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All on-campus fraternities at Wesleyan University must soon become coeducational or they will be shut down, the university announced Monday, giving its small but often under-fire Greek system a three-year deadline to open its doors to female students.
"Over the summer a great many Wesleyan alumni, students and faculty offered their views," Michael Roth, Wesleyan's president, said in a statement. "Some have urged that we preserve the status quo; others have argued for the elimination of all exclusive social societies. The trustees and administration recognize that residential fraternities have contributed greatly to Wesleyan over a long period of time, but we also believe they must change to continue to benefit their members and the larger campus community."
The university has been considering the change for several years, but a series of high-profile incidents at its fraternities expedited the process in recent months. Two weeks ago, Wesleyan banned all of its students from the house of an off-campus fraternity called Beta Theta Pi after a sophomore fell from a third-story window there. In 2012, a student sued both the fraternity and the university, saying she was raped while at the house. She referred to the residence in the lawsuit as a "rape factory."
Another Wesleyan fraternity, Psi Upsilon, is also facing a lawsuit over an alleged sexual assault. Along with Delta Kappa Epsilon, Psi Upsilon is one of two officially recognized, on-campus fraternities at Wesleyan, a university where just 4 percent of the student body belongs to a Greek organization. Fewer than 100 students live in those two houses. There is only one sorority, and it is located off-campus. Student and faculty proponents of either closing the fraternities or making them admit women have said that their influence on campus culture was far greater than their share of the student body.
"The fraternities are recognized as 'program housing' at Wesleyan, which means that it's official housing," said Kate Carlisle, a university spokeswoman. "We have affinity for program houses for a wide variety of groups, including Russian House, Buddhist House, and Earth House. So, if a fraternity fails to comply with the policy change, they will no longer be recognized program housing. They'll effectively be shut down."
While Carlisle would not confirm that the policy change was an attempt at curbing sexual assault specifically, she did say that it was designed to "increase gender equity on campus." For the Wesleyan Student Assembly, however, sexual assault prevention was the key reason it pushed for the integration last year.
Nicole Updegrove, the assembly's president at the time, called for all Greek chapters to become coed by the end of the fall semester or lose their campus houses. About 500 people, including 75 professors, signed a “call to action” backing the fraternity integration. “The culture of these houses contributes to the culture of sexual assault in a way we weren’t willing to stand for anymore,” Updegrove said in May. In a blog post in April, Roth wrote that it's "clear that many students see fraternity houses as spaces where women enter with a different status than in any other building on campus, sometimes with terrible consequences."
Wesleyan is not the only Connecticut college to ban all-male fraternities in recent years. In 2012, Trinity College required all of its Greek houses on campus to go coed, prompting more than 4,000 people to sign a Change.org petition protesting the decision. Critics argued that, as many national organizations do not officially recognize coed chapters, Trinity was effectively banning fraternities and sororities altogether.
Similar concerns have surrounded Wesleyan's decision.
Thomas Fox, Psi Upsilon national executive director, said that the national organization will still recognize its Wesleyan chapter, but that he doesn't believe making a fraternity coed will do much to change student behavior.
"I'm disappointed in colleges that feel the need to mandate that single-sex organizations become coed," Fox said. "I would think that it would be seen as a benefit to a college campus to have multiple options for students to join, both single-sex and coed. If it's a behavioral concern, then the answer is for the college to work to create better oversight and hold groups accountable."
John Foubert, president of sexual assault prevention program One in Four, was recently hired by a consortium of Delta Kappa Epsilon alumni to start a campus chapter of his program at Wesleyan. Foubert said he "would be interested to see" how coeducation could change a fraternity's culture, but that it's a difficult transition to accurately observe.
Attempting to radically alter an existing fraternity can sometimes lead the organization to go off-campus, he said, creating an underground fraternity over which the university has no jurisdiction, much like Beta Theta Pi.
"Generally speaking, I think it is best to work with student organizations in their existing structure, rather than mandating modifications," Foubert said.
The Wesleyan Student Assembly's new president, Grant Tanenbaum, said that integration represents a compromise, and that opening fraternities to female members is just one step in an ongoing effort to prevent sexual assault on Wesleyan's campus.
"The options available were to do nothing, abolish all fraternities and societies, or try to seek some sort of middle ground," Tanenbaum said. "The status quo was obviously unsustainable, students didn’t feel safe in these spaces. So doing nothing was not an option, and going coeducational allows us to chart a middle ground where these organizations can continue to contribute to Wesleyan."