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Fraternity’s lawsuit against Syracuse University reveals disciplinary process riddled with student rights violations

Syracuse University campus on Sims Drive. (Debra Millet/Shutterstock)

Syracuse University campus on Sims Drive. (Debra Millet/Shutterstock)

Syracuse University again finds itself embroiled in allegations that it trampled over the rights of its students. The facts demonstrate that despite absolutely no evidence of the Alpha Chi Rho fraternity being engaged in any conduct violation — having been cleared by both law enforcement and SU’s internal conduct process (twice, in fact) — SU repeatedly bowed to outside pressure to ultimately find the group guilty, reopening the investigation numerous times and disregarding clearly established facts to do so.

Alpha Chi Rho has now filed a lawsuit alleging that SU’s arbitrary and capricious punishment of the group ran afoul of New York state law. The lawsuit also details the lengths to which university administrators went to punish the group over clearly baseless allegations. 

The incident at issue took place on Nov. 16, when an African-American student claimed members of the fraternity yelled a racial slur at her. The fraternity denied it, pointing out that the accused individual wasn’t even an SU student, let alone a member of their organization.

Regardless, the very next day, SU Chancellor Kent Syverud announced sweeping restrictions on all SU fraternities, even minority fraternities and those that he admitted had nothing to do with the alleged incident. This prompted FIRE to write to SU on Nov. 22, calling on the university to lift its restrictions on students who, by SU’s own admission, did not violate any university rules. FIRE did not receive a substantive response. 

According to the Alpha Chi Rho lawsuit, during this time, the Department of Public Safety officers investigating the incident could not find any evidence corroborating the accuser’s claims. In fact, witnesses, including the accuser’s family, contradicted her allegations and supported the fraternity’s version of events. Nevertheless, SU suspended the fraternity and four of its members, charging them with “harassment,” among other violations. On Dec. 6, the hearing board, upon seeing video recordings and hearing testimony demonstrating that no group member uttered any racial slurs, cleared the students of all charges.

In SU’s quest for a guilty verdict, any notion of fundamental fairness and common sense were cast aside.

But this utter lack of evidence did not deter SU — on Jan. 10, it leveled the same exact charges and alleged the exact same facts against the fraternity. Upon rehearing this same evidence, the disciplinary board unsurprisingly reached the same conclusion and cleared the fraternity in a hearing held on Jan. 17.

SU could have let sleeping dogs lie, but instead, on Jan. 29, it informed the group that its decision was actually a “working draft” sent in error, and that the hearing board was still deliberating. Meanwhile, there were widespread student protests on campus over several alleged racial incidents. The protests included criticism of SU for allowing the fraternity to remain on campus, asserting that “more than a dozen” fraternity members “verbally assaulted” the accuser “in clear sight of the DPS office.”

On Feb. 11, SU reversed course, issuing yet another opinion, this time finding the group responsible for the allegations. Strangely, this decision cited the same factual findings as its previous decision clearing the group. The group appealed this decision to a university appellate panel, which promptly reversed the latest decision and again cleared the group, finding that “there is no basis in University policy on which to hold AXP responsible for the alleged conduct.” 

That should have been the end of it. Instead, SU came under intense pressure from the ongoing student protests, which continued to call for SU to banish the group and for several SU administrators to resign amidst their handling of the case.

One of those administrators, SU Senior Vice President for Enrollment and the Student Experience M. Dolan Evanovich, informed the fraternity on March 3 that he rejected the appellate panel’s decision and reimposed the finding of responsibility. He then suspended the fraternity for a calendar year and required the group to complete a series of diversity initiatives prior to its reinstatement. 

The fraternity countered with a lawsuit this month, asserting that it “had been denied due process under … [SU’s] own policies and procedures” in violation of New York state law. 

The fraternity’s lawsuit lays bare SU’s disturbing disregard for students’ rights and its own policies. The now publicly available university documents revealed by the lawsuit demonstrate that in SU’s quest for a guilty verdict, any notion of fundamental fairness and common sense were cast aside. 

Rather than afford the students their right to an adviser, a decision supported by the evidence, or freedom from double jeopardy, SU ran roughshod over this student group’s due process rights in its blatant desire to punish them despite the evidence. 

FIRE hopes the court takes Syracuse University to task for violating its students’ fundamental rights.

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