Looking back since the University’s 2017 investigation of Sigma Alpha Epsilon


Daily file photo by Lauren Duquette

Students sit on the lawn of Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s headquarters in November 2017 as part of a protest to support survivors of sexual assault. The fraternity returns to campus this fall after a contentious history.

Alan Perez, Campus Editor

The return of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity brought renewed attention to the troubles of Greek life and students’ concerns about safety on campus.

The Interfraternity Council, under new leadership, reversed its decision last year to not recognize the SAE chapter until 2021. IFC avoided a potential clash with the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, which advises the council. But the incident exposed the possibility of disagreement between the two governing bodies of fraternities.

The fate of SAE was unclear until earlier this month, when the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life and IFC announced the fraternity would return under probationary status this fall. Here’s a recap of events since the first reports of sexual assault last year.

The reports

In early February 2017, Northwestern notified students in an email of an anonymous report of sexual assault it received earlier that year. The report alleged four female students were given a date rape drug at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity in late January, and that two of the students believed they were sexually assaulted. The email said another report had been received, alleging another student was sexually assaulted, potentially with the use of a date rape drug, after attending an event at a second, unnamed fraternity house.

The University opened an investigation, and Patricia Telles-Irvin, the vice president for student affairs, said in an email to students that NU was “fully prepared to take appropriate action promptly” in response to the reports. The SAE national headquarters also opened a separate investigation into the group.

IFC, then under the leadership of Rodney Orr, suspended social activities and created a task force with University officials and the Panhellenic Association to address issues of sexual assault, drugging, and hazing, among other matters. The IFC board also planned to revise its positions and punishments for sexual assault and redrafted its risk management policies.

Despite IFC’s quick response, the undergraduate student community was outraged. The Associated Student Government released a statement in early February calling for SAE’s suspension. More than 300 students marched that same week to SAE national headquarters in Evanston, an event organized to show support for survivors. A petition calling for increased Greek life supervision and additional resources promoting sexual health also began circulating among students.

Under pressure, SAE’s national headquarters prohibited its NU chapter from participating in social activities and University events.

“When incidents are brought to our attention, we take immediate action, and will not hesitate to take corrective actions or impose sanctions on any member or chapter that fails to follow the stringent guidelines we set forth,” a statement from SAE headquarters said at the time.

The walkout

In one of the most dramatic events of winter 2017, four ASG Senators, including IFC senator Mike Seethaler, two IFC substitute senators and one PHA substitute senator walked out after Senate decided to conduct a roll call vote for a resolution promoting accountability for sexual assault.

As a result, Senate was left short of the 25 senators needed for quorum, and the resolution was not voted on.

Seethaler, who was a member of SAE, told The Daily the substitute senators were not “necessarily comfortable” having their names attached to a vote. “This was based on roll call,” he said. “This didn’t have anything to do with the bill itself. It was simply the choice to have the vote done in a roll call manner.”

An IFC statement the next day revealed the three other members were also members of SAE. PHA later said it would only substitute PHA senators with other PHA members, and IFC executives condemned the walkout while throwing in their support for the resolution, which called for the University to expel students found responsible for sexual misconduct.

The resolution would ultimately pass with 39 votes and two abstentions the week after, but not before a Senator Lars Benson gave his two cents. “They turned their backs on survivors, they turned their backs on allies,” he said. “This should outrage us. This is not in the spirit of Senate; this is not in the spirit of Northwestern.”

Investigation closes, suspension follows

Nearly two months after the initial report, the University announced no disciplinary action would be taken against Sigma Alpha Epsilon and the other unnamed fraternity regarding the reports of multiple alleged sexual assaults and druggings. Northwestern officials added they would continue looking into other potential violations of University policies that were revealed during the initial investigation.

The community was disappointed. More than 100 students signed a letter condemning the decision, in which candidates for ASG leadership said at the time that the University “has demonstrated time and time again that it does not care” about survivors of sexual assault.

But students walked away motivated to strengthen the school’s safety.

“We are not done there,” PHA executives said an email to the PHA community. “We continue to look for long term ways to improve the safety of our community and create lasting cultural shifts. This will take time, but we believe in our community.”

Soon after, Northwestern suspended the chapter for violating its probation, which was set to run until the end of 2017. The University investigation found SAE had been “repeatedly hosting parties and providing alcohol to minors.” SAE’s appeal was unsuccessful, though members were allowed to stay in the chapter house until the end of the academic year.

Reactions were mixed. While many students praised the disciplinary action, some were also disappointed that NU did not take actions regarding the reports of sexual assault.

IFC takes action

Students began to take aim at IFC for its approach to teaching sexual assault prevention, and IFC responded by revamping its educational programing.

Weeks before new leaders were to step in, IFC voted to not recognize SAE until 2021. The vote came amid campus rumors — which a former SAE member corroborated in a Letter to The Editor published in The Daily — that the chapter was continuing recruitment in violation of its suspension. Then-IFC president Rodney Orr said students found to be engaging in activities with SAE would be banned from participating in and IFC-sponsored event.

The Panhellenic Association expressed concern about the unexpected announcement.

“We appreciate the boldness and intention with which the Interfraternity Council acted in this decision,” it said in a statement the following day. “However, we hold deep concerns about the way in which the Interfraternity Council went about this decision, and we worry that its net impact will be to make our community less safe.”

Days later, Northwestern contradicted the IFC decision and said SAE would be permitted to return if it successfully completed the terms of its suspension. Since then, questions lingered regarding how the chapter would operate with the support of the University, but without the recognition of the council.

The new chapter presidents of IFC, said they will recognize SAE, though it will not enjoy the full voting power awarded to other member chapters.

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