Even though fraternities are banned at Amherst College, it’s common for students around campus to see guys wearing sweaters with Greek letters or posters advertising parties in one of the off-campus fraternity houses.
The college announced Tuesday that it plans to squelch that tacit fraternity presence. The Board of Trustees declared that students caught as members of underground fraternities, or in “fraternity-like organizations,” could be suspended or expelled.
“We’ve now freed ourselves of underground fraternities,” Suzanne Coffey, the chief student affairs officer, said in an interview.
About 90 students, or 10 percent of the male undergraduate population, are believed to be in fraternities, although the Greek role in social life is much more dominant than the 10 percent figure would suggest. There are no sororities. Similar institutions such as Bowdoin and Colby Colleges have in years past eliminated Greek life, while Trinity College of Connecticut is forcing its Greek houses to become coeducational, and Wesleyan University is considering a similar move.
Since Amherst banished fraternities from campus and official recognition in 1984 – soon after it integrated women into the college – administrators and students have tiptoed around the influential role chapters play in campus social life.
The statement issued by trustees Tuesday stated that the college would no longer look the other way. “The condition of seeming to have some measure of responsibility without possessing any measure of authority is inherently problematic,” it read.
Coffey said the move comes as the college is expanding residential and student life opportunities, including four new dorms that will soon open up. She added that the college would not tolerate pledging, rushing or initiation-type activities when the policy goes into effect July 1.
“We’re trying to create spaces and opportunities for students to get to know each other. That is the theme,” she said. “There’s a lot of things going on that are aimed at the entire student body and not a subset of the student body that’s underground.”
Campuswide debates over sexual assault put fraternities in the spotlight, especially after a T-shirt sold by Theta Delta Chi that depicted a woman being roasted over a fire like a pig stirred campus outrage two years ago. The college has also faced criticism from some survivors of sexual assault who question whether their allegations were taken seriously. Not all of those allegations concern the off-campus fraternities, but advocates for changing the campus culture have frequently pointed to those organizations.
The AC Voice, a student-run web publication, also reported this year that the underground fraternity Chi Psi housed a student who was expelled from the college after he was found guilty of sexual assault. That allegation prompted considerable campus outrage.
The college is also one of 55 colleges and universities under federal investigation for mishandling sexual assault complaints.
Student activists at Amherst heralded Tuesday’s announcement, but the calls to wipe out underground fraternities have not been unanimous.
Jasjaap Sidhu, a fourth-year student in Delta Kappa Epsilon, said in an interview that students are planning protests and sit-ins at the president’s office and main administration building this week because the trustees did not solicit wider input on the issue.
Fraternities have not been able to knock down misconceptions from campus officials that members are stereotypical frat boys because they’ve been hidden underground, Sidhu said. Chapters are populated with a significant number of international students and middle-class students at Amherst, he said.
“Fraternities aren’t a bastion of white privilege like they would be at other schools,” he said. “A force driving the resolution was that perception, that fraternities have served as that bastion explicitly.”
He added that trustees should have re-examined the 1984 ban because campus dynamics have changed significantly since then.
Instead, the trustees wrote: “The board and the administration believe that the original decision to ban fraternities was sound and that the reasoning remains valid: The college is better off without, than it would be with, a fraternity system.”
The trustees’ decision came after a committee of administrators, faculty and students examining sexual misconduct on campus called on the board to study fraternities’ roles at the college. The committee did not pin campus issues with sexual assault on fraternities, writing that “it is important to note that we are not saying they are disproportionately guilty of sexual assault; we have no evidence that this is the case.”
But the three unofficial fraternities – Delta Kappa Epsilon, Chi Psi and Theta Delta Chi – had a heavy influence on the Amherst social scene, according to the committee report. To Amherst students, “fraternities are very much above ground and quite visible” and fraternity members “may also contribute to the notorious gender imbalance” in the student government, the report read.
Liya Rechtman, a fourth-year student on the committee, said the trustees’ decision is “30 years in the making and a very important one,” but said administrators may have difficulty enforcing the ban – and that could force Greek life further underground. Trustees will answer student questions about the new rules next week, she said.
Rechtman, one of the founders of AC Voice, said she is close to fraternity members and has conducted bystander intervention trainings with chapters. She said campus officials believed fraternities’ “gray area” would become a liability for the college if serious sexual assault or hazing incidents took place.
But, she added, even though fraternities are all-male and inherently secretive, “this ruling doesn’t sufficiently deal with the problems of Amherst’s culture. It’s not just fraternities, it’s not just athletics teams, and to think about just one of those groups is scapegoating and creating superficial change.”