Board Bans Off-Campus Fraternities
Issue   |   Wed, 05/07/2014 - 04:09

Amherst will enforce a ban on off-campus fraternities starting July 1, the Board of Trustees announced yesterday.

Cullen Murphy ’74, the chair of the Board of Trustees, sent an email to the campus community that included a copy of the board’s resolution and a statement explaining the board’s reasoning for the decision.

“In 1984, the board prohibited the use of any college facilities or resources, including staff time, by fraternities or sororities and revoked any college affiliation with, or recognition of, these organizations,” Murphy wrote in his email. “The board has voted to reaffirm the 1984 Trustees’ Resolution on Fraternities, and, effective July 1, 2014, to prohibit student participation in fraternities and sororities and fraternity-like and sorority-like organizations, either on or off campus.”

The board’s statement acknowledged that since 1984, several off-campus underground fraternities have continued to exist at the college under a “condition of ambiguity” in which the college has not expressed a clear stance about fraternities’ existence.

The three underground fraternities currently active at Amherst are Chi Psi, Delta Kappa Epsilon and the fraternity known as OT. In an email interview, Murphy said that he is not aware of any currently active organizations other than these three fraternities that would fit the board’s definition of a “fraternity-like organization” or “sorority-like organization.”

The board portrayed the decision as a response to the Sexual Misconduct Oversight Committee’s 2013 report, which asked the board to clarify the ambiguous position of fraternities at Amherst. The board’s statement cited the Sexual Misconduct Oversight Committee’s concern that because it seems as though fraternities “simultaneously exist but do not exist,” they prevent Amherst “from enforcing appropriate expectations for student behavior with respect to them, including accountability under the Honor Code.”

“For the college, the condition of seeming to have some measure of responsibility without possessing any measure of authority is inherently problematic,” the board’s statement said.

President Biddy Martin said in an email that she participated in the board’s discussions and voted on the resolution.

“The ambiguous status of fraternities was at the top of my list of concerns,” Martin said. “The college has responsibility for the students who belong to them and who take part in their activities, but has no way of providing oversight and no authority. This is not tenable.”

The college’s Honor Code will be revised to reflect the board’s decision on fraternities.

“The ban on membership in fraternities will be enforced through the ordinary procedures of the Honor Code system,” Murphy said. “If alleged violations come to the college’s attention, they will be considered through that normal process.”

Martin also said that the college will revise its requirements for students living off campus to include a stipulation that explicitly prohibits students from belonging to fraternities or sororities.

At Tuesday night’s faculty meeting, President Biddy Martin said that the decision had nothing to do with sexual assault.

At the meeting, some faculty members, such as Professor Ronald Rosbottom, applauded the board’s decision to ban fraternities.

Others, such as Frank Couvares, criticized the decision. Couvares said the board has “no right to police the free association of our students off campus.”

On Tuesday evening, many members of the three fraternities responded to the decision by condemning the board’s announcement and the lack of student input in the decision process.

“We see this not as a fraternity issue but as a student body issue,” said Michael Jacobson ’14, the former president of Delta Kappa Epsilon, in a statement on behalf of his fraternity. “The concern here is not for the existence of fraternities but rather that current Amherst students have their voices heard regarding matters that will affect their college experience. This current issue is just the latest in a string of decisions affecting student life in which student voices were silenced and student input was not solicited.”

Will Kamin ’15, the current president of Chi Psi, said that he was disappointed by what he saw as misconceptions about the nature of fraternities.

“I think there’s an idea that fraternities perpetuate very counterproductive ideas of what it means to be a man,” Kamin said. “I really can’t speak for the other fraternities, but I would like to think that ours is one that allows guys to go beyond that, and the values we try to instill in guys are values of gentlemanliness and self-sacrifice and charity.”

“I think that if the trustees had really talked to fraternity members about what the day-to-day goings on of fraternities are like, they’d see it’s a very different picture than what you might expect,” Kamin added.

He also responded to critics who have denounced fraternities as being bastions of white male privilege, saying that the members of his fraternity come from a variety of diverse backgrounds. According to Kamin, 14 of the 43 active members of Chi Psi are white, and the rest identify as people of color.

“The lessons we’ve all learned from being exposed to those diverse perspectives and being exposed to people from such diverse backgrounds have really played a huge role in my Amherst education, and I think a lot of the other fraternity members would say the same,” Kamin said.

Leaders of the fraternity known as OT declined to comment for this article.

At a meeting this evening at 8:30 p.m., members of the Association of Amherst Students senate will solicit student input about the board’s decision and discuss ways to present this input to the trustees.

“Senate is working based on the concerns of the students,” said AAS President Amani Ahmed ‘15. “Students have varying opinions on fraternities. I think where I’m hearing the anxieties and concerns among students is about the way in which the decision happened. Many students feel that their input should have been solicited, and they should have asked about whether this decision should have been made.”

On Monday at 6:30 p.m., Murphy and Trustee Andrew Nussbaum ’85 will hold an open meeting in the Cole Assembly Room of Converse Hall to answer questions about the board’s decision.

Kamin said that he does not expect Chi Psi will decide what to do next until after speaking with the trustees at Monday’s meeting.

“It is not our intention to do anything that would violate the college’s policies, so we’ll go to the meeting this Monday to talk with the trustees who are coming, and if what they say to us is that we need to surrender our charter for national organization, I am prepared to go to our national convention and do that this July in order to stay in line with the college’s ruling,” Kamin said. “I hope that on an informal and non-institutional basis we’ll be allowed to keep associating with each other and be friends and keep providing this support system to each other.”

Leaders of Delta Kappa Epsilon and OT have not yet said how they expect their fraternities to move forward following the board’s decision.

Emmett Knowlton '15 contributed reporting.

Albert Bard (not verified) says:
Wed, 05/07/2014 - 13:43

It is unfortunate that the Trustees have chosen to sully the College's Honor Code to enforce a policy which must certainly violate the College's "core values" that President Martin is so fond of invoking (if never enumerating). The Honor Code states that "Amherst College prizes and defends freedom of speech and dissent," of which freedom of association is a constituent and inseverable part. To follow the Code's guaranty of freedom with a prohibition on membership in an overly broad category of legitimate and legal organizations is self-contradictory. Equally problematic, the sentiment behind the new policy marks a contempt for student self government and autonomy that is without precedent in the College's history and defiant of its pedagogy. That the Trustees would, by fiat and without faculty consent, resort to skapegoating and civil rights infringement, rather than holding the senior administration accountable for their dismal record on residential life issues, should be of great concern to faculty members and the alumni community.

John Woodward '88 (not verified) says:
Wed, 05/07/2014 - 23:33

Albert, well said. It is a sad day for the College. The letter from the Board was poorly reasoned. It is hard to imagine how the small percentage of students participating in off-campus fraternities is at the heart of the College's problems and requires such a drastic intrusion into student's lives.

Joseph Moffitt (not verified) says:
Wed, 05/07/2014 - 16:51

I can attest to the diverse and accepting nature of Delta Kappa Epsilon as well. This decision is not only a misguided attempt to take drastic action in the face of Federal pressure but it is a blatant overreaching on behalf of the Trustees. President Martin mentions that the present status of Fraternities is untenable, but at the same time she has yet to take a single step to either bring fraternities closer to the college. The present status of Fraternities is solely due to the penalties members faced if exposed to the Administration. They are solely using the already hamstrung Fraternities as a scapegoat to make it look like the administration is addressing the issue of how they botched the handling of the sexual assault victims cases.

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Wed, 05/07/2014 - 20:05

“I think there’s an idea that fraternities perpetuate very counterproductive ideas of what it means to be a man,” Kamin said. “I really can’t speak for the other fraternities, but I would like to think that ours is one that allows guys to go beyond that, and the values we try to instill in guys are values of gentlemanliness and self-sacrifice and charity.”
LOL. Do the values of gentlemanliness and self-sacrifice and charity involve raping women, or standing by as your "brother" rapes women?

Vigilius Haufniensis (not verified) says:
Thu, 05/08/2014 - 08:11

Actually, the faculty has wanted to ban fraternities at Amherst for a long time -- since at least 1945. See, for example, _Education at Amherst_, pages 126-132, for a discussion of the ways that fraternities are anti-intellectual and anti-democratic. I suspect that if one polled faculty members today, one would find similar sentiments. Amherst, in the end, is an educational institution. What is the strong argument for including fraternities as a means to that end? Does anybody really believe that permitting fraternities would somehow improve residential life at the College?

As for freedom of assembly, a useful analogy may be made here to plagiarism. Plagiarism does not have a legal status, only an administrative status within the College Honor Code: the first amendment allows for it, but the College Honor Code prohibits it. It makes no difference at all where a student plagiarizes: if she plagiarizes in an off campus apartment rather than in a dorm, she's still a plagiarist, and she's still subject to discipline according to the Honor Code. No reasonable person would argue that the plagiarist's right to free speech is violated when the College disciplines a plagiarist: the plagiarist retains that legal right, but she loses the privilege of participating in a voluntary association (the College) in which membership is conditional on high standards of conduct, and which has the legal right to define the terms of its membership. Critics of the Trustee decision claim that the ban on off-campus fraternities will be difficult to enforce, and they are correct. But from this it doesn't follow that the policy ought not exist. Plagiarism policies are also difficult to enforce, but no one would conclude from this difficulty that the College ought therefore to permit plagiarism.

So too off-campus fraternities. The Trustees have not made a statement about students' legal rights. Students retain the legal right to assemble in any manner they'd like. What the Trustees have done is make a statement that clarifies the terms of membership in a voluntary association (the College) of which they are, in the last analysis, the legal representatives. The Trustees have said something very simple: insofar as students wish to remain associated with the College, they may not organize themselves into fraternities. (At a Christian College, Trustees would say something different: students who wish to remain associated with that College must live a Christian lifestyle as defined by the bible.) If students would rather join fraternities than be members of the College, they certainly remain legally free to make that decision: no one is proposing to use coercion to compel fraternity members to remain Amherst College students.

Although the Trustees' decision certainly will fill some students (and not others) with "passionate intensity," the Trustees ultimately have made a good decision here. Faculty at this College have believed for a long time that fraternities do not add to, but instead subtract from, the College's educational aims. It is telling, in fact, that critics of the Trustees' decision are not even trying to argue against that decision on educational grounds: no one is claiming that fraternities have some sort of educational benefit, and for good reason. They are only making specious constitutional law arguments. Fraternity members are certainly welcome to fight for their right to party; they are likely to succeed only in self-parody.

Chuck O'Boyle '86 (not verified) says:
Thu, 05/08/2014 - 12:15

My sense is that fraternities have persisted off-campus for thirty years because they are the only Amherst organization that has succeeded in bringing diverse students, from all classes and across majors and athletic teams, together in a setting of intimacy and mutual trust that is conducive to self-fashioning. This is the best preparation for meaningful participation in a larger community and what is supposed to distinguish a liberal arts college pedagogically, yet Amherst's on-campus arrangements have failed to achieve it. Fraternities gave their members a common enterprise and identity that no dormitory or on-campus structure has or will be able to attempt, let alone replicate. The fraternities affiliated with national organizations, like my own (Chi Psi) allowed for collaboration--and often productive disagreement--with student leaders across the country, at institutions both commensurate with Amherst (e. g. Yale) and excellent in different ways (e. g. Michigan). Because fraternities are not merely undergraduate but also alumni organizations, they provided a student member with perhaps her or his first experience of being received as a peer by an adult. Certainly I had never worked on a team with adults who were not parents or teachers collaborating on corporate matters, such as budgeting, alumni communications, community service and fundraising, until I joined Chi Psi. For me, a first-generation college student, my fraternity membership provided a much needed social acculturation to the College and a feeling of kinship with past generations of Amherst alumni that was empowering. My Chi Psi friendships were the least likely of my college career: the principle, not the artifice, of brotherhood pushed me to value as intimates individuals far outside my high school comfort zone. If the Trustees' decision stokes "passionate intensity," it is because it undermines the quality of an Amherst education. The message it imparts to students is: "We don't trust you to be adults." My prediction: the kind of intellectually discerning, mature applicants we desire most to enroll may well decide they'd rather attend an institution that does.

another alum (not verified) says:
Thu, 05/08/2014 - 23:11

It was exclusively male, right? I mean, what's the difference between 'brotherhood' and 'humanhood'? And why should there be one?

David (not verified) says:
Thu, 05/08/2014 - 12:28

You've got to have the College Council propose changes, and then the students vote, then the faculty. It's right in the 3rd paragraph of the Honor Code preamble. (

"It [The Honor Code] is collectively shaped and upheld by students, faculty and staff. At least every fourth academic year, the College Council will review the current Honor Code and, if appropriate, will propose changes to the Honor Code to the campus community. The revised Honor Code will be voted on by the students and, if it passes, by faculty. If it is not favored by the majorities of both, then the current Honor Code will stay in effect while the College Council reviews it again the following year, and it will remain in effect until an alternative version is passed by the majorities of both the students and faculty."

Besides being flatly NOT how you change the Honor Code, this Trustees' action is a terribly misdirected response to the problem of sexual misconduct (a problem that the College is continuing to exacerbate as it "revises" its "party policy", aka cracks down on relaxed parties by banning any drinking in public areas and therefore drives parties into smaller spaces, often dorm rooms away from the scrutiny of peers, and towards the accelerated consumption of hard liquor before going out, which is much harder to control for young adults.

A REAL conversation is needed about how to achieve a balanced campus social life, including the creation and support for dedicated safe spaces for both genders but especially women. Educate! Provide resources and support. Turn up, Board of Trustees and Administration, and put in the hard work. Stop grabbing for headlines to solve a problem that every Amherst student and graduate, including fraternity members and alumni, want to help solve.

anon (not verified) says:
Thu, 05/08/2014 - 21:54

"Fraternities gave their members a common enterprise and identity that no dormitory or on-campus structure has or will be able to attempt, let alone replicate. "

Case in point:

Chuck (not verified) says:
Sat, 05/10/2014 - 10:00

You may not know what was subsequently disclosed: the culprits were not fraternity members but football players who apparently had never before constituted themselves as "TD". Just because three or four athletes on the same team get drunk one night and manufacture an offensive t-shirt misappropriating Greek Letters (and infringing Theta Delta Chi's trademark) does not make them a fraternity. As it happens, Theta Delta Chi has not recognized an Amherst chapter since before my time at Amherst in the 1980s. /?q=article/2012/10/24/letter-editor-re...

Albert Bard (not verified) says:
Fri, 05/09/2014 - 15:42

I would not be surprised if the College's three in-house lawyers did not know to inform the Board of this protocol, and that the Trustees have been blindsided by this revelation of procedural error. Perhaps it is time to let go of the lawyers and hire six more faculty members with the savings: Williams is killing us on student-faculty ratio.

David K. Easlic... (not verified) says:
Sat, 05/10/2014 - 20:55

I was the lawyer for and Executive Director of Delta Kappa Epsilon for over 20 years. We won this battle in 1997. Here we go again!