[Updated (9/4/2015, 7 p.m.) with details from an interview with the college’s president and reactions from student leaders.]
Trinity College of Connecticut announced on Friday that its seven single-gender fraternities and sororities would no longer have to become coeducational by next fall.
Joanne Berger-Sweeney, Trinity’s president, wrote in a letter to the campus that she had made the decision after a series of conversations with students, faculty members, alumni, and others.
She said in an interview with The Chronicle that she supported trying to improve gender equity on the campus. But to her, such equity did not mean coed Greek life. Instead, it meant “that individuals of both sexes feel empowered to create the kind of climate and atmosphere that they want on campus.”
When the requirement was announced, in 2012, the college sought to achieve at least 45-percent minority-gender membership in all fraternities and sororities by the fall of 2016. The coed mandate was championed by a former Trinity president, James F. Jones Jr., as a way to clean up problems in the college’s Greek system.
But as of the 2014-15 academic year, very little had changed: Not a single female student had joined a single-sex Trinity fraternity, and the same held true for the sororities.
Ms. Berger-Sweeney, who took office in the spring of 2014, said she had come to the campus assuming that she would have to enforce the policy.
However, she said that as she researched other institutions that had considered coed policies for fraternities and sororities — she would not name specific colleges — she did not find a successful example.
“I couldn’t even find a strong rationale for why it would work,” she said.
She added that continuing to enforce the policy would carry a number of unintended consequences, noting that at least half of Trinity’s chapters would lose their national charters.
A mandate that focused exclusively on Greek life, which includes only 20 percent of the student body, was not the best approach, Ms. Berger-Sweeney said.
She wouldn’t specify what she would have done differently, had she been president at the time the policy was announced. But she cited a new freshman-mentoring program, an updated sexual-misconduct policy, a campuswide campaign promoting inclusivity and respect, and new standards for Greek students as examples of positive reforms she has promoted since taking office at Trinity.
“Anecdotally, people tell me it feels different” on the campus than before her arrival, she said, noting that campus-safety officers say that their interaction with Greek students has improved. “There’s no question in my mind that it is better.”
Trinity’s effort was not the college’s first attempt to impose a coed mandate on Greek life. The college’s trustees approved such a policy 23 years ago, though it was not well enforced. This time, the 45-percent benchmark was supposed to give the coed requirement more teeth.
But a lack of support from the student body made enforcement difficult once again. Current fraternity and sorority leaders said that students, both Greek and non-Greek, had not been given enough input into the policy’s design. A number of Trinity alumni also decried the policy and threatened to stop donating to the college.
Student leaders at the college expressed relief about the announcement on Friday. “The attitude of the previous administration was more, ‘We are a private college, we can do anything we want,’” said William Morrow, president of the Inter-Greek Council. Ms. Berger-Sweeney, he said, “has been the exact opposite of that.”
Joshua Frank, a former president of the student-government association, said he was aware that some faculty members and alumni would continue to prefer abolishing Greek life, but he emphasized that “there are still opportunities to change the campus” and achieve a more inclusive, diverse student body. He said that he and other students could now have “those uncomfortable conversations” about the challenges facing Trinity and move forward.
“We just can’t do it the way we did it before, with a policy that was unfair to alumni and students,” he said. “You’re never going to get it right if you do that.”
Wesleyan University, another Connecticut institution, followed in Trinity’s footsteps last fall by announcing a coed mandate for its residential fraternities. The university has since been taken to court over the plan.