Located in the heart of historic Middletown, Connecticut, Wesleyan University is known for its progressive campus culture. The strained relationship between Wesleyan administrators and students who belong to the university’s remaining single-sex Greek organizations demonstrates how that culture can cause conflict on campus.
Fraternities and sororities at Wesleyan have always been formed by the school’s distinctive political culture. In 1959, for instance, a group of Wesleyan students created an independent fraternity called Esse Quam Videri “in response to perceived discriminatory practices” from the then-Christian fraternity Alpha Chi Rho, according to university records. The progressive ethos that inspired the creation of Esse Quam Videri eventually challenged the existence of single-sex organizations, said to be exclusionary and divisive. By 1979, two of Wesleyan’s six fraternities had voluntarily included women in their membership. A 1987 task force recommended forcing all fraternities to become co-ed by 1990, though the plan never materialized.
Then, in 2014, Wesleyan administrators announced that the university would require all residential fraternities to become co-educational by 2017. Because Wesleyan undergraduates are required to live in university-approved, on-campus housing for each of their four years at the school, students would be barred from living even in unaffiliated single-sex fraternity housing.
The university framed the policy as a means of achieving equity and inclusion on campus. In March, after the Connecticut Supreme Court vacated a lower court’s ruling requiring Wesleyan to contract with a single-sex residential fraternity, the university published a press release celebrating the decision. The release claimed that there was “no reason why” the positive experiences associated with belonging to a fraternity “should be confined to male residences or offered only on a ‘separate but equal’ basis,” appropriating the language of the United States Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education to describe the operation of a single-sex fraternity on Wesleyan’s campus.
Jack McEvoy, a Wesleyan student who belongs to a non-residential, single-sex fraternity, said that the pressure placed on his organization to become co-ed manifests itself in subtle ways.
“I wouldn’t necessarily describe it as overt pressure. I would say that we’re simply limited as an organization because we’re not co-ed. I think there’s a hope [among administrators] that eventually we will capitulate or something like that, but it’s not like they’re trying to force us to become co-ed. It’s simply that our status is lower on the totem pole because we’re single-sex at the moment,” he said.
While Wesleyan affirms students’ rights to “freedom of assembly, speech, [and] belief,” it clarifies that those freedoms are subject to “the rights of others as provided” by university policy. The latter clause limits the breadth of students’ expressive and associational freedoms, as Wesleyan policy provides for “some situations in which certain behavior or even speech may violate our community standards and warrant University intervention.”
The propriety of such interventions has been questioned in recent years. In 2011, for example, the university released a policy prohibiting students “from using houses or property owned, leased or operated by private societies that are not recognized by the University.” The prohibition included “using such houses or property as residences, taking meals at such houses or property and participating in social activities at such houses or property.” Under the 2011 guidance, it would have been a violation of university policy to eat a meal on the property of a religious order, political organization, or ethnic club. The measure was rescinded after it received significant backlash from students.
In his statement announcing the suspension of the 2011 guidance, Wesleyan president Michael S. Roth said that while the rule was “too broad,” the university would continue to enforce one of the policy’s original aims – namely, prohibiting students from visiting a noncompliant fraternity.
“I want to be as clear as possible: if the Beta Fraternity does not join with the other Greek fraternities and societies, it will be off-limits to undergraduates next semester,” Roth wrote. “Students who violate this rule will face significant disciplinary action, including suspension. This is not an attempt to regulate the expressive activities of our students. It is an attempt to minimize unsafe conditions adjacent to campus.”
While such restrictions are not enforced against McEvoy’s fraternity, he feels the administration is eager for single-sex organizations like his to “disappear.”
“In my mind, the way [administrators] operate, it feels like in some ways, yes, it’s restrictive, but in other ways, it’s almost like we’re un-personed, that we don’t exist, and they’re hoping that, eventually, our organizations will just disappear. That’s just generally the impression I get from interacting with them, and how we’re perceived and treated. But I don’t think that’s a very effective strategy, and I don’t think it’s right for them to try and limit students. It is a limitation on students’ freedoms in some ways.”
McEvoy feels that the university’s unwillingness to allow single-sex Greek life to flourish on campus is a reflection of the school’s progressive priorities.
“We’re a left-wing school,” McEvoy said. “There’s a lot of hostility that comes with that and . . . if you have a viewpoint that is heterodox or you don’t necessarily fall in line with that agenda, your life will be made more difficult one way or another, whether that’s coming from student opinion or that’s coming from the university.”
This article was originally posted on ‘We’re un-personed’ – Wesleyan cracks down on single-sex Greek life