A year after students protested rape culture at Penn with flyers exposing a sexually suggestive email from off-campus group OZ, Penn administrators have rolled out a series of policies changing the way social events are held on campus.
Many of these policies are based on recommendations set forth by the Task Force for a Safe and Responsible Campus Community, which convened earlier this year with the purpose of combatting sexual harassment and violence, substance abuse and other student conduct code violations.
The enforcement of these recommendations have affected nearly all student groups — and not just off-campus groups that were initially the subject of debate — confusing many students about the task force's actual goals and intentions.
Among other policies, all student groups, both on campus and off, now have to register their social events with the University or risk having it shut down by Penn Police. Registration involves hiring University-sanctioned bartenders and security guards, which cost $90 per hour, prompting student criticism that the University is making social events more expensive and potentially more dangerous. Another controversial new policy is the introduction of event observers patrolling late-night events, which students have said "encroaches on student liberties."
The task force set out to address "the negative influence of unaffiliated and unsupervised groups," which have had a long history on Penn's campus, but their goals seem to have departed from their implementation. Here's how that affected campus:
What is an "off-campus" group?
Since the 1980s, off-campus groups, which function like underground fraternities and sororities, have maintained a growing influence on Penn’s social scene.
Most of these groups started as on-campus Greek chapters that were forced to disband after being found guilty of some violation of policy. Others decided to “walk off-campus” to avoid sanctions. By moving off-campus, students no longer had to follow the same University regulations or restrictions.
The Tabard Society was one of Penn’s first recorded off-campus groups, created in 1987 to offer a less-restricted alternative to on-campus sororities.
Following Tabard, a slew of Greek organizations facing University suspensions, national sanctions or other disciplinary actions began to follow suit. Rather than comply with the University’s rules or punishments, students decided to disband their chapters and begin unregulated, off-campus groups instead.
In the face of suspension by the national office and loss of its charter for kidnapping a rival fraternity’s brother, former Psi Upsilon members created the “Owl Society” in 1990.
After sending two students to the emergency room for alcohol poisoning and bodily injuries, Zeta Beta Tau faced two years of suspension in 2004 during which members started an off-campus group called "OZ" — the same group responsible for sending the suggestive email last year.
“OAX” joined the list of off-campus groups in April 2015 and was the first affiliated sorority to walk off-campus. Members of Penn's chapter of Alpha Chi Omega chose to dissolve the sorority rather than face sanctions for a violation of Penn’s Alcohol and Drug Policy.
The University has struggled to manage off-campus groups for years.
After a University task force called the Working Group on Alcohol Abuse outlined stricter party registration and supervision in 1999, The Daily Pennsylvanian reported that on-campus parties had dropped by almost 25 percent a year later.
In 2002, the DP reported that the Interfraternity Council was launching a full-fledged “crusade against ‘pseudo-Greek societies’ – specifically Theos, an underground fraternity formed as a remnant of Sigma Alpha Mu, and Owls.
But by 2008, the University still had not required off-campus groups to register parties or follow the same initiation policies as on-campus organizations.
Scott Reikofski, former director of the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, told The Daily Pennsylvanian in 2008 that while other universities have implemented such rules for off-campus groups, it would be “somewhat inconsistent with [Penn’s] philosophy” to do so as the "students have the power at this institution."
Campus uproar to a sexually suggestive email inviting freshman girls to an event hosted by OZ in September 2016 changed the University's approach.
After student activists posted hundreds of printouts of the email around campus headed with the words “THIS IS WHAT RAPE CULTURE LOOKS LIKE,” Penn President Amy Gutmann and former Provost Vincent Price announced the creation of a task force to tackle off-campus groups.
In the email sent to the Penn community November 2016, Gutmann and Price referenced the OZ email specifically, calling it “inappropriate." When it was set up, the task force explicitly stated that one of its aims was “holding students in unaffiliated and unsupervised groups accountable for violations of University policy to the maximum degree permitted.”
After two months, the task force officially released a set of eight recommendations in April, including proposals to identify and regulate off-campus groups though it was not made clear how the University actually planned to mandate these new policies for unaffiliated groups.
Before the start of the fall 2017 semester, two of the three chairs of the task force, Vice Provost for University Life Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum and Vice President for Public Safety Maureen Rush sent out an email stating that the University would begin to enforce the task force's recommendations beginning with this fall semester.
The email said that off-campus groups would be required to register events, which had previously only been required of affiliated fraternities, sororities and other campus groups, and that Penn had expanded the team of alcohol monitors, now re-branded as "event observers," to ensure that registered events were following policy and to alert Penn Police officers of unregistered events.
The implementation of these recommendations confused and upset various student groups
When students returned to campus this semester, many noticed an uptick in social event closures across various social groups. The implementation of the task force's recommendations seemed to affect on-campus social groups — both Greek and non-Greek — more so than it did off-campus organizations.
After this perceived uptick in event closures, over 2,500 Penn students signed an online petition on Sept. 17 titled “The Ability to Have a Social Life at Penn," which blames the University for worsening students' mental health by increasing regulation of social events. Others have criticized this petition for being insensitive in its wording and lacking important context about recent mental health initiatives at Penn.
Some students have criticized Penn for not directly tackling sexual violence in its overview of student social life, given that Gutmann said one of the goals of the task force would be "to foster a campus climate and culture that is free of sexual harassment and sexual violence."
Apart from the petition, students have expressed their confusion with which events are being shut down and why. Reports have been made of Penn Police disrupting birthday parties, "ice-cream socials" and philanthropic events such as the annual "Mac n’ Phis" event hosted by the sorority Alpha Phi, which was registered with the University. Rush has said that the specific closure of the Alpha Phi event was a "mistake."
To address ongoing student confusion about what types of events can be targeted by these event policies, two administrative departments — the Division of Public Safety and the Vice Provost for University Life — began hosting "office hours” once a week starting in November, though various student leaders have said that they were not aware of these sessions.
Students have also pointed out the “large financial burden” of registering parties with the University. According to the regulations for registered events, host organizations must hire a University-approved bartender and a pair of security guards, which cost $25 and $65 per hour respectively, adding up to a total of $450 for one five-hour event.
After a few months of these event regulations, students and administrators say they have been getting used to the campus policies. Data from the University suggests that despite student backlash, groups have largely been complying with event regulation policies. Though there were only three registered events in August, the number of registered events increased each month after Penn Police continued to shut down unregistered gatherings. There have been a total of 194 registered events for the first four months of school, up 53 percent from last year’s 127.
One hundred more more groups have also identified with the Office of Student Affairs this semester, bringing its list of registered organizations from 400 to 500 — and some of these even include off-campus groups like THEOS, marking the first time that Penn has managed to effectively bring off-campus organizations back under University regulation.