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Greeks, UNC at new crossroads

UNC’s fraternities and sororities can create first impressions of the University to its wider community. DTH/Ryan Jones
UNC’s fraternities and sororities can create first impressions of the University to its wider community. DTH/Ryan Jones

The history of fraternity and sorority life at UNC is underscored by a discordant relationship between these organizations’ members and the University.

When fraternity and sorority members’ actions strain their groups’ relationship with the wider community, the ambiguous role of administrators in the system is highlighted.

And in these moments, the University faces a choice between drawing Greeks closer and pushing them away.

Fraternities and sororities are fundamentally different from other groups. Many maintain private houses off campus, but all are full of students whom the University has a vested interest in protecting.

They have their own rules and cultures. Their right of association is protected by the First Amendment, and UNC administration deals differently with them than they do other student groups.

But students, administrators and alumni say maintaining the connection between the Greek community and UNC is key to preventing dangerous behavior from overshadowing aspects of organizations that, in general, provide numerous benefits to members and the campus.

“If you don’t have the University working with fraternities and sororities, they’ll start to do things that are just really bad,” said Ron Binder, director of Greek affairs at UNC from 1994 to 2000.

“Greeks will self-destruct. They won’t go away, but bad things will start to happen.”

And the system’s history has shown that when problems arise, the University has intervened to ensure these students’ safety and well-being.

Revising a relationship

In the wake of recent events that highlighted the system’s negative aspects, problems in the relationship have again come to light.

Chancellor Holden Thorp launched an investigation into the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity after the Aug. 23 death of its chapter president, Courtland Smith.

Thorp used evidence of a party the night before Smith was killed as a way to explore changing the way UNC deals with Greek students.

Thorp’s call for change has drawn student leaders closer to the University’s resources.

“The upside of all of this attention is that it has opened up new levels of communication,” Thorp said. “It might have been too much attention right now, but we don’t want to go back to ignoring it.”

Thorp said Delta Kappa Epsilon’s talks with the upper administration has helped him get up to speed on Greek protocol.

But when it comes to implementing new practices, Thorp’s lieutenants — deans and vice chancellors who oversee campus policies — haven’t found a definite direction.

Assistant Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Winston Crisp told new fraternity and sorority members Sunday the Greek system was on the ropes and he would no longer tolerate reckless behavior.

“In general we think most of our organizations are healthy, and we think most of our organizations are out there doing good stuff,” Crisp said in an interview.

“There’s also negatives about the organizations that the University has never wanted to tolerate. I don’t think that’s ever been a change.”

And UNC administrators haven’t made it a priority to come up with new ways to deal with the Greeks.

While the DKE party received more attention than previous investigations, UNC has dealt with it in the same fashion as other infractions. It passed off the investigation to the student-run Greek Judicial Board, which imposed a year of probation on the chapter.

As private organizations, Greeks abide by their own codes of conduct and deal out sanctions based on their own rules. Those involved say they take the responsibility of self-governance seriously.

“Chancellor Thorp looked our way and said ‘You guys need to do your job,’ and that’s what Dean Crisp was saying too,” said Interfraternity Council President Charlie Winn of Thorp’s call for an investigation.

“Typically he doesn’t tell us to do our job because we know that. He just wanted us to know that he thought it was important for us to do it well now more than ever.”

Apart from its investigation, administrators worked with alumni and parents to provide resources to Delta Kappa Epsilon after Smith’s death, but they have only minimally involved the national organization.

“I see things on the chancellor’s blog and all that other stuff, but they’ve done nothing to reach out to us,” said Delta Kappa Epsilon Executive Director David Eastlick, who oversees the nationwide organization’s chapters.

Crisp said the administration had kept the national organization abreast of the situation and would continue to contact them when the fraternity undergoes a standards review.

The way it was

In the past, the Greek system had been largely cut off from the University, which was attempting to avoid being named in lawsuits. It resulted in unsafe conditions and little oversight.

Binder is the reason most fraternities don’t look more like “Animal House.” He became UNC’s enforcer when he took the assistant dean position in 1994, traveling through house parties and keeping a close eye on Greek houses.

He introduced the rules that the old-timers love to hate: dry rush, no kegs and tight controls on hazing. He established the Greek Judicial Board and other institutions of self-governance.

He said there was resistance at first, but alumni, advisers and student leaders of the Greek system soon realized that he made their lives easier.

In May 1996, a fire in Phi Gamma Delta killed five students, raising the profile of fire safety in fraternity houses and causing the Chapel Hill Town Council to pass an ordinance requiring the Greek houses to install sprinklers.

Binder created requirements for fire safety and provided the resources for organizations to follow through.

Keeping close ties

The biggest thing that keeps fraternities tied to the University is access to UNC’s resources for student groups, including lists of pledges, not to mention the University’s name and reputation.

When that recognition is taken away, fraternities like Pi Kappa Phi, which had its charter revoked in 2005, operate outside IFC guidelines. The fraternity chooses new members last and doesn’t hold formal social events.

Crisp said it is important for groups to stay connected to the University to keep national organizations supportive of chapters.

“It’s certainly not clear to me that national chapters will allow an organization to continue without its relationship with the University,” Crisp said.

While the organizations have their own governance structures, fraternity and sorority members are perceived to be part of the University first and their Greek organization second.

They can be brought in front of the Honor Court individually, and are sometimes held collectively accountable for actions.

‘Taking responsibility’

If the University were adamant about changing the relationship, experience shows it could.

In the past, administrators introduced rules and cracked down on infractions. They have also leaned on chapters to self-govern more diligently.

Delta Kappa Epsilon has embraced the consequences of its violations, and members say they are working to take a leadership role in improving the relationship.

Administrators took note of the effort with which the fraternity is making an attempt to do good.

“I always think it’s a good thing when people are taking responsibility for their actions and are trying to find ways to improve the campus and the world around them,” Crisp said.

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