The future of fraternities in the Ivy League
In the Timothy Dwight courtyard, students were kicking around soccer balls and eating pizza. An undergraduate was teaching one of the children of the college’s affiliates how to cartwheel on TD’s grass. Another child ran around pointing a toy bow and arrow at relaxing college students, who raised their hands in feigned terror.
“Enjoy it while you have it. We all know it changes,” former Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway said on the phone. While on the line, he also spoke of his experiences with Greek life as a university administrator, first at Yale and now as provost of Northwestern University. “Northwestern, compared to Yale, has a very large Greek life and a highly organized Greek life structure.”
In 2016, Holloway told the News that Yale “wrestle[s]” with how to punish groups like fraternities and that the administration “can only do so much to stop behavior.” At the time, Yale punished both Delta Kappa Epsilon and LEO — then still affiliated with the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity — for disciplinary infractions by suspending their ability to use Yale as a platform, both physically and digitally, for their fraternity. Holloway said that removing a fraternity’s ability to use a Yale domain name sent a strong message.
Two years later, Holloway was less sure about the efficacy: “No one has figured this thing out really,” Holloway said with a sigh over the phone. “There’s the Harvard nuclear option. The look-the-other-way option, which just makes me nervous because if you totally disengage I just think bad things are going to happen. That’s inevitable, so I just wanted to bring the students closer in to the University.”
Schools across the Ivy League — and in particular at the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University and Harvard University — have reached a crossroads in handling off-campus social life. Cornell is cracking down on hazing. Penn is recovering from a tense fall semester during which many students felt as though no party was safe from being shut down by police. At Harvard, some students are beginning to wish that their institution would take more cues from Yale’s community-based model rather than shutting down or rejecting core aspects of the social scene.
Representatives from Harvard and Cornell declined to comment on this story, and representatives from Penn did not respond to request for comment.
Yale’s approach, however, has its own critics. As Holloway pointed out, Yale’s sanctions banning fraternities like DKE and LEO from using Yale platforms have been ineffective.
“Yeah, we used the Yale platform ban, and it’s frustrating as heck when you’re trying to actually do the right thing, and the people who are supposedly in punishment are just, you know, going about business as usual,” Holloway said. “It’s like, how do you grab hold of jello?”
“NOT A TOP-DOWN KIND OF PLACE”
While other universities like Harvard have ignited lively debates over how to best manage social clubs through broad sanctions and administrative initiatives, Yale, by its own admission, prefers to deliberate longer before approaching hot-button student-life issues.
“Yale is not a top-down kind of place,” Associate Vice President of Student Life Burgwell Howard said. “We are always trying to find where’s that sweet spot to listen to the concerns that come from various parts of the community.”
In 2010, student outrage over an incident in which DKE pledges chanted “No means yes! Yes means anal!” in front of the Women’s Center led then-Dean of Yale College Mary Miller to open a six-month-long investigation before ultimately sanctioning DKE by prohibiting it from engaging in on-campus activities. The incident also led the U.S. Department of Education to investigate Yale for not properly adhering to Title IX guidelines.
Many expected that the events of that fall would bring an end to Yale’s laissez-faire attitude toward fraternities. Less than a year later, Executive Director of DKE Doug Lanpher lamented in an email to a DKE alumnus that “the days of Yale allowing the fraternities to operate independently seem to be over.” Miller and Yale took new measures to regulate fraternities, such as a prohibiting rush activities for students in their first semester at Yale.
But even then — echoing Holloway’s words that punishment did not interfere with “business as usual” for DKE — Lanpher wrote in an email to DKE Yale alumnus that “our 5-year suspension had minimal effect on our ability to operate successfully.”
In addition, despite Miller’s requirement that DKE would only return to campus under the condition that it “pursue registration as an undergraduate organization,” DKE is still an unrecognized, off-campus organization. In May 2016, DKE’s ban from campus activities was lifted.
When SAE, now known as LEO, was banned from on-campus activities for violating the University’s policy on sexual misconduct in 2015, regular fraternity activities were similarly unaffected. Former President of LEO Jesse Mander ’18 told the News that “because we’re off campus already, and a lot of fraternities are off campus, [the ban] didn’t affect us that much.”
In that same year, the Yale College Council claimed that Yale’s punishments of fraternities were “more or less toothless.”
Yale has traditionally, according to some administrators in the Yale College Dean’s Office, preferred dealing with individuals in matters of disciplinary action rather than targeting an entire group. For example, after news broke that the former president of DKE had been suspended for sexual misconduct and another senior in the fraternity allegedly raped a female Yale student, University President Peter Salovey said that “when an individual violates Yale’s standards in a way that cannot be tied fairly to the student’s organization, the sanction falls on the individual, not the organization.”
That thinking may soon change. Yale College Dean Marvin Chun recently announced the creation of the Yale College Committee on Social Life and Community Values. The committee is tasked with determining the state of Yale’s social scene and making recommendations to Chun on how to handle social groups while other schools in the Ivy League grapple with similar issues.
“We have students who say we should be like Harvard, and we have many students who say we should not be like Harvard,” Chun told the News. “I have not formed an opinion strongly. I’m in listening mode.”
For other schools, just two incidents of alleged sexual assault in a fraternity like those at DKE would have been enough to justify an investigation.
“If we were to have three to four allegations — probably just two — come from the same fraternity in six-month span, that would be viewed as an institutional problem with that fraternity,” said Reggie Murphy II, the president of University of Pennsylvania’s Interfraternity Council. “Individually of course the accused would be punished specially but the fraternity as well — 10,000 percent.”
At the University of Pennsylvania, the student-run Interfraternity Council manages all fraternities that are part of the National Interfraternity Conference — such as Sigma Phi Epsilon and DKE — whereas the multicultural Greek council manages multicultural Greek organizations. Murphy said that Interfraternity Councils exist at many schools because they allow students to hold their peers accountable through student-run judicial boards and easier access to administrative support.
He added that Yale leaving fraternities free to run their own affairs as off-campus organizations is “pretty dangerous.” But even so, bringing fraternities to task for their actions at Yale presents challenges that do not exist at Penn. Unlike Yale, Penn owns nearly every fraternity house on campus and, as a result, can use the property as leverage. Murphy explained that when Penn threatens to take away a fraternity’s house, students usually listen.
“I never really realized how important it is that Penn has a stake in the ownership of our houses,” said Murphy, “A fraternity is just a club if you don’t have a house, and I don’t think anyone would join then.”
Miller tried to gain influence over DKE by requiring that the fraternity become an official student group. In his 2012 email to an alumnus, Lanpher complained that Yale wants to “pull us into their sphere of influence” with new regulations. Eight years later, DKE remains off campus and unregistered.
Although Penn has more control over its on-campus fraternities, some that are located off campus still give the administration trouble. Murphy gave the example of when, in September 2016, OZ, an off-campus fraternity that had disaffiliated from its national organization, emailed undergraduates with a lewd poem addressed to “ladies.” In multiple verses, the poem invited “the fun ones” to “your first showing” at an OZ house party with the added request to “please wear something tight.”
Several days later, a group of students posted printouts of the poem across Penn’s campus with “THIS IS WHAT RAPE CULTURE LOOKS LIKE” written across the email’s text. The event spurred Penn’s administration to create the Task Force on a Safe and Responsible Campus Community in February 2017 — a group that soon after came up with strict standards for how Penn students should go about properly registering parties.
Despite questions of how the guidelines would be enforced against unrecognized student groups, Penn began working closely with local police to shut down any parties not registered with the university, both on campus and off. Soon, the university began shutting down everything from OZ parties to ice cream socials and, in one particular case, a “Mac ’n’ Phis” charity event hosted by the sorority Alpha Phi, according to The Daily Pennsylvanian.
Students objected, but administrators had achieved their goal: Student groups began registering parties to avoid being shut down by police. Several off-campus fraternities were among the newly registered groups and, as a result, the university now has more information on and control over their activities.
“Last semester was really big for us, we had a task force, and even the on-campus fraternities that where doing right said that it was a little bit too much,” Murphy recalled. “Fifteen brothers couldn’t play pong in their basement without cops coming to shut it down.”
Brendan Quinn, a member of the Phi Delta Theta on-campus fraternity, remarked that with the task force, police considered many lower key social events — just several people in a room drinking while watching TV, for instance — to be fair game for busting up as unregistered parties.
“Can you imagine a squad of police officers in bulletproof vests bursting into a sorority house because a few girls are drinking with friends over?” Quinn asked, jokingly.
As it turns out, Murphy claimed, the task force ended up hurting on-campus fraternities more than off-campus fraternities. He explained that off-campus fraternities used to be more vulnerable to police and university intervention. Now that they are recognized off-campus student groups, they can officially register parties with the university but do not have to follow the stricter university guidelines that govern Interfraternity Council members, such as specific living and risk-management requirements.
One former president of an on-campus Penn fraternity, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that he would personally prefer Yale’s laissez-faire system of off-campus Greek life to Penn’s as it would relieve his fraternity of a number of strict regulations maintained by Penn.
Still, Murphy said, it was clear that the task force got the job done when it came to bringing to heel the last off-campus fraternities holding out against Penn — something made easier by off-campus fraternities’ reliance on party culture.
“Since the OZ email, we’ve cut into their social scene,” he explained. “We know where their houses are — they live together, and there are police parked outside on all the days they could have parties, which they thrive on. They have no tradition, no rituals, just parties.”
“TWENTY YEARS? MAYBE.”
While Greek life at Penn is not under threat of extermination from the administration, its situation at Cornell is more precarious. The death of a Cornell student during an SAE hazing ritual in 2011 has cast a shadow over the school’s fraternity system. The school’s Interfraternity Council has to be sensitive and watch Cornell’s new president Martha Pollack carefully. According to students, Pollack was not a fan of Greek life at her previous job as provost of the University of Michigan, which recently suspended all fraternity social activity on campus.
“Cornell’s president hates Greek life,” remarked one Pi Kappa Phi brother who spoke on the condition of anonymity. The fraternity’s president, Vincenzo Guido, chimed in: “People here know what President Pollack did at University of Michigan with Greek life, so they’re wary,” he said. “If one more person at Cornell dies here because of Greek life, we’re done.”
But Cornell also offers a glimpse into what Yale’s Greek social scene could begin to resemble if, faced with pressure to improve their behavior, fraternities at Yale create a formalized Interfraternity Council to manage Greek life.
Guido estimated that Greek life would last 10 more years at Cornell before it comes to a crashing halt. Cristian Gonzalez, another member of the Pi Kapp fraternity and a member of Cornell Interfraternity Council’s executive board, disagreed. “I don’t think it’s going to go in 10 years. Twenty years? Maybe,” Gonzalez said. “The climate now is the most tense since SAE,” referring to the student death in 2011.
However, Gonzalez added that one-third of the members of Cornell’s board of trustees were active in Greek life as undergraduates, which would make it very difficult for Pollack to take major action against fraternities or sororities.
For Paul Russell, the president of Cornell’s Interfraternity Council, this means making the current system work as well as possible. He explained that the basic benefit of Cornell’s Greek life system is that, coupled with Cornell’s Office of Sorority and Fraternity Life, the council can use sanctions to discipline fraternities for bad behavior. There are benefits, Russell explained, to being part of the Interfraternity Council, and when fraternities lose those benefits they also lose their place of prominence in the social scene.
Cornell’s Interfraternity Council coordinates a list of all Greek life parties with Cornell University Police. Any party not on the list can be shut down by police immediately. Fraternity rush, which Cornell handles through a centralized recruitment process mandated by the council, also becomes a nightmare for fraternities if they lose their Interfraternity Council privileges, according to Russell.
“If you’re looking to join a fraternity, the way you do that is through fraternity recruitment, the broader recruitment week we have,” he explained. “If you’re trying to recruit outside of that, it’s really difficult. … You have to secretly do it all underground.”
At that point, Russell said, a fraternity pushed off campus at Cornell is also bound to lose its relationships with sororities as it struggles to throw parties and maintain a new underground pledge class.
The Interfraternity Council has a judiciary board run by students that punishes fraternities for bad behavior. Potential penalties include a prohibition on hosting parties. Russell also said that when the case is too big for students too handle, they turn to the administration for help.
“If we find out someone is not doing X, Y and Z, we can then tell someone in the administration, that’ll trigger a hearing, and there’ll able to get in trouble for that,” Russell continued. “We try not to be the snitches of the [council] community but, at the same time, [if] it’s something that is causing legitimate harm, we’re absolutely going to tell.”
James Ritchie, president of Phi Gamma Delta at Columbia University and a member of his Inter Greek Council’s judicial board, said that students in the Ivy League might be more willing to cede control to administrators than observers would expect.
“The big divide that I’ve seen at Columbia in Greek life — and I’m pretty sure at every other university — is that there is this deep desire to, at points, be like an ‘Animal House’ frat boy but, at points, acknowledge that you are an Ivy League student who went to whatever school and got whatever on your SATs,” Ritchie said. “The nice thing about having systems of power in place, especially in the Ivy League, is that we’re people who, to be honest, probably crave a certain element of control because that’s what we’re used to.”
Still, it takes a lot for the council to decide to ban one of its own from on-campus activities, in part because people like Russell and Guido view rogue off-campus fraternities as dangerously liberated. Earlier this year, Cornell’s Zeta Beta Tau fraternity came under fire for holding a contest among pledges to see who could sleep with the most women. Tie-breaking points were awarded based on whose sexual partners weighed the most.
Cornell investigated the competition after complaints about the so-called “pig roast” were filed through a confidential process for disclosing hazing on the Cornell website. Cornell’s administration disciplined ZBT relatively mildly, placing the fraternity on probationary recognition for two years.
These are ultimately the scenarios that Yale’s new Committee on Social Life and Community Values is considering as it decides how to handle fraternities in all their forms.
“THE HEAVY ARTILLERY”
At Harvard, all eyes are on the school’s administration, which has decided to punish individuals who join unrecognized single-gender social organizations.
“It is challenging,” Yale student life administrator Howard said. “Frankly, I applaud the intent behind Harvard’s efforts. I don’t think that they are on solid legal ground.”
Dean Chun assured the News that his office is not in the “mode of blindly following what’s happening” at Harvard but added that the office “may certainly attend to what they’re doing” and “calibrate” that to what happens on Yale campus. He, like Howard, recognized that Yale likes to take things slower.
“We try to spend more time listening to our community,” Chun said. “The decisions we make here are more community-driven, so it does take a bit more time, but you have more buy-in.”
At Harvard — where some students have taken poorly to top-down efforts from President Drew Faust — Yale’s approach might be appreciated. Noah Redlich, a Harvard student, said that he liked being in the newly all-gender Aleph — formerly the all-male Alpha Epsilon Pi — and that he thinks university administrations should intervene in off-campus group matters at a certain point. But only, he added, when the time is right.
“It should start with the students,” said Redlich. “When an administration acts in the way that Harvard has, it creates a divide among the students between those who want to go along with the new rules because they don’t want to be sanctioned and those who want to continue their policies. … If the class reached a consensus first, it would just make a lot more sense.”
And one student involved in a final club at Harvard, who asked to remain anonymous because of his club’s rules, noted that relations between single-gender off-campus organizations and the university have deteriorated to a point where students are unsure that ceding any ground will be met with a reward.
Harvard also sets an example for how Yale might handle pushing fraternities to include all genders.
Lulu Chua-Rubenfeld, a Harvard student who oversaw Sab Club’s transition from all female to all gender, said that the change has decreased the group’s reliance on male clubs for social events and was, overall, an empowering experience for its female leadership.
“It was far more seamless than you would assume,” she added. “But we made very careful selections for the first two classes so that our first male members would be highly respectful of women and value what we were trying to do.”
Turning the fraternities at Yale into all-gender organizations is an idea that has been floated by the group Engender for nearly one and a half years now. But this solution is not always what it is cracked up to be. Chua-Rubenfeld mentioned that after one club, the Spee, opened to all genders, students on campus began noticing a disturbing sexual power dynamic between the younger, newly admitted female students and the established male members.
Jacqueline Deitch-Stackhouse, the director of Princeton’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Advising, Resources & Education office, told the News that the cohesive and healthy gender atmospheres in the eating clubs today — for the first time, nine of 11 groups now have female presidents — came after years of growing pains.
She added that just becoming an all-gender space doesn’t make a club the “right space.” A conscious effort from the students matters as well.
“In the six years that I’ve been here, my observation has been that the students are more intentional now about creating an environment that is inclusive and respectful, and I think that that is three-quarters of the way home,” she added. “There is an appreciation for the information we can share and how we can help them accomplish their goals, that relationship has grown and evolved, we’re now viewed as more of a partner in this process, but that doesn’t come from nowhere.”
But beyond the social implications of pushing social clubs toward all-gender status, there are legal concerns as well.
As the News reported in early April, final clubs and Greek life organizations are gearing up to sue Harvard, likely by arguing that the university’s policies violate the clubs’ First Amendment right to a single-gender status and a Massachusetts state law that prohibits the use of “threats, intimidation, or coercion” to interfere with this right, according to documents obtained by the News.
“There is little in precedent that constrains the situation,” said Richard Epstein, a professor of law at New York University. “I don’t even want to predict anything without some close study, and even then, the choice of judge and the presentation of case could really matter.”
Chun and Howard have both told the News that they are not confident Harvard is standing on solid legal ground.
At the same time, Yale needs to contend with vocal critics interfering with the University’s reputation if a new policy for social groups is introduced. Epstein has been a vocal critic of the Harvard sanctions, and he told the News that Harvard administrators used “heavy artillery” to handle a squabble with final clubs that could have been resolved with “sensible quiet conversations.”
It is not hard to imagine Yale in similar crosshairs if — after years of “quiet conversations” — the Dean’s Office enacts Greek life policies that introduce controversial changes to the social groups.
One Yale administrator has already taken flak for suggesting a change in direction for Yale’s fraternities. After the News quoted an email that Howard sent to fraternities in the fall in which he wrote that it does “no harm to have your rush events open to all eligible members of the Yale community — regardless of gender,” he received a suspicious package in the mail. He told the News that it did not contain any physical threats, just “a lot of hateful language” referencing the News article that included his quote.
As for Harvard’s enthusiastic sanctions, the opportunity to cultivate a healthy and civil conversation about final clubs may have long since passed — at least for the staunchest critics.
Epstein said Harvard is a case of wrong choices.
“Bad leadership leads to bad places,” Epstein said.
Britton O’Daly | firstname.lastname@example.org