Post-Scandal, UVA Frat Parties Rage On
On Friday, Jan. 16, freshmen and sophomore students at the University of Virginia marched into a cold, clear evening. Dressed in khaki pants and puffy ski jackets, short skirts and sensible coats, they clustered into groups and streamed up Rugby Road, the prestigious state school's fraternity and sorority hub. The words "YOU ARE LOVED" had been scrawled in white lettering onto the brick walls surrounding Beta Bridge, the landmark separating the southern and northern sections of the street.
This was the start of rush week—the prolonged annual rite in which fraternities and sororities recruit new members. Students walked north, filing into Alpha Delta Phi, Pi Kappa Alpha, Pi Lambda Phi, and other houses at which they hoped to win over the brothers and sisters who live there. If they made a good impression, they might be asked back. If they made a really good impression, they might be asked to pledge.
Perhaps for this reason, everyone was on their best behavior. There were no open containers, and no one stumbled. People talked, sometimes loudly, as they walked down the street. But there was no yelling, no shattering of glass, no fight songs. In this manicured residential area just outside the university's northeast border in Charlottesville, Va.—a town of 43,000 about 100 miles southwest of Washington—the loudest noise was ritual applause and polite cheering as groups of prospective sorority sisters left one sorority house on their way to the next.
Rush week has occurred at UVA, in some form, since 1852, when the university's first fraternity was established. This year's rush carries fresh significance: Depending on who you talk to, the student rituals embody either an unchecked culture of sexual violence or a community victimized by stigma and false accusations.
In the final months of 2014, a wave of condemnation hit UVA over the party culture in its Greek system. The catalyst was a Rolling Stone article that described an alleged gang rape at a fraternity party of a woman identified as "Jackie." It also outlined a broader pattern of campus sexual violence that had gone unpunished. The article's impact came swiftly: Students protested and school administrators were forced into a public round of self-reflection. University President Teresa Sullivan acknowledged that "rapes are kept quiet" at UVA before announcing a temporary ban on all fraternity and sorority functions.
Within weeks, media outlets, led by the Washington Post and Slate, uncovered serious errors in Rolling Stone's account of the crime at the center of the story. The magazine apologized for the story and admitted it had been poorly reported. Talk of a campus-wide rape crisis was largely replaced with a backlash against an administration believed to have hastily punished its student body. The fraternity ban was quietly lifted on Jan. 6, a few days before it was due to expire.
Now, less than two weeks later, it was as though the Rolling Stone article had never existed—on Rugby Road, at least.
"The incident [involving Jackie] happened or it didn't happen," said Akin Yucel, a first-year student from Istanbul who was walking from one fraternity house to another with a friend. "What I see here [among fraternity members] is a sense of brotherhood and friendship." The article "would never take me away from pledging a fraternity," he said.
Questions nonetheless remain about how UVA handles allegations of sexual misconduct. The university is one of only a handful of schools in the country that the Department of Education has put under a "compliance review"—a serious federal audit of processes and policies—for failing to properly handle sexual violence complaints. Out of 129 sexual assault claims brought to the university since 2009, only six resulted in sanctions against students found guilty of sexual assault, university officials disclosed to Bloomberg Businessweek in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. None were expelled. The school's associate dean of students and head of UVA’s sexual misconduct board said in a video interview that even students who confess to sexual assault would not necessarily be kicked out of school. The school has said it would honor its commitment to reform its sexual assault policies, even if the article that spurred the changes had been largely discredited.
Sullivan lifted the fraternity suspension only under the condition that every fraternity and sorority on campus sign a list of new rules crafted by university administrators and Greek leaders. Those rules were added as an addendum to a Fraternal Organization Agreement.
Two prominent fraternities signed the addendum under protest. (Phi Kappa Psi, the fraternity cited in the Rolling Stone article, was first to sign; the fraternity was cleared of any wrongdoing by Charlottesville police on Jan. 12.) The holdouts—Kappa Alpha and Alpha Tau Omega—had challenged the system-wide fraternity and sorority suspension, arguing that punishing everyone for the actions of few was unacceptable, particularly considering that police found nothing criminal in the actions of those few. A joint statement from fraternities said they were signing only under the "threat of further sanctions and retaliation by the University...."
This was, nonetheless, a win for UVA officials; all 31 members of the university's Inter-Fraternity Council agreed to the new rules. The difficult part begins now: determining whether those rules change anything for the better.
The addendum centers around "fraternity functions"—parties that run past 9 p.m. in which more than half of a frat's members are present and lots of guests attend. It requires sober fraternity brothers to be on hand to distribute alcohol, guard the stairs, and keep keys to every room in the house. In addition, it mandates that fraternities hire security guards to monitor guest lists and act as bouncers. Finally, it prohibits "pre-mixed drinks, punches, or any other common source of alcohol." (Beer is to be served in cans, and wine and liquor can be served only by sober people; in the case of large fraternities, liquor must be distributed by a licensed bartender.)
Ryan Duffin, who was portrayed in the Rolling Stone article as "Randall"—the only friend of Jackie who wanted the alleged rape victim to report the crime—is now president of Phi Sigma Kappa at UVA. As a fraternity president, he played a role in the Inter-Fraternity Council that helped shape the addendum. Duffin stopped short of celebrating the results. "We don't know if these are going to help," he says.
Duffin and others know the addendum's mandates may look mild. Strict repercussions are not listed, for example, if rules are broken. But he says the council didn't want to take punishment too far. "We think it's a first step," he says. "Is it perfect? Probably not."
"We don't want to overreact," says Jakob Scheidt, who served as Phi Sigma Kappa's president before Duffin. He outlines what he sees as a possible unfavorable scenario: "In an effort to be safe, we'll make changes that lead to unintended consequences that don't actually solve our problems or actually make things less safe."
What Scheidt means is that tighter restrictions on fraternities could force the open secret of underage drinking off campus, where partying is unregulated and unsanctioned.
The addendum is subject to a review at the end of the semester. But Scheidt wonders how the university is going to evaluate its effectiveness. "Can any of these changes be shown to work or not work?" he asks. "I guess it's worthwhile to give these changes a try. It feels good, it looks good. The question is, will it improve life on campus?"
Dr. Jody Jessup-Anger doesn't think so. A professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee, she co-chairs a presidential task force on preventing sexual violence on campus. Jessup-Anger calls the addendum a "band aid" that does not "address sexual violence on campus." There may be behind-the-scenes administrative discussions going on at UVA about how to "tackle this really complex issue," she says. But the addendum's focus on "risk reduction" is misguided, she believes. It "puts the onus of responsibility on others instead of the perpetrator"—people such as the guard patrolling a fraternity house's front door, or the fraternity brothers tasked with passing out beers, instead of "addressing misogyny and sexism on campus."
It's unclear whether most UVA students see a widespread need to alter attitudes toward women on campus. Duffin thinks students have become more wary of how student culture is portrayed in media. "I think people now are a lot more scrutinizing about what they hear about the stories that come out," he says. "They don't want to jump to conclusions because they've now seen how detrimental it was when people took every single word in the Rolling Stone article at face value." Nonetheless, he says, "a lot of people are trying to take the general idea of safety a lot more seriously." Students have become painfully aware of the dangers that face them in a year marked by tragedy and crime beyond the scope of the Rolling Stone article. In September, UVA student Hanna Graham was stalked, kidnapped, and killed after she went to a party. There were also suicides on campus at UVA last semester.
"We're looking out for people more," Duffin says. "We've had it thrown in our faces that Charlottesville is not a bubble—that UVA is not a bubble. Unsafe things can happen here, just like they can happen anywhere else."
That sense of concern was apparent as students headed up Rugby Road to rush fraternities and sororities. Everyone seemed to move from one place to another in a pairs or huddles of four or six, or in throngs too dense to count. Women in particular moved in huge groups from one house to another. One laughed about the "gaggles of girls" present at this university Greek nerve center just outside campus. But the reality is no joke: Safety is perceived in groups, and everyone seemed to know it.
Leaving one fraternity and heading to another on Friday, Liam Wolf wasn't thinking about safety. Instead, he said he was worried that Rolling Stone's sexual assault exposé might cause him "bad publicity" if he decides to join a frat.
"At the same time," he said, "I'm not gonna stop [rushing] because of it."