(Credit: Steve Heap / Shutterstock)

West Virginia University re-punishes fraternities for old violations, administrator falsely claims ‘student organizations do not have due process rights’

By December 11, 2018

On Dec. 7, 2018, FIRE wrote a letter to West Virginia University asking the university to revoke sanctions imposed on five fraternities by its “Reaching the Summit” working group imposed without basic due process protections.

The story of the Reaching the Summit initiative began in February 2018, when President Gordon Gee (no relation to the author) announced a moratorium on all fraternity and sorority activities owing to his “concern over continued behavioral issues.” Soon after, WVU announced a plan to make “the fraternity and sorority community at West Virginia University . . . an exemplar among peer and aspirant institutions.” He also announced that WVU would launch a working group, led by Director of the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life Matthew Richardson, which was tasked with “[r]eview[ing] the judicial history of all chapters” and “[d]etermin[ing] which organizations would be invited back to full recognition in the Fall 2018 semester.”

On Feb. 28, 2018, Richardson met with the presidents of WVU’s fraternities and sororities to answer questions about the new initiative. An audio recording of the meeting was recently made available online. In it, Richardson can be heard claiming that while individual students are owed certain rights, “student organizations do not have due process rights; they don’t.” When asked by a student if the organizations would be given a chance to make a case for themselves, he explained:

So if we say “goodbye,” we will send it in writing and say “You have not been invited back and here’s the rationale.” You will then have the opportunity to come in front of the working group, headquarters included, and make a case to make us change our mind.

Richardson made good on his promise to deny these groups due process rights, as became apparent when the materials used at the May 29, 2018, meeting of the working group were released as a result of a public record request made by the Daily Athenaeum, WVU’s student newspaper.

For each fraternity and sorority, the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life prepared a slide that listed the organization’s collective GPA, all of its adjudicated conduct violations from 2014–2018, and, most egregiously, unsubstantiated allegations for which the fraternities had already been cleared. The approach was a textbook example of double jeopardy, and WVU apparently had no problem with it.

The fraternities learned of their sanctions in the summer of 2018, when the Reaching the Summit: Recommendations and Report was released. The litany of new sanctions in the report ranged from three-year suspensions to the somewhat Orwellian-sounding mandatory “educational programs.”

After the release of this report, five WVU fraternities chose to disassociate from the university and form their own Independent Interfraternity Council. The president and CEO of Alpha Sigma Phi national, one of these five fraternities, made it very clear that the choice to disassociate was made, “because [students] were told on multiple occasions, by multiple WVU administrators, that student organizations have no due process rights and student organizations could be suspended without even holding a hearing[.]”

Fortunately for the chapters of the IIFC, university officials were dead wrong in their assertions — applicable law and WVU’s Student Code of Conduct require the university to afford the groups due process. WVU must give student organizations, at minimum, a notification of charges and the ability to present evidence prior to sanctioning. By refusing to do so here, WVU betrays the promises it makes to its students and ignores its legal obligations as a public educational institution bound by the Constitution.  

FIRE is calling on WVU to recognize that Richardson spoke with no regard to the law or WVU’s policies when he claimed that “student organizations do not have due process rights.” We urge the university to correct its course by relieving the fraternities of the illegitimate sanctions imposed by the Reaching the Summit Working Group.

Schools: West Virginia University