The Greek System is Hiring Lobbyists. Here's Why

March 27th 2015

In the wake of accusations of sexual assault and hazing, fraternities are fighting back against university punishments of fraternities and their members. A detailed report by The Huffington Post reveals that the fraternities' national lobbying organization, the Fraternal Government Relations Coalition, is lobbying government to prohibit colleges from penalizing accused sex offenders on campus until after the conclusion of the police investigation on the matter. They are also aiming to prevent colleges from punishing fraternities or a campus' full Greek system after a single instance of sexual assault, hazing, or other potentially dangerous behavior.

The idea was presented during a February 2 conference call, according to the HuffPost's obtained recordings, with North-American Interfraternity Conference co-chair Buddy Cote asserting that universities should wait "until the completion of the criminal investigation and any subsequent trial" to punish students accused of sexual assault. This is consistent with the American maxim of "innocent until proven guilty."

Critics have pointed out, however, that such a standard would often result in months, if not years, of delay where a victim would have to attend school alongside their actual rapist. Plus, as Amanda Marcotte of Slate explained, FratPAC is only asking for a "innocent until proven guilty" standard for sexual assault cases, saying nothing about the myriad of other violations handled by universities before, if ever, the criminal justice system gets involved:

"The sentiment may sound fair-minded; it's anything but. FratPAC is singling out sexual assault as the only crime it wants universities to handle in this way. Underage drinking, drug dealing, burglary, assault—all of these actions break both school rules and the law, but FratPAC is not asking universities to wait for the criminal courts to adjudicate these crimes before punishing the students for breaking their corresponding school rules. In the situation it's proposing, a school could punish a student for stealing from another student without waiting for the courts to adjudicate the matter; but if a student rapes another student, the school couldn't act."

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is not a fan of Fraternal Government Relations Coalition's argument.

"This proposal is completely backwards. We should be making universities more accountable for providing a safe campus, not less," Gillibrand told HuffPo. "Waiting for long legal process to play itself out for those victims who pursue criminal charges while leaving potential serial rapists on campus in the interim would put public safety at risk."

Last month, Gillibrand, Senator Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), and Senator Dean Heller (R-Nev.) reintroduced the Campus Accountability and Safety Act (CASA). The bill would force colleges and universities to better address sexual assault on campus. 

"The reason why schools are failing is because they do not take this crime seriously," Gillibrand said. "What does it say about these school priorities if some colleges have a tougher justice system for a student cheating on an exam than for somebody who has raped another student?" 

Senator Gary Peters (D-Mich.), who supports the measure, noted that less than half of colleges have conducted sexual assault investigations within the last five years. "How can that be?" he said. "How can we have institutions that have not had one investigation on their campus?"

It's been a tough few months for fraternities.

This all comes at a time when fraternities don't look so good. Earlier this month, the Sigma Alpha Epilson (SAE) chapter at the University of Oklahoma made national headlines for chanting a racist song, which was reportedly taught on a cruise four years ago, resulting in two expulsions, a diversity initiative, a potential lawsuit from the fraternity itself, a damaged reputation to the academic institution, and a lot of hurt feelings. A week later, Penn State University came under fire after news surfaced that one of its fraternities ran a secret Facebook group that included nude or partially nude photos of women, some of whom were sleeping or passed out. 

It's a bad time to be a well-behaved fraternity member right now. ATTN: reached out to Kevin M. O'Neill, Deputy Global Managing Partner for Public Policy, Investigatory and Regulatory Solutions, and Pete Smithhisler, president and CEO of the North American Interfraternity Conference, for comment on why the initiative is focused on sexual assault specifically. We're still waiting to hear back. 

This takes place a couple months after Harvard University decided to open an Office for Sexual and Gender-Based Dispute Resolution to more aggressively handle student sexual assault claims. At the time of the office announcement in July, Harvard President Drew Faust said the change would "significantly enhance Harvard’s ability to address these [assault] incidents when they occur." After the new policy took effect in the fall, 28 members of the Harvard Law School Faculty expressed concern over its implications, calling it "overwhelmingly stacked against the accused." The faculty members took the policy to task for its vague notion of sexual misconduct and clearly favors the victims over the alleged attackers. The letter also attests Harvard's policy violates current legal principles "in the rush to appease certain federal administrative officials."

"We call on the university to withdraw this sexual harassment policy and begin the challenging project of carefully thinking through what substantive and procedural rules would best balance the complex issues involved in addressing sexual conduct and misconduct in our community," the letter states. "The goal must not be simply to go as far as possible in the direction of preventing anything that some might characterize as sexual harassment. The goal must instead be to fully address sexual harassment while at the same time protecting students against unfair and inappropriate discipline, honoring individual relationship autonomy, and maintaining the values of academic freedom."

Fraternities aren't the only ones at fault here.

As ATTN: reported last week, just a third of college presidents say sexual assault is prevalent on college campuses, and only six percent of those college presidents admit its a problem on their respective campuses. There may be many reasons for this mindset: sexual assault means bad publicity, and college presidents don't like that, especially if it results in fewer prospective student applications. University presidents could also be in the dark to a certain extent. Sexual assaults are often underreported because victims may feel shame or fear backlash for coming forward.

Regardless of the stance of college administrators, it's clear that this debate will continue in state governments and in Congress.

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