For the last few years, the issue of sexual assault on college campuses has received intense national and local attention. As the scale of the problem has become more widely recognized, many institutions have taken steps to improve their preventative and disciplinary procedures. At Wesleyan, we significantly revised our sexual assault policies and have focused on three kinds of activity: supporting survivors; punishing assailants; and changing the culture so as to eliminate elements that lead to assault. Bystander intervention is an important facet of most of our efforts in this area. The role of student activists has been crucial to the changes we have made, as has input from faculty, staff, parents and alumni.
As I wrote in the summer of 2013, sexual assault is, among other things, a problem of equity and inclusion. Fear of assault reduces educational opportunity. Sexual assault, I said then, “has rightly become a major issue for educators who want their campuses to be safe places at which all students can experience the freedom of a transformative education.”
Over the past few months the place of single-sex, residential fraternities at Wesleyan has been at the forefront of our discussions, in large part because of the large campus social spaces controlled by all-male organizations. On April 18 an impressive list of students and faculty published a call to action in the Argus demanding that our three all-male residential fraternities “choose to co-educate and drastically reform their societies to be welcoming and safe organizations and spaces for students of all genders.” Two days later the Wesleyan Student Assembly passed a resolution that put a time-frame to this demand: that our fraternities demonstrate “a clear and swift plan of action… beginning with an initial co-educated pledge class in spring 2015.”
The issue of fraternities attracts strong emotions “for and against,” but I’ve been pleased to see that most discussions of the issue here – be it in public forums, letters published in the Argus, or emails to the president – have been conducted in ways that aim at shared understanding. On our campus these issues are complex, and we have a variety of organizations. For example, at Wesleyan we have co-educational societies that have a fair amount of autonomy and, in some cases, residential space. These societies claim the same feelings of community and solidarity that the all-male fraternities prize.
On a campus that so fully embraces coeducation across all aspects of our lives, the presence of single-sex fraternities raises questions about our commitment to gender equity. And although it is obvious that not all sexual assaults happen in fraternities, there are strong questions raised about fraternity culture and what researchers call “proclivity” to discrimination and violence. While the fraternities have made it clear that they wish to be part of the solution, it’s also clear that many students see fraternity houses as spaces where women enter with a different status than in any other building on campus, sometimes with terrible consequences.
Many of our peer institutions have entirely eliminated “exclusive societies” like fraternities, while a few others have charted different paths. I’ve already made clear to the residential fraternities that we will not accept the status quo. We have informed them that they must allow Public Safety the same level of access required of any other student residence. Failure to agree to Public Safety access will put an end to that fraternity’s existence as a student residence, and given the fact that the owners of the buildings have not yet agreed to this expectation, students now slated to live in fraternities (including Alpha Delta Phi) should make contingency plans with Student Life.
It’s up to all of us to create the kind of campus climate we value, and it’s become very clear that fraternities, as presently constituted, pose challenges to that ongoing effort. I expect to make a further announcement with respect to the role of fraternities on campus after consulting with trustees at the Board meeting in May. Meanwhile, I‘ll continue to listen to and learn from a variety of perspectives on how to create the best residential learning environment we can.