An open letter to Dean Leavitt from a class of ‘77 alum

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By Letter to the Editor

­Dear Dean Leavitt,

I am writing to you to express my deep disappointment with actions taken by you with regards to extending Psi Upsilon’s provisional status until 2013. My son, Sam, was just initiated on Oct. 31, 2011 to Psi U and had been looking forward to many of the same experiences that I spoke longingly of when I was at Union. Your actions have robbed him and 23 other young men of those wonderful experiences.

I graduated in 1977 as a very proud member of Sigma Phi. My father (Kappa Alpha) preceded me, graduating in 1950. My nephew, who is a freshman, follows my son, Sam, in a legacy to a school that we have all loved.  The Copeland family has a deep history at Union, and we are greatly distressed with the punitive actions you have recently administered.

Your actions regarding Psi U are unfair and unjust. The “brandings” were not part of Psi U’s initiation process; indeed they occurred long after the students were initiated and are clearly not a form of hazing.  Five brothers made the ill-advised decision of their own volition and not under duress.

Psi U is being punished for actions that are allegedly a public safety hazard. Understandably, the school ostensibly wants to end the pattern of endangerment. Branding is potentially a personal safety hazard, but no more so then piercings or tattoos. Is the school in the business of regulating those forms of scarifications among its student body? Surely, students have a responsibility for good health care, just as they do for safe sex.  But, the school can’t legislate safe sex any more than it can, or should regulate scarifications. Is the administration monitoring the personal rituals of all students on campus, or just the brothers of Psi U?

Freedom of expression is not a violation of the code of conduct, nor is it a threat to public safety.  Where in the student handbook does it state that an individual cannot scarify his/her body? (I did read that coerced branding is illegal and would violate New York State laws, but clearly such actions were not coerced.)

Your statements in the Concordiensis expose your cursory knowledge of what a fraternity is. You claim that, ”When you join the organization, you sort of give up your individuality in that sense. You’re recognizing that the fate of the organization is based on your behaviors as an individual and they can affect the whole organization.”

Fraternities are nothing more than the bonding of individuals.  The students are individuals first, and brothers second. Individuality is what allowed the other 19 brothers to think for themselves and not go along blindly with the branding.  They acted out of their own consciences. While Sam and the others rejected the choice to brand, you must understand that they had every right to make that decision. The five students who did brand themselves did so as adults and as repugnant as we might find their choices, we defend their rights to choose. To assume that brotherhood in a fraternity comes at the price of individuality is to understand how completely out of touch you are with the ideals of Greek life.

Your actions (as well as many administrators who precede you) only serve to bolster decades of bad feelings and disgust that have characterized Greek life relationships with the school. Of course, I am sure you have heard all this before. I am also sure you are keenly aware that Union has sacrificed tens of millions in potential gifts, but it is a cost that administrators apparently feel has been justified. I would argue that the highly aggressive actions taken since 2000 have and will continue to cost the college dearly. Sadly, this ill wind should never have blown down Library Lane.

From my perspective, the decisions to “repurpose houses” has been misguided and very destructive to the soul of the school.  The attempt to mold Union’s fraternities into an administrator’s vision further serves to bolster the argument that they don’t understand or fully appreciate the role and the histories of these institutions.  The lesson is that you need to work with 200 years of history and not openly challenge it.

Union never fails to disappoint me when it comes to its attitude toward Greek life.  Dean Leavitt, you, like prior administrations before you, seem to harbor a restrictive mindset that manifests as mistrust.

­You said: “We want Greek organizations that are reflective of the ideals of the Greek life rather than the same old Greek life. We are not looking for them to follow the conduct code. We’re looking for more than that.”  What does that mean?  Why are you looking for something more? What are you referring too?  Is following the code of conduct not enough? Does this standard of behavior, of expecting “more than that” apply to all the other students as well?  This kind of scrutiny that seems to target Greek organizations appears to be punitive and unjust to say the least.

To punish an entire fraternity because you want to make an example of the few is mean spirited and perhaps discriminatory.

Indeed, your actions have caused 24 students to have poor housing options for the next year by missing lotteries.  More importantly, this situation has distracted from the more relevant academic challenges ahead.

As you know, the oldest Fraternities in the country call Union their first home.  There is sanctity and a sense of tradition that was lost when the school absconded these very homes.  The school has been engaged in damage control by trying to paint the Minervas as a success.  Contrary to the propaganda expressed in the last Union College [Alumni Magazine] (Winter Issue), the reality is that they are a failed venture and a very costly one at that.  The college still seems to be trying to come to terms with the disenfranchisement of nearly half of the alumni body.  No matter how much money the school throws at the Minervas, they will never capture what has been vanquished.  It is difficult to argue that Union College continues to pursue anything other than a policy of betrayal of some of the oldest and finest traditions on campus.

In October, I was so pleased to attend Union for Homecoming Weekend with my father, my son and my nephew.  The alumni affairs office couldn’t have been more accommodating as they extended themselves to my family, in particular to my elderly parents.  The four Union men in my family stood in front of the beautiful fireplace in Abbot Hall for a memorable family portrait.  It felt good to be back on campus and I was assured there was an honest attempt to recognize the errors of the past as it pertains to Greek life.  With this unfair ruling on Psi U, it is clear that I was mistaken. How unfortunate for my son and his peers that they are sidetracked by constant upheavals in Greek Life.  This should be a time of joy and growth, academic and social that should be stewarded by teachers, deans and other administration officials. Perhaps you will reconsider your decision and seek to find a way to turn this unfortunate incident into a positive that strengthens the relationship between the school and members of the Greek community.

 

William Copeland ‘77

Sigma Phi

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