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Whose House? Colgate's House

March 8, 2006

Last week, for the second time in four months, a New York judge threw out a lawsuit brought by a group of alumni who sought to block Colgate University from purchasing their fraternity’s house.

Around 65 members of Beta Theta Pi, approximately 5 percent of the members of the alumni corporation, filed a lawsuit in October 2005, alleging that Colgate forced the sale against the will of some of the corporation.

New York State Supreme Court Justice Dennis K. McDermott found the case, Sanford v. Colgate University, to be nearly identical to another Sanford v. Colgate University that was decided in favor of Colgate in December, except that the first Sanford case involved Phi Delta Theta, and that Sanford is the father of the Sanford in the more recent case. The decision leaves the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity as the only one that has not completed a sale of its house to Colgate as part of a push begun in 2003 to have all houses operating as university-owned buildings. Jim Sanford, the lead plaintiff in the most recent case said he was dismayed that "the court relied on an earlier decision to dismiss the lawsuit brought by alumni of Phi Delta Theta and did not seem to consider the complaint of coercion included our case," he said. He added that he expects an appeal.

Administrators have said the plan is aimed, in part, at giving the university access to a house in an emergency, and at limiting underage drinking. The issue has been a divisive one on campus, with some students casting the plan as an attempt to exert control over campus social life. If a fraternity did not sell its house, it would no longer be formally recognized by the university. The DKE house currently sits empty.

According to the affidavit from Eric W. Will, board president of Beta Theta Pi, the board considered legal action, but eventually reluctantly recommended selling the house. In February 2005, according to court documents, the board told all 1,295 members of the corporation of its recommendation and asked for feedback. Over 80 percent of those who responded approved the sale, and a deal was closed in May 2005.

McDermott said in his opinion that courts should only interfere with business decisions “in instances where the directors served conflicting or divided loyalties or where they otherwise failed to properly consider and evaluate the situation” on behalf of the stakeholders.

Beta Theta Pi board member Ralph A. Jones, a lawyer, checked out other campuses with institution-owned fraternity houses, and testified in an affidavit that the fraternities were functioning acceptably. McDermott said in his decision that Jones effort show that the board clearly “gave the matter a thorough and fair evaluation.”

The plaintiffs still have nearly a month to appeal the decision, and the plaintiffs in “Sanford I” as it is being called, have filed an appeal. Only DKE’s house is still not owned by the university. Rather than selling, the DKE alumni corporation filed two lawsuits against Colgate. One of those lawsuits was filed in federal court and alleges that Colgate violated antitrust laws and the fraternity’s First Amendment rights. The other, filed in state court, is an attempt to have the fraternity re-recognized.

Meanwhile, Colgate administrators are pleased with the changes down on Broad Street, the location of Greek and theme houses. The house acquisitions are just one small part of Colgate’s Residential Education Plan, launched in 2003, which seeks to make students’ time outside of the classroom as educational as their time in it. Jim Terhune, Colgate’s dean of student affairs, said that during the acquisition period, Colgate has “gone through some difficulty years where we’ve all come to know each other a little better. This year, the mood on campus as it relates to Broad Street is very positive.” Terhune said that students don’t seem to be talking about the house acquisitions at all anymore.

 

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