The University of Southern California is one of the top-ranked campuses for Greek life in the country: almost 30 percent of undergraduates—about 7,300 students—were members of a Greek organization in 2020. But as students begin arriving for the fall semester, they’ll find that many of USC’s Greek organizations are no longer subject to university governance.
On Aug. 12, six of the university’s 14 interfraternity council member chapters disaffiliated from the university; as of Thursday, that number had grown to 10. Along with two other fraternities—including Lambda Chi Alpha, which was suspended in 2019 for four years following a hazing investigation—the group has formed an independent organization called the University Park Interfraternity Council (UPIFC), named after the south Los Angeles neighborhood where USC is located.
The mass exodus comes almost a year after USC suspended all fraternity activities in response to a barrage of sexual assault and drugging allegations against members of the university’s Sigma Nu chapter, including chapter president Ryan Schiffilea. The university allowed parties and other activities to resume in March.
In a statement following the fraternities’ decision to disaffiliate, USC officials condemned the move.
“We are disappointed that some USC fraternities are following an unfortunate national trend by disaffiliating from the university—against our strong recommendations,” the statement read. “This decision is detrimental and goes against 130 years of tradition. We strongly urge students not to join these unaffiliated organizations or attend their events.”
In a statement of its own, UPIFC said it was “deeply committed” to ensuring student safety and defended the move to sever ties, accusing the university of unfair treatment.
“Over the past several years, our partnership with USC has significantly deteriorated, and became largely unworkable after USC unilaterally suspended, without explanation or cause, all organizational activities for nearly half of the 2021-22 school year,” the statement said. “This new Council is designed to provide chapters and their members with a substantially more focused, timely and consistent process for input, discipline and accountability.”
Fraternities across the country are butting heads with institutions over increased oversight, largely stemming from concerns around harmful hazing rituals, rampant sexual assault, alcohol and drug abuse, and racially insensitive traditions. With campus communities pushing for reform and universities cracking down on partying and enforcing measures like deferred rush, some chapters have decided that independence is worth the cost of disaffiliation.
Judson Horras, president of the North American Interfraternity Council (NIC), said his organization has been working to mediate a resolution between USC and its disaffiliated fraternities, as it has at institutions like Sam Houston State University and Kansas State University. He’s hopeful that the relationship can be restored—but, he added, the onus is on the university as well as the fraternities.
“In any partnership, both sides have to come to the table and find common ground,” he said. “It’s a frustrating, temporary setback. We’ll get them back together.”
The Cost of Disaffiliation
By disaffiliating, the UPIFC members have ceded their rights to use the USC logo or brand, access the college’s Greek life portal, participate in campuswide committees and club fairs, and secure personal and professional leadership opportunities.
John Hechinger, author of True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities (Public Affairs, 2017), said that, crucially, disaffiliated fraternities also lose out on access to free educational training in Title IX regulations and sexual assault prevention. (Horras said UPIFC has hired a private adviser to help with these matters.)
Still, Hechinger said, it’s the university that loses the most when fraternities go rogue.
“It’s a real bind for college administrators, because if they don’t put a check on this behavior, it’s not an exaggeration to say that people could die,” he said, adding that if universities do crack down, “then the fraternities can do what they’re doing at USC.”
“That’s the nightmare scenario for a college administration, because then they no longer have much leverage. And even if the fraternities aren’t affiliated with USC anymore, if something happens, it will still reflect poorly on the university.”
This dynamic can be frustrating for administrators, who Hechinger said have a much harder time regulating fraternities than they do other campus organizations due to their independent wealth and power. According to his research, the country’s 70 historically white national fraternities own a collective $3 billion worth of real estate and raise over $20 million annually. At USC, the house of every one of the disaffiliated fraternities is independently owned.
“Fraternities have enormous power in higher education,” Hechinger said. “It is very difficult to rein them in.”
The USC frats’ mass exodus from university governance is not the first of its kind, but it is a relatively new trend. In August 2018, five fraternities disaffiliated from West Virginia University under circumstances similar to USC. The following month, six University of Michigan fraternities cut ties with their institution, and seven fraternities at Duke University disaffiliated last year.
“Fraternities have been around since the 19th century, and from the beginning they established themselves in opposition to college administrations,” Hechinger said. “It’s almost in their DNA that they rebel and chafe against authority.”
Horras said that the vast majority of fraternities in the NIC—98.7 percent—remain affiliated with their host universities. Ideally, the relationship between universities and fraternities is “mutually beneficial,” he said, and he hopes disaffiliation doesn’t become a broader trend.
“It goes beyond a list of resources or a logo you can use. To a student, that is not the motivator,” he said. “It’s feeling like they are a part of the community and they are supported, as they’re being held accountable in a fair, consistent way.”
Leila Hilf, a rising junior at USC, said she’s worried about the lack of institutional oversight for disaffiliated chapters, especially when it comes to hazing and sexual assault prevention.
“I think it absolutely is setting up for more boys to be exploited and more girls to be sexually assaulted. There has to be some sort of code or standard, and at least USC did have one,” she said. “With the frats’ disaffiliation this semester, I just feel like some freshman is going to die.”
In the Shadow of Sigma Nu
Last year, USC’s Greek system was rocked by multiple allegations of sexual assault and drugging against members of the university’s Sigma Nu chapter. The fraternity had its activities suspended pending the results of an ongoing investigation, and three other fraternities facing separate allegations of misconduct are on a modified suspension. If the investigation finds chapterwide wrongdoing, Sigma Nu could face disbandment.
It wouldn’t be the first. In the past decade, 11 USC fraternities have lost their university and national chapter recognition for code of conduct violations; most recently, Alpha Upsilon Pi lost theirs in April 2021 for hazing and safety violations.
Sexual assault is reportedly more pervasive at USC than on other college campuses. According to a 2019 survey by the Association of American Universities, a quarter of female undergraduates said they were sexually assaulted during their time on campus; at USC, that number jumped to nearly one in three.
In the wake of the Sigma Nu accusations, hundreds of students staged five days of protests against USC fraternities as well as administrators, whom they blamed for taking too long to inform the community of the allegations.
Hilf organized one of those protests. She and a group of concerned students gathered outside the Sigma Nu house to protest the chapter members’ behavior and the Greek system as a whole.
“There are so many things that you could argue are intrinsically wrong with Greek life, including sexual assault,” she said. “There’s this code of silence that brothers follow where the loyalty is more to this sacred brotherhood as opposed to protecting people that are harmed.”
Horras argues that it’s the university’s approach that disincentivizes reporting within a fraternity.
“When you have a process by which you discipline entire chapters and entire communities with zero allegations of chapterwide behavior, you are essentially silencing and inhibiting future reporting,” he said. “Your practices are making it less safe.”
Frats Cry Foul
In its statement, USC said the UPIFC chapters’ decision to disaffiliate “seems to be driven by the desire to eliminate university oversight of their operations.”
“The members are chafing at procedures and protocols designed to prevent sexual assault and drug abuse and deal with issues of mental health and underage drinking,” the statement read.
But Horras believes the fraternities’ disaffiliation has nothing to do with the new rules, which fraternity leaders were involved in writing last academic year. He said the split is mainly due to what the USC fraternities saw as unfair punishment of all Greek organizations for the misconduct of a few.
“What really deteriorated the relationship over this last year is when the entire system, whether your chapter had an allegation or not, was suspended and penalized, in some cases for over five months,” Horras said.
Hechinger doesn’t buy that the disaffiliated frats’ decision was unrelated to USC’s stricter rules or ongoing sexual assault investigations. He spent years researching fraternity misconduct for his book and said that after scouring public records on sexual assault and hazing investigations at public institutions across the country, a clear pattern emerged: fraternities were obstructing them at every turn.
“In case after case, fraternities didn’t cooperate, even when something terrible happened,” he said. “If the minute that somebody misbehaved they actually enforced these rules, I don’t think they would be shut down. The problem is that they’re not rooting this stuff out.”
Horras said one way for universities to avoid the headache of disaffiliation is for them to abandon the strategy of systemwide disciplinary action—which the NIC opposes in almost all cases—and take a more “surgical” approach to responding to specific acts of misconduct.
But many of those in favor of reforming Greek life say that individualized punishment has helped allow some of the system’s larger problems to continue.
“This kind of broad crackdown [at USC] is exactly what’s needed when it comes to Greek life,” Hechinger said. “The only way to attack a systemic problem is with a systemic solution.”