Facing opposition from Democratic lawmakers, campus safety groups and even one of its founding members, the North-American Interfraternity Conference this week doubled down on its support of a controversial bill that would limit how colleges can respond to cases of campus sexual assault.
In a statement, the North-American Interfraternity Conference said that criticism of the bill and their advocacy for it has been based on "misconceptions."
"We are listening and have heard the voices of the many groups who are eager to affect change," the NIC stated. "There are many reforms that institutions of higher education, fraternities and sororities, victims rights groups, the educational community, and the American public can agree on."
The proposed federal legislation, called the Safe Campus Act, would strengthen due process rights of students accused of sexual assault and prevent campus investigations from taking place unless a victim also reports the allegations to law enforcement. Yet if a student were to commit any other kind of crime -- such as selling drugs or physically assaulting someone -- they could still be punished even without police involvement.
The bill would also make it tougher to kick a fraternity or sorority off campus without a proper hearing, and would bar colleges from forcing Greek organizations to become coeducational.
When it was introduced in July, civil liberties organizations, fraternity and sorority groups, and the lobbying group representing them -- a frequent financial contributor to one of the bill's sponsors -- applauded the legislation as providing an avenue for “much-needed reforms.” But campus safety groups and victims’ advocates immediately decried the legislation as redundant and harmful.
The ranks of those criticizing the legislation have grown since then to include the Association for Student Conduct Administration, the National Women’s Law Center, the American Association of University Women, the Victims' Rights Law Center and every major victims advocacy group. The American Council on Education has refrained from taking a stance on the bill, but stressed that it does not support the legislation.
On Thursday, Senators Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, and Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri, held a phone call with reporters criticizing the North-American Interfraternity Conference's and the National Panhellenic Conference's support of the legislation. Both senators were members of sororities and said that they are personally “disappointed and disturbed” by the organizations’ lobbying.
The two lawmakers are the lead co-sponsors of the Campus Accountability and Safety Act, a separate piece of legislation that would require confidential resources for victims of sexual assault and would impose fines on colleges who mishandle sexual assault cases. The legislation has 34 co-sponsors, including 12 Republicans.
The name of the new, opposing bill -- the Safe Campus Act -- is a misnomer, they said.
“The goal of any campus sexual assault legislation should be to encourage survivors to report the crimes,” Gillibrand said. “This bill does exactly the opposite. The bill discourages students from reporting the crimes. Their bill would worsen our understanding of a violent crime that is already statistically underreported and reduce the school’s ability to address sexual assault.”
Colleges are required by Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 to investigate and adjudicate cases of campus sexual assault. Facing pressure from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights to improve their handling of these cases, institutions in recent years have begun more rigorously responding to sexual assault allegations.
While victims' advocates say colleges still have a long way to go in addressing the needs and rights of students who have been assaulted, civil liberties groups argue that in their haste to comply with Title IX, colleges are increasingly trampling the due process rights of the accused.
Components of the Safe Campus Act conflict with some Education Department regulations. The bill would allow an alleged victim to decide whether to involve police, but the college could not launch its own investigation unless the student chose to report the incident to law enforcement. Currently, colleges are required to conduct investigations even if police are not informed of the crime. The new legislation would also allow colleges to choose what standard of evidence to use when deciding if a student committed the assault, rather than being required to use the lower burden of proof known as preponderance of evidence.
The stronger due process would also apply to student groups, not just individuals, meaning it would be more difficult to push a fraternity off campus if it is accused of sexual misconduct -- a punishment that, according to student affairs officials, is already rare at many institutions. The proposed legislation would require a college to conduct a full discipline hearing before a chapter could be banned from campus. Interim sanctions, such as suspension, during this process could last only 10 days.
The Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee lobbied Congress for many of the protections included in the new bill, donating $500,000 to politicians in the last year. The legislation was introduced by U.S. Representatives Matt Salmon, of Arizona, with Kay Granger and Pete Sessions, of Texas, as co-sponsors. All three are Republicans. According to the Federal Election Commission, Sessions has received more than $33,000 in contributions from the Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee since 2005.
Sessions is also sponsoring a separate bill called the Fair Campus Act, which includes similar sexual assault policy changes. His co-sponsor on that legislation is Representative Susan Brooks, an Indiana Republican, who has received $10,000 from the Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee since 2012. The North-American Interfraternity Conference supports the Fair Campus Act, as well.
A group called the Safe Campus Coalition has spent an additional $140,000 on lobbyists, hiring former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Kevin O’Neill, executive director of the Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee. The coalition includes the North-American Interfraternity Conference.
The NIC’s lobbying efforts come amid what Lambda Chi Alpha, a founding member of the organization, calls “internal squabbling” within the group. Earlier this week Lambda Chi Alpha resigned from the trade association, ending a 106-year relationship.
The NIC experienced an additional shake-up in August, when its longtime president and CEO suddenly stepped down, leaving the organization without a top executive for weeks. Pete Smithhisler, the former president, declined to comment on the reasons for his resignation other than saying he plans to start his own nonprofit consulting group. He also declined to discuss Lambda Chi Alpha leaving the NIC, saying the “decisions have nothing to do with or are as a result of my departure.” Smithhisler is an alumnus of the fraternity.
In a statement Tuesday, the Lambda Chi Alpha Board of Directors said that the NIC's goals were no longer “consistent with the best interests of our campus communities.”
“For more than a century, we have supported the NIC’s efforts and advocated for its stated principles and values,” Fletcher McElreath, chairman of the board, stated. “Unfortunately, the NIC has recently elected to pursue counterproductive tactics that we believe are antithetical to our values and we cannot support them.”
When asked if the tactics in question included the NIC’s lobbying in support of the Safe Campus Act, Tad Lichtenauer, the fraternity’s director of communications, declined to elaborate, but added that Lambda Chi Alpha is “against all lobbying efforts.”
McCaskill said she is not concerned that the fraternity- and sorority-backed bill will become law, noting that the bill still has just four co-sponsors. Her concern, rather, is that the umbrella groups for the vast majority of the country's fraternities and sororities would throw their collective weight and money behind such proposed legislation. She said she worries that many fraternity and sorority members may not even be aware that the North-American Interfraternity Conference and the National Panhellenic Conference are backing the bill or that the bill exists.
“I’m incredibly disappointed,” McCaskill said. “As a member of a sorority, I would be furious if the dues I paid were going to this effort. The notion that they’re spending this kind of money on something that is so misinformed, I would be very upset.”