Three female students sued Yale and nine fraternities for alleged gender discrimination and for fostering a sexually hostile environment, following years of campus activism, conversations with administrators and other legal action.
The three students — Anna McNeil ’20, Ry Walker ’20 and Ellie Singer ’21 — filed the federal class action complaint, which seeks to compel male-only fraternities to “gender-integrate,” on Tuesday morning in the U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut. According to the complaint, each of the students experienced incidents of groping at fraternity parties during their first semesters at Yale. The students are suing the University as well as national organizations, local chapters and housing corporations of the fraternities Alpha Epsilon Pi, Alpha Delta Phi, Chi Psi, Delta Kappa Epsilon, Sigma Alpha Epsilon/Leo, Sigma Chi, Sigma Nu, Sigma Phi Epsilon and Zeta Psi.
“Obviously, a lawsuit was not our first option, nor was it our ideal option,” McNeil said. “We’ve had to come forward with our personal stories of sexual misconduct, which isn’t ideal, but it’s our last resort given that we’ve tried to appeal to our peers and we’ve tried to appeal to our administrators, and our Yale administration failed us and continues to be self-interested rather than concerned on behalf of the students that frat culture puts at risk.”
In response to a request for comment on the lawsuit, University spokesman Tom Conroy referred back to Yale College Dean Marvin Chun’s message to students in which he commented on campus culture in general and shared the findings from a review of DKE’s allegedly hostile sexual climate. Conroy said that in the message, Chun shared the many ways the College is “partnering with students to build a better culture and sponsor more social opportunities for students on campus, and noted that all students are subject to discipline for violations of regulations against sexual misconduct and other prohibited behavior.”
The suit comes after previous attempts from Engender, a student advocacy group of which the three plaintiffs are members, to push Yale fraternities to fully integrate women and nonbinary students since its founding in fall 2016. In spring 2017 and 2018, the group contacted several Yale fraternity chapters to request access to the rush process for women and nonbinary students. SigEp allowed several Engender members to rush events, but the fraternity ultimately denied them membership due to national chapter restrictions on accepting women.
According to McNeil, Engender members have also been in contact with Yale administrators about the issue of gender discrimination in Greek life at the University, but administrators have been resistant to their requests.
Last month, the College released a review of student perceptions of DKE events and party culture and overall social and Greek life at Yale. The report did not mention any consequences or recommendations specific to the fraternity, but offered general recommendations to students. At the time, Chun told the News that he does not have the power to sanction independent organizations such as fraternities, as the chapters are not registered with the University.
According to one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys David Tracey ’08, the claims in the complaint are based on a variety of state and federal laws, including Title IX and the federal Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discrimination in housing based on gender. Additionally, the suit cites Connecticut law prohibiting gender discrimination in places of public accommodation and breach of contract — since Yale has “breached [its] promises” to its students of not tolerating sexual misconduct and providing a safe environment, Tracey said. The suit also claims that Yale has violated the Unfair Trade Practices Act, a state statute that prohibits deceptive trade practices, by toning down the influence of Greek life to prospective students.
Tracey told the News that the case not only aims to bring gender integration to fraternities, but also “to get Yale to no longer be deliberately indifferent to sexual misconduct that happens at fraternities.”
McNeil, one of the three plaintiffs, told the News that the Yale administration’s position was one of indifference. She added that although it should not be the sole reason for Yale to take a stand on the issue, Harvard — which introduced policies discouraging students from joining unrecognized single-gender organizations in May 2016 — is “miles ahead of where Yale is now.” Walker added that this case is “a chance for Yale to also be on that forefront of change.”
“We have gone to Yale administrators a number of times with these concerns,” McNeil said. “They have done nothing.”
Yale College Dean Marvin Chun referred comment to the Office of Public Affairs and Communications.
The University’s Associate General Counsel’s office and Dean of Student Engagement and Associate Vice President for Student Life Burgwell Howard also declined to comment on ongoing litigation.
Singer told the News that she believes allowing women to join fraternities has the potential to improve fraternity culture because it would allow women to hold leadership positions in the organizations, meaning that those who enter fraternities for social events would be “accountable to more than just men.”
“Right now, as it is, by excluding women and non-binary people from those spaces, it becomes much easier … to dehumanize them,” Singer said. “When you’re forced to include people who aren’t just men in those spaces, you reckon with them as people, and we think that helps make the space better as well.”
In response to inquiries about the suit, most Yale fraternity chapters could not be reached for comment. Yani Fabre ’20 and Jake Leffew ’19, presidents of Sigma Phi Epsilon and Sigma Nu, respectively, directed communications through their national organizations.
In a joint statement from the North American Interfraternity Conference, the group’s Chief Communications Officer Todd Shelton argued that students should have the choice to join the organization that is right for them. Sigma Nu Director of Health and Safety Fred Dobry forwarded the statement to the News.
“Fraternities believe that single-sex student organizations should be an option — a choice — for students,” Shelton said. “And so should co-ed student organizations. Students should have the choice to join the groups that best fit their developmental needs.”
Defense attorney for the fraternities Joan Gilbride called the students’ accusations against the University and its organizations “baseless and unfounded.” In July, the plaintiffs filed complaints with the Connecticut Commission on Human Rights and Opportunities against Zeta Psi, which was dismissed for lack of cause.
Yale has four sororities: Alpha Phi, Kappa Kappa Gamma, Pi Beta Phi and Kappa Alpha Theta.
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Correction, Feb. 13: A previous version of this story misidentified Todd Shelton and the organization for which he works. His organization is the North American Interfraternity Conference, not the Northern American Interfraternity Conference.