New Wesleyan policy bans student use of unapproved houses

February 24, 2011

A new student housing policy at Wesleyan is drawing ire from students and other protestors. University administrators say it’s designed to make sure students follow the university’s rules, but many students say it interferes in their private lives.

The policy, which goes into effect in August for the next school year, specifies that students cannot live in housing "owned, leased or operated by private societies that are not recognized by the University."

Many protestors say the rule is targeted at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house at the corner of High and Church streets. The fraternity is not formally affiliated with the university, and university officials say they’ve had numerous disciplinary problems at the house, including an alleged rape at a party in October.

Since Beta house is not considered part of the Wesleyan campus, Wesleyan Director of Media Relations David Pesci said it does not follow Wesleyan’s housing guidelines. Other Wesleyan fraternities are formally recognized, he said, and if Beta chooses to affiliate and agree with the university’s rules students would be allowed to live at the house.

"We would love to have Beta abide by our rules," Pesci said. The president of the Beta fraternity, Jeff Tanenbaum, could not be reached for this story.

Pesci said the addition was "really not a major change." The purpose of the rule was to make sure that all students lived in approved housing and followed the university’s rules, he said.

"It’s predicated on making sure no one purports to be a part of Wesleyan who isn’t part of Wesleyan," Pesci said. Any student who wants to live off campus, he said, can contact the Office of Residential Life for approval, he said.

Vice President of Student Affairs Michael Whaley announced the new policy in a campus-wide e-mail sent on Feb. 14. The new rule states that "this prohibition includes using such houses or property as residences, taking meals at such houses or property and participating in social activities at such houses or property."

Pesci said some protestors had interpreted the rule to be more far-reaching than it actually is, and he stressed that it only applies to housing. Student groups who wished to meet or socialize off campus would still be permitted to do so, he said.

But Lucas San Juan, a sophomore who’s been organizing the protests, said that isn’t clear in the policy, which never explains what a private society is.

"It’s very, very overbroad, and it doesn’t define anything it says," he said. San Juan has never been to Beta house, but said he knows a few of the fraternity members who are upset about the new rule.

A broader issue, according to San Juan, was that the policy intruded too much into students’ personal lives.

"This policy gives the Administration the right to make life decisions for you, telling you where you can and cannot go," he wrote in the fact sheet.

Zach Malter, a member of the Wesleyan Student Assembly, said he was hoping the students and the administration could come to a mutual understanding about the policy.

"It’s obvious there was thought put into the policy," he said, explaining that students wanted to know the administrators’ reasoning. "It’s very important that they also work with students."

He said the WSA had met last Sunday and denounced the policy, and had decided to move next Sunday’s meeting at Beta House. He said University President Michael Roth was scheduled to attend the meeting, and the WSA hoped he would. Roth could not be reached this week to confirm if he would attend.

Students have organized other protests against the new rule – San Juan organized a rally on campus last Friday and he plans to hold a larger one this Friday afternoon, before a Board of Trustees meeting. He also set up an online petition against the policy and so far he’s collected about 500 signatures out of a student body of 2,800, he said.

Malter said the WSA became involved because the issue could affect all students, and the student government would be better able to speak with school administrators.

"It’s one thing to hear from a few students," he said. "It’s another thing to hear from the student assembly."

The new policy, he said, was part of a larger pattern of administrators creating rules without seeking student input. Malter said that in recent years, the university had imposed rules about alcohol on campus and disclosure of university investments without consulting students. But this issue was larger than those, he said.

"I don’t want to point the finger at anyone," Malter said. But, he added, "The overarching concern is that this isn’t the first time."

The care has attracted attention outside the Wesleyan community. Will Creeley, Director of Legal and Public Advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Higher Education (FIRE), called the new policy "such a clear and obvious overreach on the part of Wesleyan administrators that we felt compelled to respond."

Creeley said students at Wesleyan had contacted FIRE’s New York office about the policy, and FIRE was working to get the University to reverse its decision. 

Creeley said that as a private institution, Wesleyan doesn’t have to abide by the Bill of Rights in the constitution, but must still adhere to the promises it made its students. The new policy, he said, interferes with students freedom of assembly.

Creeley said his colleagues had written a letter to denouncing the policy to Wesleyan president Michael Roth, but were still waiting for a response. He said FIRE was encouraging Wesleyan alumni and current students to speak out against the proposed changes.

"We’d like to see Wesleyan keep its promise to students," Creeley said.

Schools: Wesleyan University Cases: Wesleyan University: Violation of Freedom of Association