This fall, tired of a series of problems at its fraternity houses, Wesleyan University’s school leaders ordered the fraternities to admit women — or shut down.
Now one fraternity is fighting back, with a lawsuit accusing the Connecticut college of sexual discrimination, misrepresentation and deceptive practices. Through the suit, members of the local chapter of Delta Kappa Epsilon and its alumni hope to force the school into changing its decision to revoke their housing for next year.
Wesleyan requires students to live on campus all four years, and they can choose to live in single-sex dorms or in a variety of housing that caters to special interests, including the “Women of Color House,” the “Light House” for Christian students, “Turath House,” for Muslim, Arab and Middle Eastern students, and the “Open House,” which describes itself as a “safe space for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Transsexual, Queer, Questioning, Flexural, Asexual, [We can’t print this one!], Polyamorous, Bondage/Disciple, Dominance/ Submission, Sadism/Masochism (LGBTTQQFAGPBDSM) communities.”
The lawsuit comes in the midst of an incendiary national debate over Greek life, student behavior and sexual assaults on campus, with everyone from President Obama to congressional leaders to student activists weighing in.
The lawsuit claims the fraternity was given a three-year time period in which to become co-educational, then was suddenly told that the chapter house could no longer be single-sex in the coming school year.
“We just want to be able to live in our house next year,” said Terence Durkin, a junior from Massachusetts who is president of the chapter. He said they had taken all the steps the university had demanded to make the house co-educational in three years, but the time frame was suddenly cut to five months. “We believe we’re being unfairly singled out by the administration. They’re just trying to promote their own form of diversity.”
But William Holder, a spokesman for the university, emailed a statement that disputed their claim that they had worked to comply with the new mandate. Over months, it said, “representatives of DKE expressly disavowed any commitment to co-educate. Despite repeated requests from the University and several months in which to formulate its approach, the plan eventually submitted by DKE and subsequent communication from 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.
“DKE’s annual program housing agreement was terminated for the next academic year only after the organization repeatedly failed to take any meaningful steps or make any reasonable commitments toward residential co-education before the date on which the housing selection process began. The DKE house has historically operated very differently than other special interest program houses at Wesleyan in many ways, but notably that it explicitly prohibits residence by females. This must change.
“Wesleyan has offered DKE the opportunity to work regularly with the administration so that the DKE house might be ready for co-educated program housing in 2016. The Kent Literary Club and the Gamma Phi Chapter of DKE have instead chosen to commence a lawsuit against the University. The University is confident that this lawsuit has no merit.”
Scott Karsten, spokesperson for the alumni group, the Kent Literary Club, in a statement, “Discrimination is abhorrent in whatever form it may exist. President [Michael] Roth’s pursuit of selective discrimination is an egregious example of political correctness gone wrong, and does a disservice to the high ideals upon which Wesleyan was founded.“
Last spring, a group of faculty and students called for changes at the school in an open letter, which included this passage:
“Because fraternities are male-exclusive and the possessors of some of our campus’s largest party spaces, they explicitly and implicitly cultivate a gender-based power dynamic that privileges men, the hosts, over women, who are among the guests,” the letter said. “This power dynamic engenders sexual assault because women are institutionally encouraged to “repay” men for their hospitality, often with sex, and men are institutionally provided with a control over their guests, especially women.”
In September, Roth, the university’s president, announced that fraternities would have three years to go co-educational. In December university officials suspended the chapter of Psi Upsilon from holding social events in 2015 after two members of the fraternity were dismissed from school for sexual assaults.
In a letter to DKE alumni, supporters of the lawsuit argue that the university’s own crime statistics “show that the vast majority of sexual assaults on campus occur within its own dorms. Consequently, it is not clear how moving women into the fraternities full-time is going to reduce the chances of sexual assault if these facilities are, as the University seems to assume, dangerous places for women.”
They argue the fraternity members have been working to comply with the school’s mandates when the rules were abruptly changed.
“If the University’s long-term goal is to gain control of this privately owned house and property, they should understand this will never happen.”
Jeffrey Gray, a 1977 graduate who was in DKE, said the chapter has been at Wesleyan for 147 years, and that the way the administration went about the process has been unfair. “I believe that on a campus that supposedly prides itself on diversity and inclusion, there’s certainly a spot for an all-male fraternity where the brothers are good citizens and contribute to the positive aspects of campus life.”