Nick Syrett: Reactions to the Sanctioning of Yale’s DKE Chapter

Today we welcome a guest post from Nick Syrett, author of The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities (hardcover available now; paperback coming in September).  Here, he looks at Yale’s investigation of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity and the subsequent actions that made not just the chapter but all Greek fraternities the subject of much scrutiny, debate, and criticism from the mainstream media. Syrett contributed to a New York Times “Room for Debate” roundtable about the topic earlier this month. In this post, he shows how Yale’s sanctioning of the chapter is a symbolic victory. You can also catch Syrett discussing the issue today on the CBC radio program The Current (which airs on CBC Radio One and Sirius satellite radio). Check the show’s website for the podcast.-Alex

The sexist chants of Yale University’s Delta Kappa Epsilon pledges in October of last year (“No Means Yes, Yes Means Anal”) contributed to some current and former students filing a complaint against Yale University under Title IX (Yale receives some federal funding) in March of this year, alleging that Yale had failed to protect female students from a “hostile environment” in its unwillingness to adequately address sexual assault and harassment.  The Department of Education’s Civil Rights Office announced at the end of March that it had begun an investigation into those claims and Yale itself announced in April that it had formed a number of committees to investigate the climate on campus.

While the suit concerns more than just the University’s fraternities, the organizations have taken center stage in the debate across the country, and particularly online. Caitlin Flanagan published a story in the Wall Street Journal calling for the abolition of fraternities, and Samantha Wishman made links between fraternities and sexual assault in The Daily Beast. Inside Higher Ed and the New York Times (in its online “Room for Debate” forum) covered the issue; I contributed to both. The debate is usually framed around whether or not fraternities should be abolished outright.  As the Yale case makes clear, and despite the fact that most research (including that in my book) does document a long history of sexism and assault in many (though clearly not all) fraternities, the calls for abolition may be somewhat misguided.  This is why:

Last week Yale announced that its Executive Committee had voted to suspend DKE from campus for five years: no on-campus recruitment; no use of Yale email or electronic bulletin boards; and severe curtailment of the name “Yale” in conjunction with the fraternity.  While I applaud the administration in sanctioning the fraternity, it is clear that this is a symbolic victory, and a delayed one, at that.

First, Yale only chose to institute the sanctions after the Title IX suit was filed; the fraternity was not suspended after the actual incident in October.  Its parent organization, Delta Kappa Epsilon International, did suspend pledging in October, but the suspension only lasted until November.  In other words, Yale didn’t seem willing to act until its name was being dragged through the mud and indeed until it was now legally in a position to need to look like it was taking action.

Second, while it is clear that Yale’s chapter of DKE (founded in 1844, the first in the nation) would not exist without the university, technically it is not a student organization.  In fact, only four of Yale’s fraternities and sororities are actually registered as official student organizations.  While Yale has a long history of Greek life, in the 1960s and 1970s, Yale appropriated its fraternities’ houses for other purposes (the DKE tomb became the Rose Alumni House), forcing all Greek-letter organizations off campus, where they languished for some years and then revived themselves in the 1980s.  Yale’s DKE chapter owns its own house on a street near campus.  Technically it is no more than a building (currently undergoing pricey renovations) filled with New Haven residents, financed by an alumni corporation, with no official connection to Yale.  Yale thus has little control over the house or what its residents do when they are not on campus, and so the sanctions imposed by the University may have little effect.  After all, students wanting to join the fraternity can certainly find out about it through their fellow students, some of whom will continue to be members, and any recruitment the fraternity does off campus is perfectly legal.

Third, the international headquarters of DKE, in a statement on its website, has made it clear that it thinks the sanction imposed are too stiff.  If they do not derecognize the chapter – and it seems unlikely they would want to derecognize historic “Mother Phi,” what their website claims is the only DKE chapter never to go inactive – then business will continue as usual.

Universities’ ability to sanction (or abolish) student organizations, fraternities among them, thus all depends on their relationships with those organizations, indeed whether they actually are “student organizations,” and whether the universities themselves own the houses they occupy.  While Yale may have little power in this particular situation, it is still incumbent upon a university to foster a climate of respect, acceptance, and safety on campus for all its students.  While some argue the chants are protected as free speech, private colleges have codes of conduct by which they can require their students to abide; these codes need not adhere to basic constitutional principles because the colleges are not the U.S. writ large, but rather separate communities within it.

Yale’s decision is important symbolically, even if delayed.  The University has declared that advocating rape is not permissible on its campus, letting its women students know that it doesn’t condone sexual assault, and Delta Kappa Epsilon know that it won’t tolerate either the threat or the action.

Nicholas L. Syrett is assistant professor of history and director of graduate studies at the University of Northern Colorado.