Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, has been in an uproar lately about a new policy promulgated by its administration aimed at forcing an independent fraternity, Beta Theta Pi, to submit to Wesleyan’s rules or watch as Wesleyan bans its undergraduates from having anything to do with the organization. Considering that the fraternity, known as "Beta," has been at Wesleyan for 121 years, I am not sure why the Wesleyan administration is in such a rush to either absorb the fraternity or destroy it by this fall, but I am sure there’s a back story that Wesleyan students or alumni might know more about. (For what it’s worth, here’s a fellow fraternity’s rather pointed take on the issue of becoming an "official" Wesleyan fraternity in The Wesleyan Argus student newspaper.)
Unfortunately, Wesleyan managed to make a contentious issue even worse by coming up with a policy so ham-handed that it set off red flags all the way from Middletown to FIRE’s headquarters in Philadelphia. In pertinent part, it read:
Wesleyan students are prohibited from using houses or property owned, leased or operated by private societies that are not recognized by the University. 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.
As FIRE pointed out in a letter to Wesleyan President Michael Roth, and as Wesleyan students and the local press quickly figured out, a "private society" could be anything from a church, to the Elks club, to the Italian Society of Middletown. Did Wesleyan really mean to ban students from having a meal or going to any kind of social gathering anywhere off campus, as the plain language of the policy stated? President Roth himself was quoted in the Argus saying "I’m not particularly fond of the language myself, but all I want is a situation where the Greek organizations of the University are actually a part of the University … I understand that it is a change that some people find to be ‘administrative overreach.’" Yet he insisted, "We went over [the language] quite carefully by seeing what other universities did when they had similar issues." And David Pesci, Wesleyan University’s director of media relations, told Fox News that the policy wasn’t even really being changed, a claim Adam thoroughly debunked. Wesleyan’s message seemed to be that it knew exactly what it was doing.
Yesterday, however, in the face of student activism such as a petition signed by several hundred of Wesleyan’s 2,900 students, a February 18 protest, and the student government’s decision to move its next meeting to the Beta house itself, President Roth began backtracking on the policy at his official Wesleyan blog. Roth wrote:
I made two mistakes in this. First, the language (as many students have pointed out) is just too broad. Many students appear to see this as a threat to their freedom, and I want to be sensitive to that. The university has no interest in regulating the social lives of our students when they are away from campus, and the language we used suggests otherwise. We will change the language. My second mistake was not consulting enough with students …
While we’re still waiting for an official response, we’re glad that President Roth has begun to see the problems with the language as written. Unfortunately, even if the language is made less broad, there is still the fact that Wesleyan promises its students "freedom of assembly" in its "Responsibility of the University to Its Members" policy. It’s hard to see how Wesleyan will be able to reconcile its intense desire to forbid its students from being a member of the off-campus Beta Theta Pi (whether you call it a club, private society, fraternity, or what have you) with its promise to students to respect their freedom of assembly.
Accomplishing the goal of forcing Beta to choose between the jurisdiction of Wesleyan or total destruction may not be possible without giving the lie to Wesleyan’s own promise to its students that they will have basically the same rights that the Constitution guarantees to their fellow students across town at Middlesex Community College–who are, after all, free to associate or assemble with whomever they wish. We hope President Roth will consider this when revising Wesleyan’s new housing policy.