Voting into Escrow

Colgate University’s plan to gain ownership of fraternity and sorority houses further progressed this past week as three more organizations voted in favor to sell their properties. The acquisition process has required a great deal of negotiation, will bring about a multitude of changes and is, of course, the subject of ardent contention.

This past Saturday, alumni members of Theta Chi, Phi Delta Theta and Kappa Alpha Theta voted to join the University’s plan. Their involvement brings the total number of Greek organizations that have agreed to sell to six and means that next year there will be 10 active chapters with houses. Vote tallies indicate strong support for the new residential vision.

Theta Chi was reportedly 94 percent in favor, Delta Upsilon 80.3 percent, Beta Theta Pi 81 percent, and Phi Delta Theta 77.9 percent. University President Rebecca Chopp cautioned that the numbers might not be entirely accurate, however, as they are currently “un-audited.”

It was no easy task to convince the members of Colgate’s Greek letter organizations to sell their properties, and the process required many months of negotiations. When first approached about selling their houses, many alumni inquired about the possibility of a lease option. Financial Vice President and Treasurer David Hale dealt with those negotiations.

“I think, at first, we received a lot of questions and took them very seriously about a lease option,” he said. “We began discussing this with the Greek letter leaders in October of 2003 … Following that meeting, they asked us formally if we would consider a lease option. The Board took it very seriously, and concluded that no, we wanted acquisition.”

Of course, the University had to make concessions of its own.

“We increased our financial offers pretty substantially in some cases, depending on house conditions,” Hale said. “We also made very significant concessions around the sale. We’ve included a buy-back provision for the houses. Should the University terminate the Greek letter system, or if recognition is permanently withdrawn, that would trigger the alumni organization the ability to buy back the house.”

Many steps were taken in order to ensure that there was a clear line of communication between the University and Greek members. Director of Media Relations Charlie Melichar discussed the means of creating this dialogue.

“Colgate alumni have been kept informed about the acquisition process via emails, letters, a webcast, personal meetings, club events – both specific to acquisition and as topics of conversation at general meetings – and stories in the Colgate Scene and on the university website. A great deal of information about the process has been made available over the past two years,” he said.

This discourse between alumni and the administration led to a proposal forming the Fraternity and Sorority Alumni Initiative Committee.

“One of the things that was suggested in the negotiations is that there be a very high-level committee that I would chair with the alumni leaders of the Greek organizations…and we’ve done that …We’ve had our first meeting, and I think we all walked away very, very encouraged. We have never sat around at a table-the administration and the alumni-and worked together. I think we were all encouraged by that,” Chopp said.

Roughly four million dollars will be spent on the acquisition, and even more money will be spent on any additional changes the houses might undergo. Hale mentioned the possibility of minor renovations, like making sure the fire doors are working correctly.

For President Chopp, the greatest changes will be ideological, not physical.

“We anticipate a closer relationship between the Dean of the College-especially the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs. We expect the Greek houses to participate and hopefully take a leadership role in the Broad Street Council. I think that will be one of the biggest changes … Our goal is to develop enough relationships with the leaders in houses so that when they face difficulties in the houses, we can support the Greek leaders as they deal with any discipline problems they have, so that it doesn’t continue to be the case that when something explodes the university has to shut down a house. I hope we are moving into a much more preventative mode and supportive mode,” she said.

Another change for fraternities and sororities is the implementation of a new occupancy requirement for each house. All houses need to have a minimum of 80% of their beds filled. If an organization falls below the minimum occupancy, it would have three subsequent semesters to recruit new members and fill any vacancies.

Hale explained the implications of failing to meet this standard.

“If they don’t fulfill their housing requirements … as the agreement says, we would work with them to figure out what to do next. But we do have the right at that point to say this is not an appropriate facility for your organization … We believe that a fraternity or sorority student organization is a residential entity at its core. If they are not able to fill the house to the stated requirement, then we reserve the right to use the house differently … I should also say that within the agreement, we also allow the organizations to go recruit non-members to help them fill out their occupancy requirements. It’s in no way set up to ambush an organization out of their house,” Hale said.

The university has its own series of obligations it has to meet as a result of the acquisition- including an increased liability.

“We are assuming a lot more liability now … So, if we didn’t think that this was the best way to run the university and save the Greek letter system, we wouldn’t have gone this way. From a pure business standpoint, we are actually taking on more liability, not less … We are willing to take on additional liability because we are finally assuming responsibility for those houses,” Hale said.

Buying the houses also means that the administration might have to deal with strained relations with alumni and students who disagree with the residential program. For example, some people charge that the University dodges specificity regarding its plans for acquisition and perhaps “spins” the issue.

Melichar disagrees.

“The University has openly shared information and communicated in a straightforward manner throughout the acquisition process. Colgate trustees have held open meetings for students to come and ask questions and share their opinions; we have sent emails and letters to students and alumni with information on the plan,” he said. “This new program is at its very early stages, with specific details being developed by committees of students and alumni working with the university. It is important that students know that Colgate will continue to welcome questions about specific aspects of the plan as we move forward.”

Chopp expressed respect for those who don’t necessarily agree with the new housing policy.

“I think we recognize … that people do come from different points; people do have different interpretations; people do have different strategies of how they would address problems and maximize opportunity. I think that’s life. In every business I’ve ever known, you’re going to have that … We try to assure people of our commitment to Greek letter organizations … and our understanding of their tremendous traditions … At the end of the day, the vast majority of people just really want this all to work out.”