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These KU alums protect fraternities’ reputation — and $36 million in Greek real estate

Kansas Fraternity Landlords’ League seeks to protect houses and traditions

David Steen, an alumnus of Kappa Sigma fraternity at KU, and De'Riece Burse, a student leader there, spoke recently about Kansas Fraternity Landlords' League and its mission.
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David Steen, an alumnus of Kappa Sigma fraternity at KU, and De'Riece Burse, a student leader there, spoke recently about Kansas Fraternity Landlords' League and its mission.

The momentary ban on University of Kansas fraternity social events this year was so dramatic that some members of the Kansas Fraternity Landlords’ League still refer to that week as the March Meltdown.

On March 12, KU Chancellor Doug Girod announced he would support the decision of a few fraternity leaders to freeze parties, formals, “Mom’s Day” events and pledging activities pending investigations of several chapters. Within hours, angry Greek students filed into a meeting with him and some pushed back.

And right alongside them were members of the Landlords’ League, a group of Greek alumni — some of whom graduated KU 50 some years ago — who operate 11 of KU’s, largest, oldest fraternities.

In the following days, KFLL denounced university officials, saying they took advantage of the student-led Interfraternity Council when most of its members could not serve because their houses were under investigation. They accused officials of “flexing their muscles” on the few remaining student leaders.

And KFLL supported an interim council of fraternity leaders who held an emergency meeting, deemed the freeze “unconstitutional” and revoked it.

The freeze lasted four days.

How much of an impact did this group of adults have on students’ rejection of the university-endorsed freeze? While KFLL alumni say they credit the students for bringing energy to the showdown with university officials, they’re aware their support likely strengthened students’ resolve.

“There’s strength in numbers,” said Nick Reddell, a 2004 KU Phi Kappa Psi alum who now serves as KFLL’s vice president of tenant relations.

“We should not allow activist behavior inside the administration to put out an agenda just because they don’t like fraternities and sororities,” said Al Simmons, a 1982 KU Beta Theta Pi alum and KFLL member.

“I think we gave those guys a little bit of encouragement to play by the rules, rules that had been violated,” said KFLL president David Steen, a KU Kappa Sigma alum who graduated in 1971. Steen said that at the chancellor’s meeting he and other alums watched a college sophomore stand up to a university official by citing bylaws that require a majority of IFC leaders approve decisions impacting their fraternities.

“They are sitting there with an administration that said we want you to freeze your activities and pushed it in an improper way,” Steen said. “And for an undergraduate to push back against an administrator … that takes major cajones.”

David Steen (2)
David Steen, is the president of the Kansas Fraternity Landlords’ League and an alumni adviser for the Kappa Sigma fraternity at The University of Kansas. He spoke recently with The Star about KFLL, a business league representing 1,000 students and 14,000 living alumni from 11 KU fraternities. The league shares information, enforces high academic standards for its members and establishes policies to sustain and improve Greek life. Rich Sugg rsugg@kcstar.com

The Kansas Fraternity Landlords’ League had in part formed to help in situations like this. Three years ago, galvanized by another university proposal many felt would hurt fraternities, alumni associated with 10 fraternities united around a mission to promote policies they feel breed successful fraternity men, protect the economic interests of houses worth $36 million in real estate and combat changes they feel fly in the face of more than a century of traditions.

“Once we started talking about critical issues, we realized we had the same issues,” Simmons said of KFLL’s early days. “It’s college students. We all have the same challenges with our national organizations, dealing with KU administration at times.”

The Star gave KU more than a month to comment on KFLL, the March freeze and its own new Greek initiatives, but a spokeswoman said the university’s associate director of fraternity/sorority life did not have time for an interview.

For as long as fraternities have existed at the University of Kansas, there have been Greek alumni who mentor and protect the young inhabitants of the privately owned mansions that line West Campus Road, Tennessee Street and other neighborhoods surrounding campus. Most KU chapters have given ownership of the houses to nonprofit housing corporation groups managed by volunteer alumni.

But it’s only in recent years that these individual housing corporations have banded together to promote fraternity interests, making them a powerful player in a fraternity system owned by individual corporations, monitored by national organizations and supported by the university.

At a time when the behavior of fraternity men is under more scrutiny than ever and Greek reform is a hot-button topic for universities, KFLL members say their mission isn’t to cover up improprieties.

“What we’ve told everyone is we’re not here to be a shield for you guys,” said Aaron Racine, an Overland Park attorney and alum of Stanford University’s Theta Zi chapter who serves as the league’s legal counsel. “We’re here to help you find personal success.”

Instead, the members see themselves as a shield for the fraternities themselves, the million-dollar mansions, the interests of thousands of alumni and the traditions they hold dear deep into adulthood.

KFLL members say that they aren’t against reform, but that as active alumni they know best how to improve the institutions and must be involved in any efforts to change them.

“It’s very tempting for administrators and these national organizations to go to these national conferences and talk about best practices here and best practices there,” said Simmons. “But don’t confuse a widely held practice with the best practice, because at KU most of the fraternities are owned privately.”

Students come and go, Simmons points out. As for fraternity landlords?

“We have so much more to lose if things don’t go well.”

Fuel from a study

KFLL’s 2015 origins stemmed from the need to compare notes on the mundane aspects of operating fraternity houses (security contracts, deals on toilet paper…) and a more pressing issue — liquor.

It was a concern the university shared. Steen said a former director of student life had met regularly with housing corporation representatives and candidly expressed concerns about the drinking habits of fraternity men.

For the first time, several alumni decided to work together to bring students on board with a plan to ban liquor from their fraternity houses. Students argued that they couldn’t competitively recruit new members if the rule wasn’t evenly enforced, KFLL members recall.

But KFLL members say they convinced students it was in their best interests to make the change, particularly as similar policies were enforced at other schools. And alumni realized it was in their best interests to share information and initiatives that could improve Greek life.

“It was really an internal group that, for lack of a better word, was finding itself,” Racine said.

If the alumni were already considering formalizing a new partnership, a new initiative from the university accelerated their efforts.

A consulting group and a sexual assault task force commissioned by the university released a 45-page report in the spring of 2015 that suggested banning freshmen from living in chapter houses and delaying recruitment until spring semester — replacing the practice of rushing high school seniors.

Alumni saw the proposals as both an economic threat and an insult to a structure they felt was working just fine.

“It didn’t include anybody from the Greek community but they saw to it to make some strong recommendations that would have had a profound effect on our fraternities and sororities,” Simmons says.

The release galvanized efforts to create the nonprofit business league, though the university said later that year that requiring all freshmen to live on campus wasn’t feasible.

“We’re all sharing this concern that we need to be prepared to argue our case because next thing you know someone could adopt these recommendations and catch us off guard,” Steen said.

That’s exactly what happened last fall, when the freshman housing recommendation resurfaced in a new faculty report on gender equity.

Within weeks, KFLL released a press release decrying the recommendation. They disseminated statistics showing men in KFLL fraternities have stronger graduation rates and academic performance than non-Greek males. And they challenged university officials to come up with data that showed fraternities had disproportionate occurrences of sexual assault.

University officials, for their part, appeared to distance themselves from the faculty’s recommendation.

“The university will not be making a policy change that would require freshmen in the Greek system to live on campus,” said a 2017 statement.

Ensuring a legacy

The first floor of the Kappa Sigma chapter house off Emery Road is filled with memories for Steen, who can rattle off fraternity lore with ease:

A Marine made the 150-pound concrete signet that hangs over the fireplace back when he was fraternity member working through PTSD symptoms following time in Saipan and the Marianas in World War II. Plaques honoring alum Bob Dole and shadow boxes with photographs from the “good ol’ days” adorn the walls. Framed sketches — Thomas Hart Benton originals — have stood the test of time.

“I was in the house in ‘67,” Steen says. “These were here then.”

It’s at this house, in a study room with deep-red walls and wooden tables, that KFLL members met with chapter presidents last year to reform high school recruitment practices.

No longer would recruits be allowed to spend the night or drink alcohol during informal visits to the house. Recruitment activities end at 9 p.m.

It’s an unusual balancing act of roles, landlord and fraternity brother, a strange marriage of business and family.

As fraternity landlords, their first duty is to the house, the sentimental legacy and the economic interests it represents. (During the March freeze, KFLL members were just as concerned about fraternity houses losing deposits on off-campus party venues as they were about the shirking of bylaws.) But their role as advisers and alumni means that it is rare for them to take the typically dispassionate role of landlord and tenant.

“My goal is to leave the fraternity better than I found it,” said Reddell, a Phi Kappa Psi chapter adviser. “If I don’t care about the guys in the house then the structure falls apart.”

Yet housing contracts have allowed the landlords control over the behavior of their tenants. And while the KFLL leaders will tell you they believe in the self-governance of their young members, they do have the power to evict them.

Steen admits it’s in part this nostalgia, the memories that seem to live in these halls, that can fuel the passion of KFLL’s members.

“We have a fair amount of energy as a group,” he says. “Many alums have a fondness and really reflect really positively on their days in a fraternity.

“That’s one of our cohesive factors that we got. … We embraced our ties at KU and in fraternities, and we want to see that appreciated and that opportunity continued.”

The philosophy helps explain why KFLL’s adult members have embraced their mission of preserving KU’s fraternities even as some critics and school administrators have chosen to abandon Greek traditions and the various liabilities that can accompany them.

It explains why these alums spend countless hours devoted to preserving their houses.

“The only thing I get out of it, no joke, is I get to park at the house for free for basketball games,” Reddell says.

It explains why they say they were deeply offended when, in March, Girod used the word “systemic” to describe problems within KU’s fraternities, why they believe there are bad fraternity members, not bad fraternities.

And it explains why they feel they must pass on to their young brothers a sense of urgency and responsibility for making sure the traditions — the ones they believe helped them becoming successful businessmen and politicians, community members and husbands — endure.

‘Willing to go fight’

Last March, the chancellor’s freeze was prompted by investigations of multiple fraternities for alleged health and safety violations. By the end of the semester five of the university’s 24 IFC fraternities, including two KFLL fraternities, received sanctions from the university. (Sigma Alpha Epsilon, which is not a KFLL fraternity, was shut down by its national headquarters for at least four years.)

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Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapters at both the University of Missouri and the University of Kansas were closed indefinitely in 2018 by the fraternity’s national headquarters. File photo

High-profile fraternity scandals and the risk of a death threaten housing corporations just as much as a university. But talk to these alumni and they’ll tell you fraternities have more of a perception problem than anything else.

They are critical of an “arduous” process where fraternities are suspended before allegations are substantiated or penalized for the actions of a few individuals.

And while KU and other universities have defined hazing as any power differential between a veteran and new fraternity member, many alumni believe strongly in their right to retain certain traditions, such as making freshmen wear suits or engage in study hours.

Most believe strongly that zero tolerance and “reactive” policies are rarely effective. In that vein, they expect students to make mistakes.

“As long as they look at us as part of the solution in helping them overcome it … we never want them to be fearful of telling us about a problem they aren’t able to deal with,” Simmons said.

KansasFraternityLandlordsme
De’Riece Burse is president of the University of Kansas Kappa Sigma chapter. Rich Sugg rsugg@kcstar.com

At KU’s recent Crimson and Blue Day, Steen and Kappa Sigma president De’Riece Burse manned a booth with pamphlets about KFLL fraternities. A school official pulled Steen aside when she saw he had invited a reporter to observe.

“She’s talking to your boys,” the official said loudly. “She’s listening to them.”

Steen seemed to shrug off the experience when he returned to the booth, uninterested in controlling what his brothers might say.

He chatted with Burse and another student leader from Sigma Nu about the old Kappa Sigma Nu Beer Drinking Challenge, where the chapters of Kappa Sigma and Sigma Nu competed in a race to finish a keg of beer.

“We retired the trophy,” Steen boasted playfully, clearly enjoying his story. “Of course it was 3.2 beer back then. Like drinking water.”

His audience laughed.

“Dave likes to tell stories,” Burse said with a grin, before telling a high school student about the academics and community service expectations of joining a KFLL fraternity.

For all the attention nationally on the bad behavior of fraternity men, the focus on academics and extracurricular participation is a key part of KFLL’s mission. It’s not just a pride point, it’s both a marketing tool that can ensure the constant influx of new members and a safeguard against troublemakers.

KFLL boasts that its members have slightly higher GPAs than non-fraternity men at 3.1. School data also show that they are more likely to graduate in four years.

Last year, the group implored members to register 535 people for the Be the Match program for stem cell and bone marrow donation. KFLL provided incentives: a barbecue dinner for the fraternity with the most registrants and a $1,000 scholarship to anyone who becomes a donor.

Another pride point: for the past several years, it has cost less to live and eat in a fraternity than a dorm.

While Burse said he was glad he joined a fraternity, at first it wasn’t for the brotherhood, it was for the price tag.

KFLL recently teamed with KU Admissions to disseminate information about Greek life to incoming students and twice hosted an orientation on academic success and good conduct for its freshmen members.

Building Brothers, an orientation for new fraternity members, was held Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2018, at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. The event was presented by the Kansas Fraternity Landlords' League.

They say their relationship with the university, once soured, can only improve with more communication, but they’re paying close attention to a recent development.

In November, the university announced a new task force to improve its fraternities and sororities, including the historically black and multicultural groups. The 27-member group, chaired by KU alumnus and Beta Theta Pi alumni Mike Michaelis, is expected to recommend changes by the summer.

The process echoes a similar advisory board formed at the University of Missouri, where 40 stakeholders spent a semester examining best practices before making recommendations to the chancellor this summer.

KU declined an interview but sent a short statement from Amy Long Schell, associate director of fraternity/sorority life.

“As indicated by the support of the chancellor’s taskforce initiative, long-term change takes time and all partners working together,” the statement read in part. “The progress made this fall shows me that we are moving in that direction.”

While KFLL was not invited as an organization to be part of the new task force, alumni representing their interests will be participating in the meetings.

“It’s unprecedented, in a positive way, that this comes from the chancellors’ office,” Steen said. “It means he understands the importance of having a direct line to the major stakeholders. It’s great progress.”

But the university has indicated change is coming.

“With sororities and fraternities under scrutiny nationwide and at KU, we must commit to raising our standards for health, wellness and self-governance and seek new ways to meet the expectations we have for our community,” Girod, the chancellor, said in a statement following the task force announcement.

And while the task force’s plans are not clear year, KFLL members have stated in no uncertain terms that they would find some of the recommendations endorsed at Mizzou unacceptable, particularly a shift to end recruitment before school starts and any limits on freshmen living in Greek housing — houses that rely on rent from students.

Marty Sedlacek, the president of KU’s Interfraternity Council and a member of the chancellor’s task force, has been outspoken about a need to collaborate.

“It’s time to stop looking at 20-, 21-year old chapter leaders and expect them to know all the answers on how to stop 150 years of fraternity hazing,” he told fraternity brothers at KFLL’s annual freshmen orientation this August.

In an interview a few weeks later, Sedlacek said groups like KFLL can be both the bane and the protector of fraternity existence. It’s these alumni who can have the most impact on their day-to-day experiences in the house, including policies that a young college student might not enjoy. But students still feel the support.

“I don’t want to say it’s like having our own army,” Sedlacek said. “But it’s having people who are willing to go fight for you.”

It’s this network that has helped Greek organizations weather controversy and change before.

KFLL member Steve Moon remembers his fellow Sigma Nu alumni brothers’ enthusiasm over restoring his KU fraternity chapter after it was temporarily shut down for hazing violations in 2005. It’s an ardor he would extend to any fraternity brother, Sigma Nu or not, whose traditions were being threatened.

“We didn’t want,” Moon said, “to have it end on our watch.”

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