Frat sues Wesleyan: Is it gender discrimination to force a fraternity to go coed?

Connecticut’s Middletown Superior Court is hearing arguments Wednesday and Thursday in what has been called first legal challenge surrounding an order for a fraternity to admit women.

Can a private university force its fraternities to go coed? That’s one of the questions set to play out in a lawsuit brought by a chapter of Delta Kappa Epsilon against Wesleyan University.

Connecticut’s Middletown Superior Court is hearing arguments Wednesday and Thursday about whether members should be able to continue to live in the fraternity house next year, while the broader issues of the suit are expected to be addressed at a later date if the case is not settled, says Gary Holmes, a spokesman for the DKE chapter.

The lawsuit is being watched closely because it’s the first to challenge an order for a fraternity to go coed, says Tim Burke, a lawyer in the Fraternal Law Partners group of Manley Burke LLP in Cincinnati. Generally, private universities have prevailed when they’ve decided to no longer recognize Greek organizations as campus groups, he says. In this case, the university is trying to fundamentally alter the fraternity’s nature, and in response, “There is a very strong argument being made by fraternities [and sororities] that there is a value in having single-sex houses and chapters.”

Whichever way the court decides, the lawsuit also highlights a question playing out on many college campuses and in the broader court of public opinion: How should fraternities be reformed – or should they be eliminated – in the quest to reduce sexual assault, hazing, and binge drinking? In recent years, Wesleyan’s other two all-male fraternities have faced lawsuits by students alleging they were raped there. 

Members and alumni of DKE say Wesleyan’s attempt to address one set of gender concerns is unfairly propagating another form of sex discrimination. They argue the university shouldn’t take away the single-sex nature of fraternities, considering that students at Wesleyan, who are all required to live on campus, are offered many opportunities to opt for “program houses” that focus on ethnic, religious, and even feminist issues. They can also opt for single-sex halls in the dorms.

Wesleyan’s “pursuit of selective discrimination is an egregious example of political correctness gone wrong, and does a disservice to the high ideals upon which Wesleyan was founded,” said Scott Karsten, spokesman for the Kent Literary Club, the fraternity’s alumni chapter, in a statement when the group filed the lawsuit in February.

In announcing the policy change in September, Wesleyan President Michael Roth and the chair of the Board of Trustees noted that “residential fraternities have contributed greatly to Wesleyan over a long period of time, but we also believe they must change to continue to benefit their members and the larger campus community. With equity and inclusion in mind, we have decided that residential fraternities must become fully co-educational over the next three years.”

University officials would not comment on the lawsuit when contacted Wednesday by the Monitor. All other campus housing at Wesleyan is supposed to be coed, but the Monitor did not get responses from several people contacted about whether, in fact, program houses such as the Womanist House and the Women of Color House have both male and female members or actively encourage co-ed residents.

Part of the community discussion at Wesleyan leading up to the decision has centered on sexual assault and whether all-male fraternity houses are safe spaces on campus or whether they have a negative effect on gender equity.

A student-government survey last spring found that 47 percent of nearly 800 respondents said fraternities are less safe than other social spaces, while 31 percent said they were the same and 19 percent said they were safer. Fifty-two percent of students said fraternities would be safer if made co-ed, and 56 percent said the campus overall would be improved if they were made co-ed.

“I haven’t seen any studies that suggest that there would be less sexual assault by having the housing be coed” at fraternities, says Mr. Burke. But he says national fraternal organizations are taking the issue of sexual assault seriously. Phi Delta Theta, for instance, recently mandated that all members receive prevention training that addresses the issue of bystander conduct. 

Some researchers have found that fraternity men are more likely than other college men to commit rape. But research has also found that prevention efforts can make a difference in fraternity men’s behavior. A 2007 experiment with 90 percent of a university’s first year men found that those who were assigned to participate in a prevention program and then joined fraternities were much less likely to commit a sexually coercive act during that academic year than those in the control group, who did not get the prevention program but also joined fraternities. 

Wesleyan’s chapter of DKE has voluntarily brought in two nationally recognized prevention programs, according to Cardinal Truths, a group of Wesleyan alumni and donors who oppose the coed mandate.

Title IX, the law prohibiting sex discrimination in education, does allow for single-sex organizations such as fraternities and sororities. But private universities can make policies about making housing and student organizations co-ed, “as long as they are being even-handed,” says Lisa Maatz, vice president of government relations at the American Association of University Women.

Not many universities have tried a similar approach. Trinity College in Hartford, Conn., mandated co-ed fraternities a few years ago and received a lot of pushback. By last fall, no women had joined, but the school continued to require the groups to make an effort to reach a goal of gender parity by 2016, the New Republic reported

The DKE lawsuit also alleges that university officials accelerated what was supposed to be a three-year timeline for complying, by eliminating the DKE chapter house as a residential option for students in the upcoming academic year. The complaint says the chapter was working with administrators to come up with a plan to welcome female residents, such as partnering with a sorority, when it was abruptly told that the fraternity could no longer be a residential space.

In effect, DKE argues, the university is breaking a contract with members, because part of the reason they chose to attend Wesleyan was to join and live at DKE.

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