Yale is being sued in a class action brought by three female students who allege that fraternities create a hostile environment for women. Anna McNeil, Eliana Singer and Ry Walker object to the parties and atmosphere created by such fraternities. In their filing, they tell the court that “they have been shocked, disappointed, and disturbed by the prominent role that the Fraternities play in the campus social scene.” Many would note that there is not one social scene at Yale and that these students can simply avoid Frat parties and activities. That may be the response of the Court, which could view this as an effort in part to force Yale to curtail parties that these students do not want to attend. The filing objects to the very structure and role of fraternities on campus.
Some of the conduct described in the filing like groping and sexual assault and harassment is abhorrent and must to be deterred by any school. However, much of the complaint deals with objections to the atmosphere created by these organizations. The women insist that fraternities are the most popular locations for parties and that this popularity marginalizes them from fully socializing on campus:
“Yale’s fraternities are dominant social institutions on campus. Fraternities throw the largest parties and often host vulnerable first-year students. Women and non-binary students at Yale lack comparable spaces in which to host events and socialize. Yale’s sororities, for example, are prohibited from hosting parties by their national organizations. Most other student organizations lack the money and space to host regular social gatherings.”
The plaintiffs seek to fundamentally change the fraternities and their role on campus, citing other universities which have barred fraternities as discriminating institutions based on gender:
“In so doing, Yale has fallen behind peer institutions. For example, in May 2016, Harvard banned student participation in single-gender “final” clubs and Greek organizations. According to Rakesh Khurana, Dean of Harvard College, the College recognized that “the discriminatory membership policies of these organizations have led to the perpetuation of spaces that are rife with power imbalances . . . . In their recruitment practices and through their extensive resources and access to networks of power, these organizations propagate exclusionary values that undermine those of the larger Harvard College community.” Unmoved, Yale has failed to match the progress of its historic rival.”
Some of us have been critical of the move by Harvard against these student organizations. There are associational rights that are held by other students as well. Yet, the three plaintiffs insist that
“‘Separate but equal’ Greek life reinforces gender norms, stereotypes, and prejudices. Sex segregation can hinder cross-gender relationships, facilitate the objectification of people of other genders, and normalize sexual assault. Greek life, with its binary assumptions, also largely excludes non-binary students.”
Indeed, the list of complaints in this filing begs the question on why these students should force such changes rather than avoid these parties and activities. Yale’s is a remarkably diverse community with many different groups. It is pluralistic like society at large. That is the world that these students will have to join in time. While universities should actively address sexual harassment and discrimination, they should also allow students to engage in associations of their choosing, particularly off-campus.
The dean of Yale College, Marvin Chun, may have expressed the likely view of a court when, after a review of campus culture, he stated “I condemn the culture described in these accounts; it runs counter to our community’s values of making everyone feel welcome, respected, and safe. I also offer some plain advice about events like these: don’t go to them.”