In a truly stunning display of administrative necromancy, Wesleyan’s powers-that-be resurrected a dead feud this past month from the graveyard of broken policies. I refer to the poorly worded and unsubstantiated e-mail recently sent to the student body attempting to encourage all of us to avoid the Beta Theta Pi fraternity. In the e-mail, Dean Michael Whaley informed the student body that “unfortunately, Beta has chosen not to enter into an affiliation agreement with the University and to continue to prohibit Public Safety from addressing behavioral and/or safety concerns on its property. We believe Beta’s decision to maintain this stance is clear indication of an intention to continue to violate University policy and/or local laws.”
The e-mail went on to present a veiled threat of involving Middletown’s city government in the issue, if the fraternity did not play nice.
Being something of an authority on “overly derisive language,” I can confidently say that this e-mail is a stellar example of it—indeed, it is more reminiscent of the language employed to convince Charlie the Unicorn to travel to Candy Mountain (“SHUN THE UNBELIEVER SHUUUUUUN”) than of anything a university’s administration would properly write. Unfortunately, this comparison goes further than choice of language, for just as Charlie the Unicorn had his kidney stolen, the University’s previous interactions with fraternities such as Delta Kappa Epsilon shows that its real intentions with respect to Beta are likely nothing less than a wish to pry into the fraternity’s vitals and remove a chunk of its integrity. This should not be permitted, and the fraternity is right to defend itself.
In defending its right to behave like the administrative equivalent of Cecil Rhodes, the University advances several arguments about the actions taken by Beta brothers, which run the gamut of plausibility. The one already detailed—that the chapter’s unwillingness to affiliate indicates a desire to violate university policy or law—is in some respects too ridiculous to take seriously, and in others, is an argument that raises more questions than it answers.
The ridiculous portion is the argument that Beta Theta Pi intends to violate the law. According to an Argus story dated March 25, 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.”
In other words, the fraternity is so confident that it will not violate the law that it has actively permitted the Middletown Police Department (of which many other campus organizations still remain wary) to keep an eye on the house. Thus, the University’s complaint about legal indifference is pure histrionics.
But what of the argument that Beta intends to violate university policy? Here, there seems to be room for substantive disagreement over just how much of an evil is implicated, as it is not clear which policies Beta would object to following. This is an important distinction, because Public Safety is tasked with enforcing not just the law, but also the code of nonacademic conduct, which covers a much broader number of restrictions than the actual letter of Connecticut law. For instance, one drunken wolf whistle at the wrong girl from the courtyard of Beta could result in a citation for sexual harassment pursuant to the University’s policies on “sexual misconduct.”
The section on “Harassment and Abuse” is even more horrendously vague, having been singled out by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education as a “red light” speech code. To be expected to adhere to these policies, and to have them enforced by a private security force with no constitutional protections due to the privacy of said security force, is understandably frightening, especially in an institution which the University has gone out of its way to cast as out of step with the rest of the campus.
According to The Argus, President Roth argues that, “the notion that Public Safety would have to get permission to enter a place where Wesleyan students, as Wesleyan students, are congregating is unacceptable.”
The dangers of this argument loom quite large. Imagine, for instance, that tomorrow President Obama will announce that the United States would consider any country where American citizens are congregating as American citizens as a de facto member of the United States, and thus subject to enforcement of the United States Constitution via Blackwater. Such a theory of international relations would rightly be laughed at, yet it is precisely the theory which Roth et al are advancing with respect to Beta in the realm of “student safety.”
Naturally, there is a narrower claim involving student safety, which alleges that the pledging process involves unsafe hazing practices. True as this may be, it is not clear why the University should be involved, or why law enforcement would be insufficient. Freedom of association does not imply the absence of risk, and pledges are not contractually bound to continue pledging at the point where they become uncomfortable with the process. Moreover, the law still applies, so any illegal hazing practice would swiftly and correctly be dealt with by law enforcement.
This leaves the final argument employed by the university, and by The Argus in one of its editorials, which is that on-campus housing is a facet of student community to which students consent when the sign the housing contract. While I agree with the argument to the extent that Beta Brothers should not needlessly take up empty rooms in on-campus housing, that is an argument for allowing off-campus housing, not absorbing the fraternity.
Moreover, the claim that signing the housing contract constitutes consent ignores serious issues of duress, and the argument that campus community should be encouraged is entirely undermined at the point where institutions such as Malcolm X House, 200 Church and Open House demonstrate the University permits every other form of self-segregation under the sun. Beta is no different.