At the hearing, Gove scored a victory. The pledge recanted the written statement about the liquor cooler. Infuriating the college's judicial officer, he said the university had pressured him to implicate the fraternity and that, in fact, “a good-looking girl,’’ whose name he couldn’t recall, had given him a drink. (In response to a public-records request, the university released a 175-page hearing transcript, with student names redacted, as well as e-mails and other documents.)
The school cleared the fraternity of one of the charges: hazing. Still, based on underage pledges' admissions of drinking, the board found the chapter responsible for alcohol offenses at the party and for later violating the social-events ban. The school suspended SAE for two and a half years; the judicial-board administrator, saying the fraternity's behavior would eventually result in serious injury or death, had pushed for four.
As part of a public campaign against the sanction, Gove wrote a letter to state lawmakers bemoaning the “total disregard for due process,” the lack of legal counsel, and the “coercive investigative tactics used by an administrator to seek confessions among the students.” He asked John R. Bell IV, a Republican state Senator who had been an SAE member at UNC–Wilmington, to sponsor a bill that would require colleges to let undergraduates hire lawyers for disciplinary hearings.
Bell agreed, and the bill won nearly unanimous support in the Legislature, which dismissed UNC's objections that it would make discipline more adversarial, lengthy, and costly. In July 2013, Republican Governor Pat McCrory signed it into law.
Despite its legislative victory, SAE still faced scrutiny from UNC Wilmington administrators, including Chancellor Gary Miller, who had backed the board's discipline of the fraternity. That summer, Governor McCrory appointed two SAE alumni to the university’s Board of Trustees. “My goal in joining the board, my sole purpose, was helping the fraternity,” one of those new board members, Michael Drummond, told me. “I had heard enough. I had had enough. Either get rid of the chancellor or get the chancellor on board with helping the fraternity out.” He recalled telling the chancellor as much: “You can do this one of two ways. Do the right thing and put them on campus or do it the hard way. We won’t stop till we’re done.”
After only three years on the job, Miller left Wilmington in July 2014 to become chancellor at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. “Our whole goal was to protect students. We made the right decision, and I still feel that way,” said Miller, who confirmed the conversation with Drummond. (Some board members said SAE's influence on Miller's departure had been exaggerated.)
A new UNC chancellor agreed to let SAE back on campus in July 2015. After pleas from alumni, SAE’s national organization, which had initially backed the college’s sanction, reinstated the chapter and reactivated its members. The alumni backing Gove won a national SAE award for their “outstanding assistance and guidance.’’ Gove, who secured an internship in Governor McCrory’s office, wrote a successful law-school admissions essay about his fight for SAE. “I learned more through the alumni and the fraternity because of what we went through than I did studying at UNC-W as far as life lessons go,” Gove told me. The chapter’s website now hails “the fight to end discriminatory practices against fraternities.”
In the greatest triumph of all, the chapter’s members forged a lasting legacy: the law—since replicated in other states—that grants every student the right to hire an attorney in campus disciplinary hearings. In North Carolina, the Legislature called it the Students and Administration Equality Act. Its initials spell a familiar name: SAE.
This article has been adapted from John Hechinger’s new book, True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America's Fraternities.