Battle Over Beta: Dean’s E-mail Sparks Debate
A March 5 e-mail from Dean of Students Rick Culliton and Vice President for Student Affairs Mike Whaley to all students and parents prompted a flurry of questions about the Mu Epsilon chapter of fraternity Beta Theta Pi to ripple across campus. Representatives of Beta are now striving to defend their autonomy from the University and demonstrate their responsibility as an organization.
The e-mail advised students not to visit Beta, citing many cases of hospitalization for alcohol consumption that have reportedly occurred at the fraternity, as well as the administration’s inability to monitor activities there for the past five years since its University recognition was withdrawn.
“We hope that our relationship with Beta might improve at some point in the future,” the e-mail read. “Until then, we remain deeply concerned about the safety of those students who choose to affiliate with the house or attend events there against our advice.”
According to Culliton, in addition to the University’s concern over dangerous activities taking place at Beta, their unsuccessful attempts to reincorporate the fraternity into campus housing prompted them to send out the e-mail.
“We have been in conversation with the alumni association over the course of this past year in an effort to try to come to an agreement, but it became clear to us that that wasn’t going to be able to happen in time for program housing and room selection,” Culliton said. “We felt that given what we had seen and observed over the last year and a half that it was important that we convey to the community our concerns.”
He pointed to both the Middletown Police Department’s (MPD) record and the University’s knowledge of problems at Beta as the cause of the administration’s worries. Since September 2008, he said, MPD has received 30 calls reporting behavior ranging from loud parties to assault and burglaries, while the University is also aware of two car accidents, three physical assaults, and numerous hospitalizations linked to activity at Beta.
Beta President Graham Gnall ’11, however, said that the e-mail unfairly represented the fraternity.
“I met with Dean Culliton the day before the e-mail went out and he informed me that he was going to send this e-mail out to students and parents explaining to them that we are off-campus, eliminating the University’s liability, and making it clear that we’re separate, and I said, ‘That’s simple enough, that makes sense,’” he said. “Obviously, it was more than that. I found it highly offensive and disparaging to our entire undergraduate chapter.”
Gnall explained that the negotiations over Beta’s off-campus status have thus far been between the Baird Association, which owns the house and consists of all alumni of the Mu Epsilon chapter of Beta, and the deans. He said he was surprised to see the undergraduate members of the fraternity drawn into the discussion in the e-mail, since they had not been involved before.
While both administration and fraternity representatives say they are hopeful that Beta will return to its on-campus status at some point, they have thus far been unable to agree on the specifics of Beta’s relationship to the University. In order for on-campus fraternities to be considered part of program housing, they are required to sign the Wesleyan University Fraternal Organization Agreement, which undergraduate members of Psi Upsilon, Alpha Delta Phi, and Delta Kappa Epsilon have done. In response to the request that Beta sign the agreement, Adam Diamond ’03, President of the Baird Association, wrote a letter to Culliton outlining the fraternity’s objections to signing.
Both Culliton and Diamond said the main sticking point in the negotiations is Public Safety’s access to the house.
“We feel that the University Public Safety officers don’t have the legal right to deal with some issues,” Diamond said. “It’s private property. The University doesn’t necessarily have the right to send their Public Safety officers to patrol it—we’re adequately protected by the Middletown Police Department.”
Administration members say that expecting the University to drop the clause allowing Public Safety entrance to Beta is illogical and unrealistic.
“The demand is not that they be angelic,” said President Michael Roth. “The notion that Public Safety would have to get permission to enter a place where Wesleyan students, as Wesleyan students, are congregating is unacceptable.”
Beta has implemented a new policy requiring that an off-duty MPD officer oversee their parties in the future. The officer will be hired to patrol the door and walk through the main floor in order to prevent many of the problems mentioned in the e-mail.
“One of the reasons we wanted to bring in a security detail was to show the University or to show ourselves that maybe we can allow Public Safety into our house under the right agreement,” Gnall said.
In addition to problems with the agreement itself, Diamond said that the University has asked undergraduate fraternity representatives to sign it, rather than the representatives of the property holder. According to Diamond, only the property holder has the authority to sign the agreement.
“For DKE and Psi U, only undergraduate officers have signed these agreements,” he said.
“I met with Dean Culliton in September and he pressured me to sign this program housing contract knowing full well that I had no legal authority to do so,” Gnall added. “I feel that he’s acted sort of hostile toward us since then as a result of our failure to cooperate.”
“Residential Life staff have worked with the student leadership of all of the organizations that are part of program housing as they are the university’s primary contact and are representing their organizations,” Culliton responded. “[A] section of the agreement seems pretty clear that by signing the agreement, they are agreeing that they have shared it with their organization’s members and that they are authorized to sign it.”
Along with ongoing negotiations over the agreement, members of the Beta community have expressed their frustration with the effects of the e-mail to the administration.
A group of 37 parents of current members of Beta sent a letter to President Roth asking to meet with a representative of the University to “issue a clarification which retracts the unsupported statements” in the e-mail.
“While we appreciate the deans’ perceived need to protect the university from potential legal liability, we believe the communication unfairly, and without any discernible citation of fact, disparages all of the student members of Beta and damages the reputation of those students in and beyond the Wesleyan community,” the letter read.
Administrators, however, said that the e-mail was only meant to clarify the relationship between Beta and the University.
“The intention is not to focus on any individuals but rather the problematic behavior at that address,” Culliton said.
“We want people to know, because parents don’t seem to know, that Public Safety does not have access to Beta,” Roth added. “That’s the biggest issue.”
Moving forward, Culliton said the University has asked Beta to present a version of the Fraternal Organization Agreement that they would be willing to sign.
“We’ve also made it clear, though, that we’re not looking to have four different agreements with four different chapters,” he said.
Diamond and Gnall both emphasized their commitment to keeping Beta independent from the University.
“It doesn’t make sense for Public Safety to have no-knock access to our door,” Gnall said. “Independence is something we stand for as a brotherhood—we want to promote responsible, independent living without restrictions such as a meal plan or housing arrangements.”
“We believe that the undergraduates should have the right to live independently, to not have oversight at all times, and that’s what the agreement they’ve asked us to sign essentially states,” Diamond added.
Still, he hopes that a solution can be found.
“The Baird Association is definitely looking forward to continuing negotiating with the University to find a middle ground that is going to be acceptable to all parties,” he said.
Culliton agreed, expressing his belief that both sides will benefit from Beta’s becoming on-campus housing again.
“There certainly are many benefits to being associated with the University—allowing students to live in the house as part of the residential community, being a part of campus life in a very interactive way—but with that comes responsibility,” he said. “Our hope is that we at some point will come to an agreement with Beta.”