KU reduces suspension of fraternity it found involved in ‘systemic hazing’; fraternity recruiting new students again using Jayhawk brand

photo by: Chad Lawhorn/Journal-World

The Fall 2022 newsletter of the local chapter of Phi Delta Theta lists KU and the university in multiple places, despite the fraternity having been suspended as a university organization until the Fall 2025 semester.

The University of Kansas has quietly reduced the suspension of a fraternity that earlier this year was found to have participated in “systemic hazing that threatened the health and safety of students,” the Journal-World has learned.

University leaders in May signed an agreement that reduced the suspension of Phi Delta Theta to 3.5 years, down from five years. KU in January announced the five-year suspension of Phi Delta Theta after reporting an investigation found hazing was happening one to two times per week at the fraternity, and abuses ranged from forcing a new member to watch an animal mutilation video to physical injuries of new members.

KU’s news service didn’t make any public announcement of the reduced suspension, but confirmed it to the Journal-World after the newspaper began inquiring why Phi Delta Theta was marketing itself to new pledges, complete with the University of Kansas name and with the Jayhawk logo.

A spokeswoman with KU indicated the university was not aware that the fraternity was using the KU name and logo to market to students, and that the university may take action against the fraternity related to it. The fraternity, despite the reduction in the suspension, is still not eligible to be a KU-affiliated fraternity until the Fall 2025 semester.

As for why KU agreed to reduce the fraternity’s suspension at all, KU spokeswoman Erinn Barcomb-Peterson noted that the new agreement requires Phi Delta Theta to implement several new programs and partner with KU’s Office of Student Affairs to prevent hazing.

“The university and the fraternity both see value in an agreed resolution and are satisfied that the interests of the chapter, the university, and current and future members of the university community will be well served by the resolution,” Barcomb-Peterson said via email.

Phi Delta Theta was one of two fraternities that KU suspended for five years after multiple investigations uncovered multiple instances of hazing at the two houses. The other fraternity, Phi Gamma Delta, has not had its five-year suspension modified, Barcomb-Peterson said.

As part of the Phi Delta Theta reduction in suspension, the fraternity agreed to not file any lawsuit against KU related to the previous five-year suspension and any monetary damages it may have caused. The agreement stated that Phi Delta Theta had appealed the five-year suspension to a university “judicial board.” With the signing of the May agreement reducing the suspension by 1.5 years, Phi Delta Theta withdrew its appeal.

In January, KU released its findings related to hazing at Phi Delta Theta. They included:

• A new member being required to watch an animal mutilation video showing the brutal slaughtering of a dolphin. KU found the new member later was nicknamed ‘Dolphin,’ “as the one who is the most hated and should be slaughtered,” according to a summary of findings provided by KU in January. The new member made complaints about his treatment but ultimately faced retaliation for making the complaint, according to the summary of the investigation provided by KU. The University in January said the member ultimately left KU and had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

• One new member was injured after falling out of bed when fraternity members came into the sleeping area of new members and began “pushing, shouting, jumping on the bed” of new members as part of a late-night incident, according to the KU summary.

• New members were required to engage in “personal servitude” to older members, and were required to do calisthenics that “resulted in physical injury to new members and contributed to sleep deprivation,” according to the summary of findings released by KU in January.

The Journal-World asked the university spokeswoman whether KU leaders had consulted with the alleged victims of the hazing before deciding to reduce the fraternity’s suspension, and whether any of those victims objected to the reduction. The university did not immediately respond to the question on Monday afternoon. The university also had not responded to a question of how KU, if at all, had publicized the reduced suspension of the fraternity.

A representative of Phi Delta Theta declined to participate in an interview with the Journal-World on Monday afternoon. Nick Vignatelli, corporation board president for the fraternity, said he was running late for a meeting and could not talk until perhaps later in the week, when the Journal-World contacted him via phone.

The Journal-World began looking into the status of Phi Delta Theta after receiving a copy of the local chapter’s Fall 2022 newsletter. That newsletter reported the fraternity had an incoming pledge class of 35 members. Nowhere did the newsletter mention that the local chapter no longer was an organization affiliated with KU and had been suspended until the Fall 2025 semester.

Instead, the masthead of the newsletter advertised it as “A publication of Phi Delta Theta – University of Kansas.” The front page of the newsletter also featured the Jayhawk logo, a feature highlighting KU football, and the first paragraph of the lead article said the fraternity was “excited to remain a meaningful part of KU Greek life…”

Barcomb-Peterson indicated her office had not seen a copy of the newsletter until the Journal-World provided it a copy of the newsletter, after the university requested to see a copy.

“I can tell you that, generally speaking, a student organization that has been suspended is not permitted to use KU’s name or marks in its marketing materials,” Barcomb-Peterson said via email.

She pointed to a section of the May agreement that gives KU the ability to extend Phi Delta Theta’s suspension if the fraternity is found to have violated the terms of the agreement.

When KU announced the original suspension in January, university officials told the public what restrictions would come with that suspension. At the time, the Journal-World reported the university as saying the fraternities had lost their status as a “registered student organization,” and that the loss of the status meant neither fraternity could “operate on the University of Kansas campus or in any way associated with the university, including recruitment of current or prospective KU students or the use of materials of any form associating the chapter name with the university.”

The May agreement continues to label Phi Delta Theta as an organization lacking status as a registered organization with KU. However, the agreement doesn’t specifically state that the fraternity can’t use the KU name or logo. But the agreement also refers to a formal sanction letter, which may prohibit such use of the KU name and logo. The Journal-World didn’t have a copy of the modified sanction letter Monday afternoon.

The May agreement does state that the university agrees the fraternity can operate off-campus and not run afoul of the university’s suspension. According to the newsletter, the local chapter continues to operate a Phi Delta Theta fraternity house located off campus.

The new agreement comes at a time when a trend has developed on some universities for fraternities to break away from a school and no longer be governed by university policies. The Los Angeles Times reported last month on eight USC fraternities that had disaffiliated from the university so that they could conduct student recruitment activities in a manner of their choosing. USC responded by sending messages to prospective students “strongly recommending” that they not join or affiliate with any of those breakaway organizations.

As for new anti-hazing requirements called for in the May agreement, they include:

• The hiring of a new “Live-in Leadership Advisor” who has had no previous affiliation with the fraternity. That advisor is required to meet with various KU student life leaders each semester.

• Provisions in the fraternity’s housing contracts with members that require all members to participate in any investigation or hearing related to hazing at the fraternity.

• The creation of at least an hourlong program on the dangers of hazing and how to prevent it. All chapter officers will be required to attend the program, and at least 75% of all other members will be required to attend the program once per semester.

As part of that program, Phi Delta Theta is specifically required to communicate that hazing includes “acts of personal servitude, cleaning ‘Senior Houses,’ and forced alcohol or drug consumption.”


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