For years, college administrations across the country have restricted student organizational rights on campus. Whereas the percentage of schools with severely restrictive policies for individual rights such as free speech has fallen sharply over the last decade, administrators at public schools seem to have forgotten their obligation to uphold the constitutional rights of student organizations. Student groups at private universities, which are bound by their published promises to fairness rather than the Constitution, have fared even worse. At my school, the University of Southern California, a new policy mandating deferred recruitment of incoming freshmen for Greek organizations is the latest indicator that student organizational rights are under attack.
A 2017 letter from former Vice President for Student Affairs Ainsley Carry introduced the policy, which requires incoming students to complete 12 credit hours of USC coursework while maintaining a minimum GPA of 2.5 before they are permitted to join a fraternity or sorority. Carry justified deferred recruitment by claiming that “the benefit of allowing new students one semester to acclimate to USC academics and social life far outweigh the benefits of not making this policy change,” citing the significant “social and academic challenges” that first-year students face.
But students are already allowed as many semesters as they please to acclimate to USC’s culture and academics. No student is forced to join a Greek organization in their first semester or at any other point. While USC paints this policy as a generous allowance, it is in fact a dangerous restriction of freedom of association for both individuals and student groups on campus.
Worse yet, the policy discriminates against Greek organizations, who as a group have fallen out of favor with the USC administration over the past few years. While Carry’s justification for the policy points to the challenging transition that freshmen face when they arrive on campus, the school seems to have no concern for incoming student-athletes whose first days on campus are filled with practices and training sessions, or for freshmen who join competitive and time-consuming academic clubs. Incoming students are free to seek association with any of these organizations from the moment they arrive on campus, yet they are barred from even testing the waters with a fraternity or sorority they may be interested in joining. (Keep in mind that the policy also prohibits fraternities and sororities from recruiting first-semester students under threat of sanction.)
This is hardly the first time that Greek organizations’ rights have been restricted by college administrations. Deferred recruitment policies like the one at USC have already been instituted at nearly 200 universities across the country, and some campuses have gone even further. In 2016, Harvard University announced that members of single-gender social organizations like fraternities and sororities would not get Harvard's endorsement for certain prestigious scholarships and would be barred from holding a variety of campus leadership positions. Decisions by administrators at West Virginia University and Cal Poly in the past year have jeopardized Greek organizations’ right to due process and freedom from guilt-by-association. In fact, a leaked recording of the proceedings at WVU caught an administrator espousing the misguided mentality that many college administrators seem to have adopted in recent years: “student organizations do not have due process rights; they don’t.” At USC, it appears that the dismissal of student organizational rights now includes the right to free association, as well.
In the face of these attacks on student organizational rights, some students are fighting back. A recent lawsuit filed by a group of USC Greek organizations highlights the discriminatory nature of the deferred recruitment policy and maintains that the policy limits students’ and organizations’ freedom of association. The USC administration, like other proponents of deferred recruitment statutes, argues that an extra semester of waiting allows for personal development and the ability to form a solid social and academic foundation at the school outside of Greek life.
The arguments by the university may be well-intentioned, but well-intentioned restrictions are restrictions nonetheless. As a member of a fraternity at USC, I wholeheartedly believe that this policy is detrimental to both the student body and the Greek community, delaying the developmental benefits of Greek association for incoming students and limiting the Greek community’s ability to enact philanthropic and community-building initiatives.
Moreover, as an avid supporter of the principles behind the First Amendment, I worry that this policy sets an alarming precedent for arbitrary restrictions on freedom of association. Though Greek organizations seem to be the current target, these policies effectively endow administrators with the capability of limiting when and with whom all students are permitted to associate. The normalization of deferred recruitment and other restrictive policies could lead to the elimination of disfavored student groups and an end to free association, just as we’ve seen at Harvard and other schools.
Students everywhere must reject the notion that colleges should be allowed to restrict their rights to free association, whether based on administrative bias against certain organizations or well-intentioned protectionism. I implore students at USC and all other schools where student organizational rights are under attack to take a stand and call for a return to a campus community where the rights of all, both students and groups, are upheld.
Wes Richardson is a rising senior at the University of Southern California and a FIRE summer intern.