The Phi Delta Theta fraternity is no “Animal House.” And Tech President Bud Peterson is no Dean Wormer. Nonetheless, it is safe to say that arguments over frat-house behavior and student justice rarely spill over into the holy confines of the state Capitol.
But that’s what’s happening. And the fraternity may be winning.
Last August, an African-American woman lodged a complaint against Phi Delta Theta, alleging that members of the fraternity shouted racial slurs at her from the windows of their campus house.
The fraternity denied that any such thing happened. It produced security video of the young woman walking by, unflinching. Windows from which the slurs were alleged to have been hurled had been sealed for years.
Even so, two months later, a Tech administrator in charge of student discipline placed the fraternity and its 100 or so members on "suspension in abeyance," restricting its members to academic activities – no intramural sports, no socials -- and requiring members to undergo sensitivity training as a condition for lifting the sanction.
No appeal was allowed, to either the Tech president or the state Board of Regents.
“Double-secret probation,” snarled Earl Ehrhart, a state representative from west Cobb County, who entered the picture shortly afterward.
Ehrhart is the same fellow who went after Delta Air Lines’ scalp last year when CEO Richard Anderson used some unfortunate language while encouraging the Legislature to pass a tax increase to rebuild the state’s roads and bridges. At Ehrhart’s urging, Delta lost a 10-year-old sales tax break on aviation fuel, worth more than $20 million a year.
Ehrhart is also chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees university spending. The Cobb County lawmaker has previously expressed his doubts about the way Georgia’s public universities handle accusations of sexual assault – whether they might be better handled by law enforcement and qualified prosecutors.
(An Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigation this month found that Tech had recently been ordered to re-instate a student who had been unfairly accused of sexual assault.)
Likewise, the Tech fraternity’s suspension riled Ehrhart. “These young men have lost an entire half-year of their college experience. It’s a huge sanction. You spend a lot of time and effort and money to get into a fraternity,” the lawmaker said. “And they’re walking around campus with a scarlet letter on their foreheads, for ‘racists.’”
For the last three months, Ehrhart, Georgia Tech officials, the state Board of Regents, and attorneys for members of the aggrieved fraternity have argued and negotiated. Ehrhart has issued threats of reduced – or at least capped – funding for the engineering university.
In December, a special committee set up to examine student disciplinary policies issued its report to Peterson, the Tech president. Among its findings: While facts were undisputed in “95 percent” of all disciplinary investigations, in “one case,” punishment was meted out solely on the force a statement by the person who lodged the complaint. No other evidence was considered.
That case, Ehrhart said, targeted the Phi Delta Theta fraternity.
On Monday, Ehrhart will hold a two-hour hearing in the Capitol. He will announce that the Board of Regents are working on a system-wide policy to ensure due process for university students. In other words, tuition and other amenities, once paid for, are a property right that shouldn’t be ripped away lightly.
Likewise, Tech has been ordered to cease its practice of denying appeals in “suspension by abeyance” cases. A spokeswoman for the Board of Regents confirmed both developments.
Ehrhart also said the Tech administrator who had overseen student disciplinary issues had been transferred.
But the lawmaker won’t get one thing he wanted.
Ehrhart said he has demanded that the complaint against the fraternity be dropped. It hasn’t been. Instead Phi Delta Theta will be allowed to make an appeal to an appointed jurist, former state Supreme Court chief justice Leah Sears. Evidence will be allowed. Lawyers, too. Ehrhart wasn’t impressed.
“You want to talk about ‘safe space’? In the vernacular of campus discussion today, there’s no safe space for young men at Tech. You want to be safe? Go to class, then go run and hide in your dorm. That’s where we are at Tech right now,” said Ehrhart, who can be prone to operatic pronouncements.
The Tech student body is roughly 70 percent male. Incidents on the other side of the scale have been documented. For instance, the email that surfaced in 2013, in which the social chair of another Tech fraternity instructed his brothers on how to lure "rapebait" by getting female guests drunk.
Ehrhart said Monday’s hearing will include testimony from an attorney for Phi Delta Theta. University system officials have been invited, as have Tech officials. But the lawmaker offered a warning, with Wagnerian overtones.
”This is not a micro-aggression. This is a macro-aggressive environment when Earl Ehrhart is chairing the meeting. If you don’t like someone to disagree with you, little snowflake, and you’re going to melt in a fetal position on the floor of my committee room, you can go outside in the hall,” he said. “It’s a public building, but you can’t do it there when adults are having a conversation.”
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