In the week since Brett Kavanaugh ’87 LAW ’90 was nominated to the Supreme Court, many Yale undergraduates have fixated on one eyebrow-raising aspect of his tenure at the University: his membership in Delta Kappa Epsilon, a fraternity that has come under fire over the last year amid allegations of sexual misconduct against multiple members.
Yale’s Title IX officials began an investigation into DKE’s sexual climate in February, less than three years after the fraternity’s return to campus following a five-year ban handed down as punishment after the group’s pledges were caught on video chanting “no means yes, yes means anal” in front of the Women’s Center.
But the DKE that Kavanaugh belonged to in the 1980s was not the same organization that has generated negative headlines over the last decade, according to alumni and former Yale and DKE administrators. Until 1988, the fraternity did not have its own house and had to hold meetings in the residential colleges. The fraternity house that hosted DKE hijinks in the 1960s — when former U.S. President George W. Bush ’68 was a member — had been turned over to Yale and transformed into the Rose Alumni House, a Yale-owned building on York Street.
In 1967, Bush — whose father, former U.S. President George H.W. Bush ’48, also belonged to DKE — famously defended the fraternity’s practice of branding pledges with a red-hot coat hanger, in interviews with the News and the New York Times.
But the fraternity had quieted down by the time Kavanaugh arrived on campus, said Sam Chauncey, a longtime University administrator.
“DKE was pretty tame back in Kavanaugh’s time,” Chauncey said.
Martin Brennan ’87, a classmate of Kavanaugh’s in Ezra Stiles College, said fraternities did not play much of a role in campus life during his time at Yale, adding that he has heard more about DKE since he graduated than he did while he was on campus. It was not until 1987 that the legal drinking age in the United States was raised to 21, making it easier back then for parties to take place on campus, Brennan also noted.
Indeed, Greek life was generally a “sidebar” in the 1980s, said Kevin Smith ’87, because of the small number of such organizations at Yale. While Kavanaugh was an undergraduate, there were only two fraternities on campus, DKE and Zeta Psi. It was not until 1988 that Sigma Nu became Yale’s third fraternity chapter.
Five female alumni from the class of 1987 said they weren’t aware of any particular reputation associated with DKE in the 80s. Jennifer Wuerker ’87 and Jacqueline Horne ’87, who were both in Stiles with Kavanaugh, said that Greek life was off their radar in college, and that they did not know anyone involved in fraternities.
Still, at that point in its history, DKE’s Yale chapter was popular enough that students could not freely enter the rush process, according to Steve Gallo ’88, who became president of DKE during his senior year at Yale. Kavanaugh would have been required to be tapped for the fraternity by an upperclassman, probably a student athlete who also belonged to Stiles, Gallo said.
“I only remember thinking of him as a truly wonderful guy back then, just a great person to be around,” Gallo said of Kavanaugh. “I also remember people referring to him as a ‘genius’ back then. And as you know, when people at Yale use that word to describe our fellow classmates, you know that person is special.”
David Easlick, who was executive director of DKE’s national organization while Kavanaugh was an undergraduate, said that in the mid-1980s Yale’s DKE chapter stood out for its community spirit. DKE brothers would play baseball in the New Haven police athletic league, he said, and perform volunteer work to help low-income children in New Haven.
“They liked to party, and they were athletes, and they were the typical college kids,” said Easlick, who has since left DKE to advocate against fraternity hazing and sexual misconduct. “But they were really nice guys, very team-oriented. A band of brothers.”
As the 1980s came to a close, the fraternity began to stir up the kind of campus controversy familiar to students today. In 1988, an African-American undergraduate, Daryl Kennedy ’90, alleged that members of DKE turned him away from a party on the basis of his race. Kennedy, who died in 2009, never filed a formal complaint with the Yale College Executive Committee, and Gallo said he was turned away from the party because it was overcrowded.
Then, in 1992, five years after Kavanaugh graduated, a woman reported to the Yale Police Department that she had been drugged and sexually assaulted at a DKE keg party. After an investigation, a state attorney concluded that were was not enough evidence to warrant an arrest. Yale’s executive committee came to a similar conclusion, dismissing the woman’s allegations because of the lack of evidence — a ruling that prompting a furious reaction from student activists.
DKE was not the only all-male social group to which Kavanaugh belonged during his time at the University. In his senior year, he joined the secret society Truth and Courage — an all-male club popular among athletes that some Yale alumni have likened to a glorified fraternity. Indeed, among some students, Truth and Courage was known by an alternative name — “Tit and Clit.”
Ben Arndt ’96 said that during his time at Yale, roughly a decade after Kavanaugh graduated, Truth and Courage “didn’t really have a specific reputation,” though it was generally populated by athletes on the football, basketball, rugby, hockey and swimming teams. And Reed Spiller ’12, another member of the society, said that the group — which remained all-male even as more prestigious societies like Scroll and Key and Skull and Bones began accepting women — fizzled out of existence the year after he graduated.
During his time as an undergraduate, Kavanaugh also spent a semester covering the Yale basketball team for the News. The paper’s sports editor at the time, Dan Levy ’87, recalled that Kavanaugh tended to submit “densely worded, single-spaced, comprehensive, not terribly exciting game stories.”
Sports were central to Kavanaugh’s social life at Yale. Levy noted that Kavanaugh spent a great deal of time with Chris Dudley ’87, a member of Yale’s basketball team who also belonged to DKE and did not respond to a request for comment. Dudley went on to play professionally for the Cleveland Cavaliers and the New York Knicks, among other teams in the National Basketball Association. More recently, Dudley, a Republican, mounted an unsuccessful bid in 2010 to become governor of Oregon.
Kavanaugh also spent time with other athletes at Yale. His best friend and roommate was David White ’87, a wide receiver on the football team who declined to comment for this story. And for two years, Kavanaugh was a minor letterwinner for Yale’s junior varsity basketball team, captaining the squad in his second year.
After he graduated in 1987, Kavanaugh went on to Yale Law School, where he served as notes editor for the Yale Law Journal. By the time his old fraternity was engulfed in rape controversy in 1992, Kavanaugh was long gone. In the early 1990s, he clerked for a number of judges, including Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, the man he has been nominated to replace.
In 1994, Kavanaugh joined the legal team, led by Kenneth Starr, that was looking into President Bill Clinton’s real estate dealings as part of the Whitewater investigation. Later that decade, Kavanaugh co-wrote the Starr Report, which established broad grounds for Clinton’s impeachment.
Those proceedings pitted Kavanaugh against a former Yale classmate, Max Stier ’87, a fellow member of Stiles College who was one of several attorneys representing Clinton during the investigation.
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