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From Wesleyan, a cautionary tale for Harvard on male-only clubs

Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity house at Wesleyan University.

Hartford Courant

Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity house at Wesleyan University.

In a case that could offer a cautionary tale to Harvard University, a Connecticut jury recently sided with a fraternity that sued Wesleyan University after the school tried to force the club to admit women.

Wesleyan, like Harvard, is trying to improve what it considers a discriminatory and unsafe social scene fostered by exclusive, all-male organizations. The two universities are taking different approaches — a Harvard panel has suggested banning fraternities, sororities, and final clubs altogether — but the Wesleyan example shows how difficult forcing such change can be.

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“Broadly speaking, it does suggest that there are limits to the amount of interference a private university can impose on its students’ abilities to engage in associative groups outside of the university’s control,” said Will Creeley, senior vice president of legal and public advocacy at the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit organization that is following the Harvard situation closely.

Creeley said the situation in Connecticut has significant differences from Harvard, including that the Wesleyan fraternity had been a university-sanctioned residence whereas the all-male final clubs at Harvard are off-campus social organizations that often throw parties for undergraduates. But he said the case is part of a pattern across New England of schools attempting to curtail students’ rights to associate with single-gender social clubs.

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The Wesleyan case began in 2014, when university president Michael Roth announced that all residential fraternities would be required to become fully coeducational over the following three years in an effort to make the campus more “equitable and inclusive.”

In 2015, the Wesleyan chapter of Delta Kappa Epsilon sued the university after the school rejected its plan to integrate women into the 127-year-old DKE house on High Street in Middletown. Its plan was to allow women from a sorority, Rho Epsilon Pi, to occupy six beds inside the DKE house — separated from the men’s quarters — as an autonomous organization.

The fraternity argued in court that it had followed the school’s order, but also that the order was unfair because Wesleyan offered other types of exclusive housing, such as the Women of Color House; the Turath House, for Arab, Middle Eastern, and Muslim students; and single-sex dormitories, but refused to permit fraternity brothers the same option.

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The fraternity said the school informed DKE that it would have to become “fully coeducational,” then rejected its plan.

The fraternity sued under a state law, the Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act, alleging that the university made negligent misrepresentations and interfered with the fraternity’s business relationships when it did not accept the fraternity’s plan on how to integrate women.

The case went to trial, and in June a six-person jury ruled in favor of the fraternity, awarding $386,000 to the Kent Literary Club, DKE’s alumni chapter at Wesleyan. The DKE house has still not reopened, however, because of ongoing legal matters.

The fraternity believes the case demonstrates that although private schools have broad control over rules they make for their students, they do not have complete control.

Patrick Raycroft/Hartford Courant/AP

Scott Karsten testified last month on behalf of a Wesleyan University fraternity’s alumni association.

“Maybe [Wesleyan is] not so free as they thought they were to change their policies willy-nilly and to say one thing on the one hand, then do something else on the other hand,” said Scott Karsten, a Wesleyan 1974 alumnus and member of the DKE alumni association.

Karsten was a witness in the trial and negotiated with the university at the time of the coed mandate, he said.

Harvard initially considered a plan much like Wesleyan’s: pressuring single-sex clubs to go coed in 2015.

To that end, Harvard introduced a controversial policy last spring aimed at curtailing the clubs’ influence over student social life by imposing on-campus restrictions on students who join single-gender off-campus clubs.

Administrators say the clubs foster an out-of-control drinking and party culture that leads to sexual assault and permits excluding people based on appearance or social status. The clubs are known for lavish parties in their ornate homes around Harvard Square that are worth millions. Many club houses are decorated with antique books, taxidermied animals, and sunken leather sofas.

Some male final clubs did accept women, but most resisted. One that admitted women has now returned to all-male status because of infighting between undergraduate and alumni members.

Last week Harvard considered changing its approach to sanctioning the clubs, which are private organizations governed by alumni boards and are not part of the university.

Instead of asking the male clubs to admit women, a committee of administrators and faculty released a report that recommends the university forbid students from joining unrecognized single-gender clubs altogether, with a goal to “phase out” the clubs by 2020.

The list of forbidden clubs includes not only the male-only final clubs but also female-only final clubs, sororities and fraternities. The report is a recommendation, not a final policy. The ultimate decision is up to Harvard president Drew Faust.

Harvard spokespeople declined to comment on the Wesleyan case, saying it is irrelevant to Harvard’s efforts.

Wesleyan officials also declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation. The Hartford Courant reported last month that the university was exploring its legal options after the ruling.

The student blog Wesleying last month published an e-mail the university president sent after the verdict.

“Though we disagree with the decision, we appreciate the judge and jury’s time and consideration,” he wrote, adding that “Wesleyan believes very strongly in the principle of coeducation.”

A spokesman for the national chapter of DKE also declined to comment, as did attorney Richard J. Buturla, who represented the Wesleyan alumni chapter in the suit.

The day of the verdict, the fraternity issued a statement that said it was gratified by the decision, which it said “validates that we were acting in good faith and trying to meet the university’s requirements when we submitted a plan to coeducate our residence,” according to the Courant.

DKE has sued in the past over the same issue on other campuses. The fraternity sued Middlebury College — and lost — in the 1990s when the school forced fraternities to go coed. It sued Hamilton College over the same issue in 1995, and the suit was thrown out.

Many elite private colleges in New England have banned Greek life organizations in recent decades. Middlebury College did so in 1991. Colby College and Amherst College did it in 1984 and Bowdoin College in 1997.

But not so at all colleges. In 2015, Trinity College in Hartford dropped its attempt to force sororities and fraternities to go coed. The school’s president, Joanne Berger-Sweeney, said the 15 months of conversations on campus about the proposal proved to be divisive and counterproductive.

“I have concluded that the coed mandate is unlikely to achieve its intended goal of gender equity,” she wrote in an e-mail to students at the time, as reported by the Hartford Courant.

Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.
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