West Virginia University is warning parents about fraternities that vowed to operate independently, defying rules imposed by the school. (Aimin Tang/iStock)

The president of West Virginia University warned parents this week about fraternities that vowed to operate independently after cutting ties with the campus, defying new rules imposed by school officials.

One chapter continued to recruit students, resisting the university’s order.

Universities across the country have struggled to improve student safety at fraternities and sororities.

In 2014, West Virginia University student Nolan Burch died in a hazing episode after excessive alcohol consumption at a Kappa Sigma party. The pledge party was held despite the national fraternity having revoked recognition of the chapter at WVU.

University President E. Gordon Gee called the matter urgent and explained that this week, several fraternities had severed their connection with the school. He said some were unhappy with the steps the university took this spring to ensure that Greek life was safe and aligned with university values.

“In the spring semester of 2018, the University had received reports of drug and alcohol abuse, physical altercations, over-occupancy at events, disorderly misconduct, sexual misconduct and hazing,” Gee wrote, and university officials, students, alumni, and fraternity and sorority leaders met to redefine Greek life on campus. Their report recommended changes.

A review resulted in suspensions for some chapters on campus and, for others, restrictions on social events and education on alcohol and hazing.

WVU officials moved rush to the spring, to allow new students more time to acclimate to college life. But one fraternity, Kappa Alpha Order, has been promoting events to new students on social media. “HUGE response and great success at the Pig Roast last night!" the group posted Monday. "Join us tonight for our second night of Rush. Dodgeball will be from 7-9pm. All are welcome and we mean all!”

Kappa Alpha’s actions are in direct defiance of university rules, Gee wrote to parents. “Therefore, I must strongly encourage you to speak with your students and discourage them from participating in any Kappa Alpha event should they be considering this option,” the president said.

The national Kappa Alpha Order issued a statement saying the fraternity is committed to the safety of members and guests and “values its partnerships with institutions of higher education where our partnership is equally valued." Regrettably, the national office wrote, the university was singling out fraternity members with “restrictions of rights and onerous requirements not applied to any other student organization or athletic team. It must be noted that there is no research which suggests that any of these requirements will address the concerns WVU has listed as rationale for this action."

On social media, some seemed shocked by the chapters' decisions, while others wrote that the fraternities had to splinter off to maintain control when the university administration seemed bent on shutting down Greek life.

“I am extremely disappointed that these fraternities have disassociated with the University in a deliberate and reckless manner,” Gee said, after several years of work to improve fraternities on campus and hold them to higher standards.

The president of the school’s Interfraternity Council, Calvin Komiske, said in a statement that he was disappointed some of his classmates were opposing their own school. Students had been heard as the university considered ways to change Greek culture, he said, so the decision by some chapters to cut ties with the school "is an unnecessary overreaction that is infuriating our Council’s other member groups.”

Four local chapters told university officials this month that they would move off campus, operate independently and form their own interfraternity council.

School officials plan to hold a meeting between fraternity alumni and national leaders Tuesday.

Gordy Heminger, president and chief executive of Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity, said the local chapter had rescinded its decision to sever ties from the university pending the outcome of that meeting. Heminger said the fraternity hopes to find a resolution, because the group prefers to be recognized by the university.

The decision to cut ties had nothing to do with new health and safety policies, Heminger said. “Quite the opposite — the chapter fully supports all efforts that have been and will be made to improve health and safety," he said. “The decision was based on the stated position by administrators at WVU that student organizations, including fraternities, have no due process rights or protections in the conduct process.” That, combined with an unfair process, led the students to feel something needed to be done not just for fraternities, but for all student organizations, Heminger said.

A spokesman for Sigma Chi said the chapter at WVU “has been placed under a suspension of operations by the international fraternity while we investigate an alleged report that the chapter may have engaged in conduct that is not reflective of our high standards. We are currently investigating that situation and are reserving our decision on supporting the chapter’s desire to disassociate themselves with West Virginia University until we can determine the extent and validity of the allegations.”

Gee said he and WVU support the goals of Greek life, promoting leadership and friendships, but that it must be done responsibly. “While many universities have responded to the crisis in fraternity and sorority behavior by shutting them down completely, we have taken a different path,” he said. “That is why I cannot overstate my dismay."

“. . . We will not allow the misguidance of a few to keep us from creating a vibrant, healthy and productive fraternity and sorority community on our campus.”