Greek epic: UVA legend 'Phi Kap' folds

One of UVA's most hallowed fraternities– with a well-heeled brotherhood and about 100 years of history– has closed its doors. If the final act of the financially drained fraternity best known as "Phi Kap" surprises the general public, the outcome of this Greek epic was no shock to the leadership.

"It became painfully obvious that we had run out of options both financially and in terms of opportunities for official recognition from The University of Virginia," writes alumni president Tyler Whitley in a late September letter.

How did a fraternity that included such well-known financiers as Quad-C principal Terry Daniels, multi-million-dollar Darden donor Thomas A. Saunders III, and scores of Richmond business leaders fall into such financial ruin? It all started with some infractions.

"Former acts of mischievous behavior," says Whitley, "have permanently cast us in a bad light."

Acts that may have hurt the fraternity's reputation include a 1999 charge of assault and battery committed by an expelled member of Phi Kap on a member of a neighboring fraternity, plus a second incident that year in which an underage member of the house was charged with alcohol possession.

Whitley, however, contends that these charges merely provided cover for a UVA administration that allegedly foiled the fraternity's attempt to regain recognition.

"We were na├»ve to assume that the school, as represented by just a handful of administrators... would come to appreciate the difference between fair versus unfair," Whitley complains. "The school itself made no effort to help us out– even though we've always had Phi Kaps on the Board of Visitors, and we have a lot of prominent alumni."

A chapter of Phi Kappa Sigma may have been at UVA since the early days of the Twentieth Century, but the relationship ended in 2002 when the national fraternity adopted a mostly-dry alcohol policy after a costly lawsuit and revoked the UVA chapter's charter after it violated the policy.

When the national relationship ended, so did Phi Kap's recognition from the Inter-fraternity Council, UVA's student organization charged with governing 32 of the school's fraternities. The former Phi Kappa Sigma house began operating as the independent Eta Lodge in 2002. Third-year Will Allen, the group's most recent president, wonders if Eta ever stood a chance of regaining IFC acceptance.

"We went before them, and we adequately addressed their worries and questions," Allen says. "I don't know what we could have done better. To me, the whole thing seemed fake, just a formality. I think there's a possibility that the vote was predetermined."

As Tyler Cain, another former president of the fraternity, points out, "There's no actual proof that the IFC vote was predetermined, but most brothers think that the President's Council had their minds made up before we went to talk with them."

However, Associate Dean of Students Aaron Laushway, who oversees the IFC, dismisses such conspiracy theories.

"They thought the IFC would naturally want to accept them," he says, "that it would be this shining moment for both them and the IFC, and that they could just bypass the required procedures."

Laushway also disputes the idea that the IFC had it out for Eta.

"The IFC is well-known for strongly supporting national frats," he says, "and Eta Lodge was seeking recognition as an independent."

Without IFC status, Eta Lodge brothers would still be allowed to hold rush and recruit pledges, but they would have to inform rushees that they were not part of the IFC, a fact that could make the fraternity appear less legitimate than other houses.

So brothers wasted no time in seeking recognition from the IFC as a newly independent fraternity. They presented their case to the IFC President's Council in November 2003 and were disappointed when they failed to receive the two-thirds majority vote required for acceptance into the council. They tried again the following year– but again came up short.

"After we failed to receive official recognition for the second consecutive year, the IFC notified every prospective rushee that we were not a fraternity, nor would we ever be," Whitley's September letter says.

"This correspondence," Whitley continues, "strategically took place a mere five days prior to bid day, thus dooming our chances. We were still able to get five pledges, but financially the numbers did not add up."

Still stinging from the alleged mistreatment, Allen says Eta Lodge wants to ensure that UVA does not gain possession of the house on what many consider fraternity row. He hopes that Sigma Alpha Epsilon, whose headquarters are currently located on nearby Grady Avenue, will purchase the Madison Lane mansion. With 12 rooms and over 6,300 square feet of finished living space, according to City records, the structure is assessed for just $686,300.

"It would be an exciting move for us, and it would place us closer to the university," says SAE president Robert Bailey. "But we're going to have to put a lot of money into fixing it up."

As for the frat formerly known as Eta, Whitley sums it up. "There's not much of a chance of the fraternity reopening at UVA. I think we all know we're done here, and we all just want to move on."

"Phi Kap" has closed its doors.