Administration Denies Fraternity Basic Rights

Two weeks ago, Swarthmore President Rebecca Chopp robustly defended campus free speech. What she didn’t say is that administrators are more than willing to deprive members of the Phi Psi fraternity their rights to expression and due process to placate some activists’ demands.

Despite no documentation that the fraternity violated any College policies, the administration insists on subjecting the brothers to a reeducation in Swarthmore “values” before they can proceed with this semester’s pledge recruitment.

The latest First Amendment fracas began on Oct. 6, when a group of non-Greek students intercepted a copy of Phi Psi’s bid invitations. Notably, most of these students were also involved in last spring’s failed referendum to outlaw Greek life. The invitations in question featured a collage of half-naked women copied from the Internet—risqué, perhaps, but surely protected speech on a campus that annually hosts Genderf**k, masturbatory theater, the Vagina Monologues, and Crunkfest.

While the administration has not taken a public stand on efforts to “defund” the fraternities, Dean of Students Liz Braun displayed an open interest in censorship, telling the Philadelphia Inquirer, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms the fraternity’s use of totally inappropriate imagery, and it will stop now.”

Keep in mind that the administration offered no such statement when Mountain Justice and other activist groups invaded last May’s Board meeting and broke a litany of college policies on official business meetings and classroom decorum. Instead, students wondering whether or not the College would pursue disciplinary action against MJ members who “clapped down” audience members at the Board gathering had to live with President Chopp’s platitudes that the meeting represented “fruitful—if tough—dialogue” and that “democracy is worth fighting for.” It’s becoming clear that “dialogue” and “democracy” are a privilege reserved for campus activists, not frat brothers.

Multiple writers with The Independent contacted the administration to clarify which, if any, policies Phi Psi’s flyers had violated. The folks in Parrish answered with a classic bait and switch. Liliana Rodriguez, who joins the legion of Swarthmore’s many administrators as our new Dean for Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Development, informed us via email:

Swarthmore expects all students and student organizations to exercise both respect for others and good judgment — these are values inherent in our community, stated repeatedly in communications, and we expect them to be heeded. When members of the community breach our values, we can require that they examine their actions and correct inappropriate and harmful behaviors, and that is what we are doing in this instance.

 We were under the impression that students are governed by the Swarthmore handbook, not some nebulous set of “values” that administrators enforce whenever they see fit. But Rodriguez justified the administration’s discipline of Phi Psi as a “remedies-based resolution” and a “non judicial approach.”

According to Swarthmore’s Interim Sexual Assault Policy (which we’ve criticized here and here), the administration may choose, after conducting an investigation, to pursue a less formal “corrective action through the imposition of individual and community remedies designed to maximize the complainant’s access to the educational and extracurricular activities of the College.” Of course, that corrective action is still dependent on the College’s ability to demonstrate a breach of official policy—a detail Deans Braun and Rodriguez seem to find irrelevant.

Instead, administrators are progressing straight to the “corrective measure.” The Independent has gained exclusive access to an Oct. 8 letter in which Dean Rodriguez accuses Phi Psi members of “no respect for women as members of our community, or in society more generally.” Without offering any opportunity for the brothers to defend themselves, Rodriguez next informs members that only after “an educational workshop on Title IX and bystander training” will they be able to resume recruitment. At the training, the Phi Psi members will be required to speak about the flyer incident. The connection between the lewd flyers and violation of federal Title IX law goes entirely undocumented. Rodriguez proceeds to tell Phi Psi members that they will be forced to reflect on the workshops and “propose a community event that displays a genuine appreciation of what you’ve learned.”

Lest she outdo herself, Rodriguez’s tosses in random, unspecified allegations that part of Phi Psi’s punishment stems from a violation of “party registration policies, dismissing Party Associates (PAs) before parties have actually ended this year, and treating PAs in an unprofessional manner.” Rodriguez offers no dates, names, or corroborating evidence to back this claim. No such allegations concerning the treatment of PAs or registration issues appear in any of this semester’s Public Safety reports. Never mind that none of the “remedial measures” taken against Phi Psi are related to the PA issue–suggesting that the allegation is mostly for cover.

Sure, there are some Swarthmore students happy to see the fraternities facing hellfire. But it seems necessary to ask how this crackdown on a registered student group engaging in protected speech differs from the potential for the administration to police other unpopular clubs who circulate objectionable materials.

We should all be deeply troubled to see the administration throwing our handbook and free speech rights to the wind.

UPDATE: Here’s the letter Dean Rodriguez sent Phi Psi.

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  1. Phi Psi has written an open-letter acknowledging and apologizing for their behavior. Their members seem to be involved or voluntarily interested in brining Jason Katz to school. The administration has replied and acted in a timely manner. To me, both sides have been proactive and productive. The petition for defunding has obviously not done anything so the fraternities do not seem to be “facing hellfire.” It saddens me to read this article, which attacks something that has, for once, been resolved with very civil and thoughtful actions at Swarthmore.

    • The point is that the college has no grounds to take disciplinary action (although not judiciary action) against the phi psi fraternity. It seems completely unfair that phi psi has been forced to stop recruiting efforts and stop hosting parties when nobody has shown that they broke any rules. Yes, the case can be made that the phi psi bid letter were sexist ect.. but that is opinion and does not conclude that phi psi as a fraternity is sexist. In fact, there are lots of signs that point to phi psi not being sexist. (like the fact that they crafted an apology letter for an oversight that was made and acknowledged the mistake was sexist) And to say that phi psi has not been “facing hellfire” means you must have not spent the week leading up to fall break on campus. Or seen any of the about 8 local and national media articles on how phi psi has been facing hellfire. Yes, phi psi seems to have been proactive.. but the administration seems to have just been unfair.

  2. You have no idea what AMTC is. Don’t drag it into your ridiculous argument until you’ve seen a performance and can speak with some level of intelligence about what they do.

  3. SYWC: under these circumstances any such letter was written under duress. The organization was forced to take action in order to retain the basic rights that other organizations enjoy, whether or not the organization actually believed it. That’s how 1984 works: you have to take the right actions and show that you really have changed your heart, otherwise Swarthmore will keep punishing you. Swarthmore has acted very badly.

    • Swarthmore isn’t a religious campground where prudes are scared of the risks of seeing pictures of boobs, it’s a college that made direct promises to its students to give them free speech. The students believed the promises until Swarthmore went back on them.

  4. I have no idea why I’m spending a couple minutes of my life writing this, but I would just like to inform you that you have successfully written the most intellectually devoid article I have read in a long time. Almost everything you said is pretty bankrupt of any real argument, and you also don’t seem to understand that universities CAN hold fraternity members accountable for breaches in conduct (ex. Yale anyone, how the hell did you not think about the many situations where fraternities do misogynistic things and then are punished by the admin). I’m not even going to make an argument against anything you said though. I’ll leave that for you to figure out, if you ever do.

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