Three students at Yale University laid the groundwork yesterday (Feb. 12) for what could become a historic reckoning on campus. In a class-action lawsuit, they sued the school and nine of its all-male fraternities for discrimination based on gender, the Associated Press (AP) reports.
The lawsuit, brought by students Ky Walker, Anna McNeil, and Eliana Singer, seeks to ban fraternities from considering gender when selecting members, and to require that fraternities not only invite women and non-binary students into their associations, but grant them access to leadership positions and their alumni networks.
The students’ lawyers say that this is the first lawsuit seeking “gender integration” within the Greek system. A handful of co-ed fraternities exist, but they’re rare. At Yale, where the fraternity system has recruited future presidents, governors, and Supreme Court Justices since 1836, only one, Fence Club, is co-ed.
As the New York Times observed, colleges across the country want fraternities to clean up their culture, currently associated with unruly parties, sexual assaults, and abusive, occasionally lethal, hazing rituals. But these plaintiffs’ critique specifically takes issue with the gender-segregation system, which some argue is a relic of past eras. “It’s not only breeding a very toxic sexual culture but also is giving undue economic and professional benefits to the male fraternity members,” Walker, 20, a junior at Yale studying astrophysics and African-American studies, tells the AP.
The power of who you know
Walker, McNeil, and Singer are members of Engender, a registered student group that, according to its website, “advocates for equity and inclusion within the Yale community.” Several prominent law professors sit on its senior advisory board, including Anita Hill, an icon of the women’s rights movement, who is a graduate of Yale Law School and professor at Brandeis University.
Some of Engender’s female and gender non-binary members have tested the waters at Yale’s male fraternities over the last two years by applying to get in. “All but one fraternity refused to let our members rush, and the one that did ultimately denied our members’ requests for admission,” the trio behind today’s suit explained in an op-ed published by Yale Daily News last fall. Under Yale’s regulations, they say, all student organizations must comply with the school’s anti-discrimination policy. Fraternities have been exempt from this rule, they suggest.
“When Ms. McNeil, Ms. Singer, and Ms. Walker arrived on campus as first-year students, they encountered a thriving all-male fraternity scene,” the complaint, which was filed in federal court in Connecticut, says. “Yale had a drastic shortage of University-run social spaces, and the fraternities were the de facto social environment for many students. Male students routinely controlled the admission, alcohol, lighting, and music for many Yale social gatherings. This dynamic created dangerous environments in which sexual misconduct thrived.”
All three plaintiffs, who are second- and third-year students, say they’ve been groped at fraternity events, and assert that many students have become resigned to the idea that attending a frat-organized event means accepting the danger of harassment or assault. The lawsuit vividly describes male fraternity members evaluating and admitting women to gatherings at frat houses based on their appearance, and groping and grinding against female students without their consent. “Yale is a microcosm of the ongoing epidemic of sexual harassment and assault at all-male fraternities,” the lawsuit says.
This kind of violence and harassment on campus can negatively affect a woman’s professional prospects later in life. But so too can the simple fact of not belonging to a male fraternity. One of the well-researched benefits of being a frat brother is better connections, and a stronger social network, as the plaintiffs note, echoing other critiques of Greek system culture.
“In addition to controlling many of Yale’s social gatherings, fraternity brothers have access to a vast, nationwide alumni network, which often results in coveted job opportunities,” the lawsuit states. “Indeed, Yale’s fraternity alumni include powerful business and political leaders, such as former presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, and current Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh—all alumni of Yale’s chapter of Delta Kappa Epsilon.”
Thanks to their “brothers,” fraternity members have connections to call on at banks and consulting businesses, the plaintiffs find, and they’re offered jobs and summer internships by fraternity alumni. “One member of the Yale chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon told Plaintiff Walker that brothers receive regular emails from recruiters or alumni professional resources,” according to the complaint.
Sororities do not cancel out the fraternities’ undue influence, either, the case argues, because women-only groups are not as old and entrenched as the fraternities, and their venues at Yale cannot host social events. What’s more, the binary nature of the Greek system excludes non-binary students, the lawsuit adds.
An “ever-replenishing” source of donations
The case accuses the fraternities and Yale of jointly or independently violating various laws, including the state’s fair housing act as well as Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which protects students from discrimination on campus on the basis of sex.
A representative of Yale University declined to comment on the lawsuit, but shared a message from Yale College dean Marvin Chun. That message summarized Yale’s plans to create alternative social spaces on campus, reminded students that Yale is not involved in the fraternities’ operations, and linked to a review of allegations about sexual misconduct at Yale fraternities, and at Delta Kappa Epsilon particularly.
A lawyer representing the fraternities—the local and national chapters of Alpha Delta Phi, Alpha Epsilon Pi, Chi Psi, Delta Kappa Epsilon, the Leo fraternity, Sigma Chi Theta Upsilon, Sigma Nu, Sigma Phi Epsilon and Zeta Psi are all named as defendants—told the AP that the lawsuit was “baseless.”
In their op-ed, the Engender students say that Harvard University took decisive action to support gender equality when it banned fraternities and sororities or any other single-sex organization several years ago and “barred members from campus leadership positions unless their organizations committed to integration.” Harvard, however, is now facing a backlash from fraternities that have sued the school claiming its regulations break discrimination laws.
That they’re up against a formidable force is abundantly clear to the Yale plaintiffs. They write that universities like Yale depend on fraternities to provide housing, social outlets, and “an ever replenishing source of alumni donors.”