Going to War With Fraternities

West Virginia University president E. Gordon Gee warns parents against fraternity chapters that say they will disaffiliate from the institution after new rules on Greek life.

August 21, 2018
 
West Virginia University president E. Gordon Gee

Threats by four West Virginia University fraternities to separate from the institution and operate independently have prompted President E. Gordon Gee to publicly urge students and parents to avoid the chapters.

The schism between university officials and the fraternities -- Alpha Sigma Phi, Phi Sigma Kappa, Kappa Alpha and Sigma Chi -- became apparent earlier this month, following the announcement of stricter new rules around Greek life. Most significantly, Gee deferred the first-year student rush process until the spring semester.

Sigma Chi officers sent a letter to officials on Aug. 10, informing the university of their plan to “disassociate.” Shortly thereafter, the other three chapters followed suit with letters of their own.

Gee, one of the country’s most prominent and seasoned university presidents, emailed parents on Sunday informing them about the fraternities’ intentions. In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Gee said that if one “gave most college presidents truth serum,” they would say they do not want fraternities and sororities on campus. He said he does, and he wants them to be safe. Gee said he did not know of any other college president who had contacted parents as he had.

Gee has also scheduled a Tuesday meeting with representatives of the North-American Interfraternity Conference, or NIC, an umbrella group that oversees many national chapters of fraternities, and with officials of the national branches of the fraternities considering leaving the university, “to reconcile differences.”

Since that meeting was announced, Alpha Sigma Phi and Phi Sigma Kappa rescinded their letters, according to the university. NIC has acted as a mediator between Gee and the national chapters of four fraternities, with some of those chapters "urging" the campus chapters to disassociate, West Virginia spokesman John Bolt said.

Heather Kirk, a spokeswoman for NIC, sent a statement on behalf of the group, saying it had "spent extensive energy -- including coordinating Tuesday’s meeting -- to try to find path forward that strengthens the partnership with West Virginia University while allowing for fraternities’ concerns to be addressed."

Most of the campus chapters of the fraternities did not respond to request for comment. Representatives of one chapter spoke to a reporter at length Monday but later declined to have their comments used on the record.

In February, Gee issued a moratorium on activities of the 16 fraternities that comprise the university’s Interfraternity Council, allowing only basic chapter operations and service events. This ban was not triggered by any particular incident, but rather a flurry of reports of alcohol abuse and sexual misconduct in Greek life in spring 2018. The report on the chapters -- Reaching the Summit -- found that in the last academic year, West Virginia sororities and fraternities were investigated for 29 incidents of alcohol or drug abuse, 18 physical fights, six hazing cases and four reports of sexual misconduct, among other conduct violations.

Campus officials and students reviewed every sorority and fraternity to come up with an "action plan” that resulted in a few chapters being punished -- including two that were suspended indefinitely.

The university required Alpha Sigma Phi to hold “educational programs” on hazing prevention; Phi Sigma Kappa was suspended, and both Kappa Alpha and Sigma Chi had their social events limited to one per semester this academic year. Members of both are required to attend or sponsor certain workshops on topics such as hazing or social media etiquette.

While Gee's parent email is an unusual step, it is unclear how else administrators could punish the chapters.

The fraternities’ housing is not university owned. Gee noted in his email to parents that the chapters wouldn’t be allowed to reference the university’s name or use its brand in any way. They also cannot reserve any campus facilities or participate in university events.

But at least one of the chapters, Kappa Alpha, still was advertising rush events throughout next week, according to the university, a violation of the new rules on pledging. Gee wrote in his letter to parents that officials told the fraternity to remove social media posts about rushing, but that they remain active.

Asked how the university could sanction the chapters, Gee said, “I’ll probably have further conversations. I hope it will go well. If it doesn’t, we’ll move to another level of activity. As to what that is, I’m not certain yet.”

While the chapters would no longer be under the university’s purview, individual students are still subject to its conduct code, meaning there could be consequences for off-campus drinking or other violations if they are caught.

Not the First Time

A similar ban on Greek life activities came roughly four years ago, after the death of Kappa Sigma pledge Nolan Burch. During a hazing ritual, Burch, 18, drank an entire bottle of whiskey with another fraternity brother and lost consciousness. The other fraternity members didn’t seek immediate medical help for Burch, and he died the following day. A confidential settlement was reached with his family in January.

Around the time that Gee announced the moratorium, in February, other hazing deaths were dominating headlines. Fraternity pledges at four universities died in 2017 from alcohol overdoses in hazing incidents -- at Louisiana State University, Florida State University, Texas State University and Pennsylvania State University. Criminal proceedings in those cases were the subject of much public scrutiny, and all four institutions enacted aggressive reforms in Greek life, starting with temporary bans of all Greek activities at Florida State, Louisiana State and Texas State and a stop on fraternity activities at Penn State.

The Interfraternity Council at the University of Michigan also voted last year to halt Greek activities amid widespread reports of hazing and misconduct. Experts say such prohibitions generally do not make much difference, generally driving poor behavior underground and away from the scrutiny of administrators.

The moratorium at West Virginia was lifted this academic year, with new Greek life policies in place. In addition to the postponed rush, students who join a fraternity or sorority must maintain a 2.75 grade point average, up from a 2.5. A chapter’s average GPA must also be 2.75. New member activities will also be limited to one month in duration and the Greek chapters must operate on the same academic calendar schedule as all other student groups.

Other fraternities and sororities have faced individual sanctions, ranging from temporary or indefinite suspension to new restrictions on events. Two fraternities, Phi Sigma Kappa (one of the chapters trying to secede from the university) and Sigma Alpha Mu, are suspended until fall 2020. Pi Kappa Alpha and Phi Gamma Delta are suspended indefinitely.

Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, applauded the changes at West Virginia, saying they match recommendations by his organization.

Shortening the intake window for new pledges limits bad behavior, Kruger said. And postponing the pledge process a semester gives students time to build up confidence and adjust more to a new environment, he said. Kruger also approved of the new GPA requirements.

Commenting on the possibility of the fraternities leaving, Kruger said that “underground” chapters present a unique set of challenges.

“I would not be threatened by groups that can’t comply with reasonable policies that are there to ensure the safety of students,” Kruger said. “If they choose to go underground, they won’t get many of the advantages a recognized fraternity and sorority would get … it’s not our desire to drive Greek life off campus -- but to get better outcomes, we need changes, and if some of the groups decide they can’t abide by that, it may be better for the institution.”

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