Wesleyan Finishes off Its Frats

Animal House

And then there were none.

In early August Psi Upsilon, the sole remaining residential fraternity house at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, was suspended for the 2015-2016 academic year over an investigation by law enforcement over alleged illegal drug activity inside its house.

Until the fall of 2014, there were three fraternity houses at Wesleyan, plus a single sorority that lacked a house of its own—a pathetic number compared with, say, with the 40-odd fraternities and sororities at the University of  Virginia. But one of the three, Delta Kappa Epsilon (“Deke”) received the suspension axe for refusing to abide by a September 2014 university decree.

The decree, endorsed by Wesleyan’s trustees, gave all campus-linked fraternities three years to either admit women into their membership or lose their status as “program housing.” (Wesleyan requires nearly all its undergraduates to live in either dormitories or university-approved off-campus residences.) Around the same time in 2014 the third fraternity, Beta Theta Pi, was suspended after an apparently intoxicated female sophomore at Wesleyan fell from a third-story window in the frat house and was seriously injured.

Allegations of Sexual Assault

Psi U had already had problems—it had been barred from holding social events in its house during the 2014-2015 academic year in light of a pair of allegations of sexual assault (in only one of the cases had the accused student been found responsible). But Psi U had been the only Wesleyan fraternity agreeing to become co-educational, and it had held a co-ed spring rush earlier this year that resulted in several women agreeing to live in its house.

The Deke chapter, by contrast, whose national charter limits the fraternity to male members, filed a lawsuit against Wesleyan in February, accusing the University of violating, among other things, an implicit contract to allow the fraternity, which had operated at Wesleyan since 1867, to use its own criteria for selecting its members. The court papers filed by the Dekes pointed out that Wesleyan grants program-housing status to other residential spaces that exclude some classes of people:  Open House, which is for “non-normative sexuality and gender minorities” and Womanist House, a feminist-only dwelling.

The slow-motion demise of all-male fraternities at Wesleyan is the result of the fatal intersection of two phenomena. The first is a longstanding-old ideological war against fraternities conducted by progressive college faculty and administrators perturbed by Greek houses’ resistance to campus administrative control and their often politically incorrect culture. As soon as fraternities came into existence during the early 19th century, university administrators started trying to get rid of them.

Those latter efforts have been especially successful among the elite private liberal-arts colleges of the Northeast, where the progressive ethos is especially strong. Williams College in Massachusetts dismantled its fraternity system in 1962. Over the decades Amherst, Colby, and Middlebury followed suit, and 2012 Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, ordered its all-male Greek houses to admit women, effectively neutralizing their identity. So Wesleyan was already an outlier by the early 2000s, with only about 150 men out of its 2,900 or so undergraduates living in the three fraternity houses that abutted but were not technically on the Wesleyan campus.

Flaws of the Greeks

But the Greeks at Wesleyan could also be said to have brought their troubles onto themselves by their own carelessness—another factor in their downfall. In 2005 Wesleyan’s ultra-liberal president, Douglas Bennet, ordered all three fraternities to allow women to live in their houses, although the frats didn’t have to make them members. Beta was the only holdout of the three—which meant that even though no Wesleyan student could officially live in the Beta house (many did anyway, while nominally renting dorm rooms), the college and its campus police force had no oversight over activities inside the Beta house, which reputedly included many alcohol-fueled parties and several alcohol-related accidents. A standoff lasting several years followed as Bennet and Michael S. Roth, Wesleyan’s current president, tried to cajole and then threaten Beta back into the “program housing” fold.

Then, in 2010, a freshman woman known only as “Jane Doe” was violently raped in an upstairs room at the Beta House while attending a Halloween party. The assailant was not a Beta member, but rather, a former high-school buddy of a Beta brother who had wandered into the party. He was arrested, pleaded guilty to several assault charges, and went to prison. In 2012 Jane Doe sued Wesleyan and the fraternity for $10 million, alleging that Wesleyan had violated Title IX, the federal law forbidding sex discrimination in education, by refusing to issue warnings or take action that could have prevented the crime. She claimed that the Beta chapter had a reputation as a “rape factory.”  (Wesleyan settled that lawsuit for an undisclosed amount in 2013.)

After the Jane Doe incident Roth issued an edict barring Wesleyan students from so much as visiting organizations not officially recognized by Wesleyan. This led to “Free Beta” rallies on campus and a protest from the campus-free-speech organization FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education). Eventually there was a truce, with Beta agreeing to return to program housing and to accept Wesleyan oversight.

No sooner, it would seem, had Beta resolved its problems than another female student at Wesleyan sued Psi Upsilon for $1 million, in March 2014, alleging that she had been raped by a naked Psi U pledge during a drunken strip show that was part of a raucous, booze-filled party in the Psi U common room in May 2013. The alleged assailant was expelled from Wesleyan. Her lawsuit alleged that this was the second recent incident of sexual assault involving the fraternity. Then, with Psi U on suspension, came the accident at Beta. Roth promptly banned Wesleyan undergraduates from entering the Beta house.

On September 22, 2014, Wesleyan’s trustees voted to give all three Wesleyan fraternities—including Deke, where there had been no allegations of sexual misconduct–a three-year deadline to become co-ed or shut down. The idea seemed to be that the presence of women in the houses would somehow forestall sexual violence.

Whether there is any substance to that theory is an open question. The much-publicized alleged rape in her (co-ed) dorm room that prompted Columbia student Emma Sulkowicz to carry a mattress around campus in protest for nearly a school year had nothing to do with fraternities. But a critical mass of Wesleyan students, faculty members, administrators, and trustees simply didn’t want fraternities around anymore. Thanks in part to the imprudence of the frat brothers themselves, they got their wish.


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