On Aug. 26, in a statement to University of Wisconsin-Madison students and staff on preparations for the fast-approaching semester, Chancellor Rebecca Blank wrote that the university was “working with fraternities and sororities to help those living in chapter houses arrange for their own quarantine and isolation spaces.”
UW-Madison Director of News and Media Relations Meredith McGlone backed Blank’s statement via email correspondence: “This summer, the university and Public Health Madison & Dane County began providing information to chapters, advisors and housing corporations about operating chapter houses during the pandemic, including planning for residents needing to quarantine and isolate.”
Many fraternity leaders say those claims are misleading.
Instead, Fraternity leaders say UW-Madison “hung [them] out to dry” without guidance on establishing quarantine spaces and forced them to implement their own plans for handling positive COVID-19 cases within chapters, further increasing frustrations. Greek life leaders also say officers of the University of Wisconsin Police Department have visited and trespassed on chapter property, despite the department’s claim that it plays no role in enforcing public health guidelines.
Since the Chancellor’s message at the end of summer, 26 Greek chapter houses have been issued quarantine orders from Public Health Madison & Dane County (PHMDC). Of approximately 5,000 students in the Greek community, under 1,100 live in these chapter houses. According to 2010 census data, live-in members account for less than half a percent of people living in student neighborhoods in Madison, identified as areas with a median age of less than 22 years old.
Only one of the seven fraternity leaders interviewed for this story described any sort of communication with the university prior to the beginning of the school year.
“I can confidently say as VP of TDX that no one from the university had reached out to our exec board regarding quarantine space in our chapter house at any point,” said Caden McMann, the Vice President at Theta Delta Chi’s Wisconsin chapter.
One fraternity president who asked to remain anonymous said that UW’s leadership left their chapter “in the dark.”
Ellis Becker, President of Phi Delta Theta — Wisconsin Alpha Chapter, echoed McMann’s words.
“No one from the university got in touch with us about establishing a quarantine space inside the chapter house at all,” said Becker. “We set aside a space ourselves but we did so with no direction from administration whatsoever.”
McGlone later tried to amend and say that FSL officials were “in contact with chapter presidents throughout the summer,” but focused on communicating with chapter housing corporations made up of alumni rather than the students who actually live in the chapter houses. McGlone claims that the FSL Office “shifted to send all communications to house corporations, advisors, chapter presidents, and national organizations simultaneously,” but, yet again, this point is contested by multiple chapter presidents who say they had not received any communications regarding quarantine spaces over the summer.
In the absence of university support, fraternities have established their own quarantine and isolation policies. One fraternity set aside a shared risk fund for live-in members, which would allow for any COVID-negative live-in members to spend 10 days in a hotel room in the event that their roommate tests positive. Others have taken the initiative of establishing quarantine spaces within their chapter houses without university guidance.
Each fraternity represented in this story implemented a mandatory mask-wearing policy for all common areas within their chapter facilities.
These disparities in communication between UW-Madison and fraternity executive boards have made many members of Greek life feel that the university is using the FSL community — even those who are strictly following protocols — as a scapegoat for the effects of COVID-19 in Madison.
“There are definitely problems with Greek life, and there are definitely fraternities that have not been following the legal guidelines and it’s important to enforce that,” said one fraternity president. “But at the same time I think the school singles out Greek life. I’ve seen pictures on Mifflin of huge house parties. I mean, the line out the door at bars… It’s just the fact that it’s a registered organization and it’s an easy target to go after.”
Nick Watts, Vice President of External Affairs for Psi Upsilon, said that these issues go beyond the contempt that many students show toward Greek life.
“You don't have to like Greek life, you don’t have to like fraternities or sororities,” said Watts. “But just in general blaming a group of 18-22 year olds for a pandemic is very unfair.”
AJ Valus, President of Sigma Alpha Epsilon — Wisconsin Alpha Chapter, was the only interviewed fraternity leader who said his organization had contact with the university over the summer.
“I was already in talks with [UW-Madison] regarding how we were gonna go into this semester so I did talk with the school and they did approve this plan,” said Valus.
Valus noted that his chapter had been in conversation with the Committee on Student Organizations (CSO) regarding what Valus called an “incident over the summer.” Among these discussions, Valus worked with the university to establish separate precautionary plans for live-in members amid the pandemic.
Communication between the university and Sigma Alpha Epsilon plays into an overarching theme of some UW-Madison students alleging that if they get COVID-19 now, they will not have to deal with later ramifications and quarantines that will follow (a.k.a. “Tactical COVID”). This chapter facility may have been better equipped for a prospective quarantine than other fraternity houses due to a CSO intervention regarding that “incident that happened over the summer.”
Now, select students living in off-campus neighborhoods are allegedly toying with the university’s claim that anyone who has tested positive for COVID-19 within the past 90 days does not need to abide by PHMDC quarantine mandates.
“If a person has contracted COVID-19 within 90 days, has recovered and is no longer contagious, they do not need to quarantine because research indicates they have antibodies and will not become reinfected if exposed again. However after 90 days they are again at risk,” explains Meredith McGlone via email correspondence.
The concept of developing antibodies has motivated an unsafe thought among select students living in chapter facilities — an active attempt to contract COVID-19 in an effort to escape the potentially perpetual quarantine cycle.
“I also want to address a concerning belief we’ve been hearing – intentionally contracting COVID to ‘get it over with’ is unsafe and irresponsible,” wrote Dean of Students Christina Olstad in a Sept. 18 email.
“While students who test positive can be asymptomatic or experience minimal symptoms, we’ve seen otherwise healthy young people across the country, including here in Dane County be hospitalized,” Olstad continued. “The long-term effects of COVID-19 are still largely unknown. Willfully spreading the virus places everyone you meet, particularly our more vulnerable family and community members, at higher risk.”
As of Wednesday, the university has opened investigations into nearly 550 students and 11 student organizations, according to McGlone. Twenty students have been referred for emergency suspension.
FSL members living in outside facilities who aim to stay safe and responsible are placed at a higher risk due to others’ engagement in dangerous behaviors. These students may not be living in spaces prepared for a proper quarantine.
“The university has done very little in response to the positive cases we’ve had so far. I think the FSL isolation spaces [for members who tested positive] at Zoe Bayliss house were a great idea in theory, but in practicality I think it’s being really poorly executed,” Becker said. “First of all, for a 10 day isolation period in this space, it costs our members about one month’s rent, which is just so absurd to me that administration has the audacity to charge students to isolate because of the poor decisions made by university officials. The university has also done absolutely nothing to provide food for these students, meaning they have to spend even more money to feed themselves on top of paying to stay there.”
The university had not reached out to Valus about the establishment of quarantine spaces in any other capacity, but he complements the transparency from Assistant Director of Fraternity & Sorority Life Maggie Hayes and Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Lori Reesor.
Multiple fraternity leaders directly challenged university leaders’ statements, saying that nobody from the university reached out to establish quarantine or isolation spaces within chapter houses.
The communicative disparities do not end with mixed messages between university leaders and fraternity members. UW-Madison and the UW-Madison Police Department (UWPD) have also neglected to supply the campus community with congruent information.
Policing the “Problem”
In a Sept. 14 media release, Chancellor Blank addressed suspicion regarding students’ behaviors in off campus neighborhoods.
“Specifically, we were aware that off campus conduct would be an issue and deployed staff into student neighborhoods to look for parties and encourage compliance,” Blank said. “By our count, this includes multiple staff from student affairs and UWPD logging many hours in recent weeks.”
Blank also touched upon the significance of the university’s “strong partnership with our city and county” amid rapid infection transmission.
In a more recent statement to County Executive Joe Parisi, Blank notes that the university itself lacks authority in terms of shutting down social gatherings
“We know these gatherings can lead to the spread of COVID-19 but UW-Madison does not have jurisdiction to shut down gatherings in off campus areas,” Blank said. “Until those agencies with enforcement authority take additional action, we shouldn’t expect to see a rapid decline in cases in Dane County.”
When asked a series of questions pertaining to public health and safety in off campus neighborhoods, UWPD Director of Communications and Public Information Officer Marc Lovicott denied UWPD involvement.
“UWPD typically does not patrol off-campus (like Langdon Street), as it’s within the City of Madison Police Department’s jurisdiction,” Lovicott said. “Further, UWPD is not directly involved in the enforcement of public health orders or quarantine directives — on-campus or off-campus.”
University searches for social gatherings to “encourage compliance” have added to the already high tension between Greek life and administration. Some fraternities have detailed unprompted entrances from UWPD officials as well as UW administrators.
“The dean of students came with several UWPD officers and trespassed onto our property for no reason at all besides their suspicion,” said Becker. “I honestly thought it was disgusting, unnecessary and a violation of our rights as individuals and as an organization.”
Another fraternity president whose chapter house is also on Langdon Street detailed a similar situation. According to this president, UWPD officers entered their backyard where live-in members were having a bonfire and Dane County regulations were being followed. While he said that the officers “didn’t really give them a hard time,” he notes that he doesn’t think “cops would just stroll into a backyard on Mifflin, necessarily.”
Fraternity leaders, like many students and staff, have questioned the intentions of the UW’s “Smart Restart” plan.
UW Officials have come under fire for refusing to acknowledge the inherent danger of bringing students back to campus and instead pushing the burden of responsibility to students. The UW-Madison BIPOC Coalition, along with the Associated Students of Madison and the Teaching Assistant Association, have all condemned the Smart Restart plan as a cash grab by the university.
“There’s inherent risk when you interact with another person, and ultimately you brought back 30,000 18-20 year-olds who are pretty low-risk,” said one fraternity president. “I think it was a recipe for disaster from the start.”
Many students have called out what they called the university’s naivety towards student behavior in the midst of the plan’s failure.
“If they don’t know what college students behave like, they must be delusional,” one fraternity president said. "They really sound like they’re living in a different universe sometimes.”
According to PHMDC, 1,808 students have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Sept. 18. UW students and staff have accounted for 76 percent of all cases in Dane County since Sept. 1.
“[The administration] knew full well what they were getting into,” said Watts. “They just didn’t want to say it out loud because they want to keep abusing the students and collecting the tuition money.”
[Disclaimer: Both authors of this story are FSL members. Sources who are friends or chaptermates of a respective author were interviewed by the other writer.]