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Push for coed frats meets resistance

Gender equity or a move to shutter traditional fraternities?
University Business, June 2015
The Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, also known as DKE, sued Wesleyan University after  its members were told they wouldn’t be allowed to live in their house next school year.
The Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, also known as DKE, sued Wesleyan University after its members were told they wouldn’t be allowed to live in their house next school year.

A push for coed fraternities has spawned a lawsuit at Wesleyan University, while a directive from the administration at Trinity College, also in Connecticut, has so far failed to further integrate Greek organizations.

Delta Kappa Epsilon, or DKE, sued Wesleyan in February after the fraternity’s members were informed they would not be able to live in their house in the 2015-16 school year. The fraternity is seeking an injunction against that decision.

Wesleyan administrators had decided the frat and its alumni group were not making enough progress on the university’s directive to become coed within the next three years.

“We gave the organization enough time to present a good-faith outline of what it would take to have women as full and equal citizens,” Wesleyan President Michael Roth testified at an April court hearing. “They spent a lot of that time attacking the rationale, attacking the university and expressing a strong desire not to do it.”

One of Wesleyan’s two other fraternities is moving to become coed, administrators say. Because the national DKE organization prohibits admitting women, the Wesleyan chapter had explored inviting the university’s sole sorority to share its house and to help plan parties and other events—without the women becoming actual members. While DKE students testified to a grudging willingness to go coed if it ensured their frat’s survival, members of its alumni association believe the university has a greedier motive than gender equity.

“Some of the alumni, some of the more paranoid alumni, were concerned Wesleyan was mandating that we admit women with the expectation that there would at some point be a sex assault that would provide [Wesleyan] an opportunity to take measures against us,” Wesleyan alum and DKE member Scott Karsten testified. Karsten, a lawyer who is counseling the frat, said some alumni believe Wesleyan wants to shut down the frat in order to buy its spacious house—which is in a desirable location on the edge of campus.

Several other Wesleyan student organizations—including the Womanist House, the Arab-themed Turath House and LGTB group’s Open House—occupy dedicated housing. But the university requires they be open to everyone, regardless of gender, ethnicity or sexual preference.

As of mid-May, a judge had not yet ruled on DKE’s injunction request.

Trinity College, located about 15 miles from Wesleyan, told its 10 Greek organizations in 2012 to begin moving toward coed membership, with the goal of being fully integrated by fall 2016. While three of the groups already were coed, the other seven remain single-sex. Trinity also now requires members of fraternities and sororities to maintain a 3.0 grade-point average.

Admitting women clashes with the main reasons young men join fraternities, says Nicholas L. Syrett, a University of Northern Colorado history professor and author who studies Greek organizations.

Men find “their masculinity is reinforced by being in an organization that only admits men,” says Syrett, author of The Company He Keeps (UNC Press, 2011) about the racial history of fraternities. “That gets disrupted if women are admitted.”

So far, coeducation mandates have been limited to colleges that can better afford to lose the financial support of disgruntled alumni.

“Some smaller private schools may have enough money to weather the storm,” Syrett says. “A larger public university where more students join fraternities may be more worried about alumni than are smaller private colleges that have a waning Greek-lettered scene to begin with.”

Eliminating gender exclusivity seems to be the driving factor for forcing fraternities to admit women, he adds. “If you have to live with women and deal with them in the same organization, you can’t treat them as sex objects,” Syrett says. “Fraternities want to think of men and women as fundamentally different from each other and they want to interact only with men on regular basis. I think universities are hitting on a real problem for the fraternities.”

Update (from July UB): The Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) fraternity at Wesleyan University has lost a bid to remain in its house next school year after suing administrators after their directive to become co-ed.

Wesleyan’s fraternities were told last fall to make plans to add female members within the next three years. Administrators told DKE members in February they had to move out after deciding the fraternity had not made enough progress toward coeducation.

Though a judge in June denied DKE’s request for an injunction to stay in its house, the fraternity’s lawsuit remains in place.

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