Campus News

Nearly half of UW-Madison fraternities faced punishment in 2016, documents show

Thirteen out of 29 UW-Madison fraternities were on probation or suspension last year, mostly for alcohol-related violations

After Sigma Phi Epsilon's old house burned down in 2008, the fraternity built a new $2.2 million, 12,500-square-foot living space in 2011. Next year, following the fraternity's termination in 2016, they will rent out the premises, according to Eric Knueve. 

Image By: Katie Scheidt

A young man, face bright red, covered in vomit and urine, lay slumped in the corner of a basement while a frat party continued.

Several members of Sigma Phi Epsilon’s UW-Madison chapter carried the severely incapacitated person into a bathroom, one saying, “F--- you … you always do this.”

He remained in the bathroom until the party ended, and was then dropped off a block away from the fraternity’s house so emergency services could finally be called without the chapter being implicated.

This case, first reported in November 2015, is not isolated. More than a dozen fraternities on campus faced university punishment in 2016 because of alcohol violations.

An investigation by The Daily Cardinal found that 13 fraternities at UW-Madison—just under half of those on campus—were on probation or suspension in 2016.

Each fraternity on probation or suspension had at least one alcohol-related offense, according to a series of documents obtained through an open records request by the Cardinal.

President of UW-Madison’s Interfraternity Council and UW-Madison student Michael Foy said alcohol use is “absolutely” an issue within Greek life, going as far as to call it an “epidemic” throughout campus.

UW-Madison’s Director of the Center for Leadership & Involvement Eric Knueve largely agreed.

“On campus, illegal, unsafe alcohol is a problem that has been going on for a long time,” Knueve said. “It’s hard to say if it is any worse this year.”

A student at the Sigma Phi Epsilon party described above helped file the report against the fraternity, which led to some of the heaviest punishments levelled against a Greek organization on campus in recent years.

Betsy Osterberger-Cardinal File Photo | The Daily Cardinal

The fraternity—already on probation for a prior alcohol violation—displayed “egregious negligence” for the safety of a severely intoxicated guest, as detailed earlier, according to a report from the Committee on Student Organizations.

The CSO placed Sigma Phi Epsilon on suspension for more than a year, with a probation that would extend the punishment by roughly an additional year. A factor in these sanctions was the organization’s history of transgressions; in the last three years, they were already placed under suspension, faced probation several times and were involved in at least eight different reported cases.

Another alcohol violation less than a year later resulted in Sigma Phi Epsilon’s termination on Oct. 4, 2016.

Foy said this incident marked a “complete failure” of all safeguards that were in place, from the IFC to the fraternity's national level.

“That is the exception, not the rule. The trend with the 13 fraternities, that may get a little bit closer,” Foy said. “I hope that the Sigma Phi Epsilon incident isn’t seen as the norm.”

Documents gathered by The Daily Cardinal include reports from the 2015-’16 academic year and the Fall 2016 Semester for all fraternities and sororities at UW-Madison. Knueve said roughly 50 reports are received a year.

Thirteen out of 29 fraternities on UW-Madison’s campus in 2016 were on probation for some portion of that year; two fraternities were on suspension during 2016 and Sigma Phi Epsilon’s status as a Registered Student Organization was terminated, according to the documents.

There were many reports of unsafe alcohol use, ranging from underage students being served hard liquor to parties with oversize crowds. In some cases there were simply not enough designated sober people monitoring the party, while in others, students were sent to detox after being overserved at a fraternity event.

UW-Madison spokesperson Meredith McGlone said the CSO, which hears the reports against student organizations, has a “menu of potential sanctions” that can be imposed on these groups. She said probation is the most common early sanction as the penalty aims to deter future, more serious offenses.

Knueve said a fraternity on probation can continue to operate normally, but if any additional violations were to occur during this period, then it would be taken into consideration for stricter sanctions.

Only four of 15 sororities at UW-Madison were on probation for some time during 2016, with no suspensions. Three of the probations were the result of violations stemming from unsafe or illegal alcohol use.

Betsy Osterberger-Cardinal File Photo | The Daily Cardinal

Another probation was the result of hazing, as a sorority made freshmen members sing a song that reportedly condoned sexual assault. The CSO determined that the lyrics—which included lines like “they roll me over and lift up my dress, now that I’m an A E PHI (sic) I always will say yes”—could be considered “humiliating or degrading to those expected to participate.”

In a case decided on the first day of classes this semester, Sigma Chi was found to have recited a similar chant, with lyrics more explicitly detailing violence. There was “no dispute” that the chant occurred in this case, and the CSO said it “encouraged sexual assault,” but the fraternity was not found responsible for conduct violations due to the chant. They were, however, suspended for alcohol violations.

Foy said he thinks the CSO typically assigns just punishments—which they did in the Alpha Epsilon Phi sorority case—but he went on to say that he believes Sigma Chi should have been found in violation for their chant condoning sexual assault.

“It’s a bit unfortunate that [Sigma Chi was] not sort of punished more for this incident,” Foy said. “I can only imagine what was going through [the CSO’s] minds when they were making their decision.”

Also included in UW-Madison’s Greek life are 10 chapters in the Multicultural Greek Council, none of which were involved in any reports in the documents. Additionally, zero of the five Black Greek Letter Organizations on campus were on probation in 2016.

The drinking culture on Langdon Street, which houses many campus fraternities, can also reach students not involved with Greek life. A recent survey found that 40 percent of students of color at UW-Madison avoid specific areas of campus due to drinking culture. Of the students who said they avoided specific areas, 52.7 percent said they avoided Langdon Street.

Many UW-Madison fraternities still remain on probation or suspension. Beta Theta Pi, Delta Upsilon, Kappa Sigma, Sigma Alpha Epsilon and Sigma Chi still face these additional restrictions, though many are set to be lifted at the end of the semester.

Will Chizek-Cardinal File Photo | The Daily Cardinal

Three fraternities—Sigma Phi Epsilon, Chi Phi and Alpha Epsilon Pi—have been terminated since the Spring 2015 Semester. Each case involved an alcohol-related violation. Prior to 2015, the most recent termination occurred in 2006.

An analysis of the documents showed all fraternities on probation were found responsible for alcohol-related violations, but the initial reports against each group varied and were often not focused on alcohol.

Different fraternities have been investigated for sexual assaults, drugging women, extensive destruction of property and discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender or race.

In most cases, the CSO did not find enough evidence that the fraternities in question were more likely responsible than not for the initially reported transgression.

In March 2016, Sigma Pi was reported for a possible violation. The description of the incident was succinct: “I was sexually assaulted by a member of sigma pi (sic).”

The CSO found that a member of Sigma Pi assaulted a guest at the fraternity’s residence at 420 N. Carroll St. during one of the chapter’s event.

The punishment was a single semester on general probation, with a requirement that 75 percent of the chapter’s membership attend a sexual assault prevention workshop.

Foy said he thinks that chapter’s punishment was largely fair, and the fault lies mostly on the individual, though he does not think the education requirement went far enough.

“I am not a fan of the percentage of members, or even new members, type of education,” Foy said in reference to the 75 percent requirement. “It definitely should be an all-or-nothing thing.”

Sigma Pi was only found responsible for two out of five Student Organization Code of Conduct violations they faced following this incident. One was an alcohol violation, as they failed to check for valid IDs. The second violation dealt with the sexual assailant, who acted as an individual but was still a representative of the fraternity.

Sigma Pi’s probation was lifted Dec. 31, 2016.

McGlone said "a significant reason the chapter was found not to be in violation for the charges related to the sexual assault" was due to the actions of the fraternity when the victim reported the incident to the chapter. Sigma Pi put the reported assailant on immediate suspension from the fraternity. McGlone went on to say that there was also an additional student misconduct investigation into the sexual assault, which resulted in the reported assailant being found responsible and suspended from the university.

UW-Madison’s chapter of Sigma Pi did not respond to request for comment.

Foy said UW-Madison’s Greek community is acknowledging many of its problems and is now working toward fixing them.

“The Greek community is ready to be more transparent,” Foy said. “The more this can get brought to light and what our chapters are doing about it particularly, I think the better, because there are pitfalls of Greek life.”

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