This story has been updated. An earlier version inaccurately represented a dispute between Wesleyan University and Delta Kappa Epsilon. We regret the error.
Last summer, the administration and trustees at Wesleyan University met to discuss a highly charged issue: the future of Greek life on campus. Some students, faculty, and alumni had been pushing for the total elimination of fraternities. Others wanted them to remain just as they were. The administration opted for a third approach: The frats could stay, but if their members were going to live in frat houses, they’d have to start accepting women.
That was the message of a September announcement coauthored by Wesleyan’s president, Michael Roth, and the chairman of its board of trustees, Joshua Boger. “With equity and inclusion in mind,” they wrote, “we have decided that residential frats must become fully co-educational over the next three years.”
Amid a national debate about how to make campuses safer for students of whatever gender, Wesleyan has drawn special focus. As Caitlin Flanagan explained in her March 2014 cover story for The Atlantic, Wesleyan has an unusual requirement: All undergraduates, Greek and otherwise, must live in university-approved housing. This means the university can exert more control over Greek life than many other colleges.
For several years, the brothers at one fraternity, Beta Theta Pi, got around the residency requirement by renting dorm rooms on campus while actually living at their off-campus fraternity house. Flanagan criticized Wesleyan’s manner of dealing with the Beta brothers as “roundabout.” Even after a student reported being raped at a 2010 Beta Halloween party, Flanagan wrote, the university failed to take sufficient steps to solve the underlying problem.
In September, however, Wesleyan did take decisive action. Around the same time it issued its integration mandate, the administration followed through on a threat to suspend Beta Theta Pi and ban students from entering its house. That left just two all-male residential fraternities, Psi Upsilon and Delta Kappa Epsilon, both of whose members live in student housing. Other Greek organizations exist, some of them unisex—such as the sole sorority on campus, Rho Epsilon Pi—but they’re non-resident organizations, so the integration mandate doesn’t apply.
At Wesleyan as at most colleges, Greek organizations play a large role in only some students’ lives. But several Wesleyan students told me that Psi Upsilon and Delta Kappa Epsilon exert significant influence over the social scene simply because they have the biggest places to party. Caillin Puente, a senior and co-chair of the campus organization Students for Consent and Communication, said she supports the new policy because it gives female students more clout. “I think it’s definitely fair to say that [the frats] are some of the largest social spaces,” she said.
After Wesleyan issued its mandate, the two remaining all-male residential frats responded in very different ways. Psi Upsilon made it clear that it would comply. Its national organization has never had any gender restrictions—its website asserts that “female members have the same rights, privileges and responsibilities as every initiated member and are called brothers.” Chapters on other campuses had already incorporated women.
In January, Psi Upsilon published an op-ed in The Wesleyan Argus, announcing that its spring rush would be open to all students. “This semester is not only an important transition for our student community, but also a unique opportunity for our chapter to pursue the resolution of a conflict that extends far beyond Wesleyan,” the op-ed read. “The success of this transition relies on the courage of students who are prepared to demonstrate an unremitting belief in gender equity.”
When I spoke to women on campus about Psi Upsilon’s policy change, they expressed varying degrees of optimism. Margaux Bueh—a member of Wesleyan’s sorority, Rho Epsilon Pi—told me that the frat would “need to rethink most of [its] pledging traditions so women feel safe and comfortable.” But Courtney Laermer, an Argus reporter, said that some of her friends who went to a recent meeting for women interested in rushing the frat said they'd had a great time. “You could tell there was no, ‘Oh, we’re forced to do this,’” Laermer said. “It was more of like a ‘We’re so excited to do this’ kind of thing.”
Wesleyan’s other residential fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon, was far less enthusiastic about the integration mandate. In contrast with Psi Upsilon, Delta Kappa Epsilon specifies in its national charter that all members be “male undergraduates.” So, in early January, the Wesleyan chapter came up with an alternative plan: It would offer six rooms in its house to women in Rho Epsilon Pi, which is the university’s only active sorority and doesn’t have a house of its own. The university rejected the plan and revoked the frat’s housing status for the upcoming school year. The fraternity responded by suing the university, a lawsuit The New York Times characterized as "saying the policy put in place in the name of equality was, in fact, discriminatory." (The fraternity has sought an injunction on the revocation of its housing privileges; the two parties met in court for a hearing on April 23 and 24.)
Scott Karsten, a Delta Kappa Epsilon brother and Wesleyan alumnus, told me the group “felt the university was constantly moving the goal posts” in the coeducation conversation. The administration describes things differently. In a statement emailed to me by William Holder, Wesleyan’s director of communications, the university said the fraternity was not simply moving slowly but had “expressly disavowed any commitment to co-educate.” The administration said it asked DKE to come up with a solid plan and was unsatisfied with the response because “the organization did not include any timeline or detail for its proposed approach to partner with a sorority; nor did it adequately assure the university that female residents would have full and equal access to common areas of the house.”
In an interview with Wesleying, a student-run blog, Roth described his own vision of what a fully integrated fraternity would look like: “I think that it’s very possible that we will have what I think of as the best part of these organizations, that they self-govern, have traditions, are semi autonomous,” he said. “They will have to be inclusive and they’ll have to be safer than they’ve been in the past. I think they can get there if they want to.” Any Greek organizations that didn’t want to admit women “as equal and full members” would be welcome to continue as all-male clubs, he added. “But they won’t exist as residential organizations.”
As a model for the kind of gender equity he has in mind, Roth pointed to Alpha Delta Phi, the Wesleyan fraternity where he held the presidency during the '70s. The group voluntarily went coed in 1972, just two years after the school began admitting female students. According to a 2014 WBUR report, the chapter first initiated women in secret and later split with its national organization to admit women more freely. Alpha Delta Phi’s president, Claudia van Nostitz, told the WBUR reporter that the fraternity was safer because women played a role in managing the parties and establishing the group’s “vibe.”
Melody Oliphant, a Wesleyan alumna who co-founded Rho Epsilon Pi, believes there are better ways to empower women. She helped found the sorority in 2011 because, she says, “we were afraid that women at Wesleyan would be left out of the conversation about Greek life and truthfully out of decisions that shape the social infrastructure.” But the university never allowed the sorority—which is exclusive to Wesleyan and has no national affiliation—to apply for official housing, alone or in partnership with the campus’ Jewish fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, which doesn’t admit women but has no house. As a university spokesperson told me in an email, the university hasn’t granted housing to the sorority for the same reason it’s forcing the fraternities to go co-ed: “We have not wanted to increase the number of residential Greek organizations on campus, and we do not believe that the ‘separate but equal’ principle is appropriate for Wesleyan’s residential life.” (The university has been making similar statements since at least 2009, when Dean Michael Whaley told the Argus that the university had refused to approve a new sorority because it didn’t want to expand Greek life.)
Oliphant is convinced that it’s possible for Wesleyan’s Greek organizations to build meaningful partnerships with one another while remaining single-sex. She says the proposed cohabitation deal with Delta Kappa Epsilon “sought to demonstrate that Greek life need not be associated with exclusion, misogyny, and sexual assault.”
Buehl, the Rho Epsilon Pi sister, told me that her sorority joined with Delta Kappa Epsilon last month to host a party and a fundraiser. “We had sober sisters and brothers available to walk students home … which is something we hope to permanently implement whenever we work with other groups and have social events,” she wrote in an email.
In the end, discussions about Wesleyan’s integration policy tend to come back to the question of safety. Even those who oppose the mandate are now grappling with ways to make the campus safer for everyone, whether that means giving women more control over the prime social spaces occupied by fraternities or calling attention to sexual assaults on the rest of campus, as leaders of Rho Epsilon Pi and Delta Kappa Epsilon are now doing. Because of the university’s mandate, gender equality is “not going to be an issue that’s ignored,” Puente said. Perhaps that’s the main value of the whole debate.