After more than a year of research and consideration, the University of Kansas announced in September that it was adopting 22 of the 27 recommendations suggested by a sexual assault prevention task force created by the university’s chancellor.
Among the few exceptions? Those related to the university's fraternities.
The recommendations the university adopted included revising definitions of sexual harassment and sexual assault, creating a prevention and education research center, and implementing several prevention programs for all first-year students. The task force also suggested that the university make changes to how fraternities and sororities recruit and house new members.
“The practices governing fraternity and sorority recruitment and membership intake of new members need to be examined and modified,” the task force stated in its final report in May. “In particular, the [task force] recommends eliminating recruitment of high school seniors into fraternities, and moving the recruitment and membership intake of all first-year students in fraternities and sororities until spring semester.”
The recruitment of high school seniors involves inviting teenagers to parties, sporting events and other activities in an attempt to assess whether they are a potential fit with a fraternity. The North-American Interfraternity Conference, the trade association for 73 national fraternities, said it endorses the approach.
“Recruitment is grounded in friendships and relationships,” said William Foran, vice president of university relations for the NIC. “It is an opportunity to connect with and be involved with a larger campus community. In some cases, these relationships predate the college experience due to existing friendships, community ties and family traditions.”
While recruiting high school seniors is not commonplace in fraternities, it’s not unusual, either. And at Kansas, it is the primary method of finding new members.
Through a process called spring informal recruitment, high school seniors and incoming freshmen reach out to chapters through email or an online form. Current members may also try recruiting friends, family members or former high school sports teammates. The high school students then attend several recruitment events on campus. If a chapter's members like a recruit, he will receive a bid and can decide to join the fraternity. When arriving on campus, the students are already fraternity members and can move directly into chapter houses.
Members of the task force said that to allow young adults to dive into fraternity activity before they’ve even graduated from high school is to toss them into a situation fraught with excessive drinking and peer pressure, two factors often present in cases of sexual assault and harassment involving fraternities. By not allowing recruitment until spring semester, students could be barred from such activities as high schoolers, and then would have a semester on campus experiencing college life without fraternities before deciding if joining a chapter was for them.
In a statement last month, the University of Kansas said its officials agreed with the premise of the task force’s recommendation, but said their hands were tied: fraternities and sororities are separate entities from the university and set their own rules. The university listed the recommendation as “implementation in progress.”
“We have discussed this with the Greek community every year for many years, but the Greek community has opted to not change its practices,” the university stated. “We will continue to have these conversations and encourage fraternities and sororities to consider our suggestions.”
Joe Simons, public relations director for the university's Interfraternity Council, said the fraternities were pleased with the university's decision. IFC leaders, he told the Lawrence Journal-World, were “glad that the [recommendations] that could fundamentally alter how we do business are not being considered.”
Alesha Doan, chair of the department of women’s and gender studies at Kansas and a member of the chancellor’s sexual assault task force, said she is disappointed by the university's rejection of the recommendations and by the IFC's refusal to change its policies.
“We're not talking about making changes to their identify or goals or what they stand for," Doan said. “We're talking about best practices that would ultimately improve the integrity of the fraternity and sorority system. We're talking about moving that system into contemporary times. It's frustrating that these decisions get left up to the Greek community, and that they won't have this conversation.”
Other faculty members and student affairs professionals in the last year have expressed similar frustration over allowing fraternities and sororities to set -- and, in many cases, enforce -- their own rules. Such a debate led to the resignation of the University of Idaho's dean of students in March.
The Kansas task force also recommended that all freshmen be required to live in campus housing their first year, with a focus on “deferring new fraternity members’ residency in chapter houses to sophomore year.” This, like the other rejected recommendation, would allow students to experience more time on campus without being isolated to fraternity houses. It would also allow the university to more easily conduct sexual assault prevention education and training, the task force said. Sororities at Kansas already follow such a rule.
“This would let a student develop a larger friend network other than one just exclusively within an organization,” Doan said. “It gives them an opportunity to learn what it means to be a student, and can help them focus on their new environment, the university as a whole, not just the fraternity.”
But the recommendation was “not feasible for a number of reasons,” the university stated, including that the “university does not have adequate housing to make this possible.”
Many colleges and universities, including Kansas, do indeed struggle to provide enough housing for freshmen. Greek houses often provide a much-needed alternative.
Foran, of the NIC, said that universities should not try to restrict when a student can join and move into a fraternity.
“We believe that individuals have the right to associate for noble purposes,” Foran said. “And that men should have the opportunity to join fraternities at the time that is best for them after fully matriculating as a student.”
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