A look at how Greeks are disciplined

I’ve been trying to figure out who cracks the whip on problem fraternities.

When the University of Minnesota community was hit by the three recent sexual assault cases, I tried to rely on my memory as a fraternity brother in the 1980s.

But all I could think of was Dean Wormer in Animal House growling:

As of this moment, they’re on double secret probation.

It’s not as simple as the movie makes it out to be. The whole tangle of jurisdictions and sanctions are confusing — police vs. university vs. Interfraternity Council vs. national organization, probation vs suspension, etc.

Just who can do what? How does it all work? You almost need a flow chart to work it out.

So I sat down with Gerald Rinehart, vice provost for student affairs at the U, and Chad Ellsworth, coordinator for fraternity and sorority life at the Office for Student Affairs. I also spoke with Minneapolis police Inspector Bryan Schafer.

This much is clear:

1) Key to understanding the issue is that the fraternities are off campus, taking them to a large degree out of the university’s jurisdiction.

2) Many of the organizations involved may act or investigate independently, though usually in consultation with one another, imposing their own (often overlapping) sanctions at a time they see fit. It’s not one unified system with a clear sequence and chain of authority.

3) Many of the sanctions appear to punish problematic fraternities over the long term. They’re designed to slowly drain the fun (and life) out of a chapter by cutting it off from the Greek community and making it hard for the fraternity to recruit members. That makes it whither over time.

Here’s the rough picture they painted of who does what:

Minneapolis police:

They investigate the case, but usually go after individual lawbreakers — not the fraternity as a whole, unless it violates the law repeatedly. The city could try to pull the fraternity’s rental- or occupancy license, which would shut its doors, but those are usually for city code violations (such as disrepair), or repeated noise or alcohol violations. But that first involves warning letters and numerous citations and increasing fines and administrative hearings.

“There are quite a few hoops to jump through,” Inspector Schafer said.

That said, the threat of financial penalties (starting at several hundred dollars and doubling with each subsequent citation) is often enough to keep fraternities in line. Their national headquarters, he said, “don’t want to be saddled with huge administrative fines.”

The main organizations that impose sanctions on fraternities — the university, Interfraternity Council and the fraternities’ national headquarters — often wait to take any real action, because they want to base their decisions on what the police have found.

University police:

They may arrive at the scene first and investigate, but they generally assist the city officers.

The university:

It has an odd sort of relationship with fraternities. It doesn’t have jurisdiction over them and their off-campus activities, and doesn’t give them any money. But it does offer them valuable resources (such as access to meeting space on campus) and access to student events such as homecoming — and can influence how a fraternity’s national headquarters treats a problem chapter.

If a fraternity gets into trouble, the University of Minnesota can put it on probation — as it did to Chi Psi — which means the chapter might have some access to university resources curtailed, and may have to fulfill certain requirements to return to good standing.

The U can also suspend a fraternity — which means they’re no longer registered as a university organization. That cuts the chapter off from university support, and it can’t participate in campus events.

That cuts down on the fraternity’s visibility, which “can be pretty critical,” Rinehart said, “because it can be difficult for them to grow” by recruiting new members.

(Case in point: At the time of the violation, U officials say, Delta Kappa Epsilon had been struggling because it for some reason it had not been registered with the university — and so could not participate.)

The university’s classification of fraternities can be a secret weapon of sorts, because a number of national fraternities will suspend their own local chapters if the university classifies them as “suspended.”

Yet it can take a while before school officials can take that kind of action. They must file a complaint with the Student Activities Office, which also has an appeals process.

The university can take action against individual students, however — including probation, suspension and expulsion — if they are deemed more of a problem than a benefit to the university, or break university conduct codes that make their community unsafe.

Interfraternity Council (IFC):

This is made up of representatives from all of the fraternities on campus, and acts as the main Greek governing body. It can sanction bad behavior, as it has against Chi Psi, though whether sanctions that last a few weeks or months are effective is questionable.

University and Greek officials say the serious IFC sanctions — such as suspension, which it invoked on Delta Kappa Epsilon on Sunday — can be among the most severe, again because getting cut off from the Greek community — such as participation in Greek activities and inclusion in the Greek directory that goes out to new students — can make a fraternity a non-entity over time.

National headquarters:

They can suspend one of their local chapters or, in extreme cases, revoke its charter.

Suspension is tough, because it erases a fraternity’s identity. In Delta Kappa Epsilon’s case, suspension by its national organization means local members can’t even wear their Greek letters, much less hold parties and participate in university functions as a fraternity.

Revoking the national charter and closing the house down is extreme and uncommon. Local chapter houses most often are owned locally, in most cases by groups of alumni. What they’d do with the real estate if the chapter closed is an open question, but any way you look at it, it would be a pain.

What we’re left with

So I have to raise an eyebrow when I read about previous sanctions against fraternities such as Chi Psi. Are those sanctions really meaningless? Or do some guys just don’t learn?

Sounds like it could be a little of both. Both Rinehart and Ellsworth stressed due process and restraint.

In an educational environment, Rinehart said, “people should have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. We’ll respond (to problems), but we don’t want to jump to the death knell.”