Trinity College Jettisons Freedom of Association for Greek Organizations

By May 1, 2013

The tension that often exists between universities and their fraternity and sorority systems is far from new. At Trinity College in Connecticut, however, that tension has taken on whole new proportions this year, as the college—with the blessing of its Board of Trustees—is taking a metaphorical sledgehammer to such organizations, severely threatening freedom of association at the college. On March 13, FIRE officially registered its concerns in a letter sent to the university.  

The controversy at Trinity erupted in October 2012, when Trinity’s Board of Trustees unanimously approved the recommendations of a report prepared by the college’s specially created Charter Committee for Building Social Community at Trinity College. The most concerning of the report’s many recommendations is a new Social Code that will dramatically upend how "social organizations" (primarily Trinity’s fraternities and sororities) will function at Trinity—if they can survive at all.  

Specifically, the new Social Code targets "social organizations with a facility, selective membership comprised predominantly of Trinity students, and/or an initiation process," and the report lists a number of "key outcomes" that social organizations will have to achieve. In our letter, we note the many provisions that will directly affect fraternities and sororities:

Listed among the "key outcomes" to be enforced by the College are requirements that 

All Trinity students will have equal access to membership in social organizations. Membership will be determined on the basis of student interest alone. Hazing or blackballing will be prohibited and grounds for judicial proceedings. 

[...] 

Social organizations whose members are Trinity students shall not be affiliated with national organizations that do not adhere to a coeducational philosophy. Exceptions include academic organizations (e.g., professional and scientific organizations) and athletic and musical organizations. 

[Emphases added.]

The report states that "as of fall 2012, no new single-sex fraternities or sororities may be formed," and mandates that existing fraternities and sororities must annually increase thresholds of "minority gender" participation, ultimately achieving a minimum of 45% minority gender membership and a minimum of 40% minority gender leadership by October 1, 2016. Fraternities and sororities are additionally required to provide Trinity with a "complete and up-to-date membership list at the beginning of each semester" to demonstrate compliance.

Additionally, Trinity plans to eliminate the classification of some groups as "unrecognized" social organizations, which previously were able to associate at Trinity without official recognition. Social organizations in the future will either be classified as "approved" or "prohibited," and all current social organizations wishing to remain recognized at Trinity must receive approved status.

Social organizations failing to meet Trinity’s new requirements—including organizations that make good-faith efforts but fall short of compliance with the required thresholds—may become prohibited organizations at Trinity. If an organization owning a facility becomes prohibited, the College plans to "establish a fair sale price for these assets with alumni owners and reassign them to another organization for the betterment of the College." 

Finally, the report states that "[s]tudents who participate in prohibited organizations will be subject to separation from the College." 

There is little in here that isn’t jarring, and it is difficult not to view this as less than an overt attempt to put fraternities and sororities on the road to extinction, coupled with a "land grab" for fraternity and sorority houses. Note the requirement that social organizations cannot be affiliated with national organizations that don’t "adhere to a coeducational philosophy." Few, if any, will be surprised to learn that most fraternities and sororities are affiliated with national organizations that are single-sex. Fraternities and sororities are therefore put between a rock and a hard place. They can stick to their charters, maintain their groups’ identities, and face sanctions up to and including possible expulsion—or else they can abandon the principles around which they’d initially gathered so that they can continue their existence.   

And then there are the rules on membership. Not only are fraternities and sororities completely banned from being selective in any way (i.e., if you want in, they’re required to let you in), but strict quotas on "minority gender" membership and leadership must be met every year, resulting in rough gender parity by 2016. For fraternities and sororities, even the most basic protections of freedom of association are washed away. As we wrote in our letter:

The resulting mandatory thresholds of "minority gender" membership and leadership, combined with the requirement that "[m]embership will be determined on the basis of student interest alone," erode a most basic protection of freedom of association: the ability of groups to self-select their membership based on those who best fulfill the common objectives and interests of the group.  

This is true as well when these organizations undertake the crucial task of choosing leaders. Groups are forced to set aside their missions—and the fact that, in any given year, there may not be enough "minority gender" members qualified for, or interested in, leadership positions—for the sake of making the numbers. These requirements are clumsy, detached from reality, and may well prove unworkable for any number of reasons. Will anyone be surprised, for example, if a longstanding fraternity is forced to go coeducational, is unable to attract any interested female members, and is forced to shut down? Again, it’s hard not to conclude that such an outcome was precisely the college’s intent. 

Trinity College is, of course, private and not legally bound by the First Amendment. It is, however, morally and legally bound by its own promises, and as it happens Trinity does make strong promises of freedom of association, in addition to freedom of speech, to its students. As its Student Integrity Contract states: 

According to the mission statement of Trinity College, excellence in liberal arts education relies on critical thinking, freeing the mind from parochialism and prejudice, and encouraging students to lead examined lives. Free inquiry and free expression are essential for the attainment of these goals. Therefore, we deem it necessary to establish the basic rights and freedoms of the students of Trinity College. Fair grading, protection against improper disclosure, and protection of freedom of association are guaranteed under this contract. [Emphasis added.] 

As Trinity has made clear with its sweeping new code, this guarantee no longer applies to members of fraternities and sororities. Indeed, the Social Code entirely bans certain kinds of private association among students.

This threat to freedom of association at Trinity should be of grave concern to all students. For one, courts have long recognized freedom of association as a core component of freedom of speech. Historically, this right has given underrepresented groups protection as they banded together to forge their agendas and articulate their messages. For another, Trinity’s attack on social organizations’ freedom of association is so blatant that—even though it is only aimed at social organizations in this instance—it amounts to a threat against freedom of association for all Trinity students.  

As is clear from reading the committee’s report, one of the clear concerns driving the committee’s deliberations was the perceived reputation (fair or not) of Trinity College as a "party" school, and the Trinity Greek system’s outsized role in creating that image. When concerns about an institution’s image come to take precedence over the college’s principles and the promises it makes to students, all students should be worried.

The new Social Code has not gone over smoothly at Trinity. Students have harshly criticized the code in the pages of The Trinity Tripod, and a Change.org petition by the group Concerned Alumni for a Better Trinity College, criticizing the code’s sweeping measures, has collected well over 4,000 signatures.

FIRE has asked Trinity to revise the new code to bring it in line with its clear, contractual promises of freedom of association. For its part, Trinity College has failed to respond to the concerns FIRE laid out in our March 13 letter, despite our request that it respond by April 3. Perhaps it is planning to run out the clock on the semester and wait until students have left for the summer before doing so. If so, its students deserve better. In the meantime, the chorus of criticism against its misguided Social Code—from FIRE, from Trinity’s students, and from Trinity’s alumni—will continue unabated. 

Schools: Trinity College Cases: Trinity College: New Social Code Erodes Freedom of Association