide participation in the event, he ultimately did not have enough time to make it happen.
Antonsson said he will also be in charge of running Derby Days again next year and hopes to “really try to mold this event into the inclusive Tri-Council wide event I believe it can [be].”
“I wouldn’t have reached out as many people as I did if I really wasn’t trying to improve the events this year,” he said. “Not make a wholesale change, because as I said, we’re keeping a lot of the structure with the teams, but making it as positive as possible.”
The philanthropy chairs of two sororities declined to comment about why their sororities would or would not be participating, while those of ten sororities did not respond to a request for comment. The Office of Sorority and Fraternity Life and the Panhellenic Council president and philanthropy chair also did not respond to a request for a comment.