CMU ousted Phi Sigma Phi frat after years of warnings

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News
The former Phi Sigma Pho fraternity house at Deerfield Village on April, 30, 2019.

Mount Pleasant — More than a decade ago, a Central Michigan University student warned campus administrators about Phi Sigma Phi fraternity, saying that it "needed to be watched."

The student told officials in a 2006 email that the fraternity's president had asked her boyfriend and other pledges to "chug a pint of alcohol as fast as they could, made them drink beer and they also had to drink out of a fifth (of alcohol) if they got a question about a fraternity member wrong."

"I know they did not have to do that because they could have easily walked out," wrote the student, a sophomore. "But I have to take care of 2 guys who could not even talk because of this. There were plenty more that were in this same condition but I could not deal with more. I think this matter needs to be investigated because it is rediculous (sic). Someone is going to end up dead."

Twelve years later, after the university investigated numerous reports of sexual assault, alcohol abuse and a Phi Sigma Phi member's death in a fall, CMU in August pulled its recognition of the campus chapter — making it yet another fraternity thrust into the limelight for alleged member misbehavior.

Fraternity and sorority members say a few bad actors are giving Greek life a bad reputation, but university officials across the country have responded to incidents involving excess drinking, property damage and personal injury by banning alcohol, suspending chapters and imposing other restrictions.

"Enough is enough," said Tony Voisin, CMU associate vice president for student affairs. "We took away their recognition and let our university community know out of concern for student safety."

But a national Phi Sigma Phi leader accuses CMU of denying the chapter due process. Shawn Head, Phi Sigma Phi's risk management director, said the fraternity chapter and national organization would have investigated any incidents that led to CMU's decision, but were not made aware of the allegations.

"Phi Sigma Phi does not condone any type of hazing or sexual assault,” said Head, a lawyer based in Farmington Hills.

“Had we known of these allegations," he said, "we would have investigated them and we would have asked to share information with the university to determine whether any accusations are valid and to hold any people found to be responsible of any bad acts, accountable for their acts.”

CMU's reasons for taking action against Phi Sigma Phi came to light last month when the student newspaper, Central Michigan Life, wrote about the cases investigated by the university based on documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.

Nationally, Phi Sigma Phi is a small fraternity, with nine chapters across the country, according to its website. Its Xi chapter was established in 1995 at CMU, north of Lansing in Mount Pleasant where 22,000 students are enrolled and 26 fraternities and sororities are recognized.

While many of CMU's fraternity and sorority houses are off campus in Mount Pleasant on Main Street, Phi Sigma Phi's house is about 1.5 miles south of town in the clubhouse of Deerfield Village Apartments in rural Union Township. 

CMU began investigating Phi Sigma Phi in 2016-17 when the university heard of a handful of incidents involving sexual misconduct and alcohol abuse through second- and third-hand sources, according to Voisin. But many complainants or witnesses would not get involved in university investigations, even after repeated follow-up.  

As officials were investigating a St. Patrick's Day party held at the fraternity house last year, tragedy struck.

CMU in August pulled its recognition of the campus chapter of Phi Sigma Phi.

Kevin Ajluni, a Phi Sigma Phil member, fell down a flight of stairs after attending a party allegedly thrown by the fraternity April 28, 2018, for him and other graduating seniors. Ajluni, 21, died five days later.

After attending the Senior Send-off, Voisin said, Ajluni went to a house where other fraternity members lived, took a nap and suffered his fatal fall after waking up.

Ajluni's parents, who live in West Bloomfield, declined to comment for this story. But they gave a lengthy interview to the CMU student newspaper about their son's legacy, adding they did not want his death to be politicized.

Voison said Ajluni's death was an accident and was not the reason the university disciplined Phi Sigma Phi. But he said the fraternity's reaction to university investigations of the incident and the St. Patrick's Day led CMU to suspend the chapter in August, followed by removing its recognition altogether.

"Once again, the cooperation from members (and) national offices was not very helpful," Voison said, "and we started to have conversations a year ago and decided we are not getting anywhere with this. We have concerns. We are looking at any other options we can take to notify the group and our campus that this group is not going to be recognized or welcomed on our campus."

But Head wondered if the university had to find a "scapegoat" for the March party and Ajluni's death.

"CMU violated their own policies when they realized the two things they were investigating, they could not prove were violations of any student conduct," said Head, "So then they pivoted. Instead of deciding to proceed with a student conduct hearing, they revoked recognition based on unproven, mostly anonymous accusations that the chapter had no knowledge of." 

He said the national chapter of Phi Sigma Phi supports the fraternity and it will still operate as an fraternal organization in Michigan.

Besides the St. Patrick's Day party and Ajluni's death, Phi Sigma Phi has been the subject of 12 other complaints since 2015, according to documents released to The Detroit News through FOIA.

One included a party at the fraternity house in 2015, attended by 200 people, where a fraternity member was arrested and suspended from CMU for breaking the finger of a sheriff's deputy, according to the documents.

Other reported incidents: an alleged sexual assault at the Phi Sigma Phi house in 2016 and the discovery of date rape drugs in a CMU student's body after she drank at a fraternity party and was hospitalized in 2017.

Altogether, the reported incidents amounted to three times as many as those involving any other CMU student organization in good standing, according to the documents.

CMU is not alone. At other Michigan universities and across the country, fraternities have been suspended and banned from campus for incidents involving alcohol and sexual abuse.

At Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania, the Phi Psi and Delta Upsilon fraternities voted last week to voluntarily dissolve their chapters after documents emerged showing fraternity members bragging about sexual assault, including a reference to a "rape attic."   

Penn State University banned Beta Theta Pi from campus in 2017 after sophomore Timothy Piazza drank large amounts of alcohol during a pledge activity, fell down the stairs at the fraternity's house and died.

After members of the University of Michigan's Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity trashed a ski resort in 2015 in northern Michigan, the university barred the group from campus for at least four years and the fraternity's international board revoked the chapter's charter. In 2016, the national organization of Kappa Alpha Theta disbanded its UM chapter amid allegations of hazing and underage drinking.

At Grand Valley State University, officials last fall announced a moratorium on alcohol for the 28 fraternity and sororities on campus in response to concerns about reports of excessive drinking in previous years. The ban was prompted when a sorority member had to go to a hospital after drinking too much.

Loren Rullman, GVSU vice provost for student affairs, said serious incidents had happened once or twice a year, so a task force was created to look at the issue and release recommendations before the ban was lifted this spring.

"We chose, before we had a tragedy, to be proactive as a university to do two things: figure out how to uphold our educational standards, and how to best uphold student well-being," said Rullman.

Officials across the country have launched other efforts to make campuses safer.

The North American Interfraternity Conference said it conducted a study that showed hard liquor fuels many problems, which is why it is requiring the fraternities it represents to ban drinks with more than 15% alcohol by fall, said Judson Horras, president and CEO.

"It’s a simple equation: If you reduce the availability of alcohol or slow down the consumption, you dramatically increase the safety of the students and guests," said Horras.

Adrianna Touma, a member of Phi Sigma sorority, said Greek organizations get a bad rap because of a few individuals.

At CMU, Adrianna Touma, a member of Phi Sigma sorority, defended the Greek organizations, saying they get a bad rap because of a few individuals while so many others are working to do good in the community.

She also said that many stories that are being told about Greek life are old, and things have changed.

"I really feel like it's not like that anymore," she said. "So much has changed in Greek life, and especially with this hazing concept that is terrible to hear about and it's terrible to hear that other people are still doing it. I am really proud to say that  I truly truly don't believe that any Greek life (group) at Central Michigan University does any hazing. It's not what we stand for at all."

But other students, like junior Grant Polmanteer, questioned why it took so long for CMU officials to do something about a fraternity that allegedly was the subject of so many complaints.

He said the university's handling of complaints about Phi Sigma Phi appears to be a "cover-up," comparing it with how Michigan State University handled complaints against serial pedophile Larry Nassar, who allegedly was reported in 1997 but not brought to justice until 2018.

"It's disappointing because you'd think there would be a sense of urgency," said Polmanteer. "It's kind of baffling to me why the university wouldn't go after that immediately and investigate further."

Grant Polmanteer questioned why it took so long for CMU officials to cut off the frat. “You’d think there would be a sense of urgency,” he said.

Voisin said there have been many groups that the university no longer recognizes, and it put them on a website so the public can see them. He pointed to that as evidence that the university does not shy away from holding students and groups accountable for their actions.

But there were many struggles over the years with getting students and other witnesses to come forward to talk with officials about Phi Sigma Phi. 

"I can't deny that it took longer than we would have liked," Voisin said. "But we attempted everything we could to get reports. If complainants themselves don't want to report, we don't have anything to go off of. I can't change the minds of someone who think we didn't do anything ... the university has continued to investigate. We have done everything we could."