September 13, 2007
Fraternity brothers of Sigma Alpha Mu ponder future after Chapman College denial
(Page 2 - Previous Page)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.