Amherst College extends ban on fraternities to off-campus groups, at least three 'underground' frats affected

Last modified: Thursday, May 08, 2014
AMHERST — Amherst College has banned its students from joining fraternities and sororities, even if based off campus, triggering a range of reactions from relief that a clear policy finally is in place to doubts whether the college can enforce it, or even if it’s legal.

The action, announced by the chairman of the board of trustees Tuesday, toughens a policy imposed in 1984 that abolished such organizations on campus but has not been enforced. It is widely acknowledged that at least three unofficial fraternities exist at Amherst College.

“The college decided 30 years ago that fraternity culture was not consistent with our code of conduct and not with the ways in which we hope students will get to know each other,” Suzanne Coffey, chief of student affairs, said Wednesday. The fact that the groups had continued to operate “underground” put the college in an “untenable” position regarding their activities, she said.

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Tuesday’s action, spurred by a campus committee reviewing a wide range of issues concerning sexual misconduct, finally rectifies that, Coffey said. It goes into effect July 1.

Violations will be treated as a breaches of the college’s Honor Code,” trustees Chairman Cullen Murphy said in an email to students, faculty and staff.

Jasjaap Sidhu, a senior who is a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon, one of three fraternities associated with Amherst College, said he is disappointed with the decision, but more upset that students weren’t consulted.

“This is hypocrisy at its finest when you claim to be one of the most progressive institutions in the nation in one of the most progressive states and you hand out a unilateral decision like this without consulting the people most impacted by it,” he said. He said fraternities at Amherst College are a positive part of campus life.

There are about 90 Amherst College students who belong to fraternities, according to college spokesman Caroline Hanna. About a dozen live off campus, she said.

Legal questions

The trustees were asked to review the fraternity issue by the Sexual Misconduct Oversight Committee, a group of students, faculty and staff assigned to look into questions of “sexual respect” at Amherst, Coffey said. The committee was formed following criticism that the college mishandled two cases of sexual assault on campus in 2011 and 2012. A complaint by the victim in one of the cases also has led to the investigation of the college by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights. Amherst is among 55 colleges and universities, including the University of Massachusetts, being scrutinized by the federal agency for its handling of sexual assault and harassment.

Francis Couvares, a professor of history and American studies at Amherst College, said he believes banning students from participating in fraternities off campus violates students’ right to free association. “It strikes me as a very bad idea,” he said. He noted that, based on the 1984 policy, the college has long had the right to clamp down on fraternity or sorority activities that occur at the college.

Coffey said the fraternities’ fuzzy status has made it hard for the college to control the groups’ actions, even on campus. Tougher language in the new rule will solve that problem, she said.

As for the legal issue, Coffey said Amherst College lawyers have consulted with colleges with similar bans, notably Williams College in Williamstown, Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vt., and believe Amherst is on solid ground. “They have not been challenged,” she said, of the other schools.

Ronald Rosbottom, professor of European studies, praised Amherst College President Carolyn “Biddy” Martin and the trustees for the decision.

“I’m pleased the board has taken this action, which is a long overdue and clear step regarding fraternities,” he said. The trustees’ email Tuesday afternoon took everyone by surprise, he said. Hours later, it came up at a faculty meeting that had been scheduled previously and he stood to voice his support, drawing strong applause from the 100 or so faculty there, he said.

The ambiguous status of fraternities at Amherst has caused confusion over the years, particular for incoming students, he said, and many faculty members are relieved to have the matter settled.

“Fraternities were increasingly participating on campus in everything from recruiting to parties,” he said. “These young people were having an impact on social life that had not been sanctioned by the college.”

Undeserved rap

Sidhu, however, thinks that if the trustees had consulted students and taken a close look at the campus fraternities, they might have chosen a different course. While he acknowledged that fraternities elsewhere, particularly at large universities, deserve the bad reputations they get for rowdiness and disrespect toward women, fraternities at Amherst College do not. They are not bastions of white male privilege or bad behavior, he said; rather, “they are a welcoming institution. They have a positive impact on the community.”

Sidhu, who is a Sikh from South Asia, said one out of four of the 50 or so members of his fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon, is non-white and members have a variety of income levels and religions. The Amherst fraternities “have changed drastically” since 1984, when trustees first decided a ban was in order, he said. According to statement released by the trustees Tuesday, fraternities were abolished a year after Amherst College went coed in 1983 because it was decided the college “can be better without fraternities than it can with them.”

Junior Will Kamins, president of Chi Psi, which has existed at Amherst College since 1864, underscored Sidhu’s comments. He said his group has 43 members, with only 14 white members. “Fraternities are the most diverse groups on campus,” he said. Some members, he added, have told him that their backgrounds made it hard for them to feel a part of the college and Chi Psi “was the only venue where they felt supported.”

In addition, he said, his fraternity does not “perpetuate rape culture, misogyny and failed archetypes of masculinity” that fraternities are often tagged with. “In our case, we really make a deliberate effort to actively push against that,” he said, and “be a place where guys feel comfortable and supported and can think openly and critically about what it means to be a good man.”

Some have questioned whether the ban will be enforceable.

Amherst College senior Liya Rechtman, who served on the Sexual Misconduct and Oversight Committee, said she worries that it may drive fraternities even further underground, making them harder to regulate. “That could create an even scarier space to report harassment or sexual assault,” she said.

Coffey doesn’t think that will happen. She met with students Wednesday and, though she acknowledged that many were unhappy that students were not consulted before the ban was issued, she thinks they will comply as administrators hold more discussions on ways to improve campus life. She said she has agreed to have further conversations with former fraternity members as well.

For his part, Kamins said he will not advise his fraternity brothers to take any actions that could jeopardize their standing at Amherst College. If he and others cannot convince the higher-ups to change their minds, he is prepared to attend Chi Psi’s national conference this summer and turn in the Amherst College charter.

“It saddens me,” he said, “but at that point it will cease to operate in any active sense.”

Debra Scherban can be reached at DScherban@gazettenet.com.