Jean Mrasek, chairman of the National Panhellenic Conference (courtesy of NPC) Jean Mrasek, chairman of the National Panhellenic Conference (courtesy of NPC)

National sorority leaders said Friday they have been very surprised by the reaction to a letter sent to University of Virginia chapters warning them to avoid fraternity parties on campus Saturday night.

The letter from 16 national sorority presidents — members of the National Panhellenic Conference — sparked an outcry on campus from students who said it was sexist and didactic to order women to stay home for their own safety.

“I believe people are missing the point here,” said Jean Mrasek, chairman of the NPC. The national leaders were merely enforcing an existing rule, she said. “We are upholding our policy and yet we’re being criticized for doing so. That’s the irony of this.”

After a now-discredited Rolling Stone article about a gang rape on campus, fraternities and sororities were suspended and the NPC began talking with university officials, Mrasek said. That’s when they learned that Boys’ Bid Night, when fraternities celebrate their new members, is a high-risk night and that sorority sisters traditionally went to those parties, she said.

University officials and students have said the night — which this year coincides with the undefeated men’s basketball team’s biggest home game on Saturday — is one known for excessive drinking.

“I’ve been very surprised,” said Julie Johnson, Panhellenics chairman for NPC. “This is one night – one night – of  historically risky activity.

“The response has been about all this – infringement on their rights, infringement to do what they want, how we’re setting women back. I think we’re providing a safer environment for women, the opportunity for them to be together in sisterhood.”

They can have all the parties they like with fraternity men after this, she added. “It’s one night!”

Many students emphasized that the problem was not with it being that night, or those parties. What rankled many was the idea that the school’s cherished Jeffersonian tradition of student self-governance had been ignored, with an edict delivered unexpectedly after many had worked hard to craft safer rules for Greek parties that have yet to be tested.

“We want to be part of the solutions moving forward,” Mrasek said, and upholding their policy doesn’t in any way mean that they don’t think those efforts could be effective.

The NPC has rules for all 3,200 of its chapters, including a prohibition since 2010 on participating in men’s recruitment activities, she said. It’s important, she said, in part to maintain their status under Title IX as a female-only organization, to ban those men’s recruitment activities.

While many students questioned  this — recruitment is over, they argued, since bids have been given — Johnson said they should have known that bid events are included. That women have gone to parties on this night for many years is not an excuse but rather a sign that the NPC needed to send the letter and warning.

Johnson questioned the nearly 2,500 signatures on a petition protesting the rule, saying they could be from anyone, and expressing surprise that students had said they were shocked by the letter; she said the NPC has done many education events around their rules.

“Shocked why? Because they couldn’t have a night of partying?” she asked. The university shut the Greek system down for months, she said, “and they say nothing.”

University officials raised the concerns to them, Johnson said, “concerns about risky behavior, that women do participate, and the behaviors are risky, concerns about the safety of women.”

“Given the fact that the university raised their concerns in the fall about the campus culture, we believe this stand is truly supporting an effort to uphold policies and address these situations as they unfold,” Mrasek said. “It’s a little baffling when we’re hearing criticism about our member organizations’ directive to uphold our policies.”

Charlottesville, VA – Teresa Sullivan, President of the University of Virginia poses for a portrait in front of a statue of Thomas Jefferson in the Rotunda, Monday August 1, 2012. (Photo by Norm Shafer/For the Washington Post)

U-Va. President Teresa A. Sullivan had weighed in earlier on the issue:

“The National Panhellenic Conference and its member national organizations arrived at this decision and issued relevant instructions to their chapters in Charlottesville pursuant to their own policies. The University was not involved in this decision, and we consider this a matter between the national organizations and their local chapters here in Charlottesville.

“We would resist any implication that U.Va. students are somehow deserving of special admonition. To the contrary, students at U.Va. have lived up to our tradition of student self-governance. Our student leaders in the Greek community recently spent several weeks developing thoughtful enhanced safety practices for their members and guests. These new safety practices were adopted by all fraternities and sororities on Jan. 16.

“We have confidence in our students’ ability to use good judgment, be mindful of one another’s safety, and adhere to the new safety practices developed by them and outlined in the recently revised Fraternal Organization Agreements.”

Mrasek said she was pleased that Sullivan was confident in the students making good decisions: “I would hope she will support our efforts to enforce policies.”

Allison Palacios, a junior who just stepped into her role as Inter-Sorority Council president this month, said: “Although this did come as a shock to many women, that wasn’t the intention. From the national organizations’ standpoint, they’re seeking to ensure the safety of their members. I think they really are believers in female empowerment.”

Read more on this subject:

Sorority leaders stand by decision to keep U-Va. women away from frat parties

‘Is this the 1950s?’ Students respond to sororities telling U-Va. members not to party with fraternity guys

U-Va. sorority sisters ordered to stay home Saturday night for their own safety