Penn to increase monitoring of 'underground' frats

University of Pennsylvania Provost Vincent Price (left) listens to questions with university president Amy Gutmann, after Price announced potential new rules for how it deals with problematic underground fraternities during a meeting a meeting at Penn on Wednesday. YONG KIM / Staff Photographer

The University of Pennsylvania will take more steps to monitor behavior at off-campus “underground” or unrecognized fraternities and sororities under recommendations announced by a task force Wednesday.

The groups will be required to follow the same behavioral standards as recognized Greek organizations, including adhering to alcohol and anti-hazing policies. If they don’t, their members could face a range of discipline.

"We want the students who are in groups that are not recognized to understand you still have to follow" the rules, said Maureen Rush, vice president for public safety, one of three task force cochairs. "If you're a Penn student, these are the requirements."

But it's not all about bringing down the hammer. Representatives from some of the unrecognized groups told university officials they want to be more a part of campus life, and under the new guidelines, they will be welcome and entitled to educational programming on sexual assault and other issues.

"The students themselves said they want to be even stronger partners in ... creating the best set of circumstances for students to thrive," said Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum, vice provost for university life, also a cochair.

The university had been looking at the issue since November after an incident at the start of the academic year in which an underground frat sent a sexually suggestive party invitation to freshman women. A group of students on campus called the invitation symptomatic of "rape culture" and put up copies all over campus, drawing attention to the issue.

The underground groups, which have had no affiliation with the university other than that their members are students, have engaged in problem behavior in the past as well, including high-risk drinking, according to the university. Dealing with the groups has been tricky because they have not been registered and their membership was often difficult to determine.

But the task force offers a remedy: The groups will be required to provide the university with leader contacts, member rosters, and off-campus residential addresses. They also will gain an official title — “Identified Off-Campus Group” — and will be eligible for educational programming similar to what Greek organizations get.

The university also will explore developing a registration process for the groups to host social events in off-campus residences.

The task force recommendations, announced at a university-wide council meeting Wednesday afternoon, will take effect next school year. They represent Penn’s attempt to get its arms around a thorny issue that has plagued other colleges locally and nationally.

While some universities have decided to penalize students for even belonging to an underground group, Penn decided that a stronger partnership was a better route, said Christopher D'Urso, 20, a task force member from Colts Neck, N.J.

"With that model, you're punishing people for being part of a group. You're not punishing bad behavior per se," said D'Urso, a junior international relations major. "That's something I see as personally problematic."

The task force recommendations make the relationship between the university and the groups "a little bit more established so we can have dialogue and work together but also have a way to hold people accountable when bad things occur," he said. 

The underground groups often are remnants of fraternities or sororities that were kicked off campus for violating policies. Penn has identified seven unrecognized groups: Oz, Apes, the Owl Society, Theos, Tabard Society, Phi, and Oax.

Penn in the past has warned parents and students against membership in the groups, saying they engage in "high-risk activities" and lack regulations against hazing or alcohol use. Under the new recommendations, Penn will tell students and parents that the groups will be held to the same standards as recognized groups.  

"I think we managed to have at this university a candid conversation ... with students who perhaps felt some years ago they had to sever relationships with their institution," Swain-Cade McCoullum said. "We've never been able to do that, and I don't think anyone else has."

The task force, which has been working for more than two months, included faculty, staff, and students and also was cochaired by Beth A. Winkelstein, vice provost for education.

The group also made recommendations for the broader campus community, including an educational campaign “to reinforce community standards and expectations” with regard to behavior, the appointment of a chief diversity officer -- who already has been appointed -- and closer collaboration with off-campus landlords.

Also among the recommendations was creating a “sophomore experience program” to promote a stronger on-campus student life experience before students become upperclassmen and move off campus.