UM delays Greek rush, but some in no mood to wait
Ann Arbor — On the edge of the University of Michigan campus, rush for a handful of fraternities wrapped up last week — but it included a significantly smaller class of new members joining a brotherhood.
That's because UM decided that its 57 fraternities and sororities would have to defer recruitment until January for freshmen. The university also is requiring new students to complete 12 credits and be in good academic standing before pledging a house.
The controversial move was the first time in decades UM has made a change to rush, a time-honored tradition on college campuses nationwide when students consider joining a fraternity or sorority.
And not everyone is happy — or thinks it's constitutional: A half-dozen fraternities broke away from UM because of the new policy and conducted an unsanctioned rush for freshmen.
Students in California sued a university with a similar policy even as experts say deferred rush is growing nationwide.
UM's rush deferment to January is rooted in a wider university plan to pave a successful path for first-year students, officials say. But it also comes after the university has grappled with high-profile incidents involving fraternities, sororities and alcohol —which UM President Mark Schlissel said partly fueled the change.
"We decided students would get their academic year off to a better start, and make a safer and better transition living away from home if we delayed Greek rush to second semester," said Schlissel, who mentioned the change during a wide-ranging interview with The Detroit News.
"The idea is before they get involved in this social competition, at which alcohol use tends to be pretty heavy, they have got a semester under their belt and they have a broader circle of friends and deeper support network, one hopes, before putting through the social filter of going through rush," Schlissel said.
UM has been working for years to help first-year students transition to college life. The university has stepped up education and prevention training sessions to curb sexual misconduct and alcohol abuse.
The delay in rush for freshmen is another step, Schlissel said.
"We're hopeful that will also help with some of our alcohol-related issues," Schlissel said.
In the wake of the new policy, which took effect this school year, six fraternities broke away from UM's Interfraternity Council, formed an independent council and held rush this fall anyway. Wednesday was bid day, when a fraternity formally extends an offer to a potential new member.
"Our member chapters believe that the University of Michigan’s decision to mandate deferred recruitment is a violation of students’ First Amendment rights," said Michael Salciccioli, president of the newly formed Ann Arbor Interfraternity Council, in a written statement.
"Students should have the opportunity to join fraternities, or any student organization, at the time that they feel is best for them," said Salciccioli.
UM's fraternities that joined the new council and opened rush to freshmen this fall included Alpha Epsilon Pi, Theta Chi, Alpha Sigma Phi, Delta Chi, Phi Sigma Kappa and Pi Kappa Phi, said Salciccioli.
The number of new members for the six fraternities that held rush are not yet available because chapters have two weeks to submit an updated roster.
"Generally speaking, we had a great showing with chapters reporting that they had the same turnout that they had before they disaffiliated from the university," said Salciccioli, who is a member of Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity.
It's not clear how many other universities have deferred fall rush for potential fraternity and sorority members. But Damon Brown, direct of student activities and involvement at Grand Valley State University, said it is becoming more common.
"This isn’t anything out of the ordinary," Brown said. "Most schools down South have a delayed recruitment model .... It’s starting to become more of a trend. I’m seeing a lot more schools out West a little bit more. ... It’s new for us in the Midwest."
Many students are mixed on UM's decision.
Some are supportive, like Andrew Scott, vice president of recruitment for Michigan State University's Interfraternity Council. He said MSU encourages potential new members to come out and join a fraternity when they are ready. Not all freshmen feel comfortable immediately, he said, and some of their best and brightest members have been those who have delayed joining and thought about it for a while.
"College is such a crazy experience: You are living on your own for the first time, you have so much independence; putting too much in the mix is not always great," Scott said. "While I do think that it's good to get the ball rolling and get as many people in the Greek community because I think it's such an amazing part of college, I definitely understand why (UM) delayed it to the spring."
Based on her personal experience rushing a UM sorority, Emma Theisen agreed.
She arrived at the university last year, but wasn't sure if she would join a sorority even though both of her parents had been part of Greek life when they were in college.
Three weeks into the school year, Theisen decided to explore the possibility by spending hours visiting all of UM's 17 sorority houses over two nights, and narrowing down her potential choices over three more nights.
When she got a bid from her top sorority pick and became a pledge, she spent many evenings at social activities held every Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
Days before she was to become a formal member, Theisen realized sorority life was not for her and decided not to go through with initiation.
"I felt like I was giving up opportunities that I could have chased after if my schedule was more open," Theisen said. "I think I was still learning to adjust to college and learning how to handle all these new things that I was experiencing ... I had neglected all these friends I had made before and felt like I wasn’t performing my best in my classes."
But the North American Interfraternity Conference, representing 6,100 chapters of fraternities across the country, is strongly against delaying rush and tried to get UM to change its decision, said spokesman Todd Shelton.
"Deferred recruitment is an inequitable application of student policy because other student organizations — intercollegiate athletics, school-sanctioned clubs and others — are free to recruit and select new members at any time," Shelton said.
"Students should have the opportunity to join organizations that enhance their collegiate experience at the time that is best for them. Additionally, there is no evidence showing that deferring or delaying recruitment improves campus or community culture."
The National Panhellenic Conference, which represents 3,349 sorority chapters, also opposes UM's move.
"It’s our belief that the College Panhellenic should be setting the recruitment schedule and rather than taking a unilateral approach, we’d urge campus administrators to partner with these student leaders regarding the merits of deferred recruitment," said Dani Weatherford, CEO of the National Panhellenic Conference.
“Just as young men interested in football can join the team as soon as they arrive on campus, we believe young women deserve the right to make those choices for themselves as well.”
Meanwhile, some of the fraternities and sororities at the University of Southern California have sued over a similar rush deferment policy that became effective in fall 2018.
"USC pledges to 'always protect' the First Amendment rights of its students, as California law requires it to do," the lawsuit states. "It should put an asterisk next to its promise because, for incoming first-year students, USC has instituted a ban on their First Amendment freedom-of-association rights if they want to join a sorority or a fraternity."
The state's trial courts granted USC's motion to dismiss, but an appeals court ruled in favor of the fraternities and sororities, according to court documents. The case is now in discovery.
Experts say the new approach could help students.
Sean Esteban McCabe, co-director of the Center for the Study of Drugs, Alcohol, Smoking and Health in the UM School of Nursing, said students who join social fraternities and sororities tend to have been heavier drinkers and substance users before they joined these organizations.
"These substance use behaviors usually increase during college and persist into adulthood," said McCabe. "The policy to delay rush could be one step in the right direction towards creating a healthier community if more training, prevention and intervention efforts are offered."
The change to defer rush to January comes as the university works to give all students, especially freshmen, the resources for a successful college career, said Nicole Banks, UM assistant dean of students and interim director for Fraternity and Sorority Life.
"Joining the fraternities and sororities that we support in (Fraternity and Sorority Life) can be really time-consuming — but should be special to students," she said. "I believe it's much different from other types of student organizations."