A Different Challenge to Fraternities

A lawsuit alleging rampant sexual misconduct among Yale's Greek chapters has demanded they admit women.

February 13, 2019
 
Ian Christmann
From left to right: Yale students Anna McNeil, Ellie Singer and Ry Walker, who are suing the institution.

A trio of Yale University students is suing the institution and nine of its fraternities, demanding that its Greek system be reformed and women be integrated into the all-male groups to fix a “sexually hostile” environment.

Legal experts said that the case has little chance of a ruling that all single-sex fraternities and sororities must become coeducational. This is largely because of an exemption for social Greek organizations carved out in the federal law that protects students against gender discrimination, Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972.

Where the case could be more significant is its claim that Yale's fraternities violate Title IX not just by being fraternities but by how they treat women.

The class-action lawsuit raises questions about fraternities’ role in sexual misconduct on the campus and beyond, especially in light of other litigation targeting Harvard University, which has attempted to stamp out single-sex organizations and dissuade students from joining them.

Three female undergraduates -- Anna McNeil, Ry Walker and Eliana Singer -- filed their lawsuit in U.S. District Court Tuesday. The women all allege that they were groped at fraternity parties during their respective first semesters at Yale. Because the university lacked many other “social spaces,” fraternities and their members essentially controlled the social scene, including admission to parties and when and how much alcohol was served, creating conditions ripe for sexual misbehavior, the complaint states.

Yale, meanwhile, largely ignored the misconduct, according to the complaint, despite multiple public incidents. The women accuse the university of having a “symbiotic relationship,” in which fraternities provide social activities and Yale officials turn a blind eye to poor behavior. In 2008, pledges of one fraternity, Zeta Psi, posed outside the campus Women’s Center with a sign that read “We Love Yale Sluts.” Recruits for Delta Kappa Epsilon in 2010 paraded around the grounds cheering, “No means yes, yes means anal.”

The women alleged that the network of fraternities at Yale is also influential both socially and economically, with their members finding more career opportunities than do members of the campus sororities, which haven’t been around as long.

The three women, creating a student group called Engender, tried to join fraternities in both 2017 and 2018 but were rejected. One fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon, did allow them to apply, but their national office told the local chapter it did not allow women. They met with Yale officials many times about the problems with the fraternities, but, the complaint states, their concerns were disregarded.

Their lawsuit names Yale, the campus fraternity chapters and their national offices, as well as the housing corporations of the university’s fraternities.

Yale spokesman Tom Conroy declined to comment on the lawsuit, instead sending a message about Delta Kappa Epsilon that was forwarded around campus last month from Marvin M. Chun, dean of the university.

About a year ago, administrators ordered a review of Yale’s broad “campus culture” and a potentially “sexually hostile climate” with Delta Kappa Epsilon. Students reported unregulated access to alcohol and behavior such as DKE brothers “ogling” others on the dance floor, according to the report.

“I condemn the culture described in these accounts,” Chun wrote. “It runs counter to our community's values of making everyone feel welcome, respected, and safe. I also offer some plain advice about events like these: don't go to them.”

DKE will not be punished, despite the findings. It had been banned from being associated with the university for five years in 2011, following the chanting episode from the previous year. But the punishment was ineffective, critics said, because the fraternities are already technically not affiliated with the institution and are quartered off campus.

The lawsuit notes that it may be difficult for Yale to regulate the fraternities, but the women and the law firm representing them, Sanford Heisler Sharp, pointed out in the lawsuit that Yale does allow them to use Yale’s name, email addresses and facilities for events and recruitment.

A lawyer representing the fraternities, Joan Gilbride, said in a statement that the accusations are “baseless and unfounded.”

Todd Shelton, a spokesman for the North American Interfraternity Conference, wrote in an email to Inside Higher Ed, “Single-sex student organizations should be an option -- a choice -- for students. And so should co-ed student organizations. Students should have the choice to join the groups that best fit their developmental needs.”

Plaintiffs have argued in lawsuits before that entire campus fraternity systems are fundamentally flawed, despite that only certain chapters have reported sexual violence, said S. Daniel Carter, president of Safety Advisors for Educational Campuses, which consults with colleges on security matters and Title IX.

Utah State University, for instance, settled with a sexual assault survivor last year by reforming Greek life as a whole, requiring fraternity and sorority chapters to apply for recognition with the university and monitoring their social events. This broad settlement was backed even though the lawsuit was about one student who was raped by a single fraternity member.

What is new with the Yale case -- and could be groundbreaking -- is the request for fraternity life to go coed, Carter said.

“Their proposed remedy is unusual,” Carter said. “When I’ve worked on cases like this, developing a better structure for the university to have oversight of fraternities was the remedy pursued. That is typically the type of remedy pursued in these types of matters.”

In addition to the integration, the women want Yale to create a Greek Council that would monitor the fraternities, which they demanded should register with the institution as official student groups. They also have asked that “sober monitors” be appointed for every fraternity party off campus to monitor alcohol consumption, and bouncers be hired to ensure crowd control and “nondiscriminatory event admission.”

This is the second occasion in recent months involving Ivy League institutions, their Greek systems and a legal battle.

National fraternities and sororities sued Harvard in December over a rule introduced in 2016 meant to disincentivize joining single-sex clubs.

The groups aren’t banned per se, but students who are members can’t lead any other camps groups or captain sports teams. Administrators created the policy in order to restrict “final clubs,” historically all-male organizations that have been linked to sexual assaults and discriminatory practices in recent years.

The rule also affected all other campus groups -- among them fraternities and sororities. Harvard on Friday asked state and federal judges to dismiss these complaints.

But the arguments in neither the Yale nor the Harvard cases undercut the clear exception for social fraternities that was built into Title IX, said Timothy Burke, a lawyer and founding partner of Fraternal Law Partners. His firm helps fraternities in untangling complex tax law, zoning and land use, and other matters, but he is uninvolved in the Yale case.

Two years after Title IX was signed in 1972, the then Department of Health, Education and Welfare tried to apply the law to campus fraternities and sororities.

Realizing that certain Greek life organizations had not been exempted from the law, one of the original architects of Title IX, Democratic senator Birch Bayh, proposed an amendment, eventually enacted into law, that allowed colleges and universities to still recognize fraternities and sororities, despite their single-sex membership.

Business-related or other fraternity organizations are not exempted in the same way.

“If their members are engaging in misconduct, that needs to be dealt with, both by the groups themselves and the universities,” Burke said. “But that doesn’t become justification for attempting to eliminate Greek groups at Yale or at Harvard.”

The lawsuit links Harvard to Yale, saying that Yale “has fallen behind” its peer institution and rival by allowing discrimination to continue.

“I think the arguments related to Harvard are ethically persuasive, but not legally,” Brett Sokolow, president of the Association of Title IX Administrators, wrote in an email. “Of course, courts may show unexpected sympathies for such claims, but I don’t see viable federal claims under existing law and precedents. A suit like this, with such a wide list of defendants and an attempt to certify a class action, is largely intended to garner publicity and shame the defendants with public pressure.”

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