UT Greek Life Struggles to Adhere to Pandemic Protocols
By Lydia Wagner and Daniella Cortez
On the 2020 season’s first game-day Saturday, things seemed pretty normal for a University of Texas football weekend — pre-pandemic normal.
At the Texas Rho fraternity house, dozens of UT students partied together in person. A leaked SnapChat video from inside the event showed attendees singing “The Eyes of Texas,” and standing shoulder to shoulder underneath a balcony packed with fraternity members. No one in the video wore a mask.
Later that day, the Austin fire marshal shut down the event.
“It’s as if there’s nothing concerning going on,” said Andres Garcia, a journalism senior at UT who lives in West Campus.
Across Dean Keeton Street, a group of 15 or more young men associated with Delta Tau Delta, Mathew McConaughey’s old fraternity, partied behind a fence draped in black tarp as if to hide their disregard for university pleas calling for social distancing, mask wearing and small gatherings.
“The university has always had more authority to enforce rules on campus than in many off campus situations,” said Sara Kennedy, director of strategic and executive communications for the UT Dean of Students office. “By law, whether on or off campus, the university is limited in its authority to act especially when the behavior at issue is constitutionally protected, such as freedom of speech and freedom of association.”
The university is looking to the city of Austin to help it curb student gatherings as COVID infections continued to spike across the state as college campuses reopened. But there’s little the university can actually do control student behavior.
“The university has asked the city of Austin to enforce its rules in areas where our students commonly live and gather, and are reminding all community members they can call 311 if they are concerned these rules are not being followed,” Kennedy said.
Some residents of West Campus aren’t convinced that UT’s policies are enough to eliminate large events, especially those tied to Greek organisations.
“I think the institute of Greek life is not only complacent; they have blood on their hands in all of this as well,” Garcia said.
Each Greek organization has its own set of rules, code of conduct and culture that members must abide by. Each fraternity is subject to conflicting sets of rules from within their local chapter, their national chapter, and from the Interfraternity Council at the University of Texas.
The IFC is in charge of the 29 fraternities on UT’s campus. Under 40 members, the IFC representatives set the standards for the behavior of men’s Greek life at UT and aim to “operate as a model organization whose sole purpose is to self-govern, to educate, and to promote a true sense of community,” according to its mission statement.
David Kelly, the president of the IFC, said he recognizes the problems within Greek life in general, including hazings, binge-drinking, sexual misconduct and drug problems. However, he sees Greek life as an “exemplified version of a college campus.” Kelly also acknowledges the progress within the Greek community.
“The Greek community is also the people who are leading the change – the culture change on college campuses towards these issues … If we can get COVID right, then that’s just another thing we can set the example for on a college campus. Texas Rho is not a part of that,” Kelly added.
Texas Rho is not currently governed by the IFC. Formerly Sigma Alpha Epsilon, the fraternity was suspended by the university for hazing in 2017 and suspended by their national chapter. The group decided, however, to become an independent fraternity and continue operations.
“The IFC has been working extremely hard to enforce COVID guidelines and manage both the health and safety of the members of Greek life and the public’s perception of fraternities,” said Robert Rota, chapter president of Theta Chi fraternity.
“I believe they have done an outstanding job. Texas Rho is unfortunately outside of the jurisdiction of IFC and the university, so they are free to do as they please.”
Rota provided the latest protocol sent out by the IFC just two weeks ago – entitled “Fall 2020 COVID-19 Roadmap.” However, this information was not published; it was sent privately to chapters. While the roadmap lays out a plethora of strict guidelines based on local, state and federal recommendations, they are only recommendations. Rota explained two new bylaws that were voted into the latest IFC bylaws, one being an event notification system — where chapters must submit a formal request detailing how the event would be legal according to city, state and IFC COVID regulations — and another bylaw requiring each chapter to enforce their own judicial proceeding for COVID violations.
The main concern of West Campus residents like Garcia, as well as Rota and the IFC, are parties held in private residences by Greek life members.
“So we get a lot of reports, I think that the biggest trend that we’ve seen, which was the biggest problem, at first is that most of the violations we get are people at apartments,” Kelly said. “It’s a similar situation to Cabo – not to that extreme – but everybody who’s doing or who’s hosting the events at an apartment is in a fraternity – it might even be different fraternities, the same guys who live in apartments. But they’re in Greek life.”
Kelly said the IFC has conducted multiple trials in response to the event reporting system and is using the processes put in place. The IFC also now requires each chapter to question violators of the private residence loophole.
“For members that are holding events at their own personal residences, we have to implement bylaws in our own chapter,” Rota said. “Specific bylaws that say one, you can’t do that if it’s violating guidelines, and two, if you do that, and we get word that you broke guidelines, we have to put you through our own judicial system.”
The IFC addressed the issue of private parties in the COVID-19 Roadmap Rota provided, claiming this is “the largest area of concern and the largest gray area,” for the semester. They also stated they “will begin to get involved if a chapter cannot demonstrate the ability to hold their own members accountable.”
Student accountability has been the main theme coming from UT guidelines as well, emphasizing community and individual responsibility. However, UT hosted a home football game with over 15,000 in-person attendees. And it’s clear football is a reason to party for UT students.
“If you’re going to throw an all-out, 300-person rager in broad daylight, in defiance of Austin regulations, then you shouldn’t be surprised when you get busted for that,” said Ryan Chandler, a senior journalism and government student and former member of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at UT.
Chandler forfeited his fraternity membership at the beginning of the Fall 2020 semester due to his busy schedule and his concerns about the spread of COVID-19.
“I got a lot out of the experience, but from being within Greek life, I also very much understand the criticisms, especially now,” Chandler said. “I don’t think Greek life has taken a leadership role in combating this pandemic. I think they could be doing more to set the example because they are in the spotlight – and rightfully so.”
Now, after events like the Texas Rho party have occurred, residents of the surrounding communities wonder what the repercussions on public health will be, as well as whether the university will intervene. As of mid-October, the number of cumulative total positive cases since March is 1,246 UT students and faculty, according to UT’s COVID-19 Dashboard.
The university remains partially open and partially online. And football game days will go on so long as Longhorn nation stays healthy with the responsibility for doing so resting on both student and the university.