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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.

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