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IOWA CITY — Protests that enveloped the University of Iowa’s Phi Gamma Delta fraternity this fall caused more than $200,000 in damage to the chapter house and displaced 28 members for the semester.
Communications obtained by The Gazette through an open records request show UI officials reached out to the fraternity, which goes by FIJI, offering support in the immediate aftermath of the protests — which started Aug. 31 and went on for days, sparked by widely-publicized allegations that a pair of FIJI brothers last fall sexually assaulted a UI student and disseminated video of the attack.
In a Sept. 7 email, UI Student Care and Assistance official Anita Cory acknowledged trauma at the 303 Ellis Ave. fraternity.
“You’ve had a really tough week+ and I hope you were able to get some rest over the long weekend,” Cory wrote to a fraternity member, whose name was redacted. “I’ve been thinking about you and your fraternity brothers a lot as we’ve reached out to offer support to those who requested additional assistance.”
In a Sept. 17 letter sent to FIJI members and parents, Associate Director for UI Fraternity and Sorority Life Programs ShirDonna Lawrence also acknowledged “the past few weeks have been challenging to navigate.”
“However, I can say most assuredly that the university’s priority is the safety of all its students, and we encourage anyone with concerns to reach out,” Lawrence wrote.
On Sept. 1, the morning after the first and most damaging protest, Lawrence emailed FIJI headquarters in Kentucky a list of costs for putting up displaced members in the Iowa House Hotel — located in the Iowa Memorial Union.
“We will move forward with putting two members in each room, which will require 14 rooms,” she wrote.
Given space limitations at the Iowa House Hotel — costing $200 a night on Fridays and Saturdays and $75 to $95 Sunday through Thursday — FIJI also had to book rooms in the Hilton Garden Inn and the Hampton Inn in Iowa City.
FIJI headquarters covered those hotel costs through Sept. 12 — after which displaced members found alternative housing for the rest of the semester, according to Lawrence’s Sept. 17 letter.
FIJI officials on Wednesday did not immediately confirm for The Gazette how much they spent on the temporary hotel accommodations.
“The international fraternity is not otherwise involved in arranging or covering the cost of alternate housing for the fall,” FIJI Executive Director Rob Caudill told The Gazette. “My understanding is that the local house corporation, which owns and operates the facility, refunded rent to those individuals and was able to assist in identifying housing options.”
Damage to the FIJI house from the raucous protests of more than 1,000 will require repair to 120-plus damaged windows, landscaping, a permanent gas grill, four doors and frames “at a cost of over $200,000,” according to an Oct. 15 email from FIJI Assistant Executive Director Todd Rotgers.
UI police said they’re investigating the vandalism, and Cory in her Sept. 7 email to FIJI indicated fraternity members have “shared evidence” with the university.
“There is a lot to comb through, but we’ll do what we can with what you’re sharing,” she wrote, adding, “We’d be happy to talk with other students that were in the house and/or officers as well.”
“I want you to understand this is NOT about FIJI being ‘in trouble,’” Cory wrote. “This is an effort to hear from you, details, memories, etc. about the protest and other experiences last week.”
Given the extensive timeline for repairing the chapter house, Lawrence in her Sept. 17 letter told students and families no one will live there during the fall 2021 semester.
“The corporation tentatively plans to reopen for the spring 2022 semester,” Lawrence wrote.
In her letter, Lawrence stressed FIJI is “an active student organization in good standing.”
FIJI had, however, recently emerged from disciplinary probation after UI last fall received several complaints it violated a student COVID agreement by hosting parties. The Gazette found UI lifted sanctions against FIJI even though it didn’t complete sanction requirements on time.
Aug. 30 — with the sex assault allegations circulating and protesters gearing up to demonstrate — a FIJI executive told UI officials the chapter finally had engaged members in a mandated COVID discussion, a year after the violations and months later than ordered.
Lawrence didn’t mention that background in her September letter to families, which reported FIJI had decided — despite the protests and displacements — to “participate fully in Interfraternity Council Recruitment.”
That process stretched from Sept. 9 to 16. Details of this fall recruitment haven’t been made public, but FIJI in spring 2021 reported 96 total members, including 16 new members, making it one of the largest UI fraternities.
Preceding this semester’s FIJI protests at Iowa, students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln had rallied against similar allegations on that campus.
And on Aug. 26 — in the wake of those Nebraska protests but before those at UI — Lawrence reached out to the UI chapter acknowledging, “It has been a tough few days for FIJI.”
“There are a plethora of ways we can support you and your chapter including counseling services, public relations support, facilitating communication with your headquarters, etc.,” she wrote.
Following the national news accusing FIJI of misconduct, Executive Director Caudill in a Sept. 14 email to UI outlined an internal “recommitment” process his fraternity is engaged in to spell out “expectations of all members going forward.”
“Those include law/policy compliance, chapter/member-level accountability, GPA, educational program attendance, and financial obligations,” Caudill wrote. “All members continuing in the chapter will be expected to sign a document stating such.”
As part of that process, FIJI is identifying graduate members to help with a “more formal membership review.”
“All members of the chapter will be interviewed, focused on evaluating each member’s commitment to moving the chapter forward in a positive way and willingness to uphold the agreed upon member expectations.”
Headquarters staff also are working on a UI-specific chapter plan to “addresses major areas of chapter operations, in addition to a commitment to engage additional university/community resources to educate members of sexual violence and partnerships.”
In Lawrence’s Sept. 17 letter, she reported FIJI executives recently visited UI to meet with administrators and chapter membership.
“After those meetings, Fraternity and Sorority Life believes all parties are committed to ensuring that the chapter has the resources needed to create a space for learning, growth, and brotherhood,” according to Lawrence.
In her letter, Lawrence reiterated UI takes every sexual assault misconduct seriously — although its process for supporting victims and investigating is confidential, leading some to “feel frustrated or to think no action is being taken.”
“I assure you that the Office of Institutional Equity team is responding to the allegations against former FIJI members,” she wrote.
FIJI confirmed for The Gazette it removed the two members accused of sexual assault in September 2020. The woman making the accusations has filed a lawsuit against the men and the fraternity.
Going forward, UI has a spate of fraternity and sorority education aimed at addressing issues of sexual violence, alcohol, hazing, and other problems that have emerged within the communities.
Programming includes new member onboarding education; bystander intervention training; violence prevention education; alcohol skills training; and a “men and masculinity peer group.”
“We are at a critical point where we can capitalize on the opportunity to push our fraternity and sorority community toward effective and sustainable change,” Lawrence wrote.
Vanessa Miller covers higher education for The Gazette.
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