It’s hard to imagine a bigger fraternity booster than Paul Wright.
The 54-year-old Charlottesville real estate investor pledged a fraternity within weeks of arriving at the University of Virginia in 1978, and he has been a devoted Chi Psi man ever since. He serves on the group’s national board and was head of U-Va.’s fraternity alumni association. He’s even working to open a new fraternity chapter on campus next spring.
Now, as allegations of a brutal gang rape in a fraternity house bedroom have roiled Thomas Jefferson’s “academical village,” Wright is no longer sure the university’s Greek life can — or should — survive without radical reforms.
“I think the fraternity system probably has one chance to fix itself,” Wright said. “If we don’t get this right, people are going to ask for fraternities to be banned, and they are going to have a point.”
Days after Rolling Stone magazine published a detailed account of seven men allegedly raping a freshman woman during a 2012 party at the Phi Kappa Psi house, U-Va.’s Greek system is under unprecedented scrutiny. Critics say the allegations are only the latest to show that the columned facades on Fraternity Row foster a culture where misogyny is encouraged, binge drinking becomes the norm and fraternity members participate in risky hazing rituals.
A school that reveres tradition is taking a hard look at some of its oldest social institutions, the houses along Rugby Road recalled fondly by generations of Wahoos as their beery gateways to adulthood and acceptance.
In a campuswide stand-down affecting nearly a third of U-Va.’s student body, administrators suspended all fraternity and sorority activities for the closing weeks of the term as they scramble to respond. The pause in partying, U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan said in a message to the campus, will give students, faculty, alumni and other concerned parties time “to discuss our next steps in preventing sexual assault and sexual violence on Grounds.”
The school’s Board of Visitors, meeting in emergency session Tuesday, heard proposals to restrict Greek organizations that would have been previously unthinkable, from cracking down on underage drinking in the houses to an outright ban on alcohol at fraternity parties. The calls for drastic change have even sounded from within the Greek system.
“Our university is in the wilderness right now,” Tommy Reid, president of the school’s Inter-Fraternity Council, said at the Board of Visitors meeting. “I don’t think any of us really know where to go next.”
Not even alumni have stepped forward to shield their chapters from changes aimed at breaking what some say is an entrenched “Animal House” ethos. Although touting the benefits the Greek system brings to campus — chapters reported raising $400,000 for charity and logging 56,000 hours of community service during the past academic year — few are dismissing the seriousness of the allegations.
“There has been no credible person stepping out and saying, ‘You can’t mess with the fraternities,’ ” Wright said. “This really feels different.”
Some Greeks headed to class before the Thanksgiving break without distinctive jackets that would identify them as fraternity members for fear of being harassed. It’s a remarkable shift for a Greek system that has been as central at times to U-Va. life as Jefferson’s iconic Rotunda building. The first fraternity opened in Charlottesville in 1852, and it was once unheard of for a non-fraternity member, or “independent,” to edit the Cavalier Daily or lead the student council, according to Alexander Gilliam, an emeritus professor who was an undergraduate in the early 1950s.
Fraternities provided housing on campus and a place for young men to make the jump to independence under the eye of upperclassmen and even a house mother. Wright remembers the steady presences of the paid staffer who kept order at his Chi Psi house for more than 50 years.
“I don’t think we need to go back to the age of house mothers, but clearly having an adult in the house could keep things from getting out of control,” he said.
Wright came to U-Va. with the first class to be evenly split between men and women. Fraternities thrived on an all-male “Gentleman’s University” until 1970, when the school became one of the last public universities to admit women as undergraduates. U-Va. went coed nearly a century later than such peers as the University of California at Berkeley (1870), the University of Michigan (1871) and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (1897).
Today, about a third of the university’s more than 15,000 undergraduates belong to Greek organizations.
Reid Morin, 22, a junior who is the secretary of the U-Va. Chi Phi chapter, said that fraternities have been unfairly singled out and that fraternity friends of his have been yelled at and called “rapists” while walking near campus.
“Calling for the end of Greek life doesn’t make sense,” Morin said. “It wouldn’t get rid of the evil people committing these heinous crimes.”
Like many of the women who have come forward, Emily Renda said her sexual assault came after attending a fraternity party. Renda got drunk on cheap beer and lost track of her friends. Alone and tired, she said that she did not resist the freshman who pushed her out the door offering to walk her home. She joined him in his dorm, where she says he grabbed her by the hair, strangled her and raped her.
In the months afterward, she tried to act as if nothing had happened. “I wanted to make everything feel normal again,” said Renda, a 2014 graduate who works for the university as a sexual violence awareness specialist. The Washington Post generally does not identify victims of sexual assault unless they want their names to be used.
Renda went back to partying at fraternities, where the spring of her freshman year she came face to face with her attacker. In a drunken stupor, he grabbed her arm and said: “We had fun, didn’t we?”
Fraternities still play a central role in campus social life. Their annual rush period packs the lawns and porches with newcomers eager to find camaraderie. Their frequent parties attract underage students looking for red cups of booze or beer or, sometimes, a potent mystery punch.
Liz Seccuro was a U-Va. freshman in 1984 when she walked into a party at the Phi Kappa Psi house. She was handed a cup of “the house special,” a lime-green liquid scooped from a garbage can, and offered a tour.
Seccuro said she thinks her drink was drugged, and she recalls being led into a bedroom by a hazy stranger. She doesn’t remember much else, until waking hours later wrapped in a bloody sheet.
“I knew, even though I was virgin, I knew immediately what had happened and what it was called, and it was the dreaded ‘R’ word,” Seccuro said in an interview last week. She later determined that she had been raped by at least three men.
Seccuro said her torment continued when she sought help from campus authorities. A dean told her, incorrectly, not to report the rape to city police because they didn’t have jurisdiction. Decades later, one of her attackers confessed, was convicted and served jail time, as there is no statute of limitations on rape in Virginia. She hears chilling echoes of her ordeal in the case of the woman in the Rolling Stone account, from the horror of the crime to the timidity of the university.
“It is apparent to me that gang rape at Phi Kappa Psi was a tradition,” Seccuro said.
Former members of Phi Kappa Psi — now at the center of the tumult and under a self-imposed suspension — say there was no such tradition at the house when they were members. Jason vanValkenburgh, a Northern Virginia consultant who graduated from U-Va. in 1995, said there were no rituals of any kind that could have morphed into the kind of assault he read about in Rolling Stone. “What they describe is not the place I knew,” he said.
Fraternity members are struggling to reconcile the brotherly bonds that some credit with shaping them as leaders with the image of rapists surrounding a drunk 18-year-old in a dark room.
Jalen Ross, a senior who is the student council president and a member of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity at U-Va., said his fraternity produces Rhodes scholars and remains more focused on philanthropy and volunteer service than throwing keggers. But Ross said that some of the fraternities’ liquor-drenched affairs can serve as a hunting ground for campus predators.
“It’s an environment where they know they can go to prey on these people,” he said.
The latest accusations are part of a problem the school has been struggling with for years, although not very aggressively, according to critics. Victim activists such as Seccuro say the administration has been more worried about protecting U-Va.’s reputation among donors and top students than about pursuing fraternity rapists.
McGregor McCance, a U-Va. spokesman, said that the university will fully cooperate with ongoing investigations and that the school’s priority is the safety of its students.
“Nothing is more important,” McCance said in an e-mail Friday. “As President Sullivan emphasized at this week’s Board of Visitors meeting: ‘Not our reputation, not our success, and not our history or traditions.’ . . . The University is fully committed to the work ahead and taking a leadership role in addressing these issues, including a review of the Greek system. This is a defining moment for UVA and for the oversight of the Greek system.”
There are signs that the university has known about simmering problems within its Greek system in recent years and that it has privately been trying to fix them. In a series of e-mails last year obtained by the Cavalier Daily, U-Va. officials hinted at major sanctions if fraternities didn’t shape up after a string of alcohol and hazing incidents and complaints from the community about raucous behavior. After numerous students landed in the hospital for “alcohol-related incidents” during the 2013 rush, for example, the university threatened to cancel recruiting events and dangled more serious sanctions.
“Unfortunately, we are not too big to fail,” said an e-mail on the matter from the Inter-Fraternity Council to member fraternities.
A university-maintained Web site lists 27 conduct-related incidents for which sororities and fraternities were sanctioned by an on-campus Greek council or the chapter’s national headquarters after an investigation. The violations are often listed in opaque terms.
A violation from spring 2014 for Pi Kappa Alpha, for example, said the chapter “failed to comply with University standards regarding new member activities” and had its “organization agreement” terminated. An April 2014 news release from the fraternity’s national headquarters revealed that the trouble was because of hazing and was the fifth violation in less than three years at the chapter. The headquarters suspended the chapter’s charter. Another fraternity was listed as failing to comply with alcohol standards, an incident later revealed as a student having to be treated during rush for a 0.45 blood alcohol content.
Talk about the Greek system was even more dire at the Board of Visitors session last week, at which Reid, the Inter-Fraternity Council leader, linked sexual assault to “a serious cultural problem in fraternities.”
Board members and students discussed a range of possible reforms at the meeting, from a police crackdown on all underage drinking at fraternity parties to a ban on hard alcohol and mixed-drink concoctions such as “trash-can punch.” Some students said the university should avoid setting any rules that would drive drinking underground.
Other schools have also found taming fraternity culture frustrating. At American University, an Alpha Tau Omega chapter that disbanded 13 years ago because of alcohol abuses lingers on as a shadow fraternity, an anonymous brotherhood that students say throws wild parties and has circulated misogynistic materials by e-mail and social media.
Some schools have gotten rid of their fraternities and sororities; Amherst College eliminated them in 1984. Others have taken intermediate steps, such as a suspension at Clemson University, a requirement at Johns Hopkins University that monitors be present at parties, and a suspension of the Phi Kappa Psi chapter at Brown University after a student who reported a sexual assault there tested positive for GHB, a common “date-rape drug.”
At West Virginia University, administrators instituted a moratorium this month on most Greek activities, other than regular chapter meetings and some charitable events after a freshman was found unconscious at a fraternity house and later died.
Corey Farris, WVU’s dean of students, said there is something about Greek life that is causing problems, something that runs through much of the “bad behavior” that officials are seeing on campus: “Whether hazing, sexual assault, rape, quite honestly, alcohol is involved. On this campus, we’ve said that’s the 800-pound gorilla in the room. That’s a societal problem.”
Brian Head, a U-Va. senior who is the president of the all-male sexual assault prevention group One in Four and a member of Phi Gamma Delta, said that eliminating Greek life in Charlottesville is not a viable option.
“You get rid of frats, and it’s not going to solve this issue,” Head said, adding that a shift in culture is needed, one in which men hold other men accountable.
Wright’s fraternity chapter was shuttered more than a decade ago at a time when it was losing members and was deemed by many to be too far from campus. Now, as U-Va.’s Greek system finds itself at a crossroads, he and other alumni are working to bring their fraternity back. They paid $900,000 for a former sorority house a block from the Phi Kappa Psi house and had hoped to “recolonize” the chapter next year.
He finds himself facing a timely puzzle: How do you start a “good” fraternity?
“First and foremost, we have to keep people safe,” Wright said. The new chapter will be barred from bulk-alcohol purchases, no pooling of cash to liquor up the whole house and its visitors. Hazing will be strictly forbidden.
Instead, Wright would like to see the new fraternity embrace some old-school values. The idea of “being a gentleman,” he said, and also a particular notion enshrined by poet James Hay Jr.’s “The Honor Men,” which Wright reveres.
A U-Va. man, the poem reminds, should “pursue no woman to her tears.”
Nick Anderson, Susan Svrluga and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report. Shapiro reported from Charlottesville.