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Fraternity brothers of Sigma Alpha Mu ponder future after Chapman College denial

by Lisa Armony

September 13, 2007 | 8:00 pm

(From left) Orange County colony of Sigma Alpha Mu borthers Brandon Yanofsky; Matthew Schwartz, vice president; Pascal De Maria, president; Cameron Clark, secretary; and Joey Halegua, recruitment chair

(From left) Orange County colony of Sigma Alpha Mu borthers Brandon Yanofsky; Matthew Schwartz, vice president; Pascal De Maria, president; Cameron Clark, secretary; and Joey Halegua, recruitment chair

The brothers of Sigma Alpha Mu aren't wearing their letters to class at Chapman University this semester.

The Sammys aren't even allowed to meet at Chapman to gather for an off-campus event. Their rush parties can't be advertised on university Web sites nor on any other campus property for that matter, even at the height of fall recruitment.

And while other fraternities are boasting their merits to prospective pledges, the Sammys might well warn unsuspecting freshmen that associating with them on campus might not be the best idea.

It's a far cry from the dream of starting the first Jewish fraternity at the private Orange County institution hatched by then-sophomore Pascal de Maria back in 2005. And yet after what seemed a promising beginning, the group now finds itself banned from campus, the outcast of Chapman Greek life.

Amid accusations of mutual wrongdoing, including a pending federal investigation into possible student privacy violations and anonymous threats against school administrators, who's to blame for the current morass remains in the eye of the beholder. What is certain is that the Chapman students feel betrayed by the very administrators they entrusted to guide their aspirations, and university officials are fed up with rogue operations by students who won't take "no" for an answer.

From his office at the Indianapolis national headquarters of Sigma Alpha Mu, Associate Executive Director Matthew A. Witenstein grew increasingly impressed by a group of more than a dozen students who had notified him in March 2005 of their intent to form a chapter at Chapman, a formerly Christian university that houses one of the few private Holocaust education centers.

On a campus with limited Jewish life and then only five fraternities, De Maria and his friends were looking to create a uniquely Jewish experience built on fraternal bonding. Sigma Alpha Mu seemed to be the perfect fit.

By early fall that year, De Maria, a Woodland Hills native, had recruited 20 potential pledges. The national leadership determined the time was ripe to step in to help their would-be brothers become officially recognized.

"Typically, we like to work with the university, to be part of the IFC [Interfraternity Council]," Witenstein said. "Our goal here is to support our group."

While most Sigma Alpha Mu chapters have started with university approval, an estimated 10 percent of the group's 80 campus chapters have begun without official recognition. For Witenstein, the Chapman case was not unusual.

Chapman's Student Leadership, Experiences, Activities and Development Center (LEAD) is the first stop for students wishing to form a new campus organization. But with a staff of six, and only two professionals assigned to manage the 850-member Greek system, Chris Hutchison, LEAD associate director, said the center cannot accommodate the multitude of Greek interest groups that seek guidance every year, referring to the first stage of a three-stage process to establish a fraternity.

Hutchison said it was with his typical mix of enthusiasm and caution that he received Witenstein and the students during a series of meetings in fall 2005 -- an approach that evidently confused and led to assumptions on the part of the Sammy supporters from the beginning.

Witenstein, for example, felt upbeat after the first meeting, emboldened by what he said was Hutchison's promise to explore ways to address the needs and interests of students seeking a culturally and/or religiously affiliated Greek life experience.

However, Scott Resnick, then a Sigma Alpha Mu expansion consultant and a close friend of De Maria, did not share his colleague's enthusiasm.

"Hutchison was giving them the runaround," said Resnick, who claims that the administrator told the students they would have to write a proposal and hire a professional consultant if they wanted to start a fraternity.

"Basically, he was telling them it was impossible to start a fraternity without telling them so," Resnick said. "He was putting huge roadblocks in their way. They were discouraged from day one."

The Sammys also say they felt let down by Joseph Kertes, Chapman's dean of students, the son of Holocaust survivors who was born in a Displaced Persons camp.

Kertes tried repeatedly that fall to redirect the students' passion, encouraging them to join Hillel or to form a Jewish philanthropy group, according to Witenstein. Hutchison says that given the difficulties of starting a fraternity, the administrators were merely trying to present alternatives where the students could realize their goals. But the Sammys suspected an ulterior motive.

"[Kertes] said he was at one time a Sigma Alpha Mu pledge in the early 1970s," Witenstein said. "He told me he wasn't sure what to do with this situation, because it would show favoritism. It was a very bizarre comment, and it kind of shocked us. That was a major bone of contention. I didn't think it was fair to our students."

De Maria says that Kertes recounted his UCLA Sigma Alpha Mu experience as early as May 2005, after he presented the dean with a list of potential recruits.

"He said he didn't want to admit them because it would look like he'd be showing favoritism," De Maria said.

Though Kertes admits making the comment, he says it was made only after Sigma Alpha Mu had been rejected by a committee charged with selecting three finalists for fraternity consideration.

Making an exception to the committee's decision would appear to be favoritism, Kertes said he told the students. In fact, despite the Sammys' claim of meeting with Kertes repeatedly throughout 2005, Kertes said he could recall no contact with the students or with the national organization prior to the spring or early summer of 2006.

Like other universities throughout the country, Chapman, with approximately 5,700 undergraduate and graduate students -- about 2 percent of whom are Jewish -- is witnessing growing interest in Greek organizations. During the last academic year alone, fraternity and sorority membership increased 32 percent amid a student population increase of 58 percent, according to Hutchison. Despite growing interest, limited resources have forced Chapman to follow a policy of "managed growth," which typically allows for one new fraternity or sorority to be added every few years. Six fraternities and five sororities have come on campus since 1956.

In November 2005, in the midst of ongoing conversations between Sigma Alpha Mu and Chapman officials, the university announced it would hold an expansion process to invite one new fraternity on campus, its first since 2001.Witenstein says that at one point in the process university officials were discussing the addition of a second fraternity to the expansion process, using a cultural criteria.To the Sammys, the timing seemed fortuitous. They were confident that they would be recognized as the university's first culturally based fraternity, alongside a secular fraternity admitted through expansion.

"We didn't want to be considered with the rest of the groups," Witenstein said. "To be nice, we threw our name in with these other groups with the intention of being supportive of the university's expansion. But we also wanted to be considered separate, because in reality, we started speaking with the university well in advance."

Chapman received 13 applications in fall 2005, including proposals from two other traditionally Jewish fraternities, Alpha Epsilon Pi and Zeta Beta Tau. Sigma Alpha Mu was the only applicant that had already established a presence on campus.

In February 2006, the committee cut the pool to three: neither Sigma Alpha Mu nor the two other Jewish fraternities made the final round. For the Sammys, it was a slap in the face.

"Between January and April 2006, that whole idea [of admitting two fraternities] evaporated," De Maria said. "They didn't tell us. They just admitted one and completely abandoned the idea of admitting a cultural one."

Hutchison says that after a thorough investigation, the university concluded that admitting culturally based fraternities was not viable. Sigma Alpha Mu's presence on campus did not factor into the expansion committee's decision, he added, because the university does not recognize interest groups. He said that doing so would set an unwelcome precedent for the more than 70 other fraternity and sororities that would like to join the Chapman community.

"Most of the [Greek] groups would like to have an interest group," Hutchison said. "But that would inundate our resources and would probably overwhelm our students."

In the end, Chapman officials say, Sigma Alpha Mu's application simply didn't measure up to the others.

"My conclusion was I didn't believe that the Sigma Alpha Mu proposal was a very strong proposal," said Mark Axelrod, Chapman English and comparative literature professor, himself a Sigma Alpha Mu from Indiana University, who reviewed the applications. When the Sammys protested the committee's decision, administrators urged the students to work with Axelrod to improve their chances next time around.

"I went back to Pascal and said, 'They're not going to change their mind, let's work for the future,'" Axelrod said. "He ignored me; he refused to meet with me, refused to answer my e-mails."

Upset by the committee's decision, but determined to persevere, the group continued to meet and hold events off campus, while appealing to the university community for a chance to present its proposal with the three finalists. In accordance with National Interfraternity Council etiquette, several national fraternities sent letters of support to their Chapman chapters, urging their presidents to support Sigma Alpha Mu in an expansion election.

The university grew concerned by the group's activities. In a series of strongly worded e-mails that March, Hutchison warned Witenstein that the students were creating the impression that a Chapman chapter of Sigma Alpha Mu was imminent. By implying an affiliation with the national organization, he continued, the group was "rapidly acquiring the image of an 'underground fraternity,'" a situation he called "potentially dangerous," since the students were not covered by the fraternity's insurance, nor were they bound to adhere to its risk-management practices.

He reminded Witenstein that Chapman did not recognize interest groups and twice demanded that the national representative advise the students to cease and desist any unauthorized activity.

In the meantime, Sigma Alpha Mu's appeal was denied. The university invited the Kentucky-based Phi Gamma Delta, commonly known as "Fiji," onto campus in April. That same month, Sigma Alpha Mu national upgraded the students' status from an interest group to a colony, one step shy of a formal chapter.

Heartened by their new standing, the students began wearing Sigma Alpha Mu T-shirts on campus, an act they say elicited strong rebuke from Kertes' office. The ACLU is currently investigating the Sammys' claim.

Fearing repercussions, they requested a meeting with university President James L. Doti, who allegedly granted them permission to grow their fraternity and reassured them they would be recognized in the fall. Four months later, De Maria received a note from Doti, in which the president said instead he would abide by the decision of Kertes, the dean of students.

The students' continued refusal to disband led Kertes to draw a line in the sand. In a letter to De Maria dated Sept. 22, 2006, he ordered the students to make Sigma Alpha Mu headquarters send Chapman an official letter disavowing any association between the school and the fraternity. De Maria was instructed to immediately cease advertising and/or hosting fraternity-related events on university premises, "including having students meet on university premises for off-campus events."

According to the letter, the national organization would be held liable and De Maria personally responsible for any continued activity or breach of conditions, which could be considered violations of the student conduct code and subject to disciplinary action.

Kertes then forwarded copies of the admonishing letter to other fraternity and sorority members on campus. That led De Maria to file a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education for alleged violation of student privacy rights under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which makes it illegal for administrators to reveal the disciplinary records of students or even potential disciplinary action.

It is at least the second FERPA complaint filed against Chapman in recent years. In 2002, the Chapman staff was forced to undergo academic confidentiality training after a student was reprimanded for plagiarism in the presence of classmates. While the federal investigation into legal wrongdoings remains open, De Maria's public reprimand has already taken a devastating toll. The student community, once supportive of the Sammys, has turned against them. Half of Sammys' members have abandoned the group. Letters to the editor in the student newspaper have decried them and a climate of hostility has made life uncomfortable for the once-hopeful students.

"We were told if we see the Sammys congregating for meetings, wearing their letters or recruiting, we should report them to the Panhellenic Council," said Aryiel Hartman, a recent Chapman graduate and former member of the Alpha Gamma Delta sorority. "They were talking about them like they were barbaric traders. I was afraid they were going to kick me out of the sorority if they saw me having lunch with the Sammys."

"I lost so many friends because of that letter," De Maria said. "I got scowled at and mean looks when I wore my [Sigma Alpha Mu] T-shirt. It was like every fraternity was against us."

"There was some intimidation as a result of that letter," said De Maria's mother, Barbara. "I feel like he couldn't walk with his head held high."

Meanwhile, there has been some intimidation coming from the other side, as well, according to Mary Platt, Chapman communications director. Several administrators have been harassed in the last few months by individuals believed to sympathize with Sigma Alpha Mu.

Some question whether the conditions spelled out in the letter were reasonable expectations of the 21-year-old.

"That is not Pascal's responsibility," Sigma Alpha Mu's Resnick said of De Maria. "Kertes should have taken those actions himself. Instead, he blasted Pascal, scared the students and scared his friends. It wasn't anything Pascal had any control over."

Sammy supporters have claimed that Chapman's refusal to recognize the group violates National Interfraternity Council (NIC) policy, which calls on universities to allow the expansion of those groups that have the support of the national organization. The NIC disagrees.

"We support open expansion, [but] there are time and place restrictions that can and may be appropriate," NIC spokesman Peter Smithhisler said. "Any student on any campus will have to follow codes of students' rights and responsibilities."

In addition to the U.S. Department of Education, several other groups are looking into potential legal wrongdoings on the part of the university. At De Maria's request, the ACLU's Los Angeles office is investigating alleged civil rights violations when the university purportedly told the students to stop wearing their letter shirts. The Zionist Organization of America is studying the matter, as well.

The Jewish Defense League (JDL) has also taken up the cause, calling upon its members to appeal to university officials to recognize the group.

"This is a Jewish issue," said Shelley Rubin, JDL chairman. "You go on every college campus in every metropolitan area and you'll have a Jewish fraternity. To deny them the ability to join a Jewish fraternity, there's something wrong here."

Sigma Alpha Mu supporters doubt an anti-Semitic motive.

"I don't think they're being anti-Semitic," De Maria said. "I think they're being anti-cultural. If you look at the Greek system, there aren't any culturally based fraternities. That shows a lot about the campus."

With the beginning of a new school year, the Orange County colony of Sigma Alpha Mu, as the group now calls itself, already has a slate of activities scheduled, including a fall rush and a philanthropic project with a local Alzheimer association. Three years into their struggle for recognition, De Maria and his backers are still struggling to understand how things went so sour.

"It doesn't make sense that there's a vigorous group of students with backing from the national organization that doesn't get recognition," he said. "Everything was in place for us to be successful."

But to Kertes, the answer is a very straightforward and simple matter.

"This group didn't make the cut. This isn't the first group that has tried to make a fraternity outside the process," he said. "They all got the same message. They have to engage in managed growth."

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