In March, the University of Southern California ended a roughly five-month moratorium on fraternity activity, a ban imposed as sexual misconduct allegations against several chapters shook the campus.
The highly ranked private nonprofit institution worked with Greek life student leaders last academic year to rewrite health and safety rules around parties. Those included that fraternities issue wristbands to identify students 21 and older and post security guards at entrances, and stairwells and hallways leading to bedrooms.
But USC says these policies have chafed fraternity members, prompting at least eight chapters as of Friday afternoon to spurn university control. The fraternities disaffiliated, knitting together their own coalition called the University Park Interfraternity Council, or UPIFC. While the new group said this exempts it from USC rules it finds suffocating, the university won’t promote the chapters, which are forgoing educational opportunities and rights to use the institution’s logo and branding.
They’re hardly the first Greek life groups to walk away from their colleges, however, with a group of fraternities disassociating from Duke University last year and several at West Virginia University doing so in 2018. Often, these fraternities cite eroding relationships with their institutions or college-imposed restrictions on events and recruitment as reasons for their exodus.
These disconnected chapters present major administrative headaches as officials attempt to regulate organizations that help underpin campus culture and attract alumni interest and donors. Greek organizations can be hotbeds for drug and alcohol abuse, sexual misconduct, and dangerous and sometimes fatal hazing, which can go unchecked if they rebuff campus supervision.
Further complicating matters is that the national associations representing fraternities and sororities do not reject disaffiliated chapters. They actually have a history of trying to undo stringent Greek life policies rather than siding with the institutions enforcing them.
Thus, disaffiliation “is a nightmare” for administrators, said John Hechinger, a journalist and author of "True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities."
“The biggest stick they wield is closing down a chapter,” Hechinger said. “Now that’s gone.”
What happened at USC?
Last fall, the USC chapter of Sigma Nu was bombarded with allegations of drugging and sexual abuse. The fraternity removed the chapter's president, who was at the heart of the sexual assault accusations and who police named a suspect in an attack.
USC suspended Sigma Nu and several other fraternities amid protests against lax oversight of Greek life. Students also objected to a lag in officials notifying the campus of incidents involving Sigma Nu from when they were first reported. The chapter said in October 2021 it would fully cooperate with investigations.
Some critics demanded that USC permanently dismantle fraternities.
It did not. That’s despite a dozen Greek life chapters losing the university’s recognition over the past nine years for violations of its code of conduct.
USC opened investigations into the handful of fraternities it suspended, which are ongoing, according to media reports. And it started instituting the new safety rules, which the university and student groups, including Greek life chapters, helped construct last academic year.
However, administrators began to hear rumblings that fraternities might disaffiliate.
Monique Allard, USC’s interim vice president for student affairs, and Devin Walker, director for fraternity and sorority leadership development, sent a letter to fraternity chapters Aug. 6, noting the “serious ramifications” that would arise from cutting ties with the institution. Chapters not affiliated with the university could no longer use USC’s logo or brand in their advertisements and would lose the ability to participate in professional development opportunities, they wrote. The chapters also couldn't take part in fall and spring fairs for student groups, they wrote.
The administrators threatened to dissuade students from joining disaffiliated groups. USC has since posted a list online, naming some of those chapters and recommending students not join or affiliate with them.
Their pleas failed. Six fraternities disassociated Aug. 12, and others followed.
“Of course, as individuals, each USC student will continue to receive our full support,” USC later said in a statement. “While disaffiliation of these fraternities affects a very small percentage of our student population, we care deeply about the well-being of our students. This decision is detrimental and goes against 130 years of tradition.”
The newly created UPIFC said in a statement the groups’ “partnership with USC has significantly deteriorated” and that it became “largely unworkable” after the university halted fraternities’ social activities.
UPIFC also said it is committed to ensuring the safety of its members and outsiders.
Independent Greek life poses challenges for administrators
Administrators have trouble cracking down on poorly behaving fraternities and sororities outside their purview, Hechinger said.
For one, a college can’t punish a Greek life chapter as an organization, such as by forcing it to disband or cease social events. Colleges can still enforce conduct codes for individual students who, for instance, drink underage.
But without college-imposed party restrictions, Greek life chapters will likely drink more recklessly, which presents a greater risk for sexual violence to occur, Hechinger said. A 2020 survey by the Association of American Universities of 33 four-year institutions found that women most commonly reported instances of nonconsensual touching happening in fraternity houses.
Communities must then rely on law enforcement to monitor and cite those types of episodes. It is difficult for local police to act after minor incidents and even harder in major cases, such as sexual assault, Hechinger said.
In other words, an important check on behavior disappears when administrators lose connections to chapters that go independent. That's a problem because colleges can be the most effective institutions at changing the atmosphere, Hechinger said.
Stevan Veldkamp is executive director of the Timothy J. Piazza Center for Fraternity and Sorority Research and Reform at Pennsylvania State University. The center is named for a fraternity recruit who died during a hazing ritual in 2017.
Veldkamp said a deep problem proliferates Greek life: Some chapters have begun to stray away from its core tenet of influencing positive change. Fraternities and sororities are supposed to be designed as an “immersive training experience for living and leading in a democratic society,” he said in an email.
“Regardless of the rationale for the decision to disaffiliate, nor its merits on either side of the argument, if students follow the lead of secession, what does that teach them or ultimately mean about living in a community and a democracy — if we disagree, we can leave or disengage from conversations?” Veldkamp said.
How disaffiliation played out in West Virginia
Matthew Richardson has seen the consequences of disaffiliation. He is director of West Virginia University’s Center for Fraternal Values and Leadership and its Project 168 initiative, which seeks to bring more purpose to students' experiences outside the classroom.
Five fraternities ditched West Virginia in 2018. Four remain separated from the university, Richardson said. Their departure was a response to university measures designed to curb alcohol abuse and other bad behavior, rules that followed a hazing-related death in 2014.
Richardson said disaffiliated fraternities must enforce their own safety protocols, which he doesn’t see happening all the time. Women in sororities are also more leery of attending events these chapters sponsor, as there’s “no guarantee of any sense of risk management standards” like those West Virginia employs, Richardson said.
University-linked fraternity chapters have agreed to random spot checks of registered events they sponsor, he said. A Greek life staff member or university police can drop in on such parties unannounced, which the chapters welcome, Richardson said. These checks are not intended to be punitive, he added.
Importantly, disaffiliated chapters lack university-provided education on such issues as sexual misconduct and drug and alcohol abuse, meaning they have to navigate those topics with little support, Richardson said.
And if the university catches a member of a dissociated chapter drinking underage, it has to punish that person as an individual. This potentially brings harsher punishments for individuals compared to university action against the group as a whole, he said.
Little communication occurs between West Virginia officials and these disaffiliated groups, Richardson said. If the university receives a police report on an incident involving the chapters, it will forward the information to that fraternity’s national branch.
“Sometimes they are receptive, sometimes they won’t reply at all,” Richardson said. This illustrates how difficult it is for national Greek life organizations to remotely monitor chapters, which are often located in other states, he said.
Tepid response from national Greek life organizations
The North American Interfraternity Conference, which represents 56 fraternities, doesn’t help much in these cases either, Richardson said. The NIC worked with West Virginia to try to convince its fraternities not to disaffiliate, but they ended up doing so anyway “behind the NIC’s back,” he said.
Primarily, NIC is a trade association aimed at protecting the interests of the member chapters that pay it, even if they aren’t university affiliated, Richardson said.
For example, he said, the NIC is against deferred recruitment, a strategy some colleges try that requires first-year students to complete a full academic term or even a year before joining a Greek life organization. Because chapters don’t want recruitment delayed, NIC backs them, Richardson said, despite evidence that students who affiliate with fraternities during their first year may not successfully integrate into academic life.
The NIC argues deferred recruitment is inequitable, as other student organizations can add members at any time.
It has actively fought against the practice, too — Bloomberg reported in 2013 that the NIC sent industry experts to review California Polytechnic State University’s recruitment processes a few years after a first-year student died in a hazing episode. The university subsequently prevented Greek organizations from recruiting first-year students in their first term on campus.
Investigators called Cal Poly’s recruitment “dehumanizing and superficial” and said Greek life centered on alcohol. But their report still called for an end to Greek life recruitment being deferred, arguing it ran against a student's right to choice.
West Virginia mandates students earn a minimum of 12 credits and maintain a 2.75 GPA before entering a sorority or fraternity. USC has similar standards, requiring 12 credits and a 2.5 GPA before allowing students to join a chapter. Several USC Greek life groups sued over the policy, but a Los Angeles Superior Court judge sided with the institution in 2020.
Asked for comment on USC, the NIC’s spokesperson, Todd Shelton, referred to an Aug. 13 statement the organization issued saying it is committed to working with the new disaffiliated fraternities, with the health and safety of all students as the No. 1 priority.
“The NIC remains hopeful that a bridge to a successful partnership can be built through two-way listening and a constructive, solution-oriented dialogue to resolve the concerns that have led to this point,” the statement said.
A spokesperson for the National Panhellenic Conference, which represents 26 sororities across the country, referred Higher Ed Dive to its position statement on unaffiliated chapters.
The statement says these organizations function no differently than those associated with colleges, and they are expected to abide by the same Panhellenic policies and procedures.
They “operate with the goal of continuing to provide a valuable sorority experience on their campuses,” the statement reads. “NPC and member organizations take the lead in supplying them with the resources needed for success.