Theta Kappa Phi, University’s oldest sorority, suspended at least one-year

Amelia Leaphart    

Acting Vice-Chancellor Nancy Berner suspended Theta Kappa Phi (TKP), the University’s oldest sorority, for at least a year on September 9, after the sorority appealed a four-year suspension prescribed by the Dean of Students office.

Under Berner’s ruling, TKP faces a reeducation process with no guarantee of reinstatement and must wait until at least September 2023 before applying to rejoin Sewanee’s Greek community. 

The sorority’s 88-page appeal as well as TKP parents, alumni, and Sewanee’s Greek Alumni Council have alleged that the University investigation was unfair, citing allegations of sexual harassment by a private investigator hired by the University. TKP advocates and Greek alumni advisors have also charged that the University’s actions against the sorority violated its own policies. 

The Purple’s chronology of the summer investigation is drawn from the appeal submitted by TKP on August 29. The appeal included detailed correspondence between the sorority and  Assistant Dean of Campus Activities Kyle Gallagher and the Office of Student Life, as well as statements from a number of TKP parents and alumnae. 

Sewanee Student Life’s unprecedented recommendation of a four-year suspension for TKP has escalated concerns among many students and alums that the University intends to either curb or eliminate Greek organizations on the Mountain. After reviewing the sorority’s appeal, Berner’s final ruling rejected the four-year suspension, concluding that it was inconsistent with the evidence. While Berner’s five-page ruling ordered TKP to be suspended for the current academic year, it said the group could apply for reinstatement in September 2023. But the ruling set extensive restrictions and re-education requirements, including some that would continue after the group would be allowed back on the Mountain.

While TKP’s appeal was pending, Kyle Gallagher, Dean of Student Life Erica Howard, and ISC President, Jane Austin Murdoch declined to comment. Members of TKP declined to comment before and after the appeal was settled. TKP president Charlotte Benedict has not responded to multiple requests for statements from The Purple

TKP’s appeal alleged that TKP members interviewed by a University-paid outside investigator “were bullied and harassed. …They were questioned alone by a middle-aged man whose professional purpose and reputation has been characterized by dismantling organizations such as TKP.” The sorority’s appeal also alleged that the investigation offered TKP members “no meaningful fact-finding, no room for rebuttal or cross examination, no opportunity for context.” In excerpts of emails to the University included in the appeal, unidentified parents of TKP members alleged that girls were asked inappropriate questions such as what were their “favorite condoms” and whether they were virgins. 

The sorority’s appeal contended that the University denied sorority members due process,  failed to follow University rules and regulations, and proposed a punishment that “constitutes gender discrimination.”

The University’s investigative documents, included in the TKP appeal, indicate there was an intensive back-and-forth between the sorority’s members, Student Life and University-paid outside investigators over the late spring and summer.  

Even before the current case began, TKP had already been placed on probation from April 15, 2022, to December 15, 2022, due to hazing violations. Student Life’s Gallagher emailed TKP president Charlotte Benedict (C ’23) about more hazing charges against the sorority on May 16, after students left campus for summer break. Gallagher’s May 16 email added that TKP  members would need to submit to interviews via Zoom over the next two days by private investigators and would not be allowed to have anyone else present. That meant no faculty advisor or parent could be within the room or listen in during the Zoom video calls. 

Benedict protested, “Considering the extremely brief notice I was given to contact our members and the fact that we are currently on summer break, I have already been made aware of conflicts with the timing and nature of this investigation,” she wrote back to Gallagher. “I have not been able to adequately discuss this matter with our advisors, one of which is currently traveling.”

Benedict then requested that individual meetings with the investigators be moved to a later date. Gallagher refused. Citing members’ mental health, the TKP president also requested a meeting with both investigators and the sorority’s advisors before the interviews so that each member could understand the process and their rights and be given a copy of the allegations. Gallagher  agreed to meet with Benedict to discuss the rights and responsibilities of the interviewees, but he said he could not share details regarding the allegations, citing federal student privacy regulations. 

At this point, TKP had not received formal notice of wrongdoing. Gallagher wrote TKP leaders: “I want to emphasize that the chapter has not been charged with any violation.”

After the May interviews of individual members by the outside investigators, Gallagher wrote TKP members on June 8 and detailed allegations that the University had received on April 13. He also requested as an informational meeting with the group. The allegations detailed in the June 8 letter included:

“Forced consumption of alcohol leading up to and during an activity called “Field Day” that occurred on or about April 9, 2022

“Forced participation and alcohol consumption and hazing behaviors at a event with another fraternity on or around April 18, 2022

“Forced consumption of alcohol during “Family Day” on or around April 16, 2022

“Requirement of new members to participate in demeaning activities during the new member period

“The requirement for new members to serve as sober drivers on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays per an internal schedule throughout the Easter 2022 semester

“The requirement for new members to engage in various activities of personal servitude for initiated members throughout the new member period.”

Gallagher’s June 8 letter demanded a written report from TKP explaining the alleged incidents and TKP’s plans to address them, as well as steps the sorority would take to comply with University policies. The Student Life assistant dean also strongly encouraged the group to conduct an internal investigation. On July 11, Gallagher set up a Zoom meeting for TKP’s to be held the following day. He also introduced a new allegation dating back to April 21, 2022, though he offered the group no details of that charge. On August 1, Gallagher sent TKP a cease-and-desist letter. He wrote that the group would only be allowed to hold meetings to respond to the ongoing investigation and could no longer function as an active University organization. Under the new restriction, only residents were to be allowed inside the TKP’s chapter house. 

Gallagher set a formal conduct hearing for August 16, despite requests from sorority leaders for a delay until all students returned to campus for the fall semester. After that hearing, TKP officers met with the administration. TKP’s appeal indicated that the group agreed in that meeting to follow the terms of their previous probation handed down in April. They also offered to dissolve the sorority’s long-standing practice of pledgeship, telling University officials that they would instead immediately accept any new members as actives. Those offers were rejected. On August 22, Gallagher emailed his finding: the University should ban TKP from campus for at least four years. 

The allegations that led to the University’s investigation and suspension ruling began with a report last April from a one-time TKP member to Director of Greek Life Donald Abels. The one-time TKP member confirmed making the report in a recent interview with the Purple.

In an email to the student body on August 22, Abels announced Student Life’s decision to suspend TKP for four years. Abels wrote: “Members of the formerly registered student organization may not conduct any formal or informal business or participate in University-related activities, whether they occur on or off campus, including, but not limited to, the ability to host or co-host events, participate in membership recruitment, or have representation of the organization on the Intersorority Council.” 

That sparked an uproar among TKP alumni and parents and advisors for the University’s other Greek organizations. A current TKP member, Sofina Behr (C’24) created a petition, which has drawn more than 3,000 signatures. Both the petition and the sorority’s appeal contend that significant procedural errors made the University’s investigation and ruling fundamentally unfair. Behr’s letter accompanying the petition contended that the University had violated their own policies in this investigation. Behr also cited sections of the student Code of Conduct that had been ignored by Student Life:

“1. To have an advisor, excluding an attorney, present in any conduct hearing. Advisors may not participate directly in a conduct hearing process nor may an advisor address any participant in the conduct hearing process other than the student the advisor is supporting;

2. To examine evidence to be used against him or her at the conduct meeting or prior to a formal hearing;

3. To view the list of witnesses against him or her prior to a formal hearing and to suggest additional witnesses to this list.” 

Alleged policy violations highlighted in TKP’s appeal also included how, within one week of notice of an incident, a staff member from Office of Campus Activities should have “communicated the concern and requested information via email,” according to the Student Organization Policy Guide. However, the sorority was not notified about the April report of alleged wrongdoing until May 16, after many students had left campus.

TKP’s appeal stated: “Had the University timely notified TKP of the allegations, students would have still been on campus and the allegations could have been addressed in person and in an organized fashion. Instead, the University caused confusion and great anxiety among the TKP’s officers and members, accusing them of significant policy violations, then dribbling information to them throughout the summer.”

The administration has also gotten criticism for its use of outside private investigators instead of  handling the inquiry internally. In the sorority’s appeal, TKP members recounted feeling threatened by self-described hazing expert David Westol, one of the private investigators; they also claimed that they were  harassed by Westol’s inappropriate commentary.TKP’s appeal stated that the Indiana-based lawyer asked a student “What is your favorite condom?” and another student, “do you have a tampon in your purse?” Parents’ accounts included the appeal also alleged that Westol asked girls whether they were virgins. 

Because the punishment Gallagher recommended would have banned TKP from the Mountain for four years, the group would not have been able to apply for readmission until after all current members graduated. TKP’s appeal said that would mean the sorority would lose its current traditions and a history dating to its 1977 founding. 

The appeal and petition also argued that TKP’s punishment indicated a gender-based double-standard in the University’s treatment of Greek groups. Though TKP’s members were not asking “to evade our responsibilities and obligations to the community,” TKP member Behr wrote, “I am disheartened to see that my organization has received a punishment that is as severe as that given to Alpha Tau Omega, whose members were proven to unfortunately engage in physical abuse of new members. I want to be very clear: one form of hazing is never ‘better’ than another. It is obvious, however, that the nature of our offenses do not warrant the same level of punishment. I have so much respect for this University and my sorority, and I am puzzled that our offenses have received the same punishment given for physical abuse. It is clear that offenses by male organizations far outpace those of female organizations, and this discrepancy is concerning to me as a woman on campus.” 

In her final ruling on the TKP case on Sept. 9, acting Vice-Chancellor Nancy Berner wrote, “I have determined that any procedural confusion that may have occurred during the handling of this case did not have a bearing on the findings of responsibility.” Berner’s ruling added that any procedural problems did not affect her ultimate findings. 

Berner wrote that she disagreed with the scale of the original, four year punishment because it “deviates from the standard sanctioning practices given the objective evidence presented.” This shift suggests that the proposed four-year banishment went beyond the pale of both the evidence and the University’s disciplinary practices and precedents. 

Under the interim vice-chancellor’s ruling, the earliest that TKP could possibly return would be September 2023. To be reinstated, the ruling added, TKP members must undergo extensive re-education workshops and monthly meetings overseen by the University student life administrators. They must also rewrite their constitution and rework sorority traditions under student- life supervision before being allowed to recruit new members in rush. At best, TKP’s  earliest rush would not come until the spring of 2024. 

But the sorority’s reinstatement is not guaranteed. To be reinstated, TKP members would have to find and pay for a speaker or presenter on hazing in Advent 2023 and Advent 2024 to come to the Mountain for a campus-wide event, during which they would need to engage in a facilitated discussion. After that, even if TKP were allowed to rejoin the University community, it would remain under special scrutiny — called Organizational Probation — for at least another year. That means that the group would not be allowed to have parties with alcohol. It also would mean that any new violations of any University policy would result in permanent banishment  from the Mountain. And during their Organizational Probation, TKP members and their advisors would be required to continue undergoing extensive re-education and training under Student Life supervision. 

 TKP’s punishment is the latest development in the University’s efforts to intensify the scrutiny of Greek organizations. In a new section on Sewanee’s website details hazing incidents,, Student Life lists punitive educational programming and workshops as “an outcome” or punishment also being imposed against six other Greek houses. 

All TKP members currently living in the Wheat house (TKP’s sorority house) have been ordered  to move out by Wednesday. It is unclear how Residential Life will decide where these 11 people will be reassigned. Under the acting Vice-Chancellor’s ruling, the soonest that TKP would be allowed to apply for theme housing would be the 2024-2025 academic year. It’s unclear whether they will be allowed back into the Wheat House or if the house will be converted to other uses. 

Berner’s ruling concluded that the sanctions against TKP were aimed at ensuring student safety and eliminating risks “to the safety and wellbeing of the members of Theta Kappa Phi.” She added that “most of these events and behaviors” found to be in violation “are ingrained into the culture and values of the organization, including some being considered formal traditions of the organization. …The presence of high-risk alcohol use, humiliating and degrading treatment of new members, and the disregard for University policies put the physical and emotional well-being of members at risk.” 

The interim vice-chancellor’s five-page letter characterized TKP’s punishment as an educational opportunity and encouraged sorority members to consider how TKP could become a model for healthy Greek life on-campus. Although Berner’s ruling offered a more hopeful ending for the sorority, many of its members and alumni remain outraged by the severity of the University’s findings. Many parents have threatened to pull donations and have written to the Board of Regents. Although Berner said the appellate response is final, many members of the greater Sewanee community have indicated that they intend to further pursue this issue. 

Disclosure: Kyle Gallagher, who’s mentioned multiple times in this article, declined to comment before the result of the appeal. The Purple will reach out again for a response. Dean of Students Erica Howard also declined to comment. Members of Theta Kappa Phi declined to comment before and after the appeal decision. President Charlotte Benedict, who’s mentioned multiple times in this article, has not responded to multiple inquiries from The Purple.  ISC President Jane Austin Murdock (C ’23), Alumni Greek Council President Bill Harper, and University general counsel and vice president Marquitte Starkey also declined to comment.