Back from the Dead: The Return of Phi Kappa Psi
Ben Whedon ('18)-
Only the current senior class remembers a time when Phi Kappa Psi was an official organization at W&L. Everyone younger has known only its shadowy rump state, the Phi Society. For three years, the fraternity has survived as a legally chartered non-profit social club in one of the most unusual efforts to circumvent a suspension yet seen in the history of Greek Life in Lexington. This bizarre effort seems to have paid off, as last October they received news of the exiled fraternity’s impending return.
Phi Kappa Psi initially received an eighteen-month suspension from the IFC as a result of a hazing incident made public in March of 2015. One incumbent member tazed a recruit during pledgeship. In a controversial move, then-University President Kenneth P. Ruscio unilaterally extended the suspension to a full three years, essentially a death sentence for the fraternity, as all of the group’s members would graduate before the suspension’s expiration. Ruscio’s actions stoked fears in the student body as well as the alumni community that the administration was taking steps towards the eventual elimination of Greek life.
For one of the largest fraternities on campus, the suspension marked a significant blow to the social scene. Despite the implementation of the “death sentence,” the members were unwilling to part ways and instead took the unusual step of chartering as a 501(c)(7) social club, with the fraternity’s officers assuming the corporate leadership positions. Amazingly, then-Phi Psi President Cole Schott ’17 was able to sell the standing members, as well as the bulk of the year’s pledge class on the unorthodox plan.
Phi Psi was unique in that its high membership required the fraternity to possess a higher volume of real estate than most. They were fortunate to be in control of “Munster,” the large Victorian house situated across the street from the Lexington Post Office. The iconic party house effectively served as a base for the club’s rush activities for the next three years. Evidently, Phi Society’s rush efforts would proved quite effective as the next three pledge classes numbered 20 for the class of 2019, 11 for 2020, and 21 for 2021. Those rush figures are relatively high for most fraternities but are consistent with the historic numbers for the suspended fraternal organization.
One might marvel at the rush success of an unofficial fraternity with no house when competing with plenty of established organizations in possession of their own beer halls. An explanation may come from their status as a social club. Jack Stucky ’18, who succeeded Schott as Phi Society President, had this to say: “There were obviously pros and cons from operating as a social club. The obvious ones being lower dues and the sacrifice of a fraternity house.” The absence of national dues almost certainly acted as an incentive for those on the fence to consider rushing. The absence of the house was easily solved by placing the pledge class in Woods Creek and simply having more parties off-campus.
We can only imagine the frustration this entire operation caused the administration. The Phi Society essentially discovered a way to cheat death in the face of University sanction. Perhaps recognizing that they had overplayed their hand, the administration instead chose to work with the nascent social group rather than take any steps to actively oppose their operations on-campus. To this point Stucky offered the following comment:
“As far as operating as a social club independent of the school, we worked with the school pretty closely to ensure that we were operating within the same bounds it had set for fraternities. There were some difficulties to this, but everyone within the school was supportive and willing to work to help us avoid liability.”
This level of support from the administration seems oddly strange for an organization that just tried to dissolve the fraternity. Most likely, they realized the inevitability of Phi Psi’s return. Unlike several of the fraternities that have gone inactive in recent years (Phi Kappa Sigma, Sigma Phi Epsilon, and Sigma Alpha Epsilon) which saw their houses taken over by the administration to be transformed into some half-baked theme house, the Phi Kappa Psi dwelling has sat empty for all three years. While this is unconfirmed, consistent hearsay suggests that the housing corporation refused to allow the school to occupy the building, fearing that it would never be returned to the fraternity. In any case, something prevented the school from seizing the building, which signaled to the Phi Society members that their home would wait for them to return.
Phi Psi’s return to campus will be seamless. The pledge classes are strong, the house lies empty awaiting their return, and the group has kept up its social activities so as to remain relevant. Ruscio’s “death sentence” is almost laughable in light of their continued success as a social group. The fraternity’s survival has set an interesting precedent in that, should they be willing to accept the administrative burden of a corporate institution, any fraternity that faces disciplinary action might avoid dissolution through the same process. The University’s support had to have come from fear of an even greater fallout. A corporate entity is outside of the administration’s oversight. If the school pushes too hard against fraternities, more may choose to follow the same route. We might expect a slight reprieve in administrative assaults on fraternities in light of this. Solely by surviving, the members of the Phi Society, and soon to be the brothers of Phi Kappa Psi, have won a decisive victory against the school in the battle over Greek Life’s future. Well done gentlemen!