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Dartmouth Frat Alumni File Lawsuit Against Board Alleging Violations by Own Trustees



Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Hanover — Alumni of Dartmouth College fraternity are taking their own board of trustees to court over the right to continue to lease the group’s Webster Avenue fraternity house to undergraduate fraternity members.

In a complaint filed in Grafton County Superior Court, Alex Becker, a 2010 graduate who currently lives in New York, accuses the Sigma Phi Epsilon’s alumni trustees of a power grab that took voting rights away from an estimated 1,500 potential and existing alumni members.

“This lawsuit seeks to ensure that alumni and undergraduates have a voice on critical questions about the future of their house, and asks that a court make the Board comply with its own bylaws ... ,” said Hanover attorney Carolyn Cole, who is representing Becker. “The ultimate future of the chapter house should rest with all its members, not a small group of unaccountable trustees who have ignored every objection.”

The complaint is the latest volley in an ongoing conflict, with the battle lines drawn between those who support the national Sigma Phi Epsilon organization’s vision of an alcohol-free fraternity house and those who want a locally controlled house that offers more leeway for parties and other social events.

The complaint, which was filed on July 24, accuses the trustees of the Sigma Phi Epsilon New Hampshire Alpha Alumni and Volunteer Corp. of breaching their duties in order to advance the national Sigma Phi Epsilon organization’s agenda.

As part of the preliminary work to transition to a dry chapter, trustees worked with the national organization to subject 102 undergraduate fraternity brothers to a membership review that resulted in the culling of 80 of those members in May.

The review included a questionnaire in which undergraduates were asked about their alcohol use and their finances, among other things, according to Cole.

The suit alleges that, with the remaining 22 members unable to even fill the chapter house’s 26 beds on 11 Webster Ave., the trustees have acted against the financial interests of the chapter, which relies on undergraduates to pay rent to cover roughly $200,000 in annual financial obligations.

Becker says the trustees are “imminently preparing to eject all remaining undergraduate members of the fraternity” to clear the way for a lease with a third party at the house, which is owned by the trustees.

Hundreds of alumni expressed opposition to the substance-free policy in a letter that criticized the membership review and urged the trustees to consider disaffiliating the local chapter from the national group. The chapter, which was founded in 1909, last disaffiliated in 1967, and rejoined the national organization in 1981.

Some alumni have expressed outrage about the possibility of repurposing the house, in part because hundreds of thousands of dollars in alumni donations helped to fund a 2010 project to raze and rebuild the house for future generations of Sigma Phi Epsilon members.

In addition to the trustees as a whole, the suit names eight individual trustees as defendants, including two — Sean Anthony and Vice President of Facilities Herb Philpott — who were targeted by 15 alumni members who sought to convene a special meeting to recall the two trustees.

In its formal call for a special meeting, the 15 members accused Philpott, who did not return calls seeking comment, of leading the group into a crisis, of speaking on behalf of the group without authorization, and of advocating the chapter “take a discriminatory position on the religious beliefs of its new members by excluding those who do not believe in a higher power.”

Efforts to reach Anthony, an Ohio resident, were unsuccessful. He is accused of pushing for the membership review, which the suit alleges disproportionately affected members of color.

The suit accuses the trustees of improperly evading the potential recall by failing to convene the special meeting, and then pushing for a behind-the-scenes revision to the bylaws that restructured the organization to take away the voting rights of non-trustee members.

The suit seeks an injunction that would prevent the trustees from entering into a lease for the chapter house.

The court has summoned the defendants to a temporary hearing scheduled for 1:30 p.m. on Aug. 14 at Superior Court in North Haverhill.

Media reports of a Dartmouth College culture that supported binge drinking and sexual assault led to a 2015 crackdown in which administrators vowed to rein in the Greek system as part of a larger reform effort.

Since that time, Alpha Delta and Sigma Alpha Epsilon have been banned from campus.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.