Legal

Why Colleges Don’t Do More to Rein In Frats

Larry W. Smith, EPA, Landov

The gate at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house at the U. of Oklahoma at Norman was locked after the institution closed the house and expelled some of its members for leading a racist chant.
March 27, 2015

It’s getting hard to keep up with the number of shocking incidents attributed to fraternities.

As headlines pile up — racist and sexist speech, sexual impropriety, destruction of property, hazing, illegal drugs, and even the death of a student — there is a growing sense that Greek organizations are out of control.

As a result, some colleges have moved to close fraternities, suspend or expel student offenders, and — in cases of alleged criminal activity — open their own investigations.

But the latest spate of bad behavior has raised bigger questions about Greek organizations’ place on campuses: Why don’t colleges, or the national associations the fraternities represent, hold frats more accountable? Can they, or should they, do more? How?

Cracking down on fraternities faces big hurdles, such as upsetting powerful alumni and donors who were members of those groups. But some colleges and national associations have taken it upon themselves to limit their responsibilities chiefly because of the cost and potential legal liability.

"The greater control you set up for Greek life, the more liability you assume," says Scott Schneider, who leads the higher-education practice at a New Orleans law firm and is a former associate general counsel at Tulane University.

Rules, Rules, Rules

In some ways, at least, fraternities and sororities are already subject to lots of rules, many of them self-imposed, says Mark Koepsell, executive director of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors. "The bar is absolutely higher for Greek organizations," he says.

Those rules begin with the basic ones that apply to their peers. Individual members of Greek organizations are, of course, subject to student codes of conduct. And as chapters, fraternities and sororities usually must meet the same expectations as other student organizations, Mr. Koepsell says. In the meantime, they generally must also meet the standards of an umbrella group of Greek organizations on a campus.

"There’s no doubt" that national Greek organizations want to protect students, says Emily N. Pualwan, executive director of HazingPrevention.org, a nonprofit group that works with both colleges and Greek organizations. While reports of hazing are on the rise, she says, actual incidents are most likely decreasing. Training and prevention programs, she says, are simply making students more willing to report such behavior.

But national Greek organizations have not always hired enough staff members to monitor the number of chapters they have, Ms. Pualwan says.

The national organizations do have a clear oversight role: They set standards for the behavior of individual members, and they require local chapters to follow an extensive set of rules under risk-management policies that bar activity like the use of illegal drugs or the provision of alcohol to minors. Individual chapters must also purchase insurance through a company established by the fraternities and paid for by member dues.

National associations of Greek organizations say their key role is to provide "ongoing education and advice" to their local chapters, which are "self-governing and independent student organizations." And they act quickly to enforce their policies, primarily by closing or suspending individual chapters, according to an email from representatives of the National Panhellenic Council and the North-American Interfraternity Conference.

"While each chapter is self-governing, it has been educated by its national organization and its local advisers on these topics and should understand its responsibilities, just as each individual member should understand what behavior is expected," the email says.

But the policies often work, first and foremost, to protect the national organizations legally, says Douglas E. Fierberg, a lawyer who has handled numerous high-profile lawsuits against Greek organizations for injuries and deaths related to hazing. In doing so, they leave individual members on the hook.

"What members don’t know is that if individuals are found to have violated the risk-management policies, they will be excluded from insurance coverage," Mr. Fierberg says. Because of that, the national groups have little or no incentive to do a better job of monitoring members’ behavior, he says.

What’s more, the national Greek organizations also have not been responsive to concerns of campus leaders, says Kevin Kruger, executive director of Naspa — Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

"Many vice presidents of student affairs are frustrated that they can’t get a phone call back from the nationals," Mr. Kruger says. "That’s a problem."

Campus Cop-Out

Colleges, too, have often avoided the tough decisions to punish fraternities or sororities, often for financial reasons, say several higher-education experts.

One reason is that members of Greek organizations are often reliable donors to the institution.

"There’s generally been a fear of responding in a strong way," says Gentry R. McCreary, associate dean of students and deputy Title IX coordinator at the University of West Florida. "If you’re upsetting alumni, you’re upsetting potential donors."

Another reason is that fraternity and sorority members maintain powerful positions in Congress and in statehouses across the country.

For example, the Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee represents Greek organizations on Capitol Hill and boasts contributions of more than $2 million over the past decade to more than 100 Congressional candidates.

Its website features a quotation from Rep. Steny Hoyer, a Sigma Chi member and Maryland Democrat who is minority whip in the U.S. House of Representatives. Eight U.S. senators and more than two dozen U.S. representatives who were members of Greek organizations are expected to attend a dinner in Washington that the committee will host in late April.

But the challenges to overseeing Greek organizations on campuses are sometimes the result of policy decisions made by the colleges.

For example, a college may allow members of Greek organizations to live on campus property — sometimes in houses owned by the chapter — with little or no supervision of the kind provided to students in traditional dormitories.

That arrangement can create both legal and practical hurdles to enforcing college rules, say Mr. Fierberg and others.

Because the houses are privately owned, campus police officers may be able to enter in only two situations: if they’re invited in or in an emergency.

And even if residence-life staff members live in the houses, as is sometimes the case, colleges may not have or be willing to spend more money for adequate staff coverage, Mr. Koepsell says.

Mr. Schneider, the higher-education lawyer, says that the struggles to oversee Greek organizations are part of a bigger conversation about how much colleges should be responsible for students in general.

Since the 1960s, institutions have slowly given students more and more responsibility for their own actions, he says. Now the pendulum may be swinging the other way.

He warns in an article, however, that colleges should weigh the unintended consequences of greater regulation.

"Put simply, it is a mistake for institutions to simply assume that they are under a legal duty to corral rowdy fraternities," he wrote. "To the contrary, there may be instances that such a duty is created solely by efforts to rein these organizations in."

Mr. Koepsell says that kind of approach will not work in the long run: "You can do the arms-length thing and minimize your liability, but are you really? It’s eventually going to blow back on the university."

Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs.You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at eric.kelderman@chronicle.com.