Sigma Chi International Fraternity Responds to West Virginia University Situation
Brothers, friends and supporters of Sigma Chi,
The phrase, “Let’s agree to disagree without being disagreeable” comes to mind in this particular moment. I am dismayed at West Virginia University (WVU) President Gordon Gee’s decision to publicly besmirch the fraternal organizations that decided to end their affiliation with the university over the past several weeks. One of Sigma Chi’s core tenets is that of courtesy and, as such, we have no interest in engaging in the same mudslinging tactics that President Gee has chosen. Rather, I seek in this letter to explain the other side of the story – our side – with the hope that you will welcome our perspective with the same open mind with which you have accepted President Gee’s.
The Sigma Chi International Fraternity decided to support our chapter’s desire to disassociate with West Virginia University after serious consideration of all factors of the situation. To explain, I first need to reset the conversation and be fully transparent with how we arrived at where we are today.
In the fall of 2016, the Mu Mu chapter of Sigma Chi was placed on suspension jointly by the International Fraternity and WVU when several serious policy violations by the chapter were discovered. A thorough review of the chapter was conducted, and Sigma Chi at the time was seriously considering closing the chapter entirely. However, administrators from WVU implored Sigma Chi to keep its chapter open because their fraternity community needed leadership and Sigma Chi was well-positioned to fill that role. Sigma Chi obliged that request from WVU, removed the irresponsible members from the chapter, developed and implemented a chapter improvement plan that was vetted by the WVU administration, and educational programming was subsequently deployed. In the fall of 2017, the Mu Mu chapter was showing consistent signs of growth and success, including posting an all-chapter GPA above the all-men’s average and the highest academic performance among all fraternities on the campus — a remarkable turnaround indeed. By the spring of 2018, the Mu Mu chapter of Sigma Chi had completed its chapter improvement plan and was a few months from being back in good standing with WVU. Their efforts even prompted one university administrator to write a glowing review of the chapter’s overall performance with respect to the progress made on their improvement plan. Then, on Feb. 14, 2018, the university launched its "Reaching the Summit” plan.
The “Reaching the Summit” plan was well-intentioned but poorly executed. Rather than including students and community partners in the process of creating the much-needed culture change that would bring about the mutually desired end of a renewed focus to fostering a healthy, safe and impactful fraternity experience in Morgantown, it ended up as an unnecessarily paternalistic, arbitrary and capricious approach. Meaningful culture change does not happen through top-down administrative procedures and policies that do not appreciate or respect the individual and collective desires of the community itself. Our story with relation to the “Reaching the Summit” plan is an excellent example of how this approach manifested itself as an unjust application valuing expediency over effectiveness.
Recall that, by the spring of 2018, the Mu Mu chapter of Sigma Chi was almost in good standing after having nearly satisfied all objectives of its improvement plan. Yet, following the launch of “Reaching the Summit,” the Mu Mu chapter was suspended again for the same incident in 2016 for which its members had already been held accountable. Double jeopardy at its finest. Yet, in the interest of mutual collaboration and with a focus to be a leading contributor toward building that healthy, safe and meaningful fraternal experience that is so important to Sigma Chi, we complied with WVU’s request to “re-apply” for good standing status. Following our application and presentation, Sigma Chi was given additional sanctions that pointed back to the 2016 incident which had already been adjudicated and worked through. Today, Sigma Chi is listed on WVU’s website as “disassociated subject to ongoing conduct-related sanctions.” Let me be perfectly clear, these “conduct-related sanctions” are the same 2016 incident which this generation of students is being held responsible for despite having little to do with the previously adjudicated matter.
A partnership requires two parties to be equally interested in achieving a desired objective. The Mu Mu chapter decided they could not tolerate a partnership with an institution where there was little interest by their administration in supporting them and, on Aug. 12, decided to disassociate with WVU. The International Fraternity, still desiring to establish a partnership with WVU that promoted a healthy fraternity experience that respects the fundamental rights of students at a public institution, continued to engage in a dialogue with the administration of WVU — including President Gee and Dean of Students, Corey Farris — and the North-American Interfraternity Conference over the course of the next six weeks. During that timeframe, Sigma Chi placed the Mu Mu chapter of Sigma Chi on a pause so we could sort through the specifics of the situation without causing any undue consternation to our administrative partners at WVU. To our dismay, our efforts to establish a conciliatory conclusion ultimately led nowhere and we were placed in the unenviable position of deciding whether we would support either our chapter or a tone-deaf administration. We are now determined to support our chapter with an even more enhanced investment in ensuring they have the highest quality fraternity experience.
In the days that followed our announcement of support of our chapter’s disassociation with WVU, Dr. Gee and Dean Ferris have repeatedly made inferences that we have done so because we are uninterested in creating a fraternal experience focused on health and safety, and that we are in the business of keeping chapters open for economic benefit only. Shame on them for disparaging the character of their students and for attacking our organization. Sigma Chi has long been a leader in the arena of health and safety; and much longer than WVU has been failing to address the same problems. Here are some examples:
- Sigma Chi was one of the first fraternities to begin aggressively attacking the hazing culture in fraternity life and has been aggressively battling it for more than four decades. Our latest strategy includes our evolutionary Preparation for Brotherhood pledge education program, which earned the NIC’s Laurel Wreath Award in August 2018 for being the best in its class.
- Sigma Chi was one of the first fraternal organizations to establish a third-party partnership to address the ills of substance abuse when we partnered with the Betty Ford Institute and the Change Companies in the mid-2000s.
- Sigma Chi was one of the first organizations to address the mental health epidemic on college campuses when we partnered with the JED Foundation in 2015.
- Our reasonable but intentional approach to restorative justice in the student conduct realm is just the latest step in the process to invest in continually improving the fraternity industry.
- In January 2018, Sigma Chi took a revolutionary but realistic approach to health and safety by removing dangerous high-alcohol-content spirits from the Sigma Chi experience.
- In August of 2018, the final steps of our enhanced approach to health and safety among our chapters went into effect, which include: limiting the size of chapter events, prohibiting new members from being present at any event where alcohol is available, limiting the new member timeframe to five weeks, and limiting the number of social events our chapters may have while new-member intake is active.
- All the while, we have developed a robust character and leadership development framework that invests in our young members on a per-capita basis more than most institutions of higher education.
In the end, our decision is based on the fundamental construct that respecting students’ rights and establishing a healthy and safe fraternity experience are not mutually exclusive ends. Our students do not leave behind their rights and privileges at the gates of the institutions in which they enroll, and we believe it is patently and disappointingly unfair to ask them to do so.
Make no mistake about it: We have every desire to establish a mutually beneficial partnership with WVU at such time that it makes sense to do so. We truly hope that President Gee will cease his aggressive, damaging, misleading and defamatory rhetoric so that we can begin the process of repairing this once-productive partnership. In the meantime, Sigma Chi will hold its men to the highest of standards and will continue to expect them to hold themselves out with deep respect and admiration for the timeless principles of our Fraternity.
W. Thomas Geddings Jr.
SOUTH CAROLINA 1985
70th Grand Consul (International President)