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Neil Gorsuch Defended Columbia’s So-Called ‘Date-Rape Frat’

During Neil Gorsuch’s time at his beloved Phi Gamma Delta, former members and fellow students accused the frat of degrading women and spiking the punch.

President Trump’s first Supreme Court nominee, Neil M. Gorsuch, reveled in his identity as an outsider at Columbia University. Through prolific college writings—which will undoubtedly be referred to during this week’s Senate confirmation hearings—the undergraduate became the voice of a swelling ’80s conservative movement, often sounding a lone moderate note for open debate and individualism as he was pitted against what he perceived as a tide of “superficial” campus progressives.

He also really liked his frat.

Following President Trump’s January announcement nominating Gorsuch, the national press revived the 49-year-old’s college essays and editorials in the interest of exploring the past adventures and misadventures of the man who would be Antonin Scalia’s successor. In at least 19 columns published in the Daily Spectator, Columbia’s student-run newspaper, and The Federalist Paper, a conservative broadsheet that Gorsuch co-founded, the future federal appellate judge wrote sneering takedowns of liberal students on campus and their causes. He also argued for what he saw as unpopular beliefs at the time, including university investments in apartheid South Africa, on-campus military recruitment, a pro-Reagan stance in the Iran-Contra affair, and consistently, for Columbia’s all-male fraternities.

Gorsuch’s own fraternity, Phi Gamma Delta—known more commonly as FIJI—welcomed him as a freshman in the spring of 1986 and he remained an active member until his early graduation in 1988. According to school newspaper reports and interviews with former Columbia students, FIJI’s reputation was unrivaled among Columbia’s 12 other fraternities at the time—defined by accusations of hard-partying, racism, sexism, and date rape. FIJI, as one former member claimed, was known as a house where the spiked punch flowed, and party tents known as “smut huts” were erected for one clear purpose.

The Phi Gamma Delta page in Columbia’s 1988 yearbook is a testament to the fact that FIJI’s party-hearty reputation wasn’t solely the product of rumors from know-nothing outsiders. It’s difficult to tell whether Gorsuch is among the 30 mostly white teens smiling from the fraternity’s group photo (they really do all look alike), but he is listed in the caption as one of its 42 members.

Along with a year of “leadership, athleticism, and community service,” the men of FIJI listed in the yearbook their other defining successes of 1988. Among them: drunken campus parties, alleged sexual prowess, and an unrivaled level of administrative discipline.

“The brothers of Fiji so ardently defend their color that no other fraternity is ever long successful in altering the appearance of the 114th Street fire hydrant,” they wrote. (According to Columbia lore, warring houses on fraternity row repainted the fire hydrant with their color whenever a member had sex with a virgin.)

After celebrating the “impressive social event” that was the annual FIJI Island Party, “which most of the campus will remember fondly (or not remember at all depending on how good a time they had),” the yearbook entry went on to boast that “Fiji is quite proud of its distinction of being the fraternity most placed on probation by the university.”

In a spring 1988 printed farewell to graduating columnists, Daily Spectator editors handed out nicknames like “amazin’ artiste,” “drawing demon,” and “fantastic feminist” to departing seniors. For Gorsuch, editors offered: “Neil Gorsuch, Fiji ain’t all that bad.”

When asked just what the nickname was meant to convey, Andrea Miller, a self-described “deeply involved campus activist” and former Spectator opinion-page editor who ran Gorsuch’s columns, says she remembers it as a nod to his passionate and constant support of Phi Gamma Delta.

Today, Miller calls Gorsuch’s columns “derogatory, dismissive, arrogant, and privileged,” but, she says, “it was incumbent upon me to make sure diverse voices were heard so we published them.”

When she heard President Trump had nominated Gorsuch to the high court, Miller says she thought, “Of course. With this president, it figures.”

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Attempts to reach Gorsuch for comment were not successful. A spokesperson for Columbia said the university had “no information” to provide and Phi Gamma Delta’s national office did not return phone calls from The Daily Beast.

Michael Behringer, a member and onetime president of FIJI, says any rumors of the fraternity’s alleged impropriety are unfounded. Behringer, who remained close friends with Gorsuch after graduation—both were groomsmen at each others’ weddings—says he hadn’t come to Columbia with any interest in pledging a fraternity, but after meeting Gorsuch in a required Spanish class (“Neil could never roll his Rs”), the two became fast friends.

“[Gorsuch] actually reached out to me and said, ‘You should consider joining FIJI. These are a great bunch of guys.’”

Columbia at the time, Behringer explains, had few activities or campus life to speak of. “The frat provided a venue for students who wanted to have more of a traditional campus life. It was a group of friends who socialized. Some of us lived together, we threw some parties, we did activities and philanthropic things.” (According to an article in the Barnard Bulletin, FIJI’s community service included a keg roll to raise money for muscular dystrophy, food drives, and the sponsorship of “a deprived child, Enrique, from the Fiji Islands.”)

“It frankly wasn’t that interesting,” Behringer says.

Behringer acknowledges the existence of gossip, mostly involving hard partying and allegations of sexism. “But there wasn’t any evidence of [sexism or date-rape],” he says. “The thinking from some of these people was, ‘You are a frat, therefore you must be a misogynist,’ but there were never any real accusations made against us. There was just no substance behind it.”

As Behringer notes, there is no public record of any woman accusing any member of the FIJI fraternity with rape or sexual misconduct before or during Gorsuch’s time on campus. (The first known police-reported instance of a sexual-assault allegation at a Columbia FIJI event came in 1998—the same year FIJI was suspended for “behavior that was not consistent with the standards of the Greek community.”)

“There certainly were some members who were rowdier than others, but Neil wasn’t part of that. He graduated in three years and spent his time focused on his studies and writing,” Behringer says.

When Gorsuch, the oldest son of a controversial Reagan administration official, enrolled in Columbia in 1985, the university’s upperclassmen were all still, in fact, men. Columbia was the last of the Ivy League schools to go co-ed.

“And the male students were not happy with that,” recalls Emira Woods, a black woman in Columbia’s first co-ed graduating class of ’87, and who ran against Gorsuch and won a bid for university senate in 1986, after he was disqualified for a campaign-poster violation. “A lot of these men, they wanted things to stay as as they were.”

Gorsuch embodied that inflexibility, according to Woods. In his student senate questionnaire, he answered a question about whether Columbia’s famed “core curriculum” should include more women and minority authors with a terse, “If possible, yes.”

As women sought more equal footing at Columbia, a small group of students turned their focus to the fraternities. In the spring of 1987, sophomore Tom Kamber created the group Students for a Reformed Fraternity System (SFARFS), aimed at forcing single-sex fraternities like FIJI to admit women.

In the midst of these controversies, in March 1987, Gorsuch wrote an opinion piece with Behringer in The Federalist Paper, arguing the university’s co-ed and single-sex Greek offerings provided options for everyone, and calling the thinking behind the forced co-ed effort “heavy-handed moralism.”

“We ought to ask if in fact we are anxious to let others decide for individuals what kind of lifestyle is acceptable and unacceptable on this campus,” they wrote.

Kamber and Gorsuch would become ideological rivals. “[Gorsuch] was a very committed conservative and I was a committed radical lefty type,” Kamber explains. Despite warring editorials in the school’s papers—Gorsuch referred to Kamber as a vigilante and dismissed his efforts to integrate the fraternities as “absurd”—the two were also real friends.

They had met before Columbia, at a national high-school debate competition. As Kamber tells it, they both lost. “So I got completely trashed. I’m this drunk kid from New Jersey, and Neil is this elegant guy from Colorado. I was throwing up all night and Neil was patting my back. That’s the kind of guy Neil was,” Kamber says.

Kamber describes Gorsuch at Columbia as “a personable, respectful, fun, friendly, and thoughtful guy.”

“But on an ideological level, it was the beginning of 1980s culture wars and Neil was the standard bearer. When I got to to Columbia, it was a radical progressive place—and when I left, more than half of the students had joined frats and Columbia had turned into a feeder for Wall Street jobs. Neil’s activism framed that,” Kamber says.

While diametrically opposed to it, Kamber could wrap his head around Gorsuch’s conservatism. What didn’t make sense to him was his friend’s loyalty to FIJI.

FIJI “was notorious [at that time] for being degrading and sexist to women. I could never understand why he would join… Neil always seems like he cared about other people,” Kamber said.

FIJI’s reputation as described by Kamber—and documented in clippings from the campus newspaper—dogged Gorsuch’s fraternity.

“Every female first-year student has heard horror stories about Phi Gamma Delta (FIJI) and Beta Theta Pi members, and is warned of the dangers of getting drunk in either house,” student senator David Amanullah wrote in the Spectator. Today, Amanullah, says, “FIJI were known as conservatives in thoughts and ideas, not necessarily in actions or how they ran their house. Sexism, alcohol, and drugs were what FIJI was known for.”

In 1987, more than 1,000 marchers gathered at a rally to protest a brawl, allegedly motivated by race, that involved a black student and four white fraternity brothers—two of them FIJI members. Witnesses to the melee said they heard the white students yelling, “You fucking n**gers go home!” along with other racial slurs during the beating. Ultimately, a university investigation resulted in the punishment of one unnamed student for “racial harassment” and verbal abuse.

Shortly after the assault, the leader of a black student group led the massive crowd of protesters to the front of FIJI’s house. “People may be wondering why we stopped here,” Tanaquil Jones reportedly said to the assembled. “This is the FIJI frat, which has the reputation in the Columbia community of being the date-rape fraternity, among other things… We are also here to let them know that we are not afraid of this cowardly behavior which they are participating in.”

The group, Concerned Black Students of Columbia (CBSC), hung “Wanted” posters featuring the alleged attackers and demanded the fraternity be cut off from university funding.

FIJI released a statement following the protest that read: “Phi Gamma Delta and its brothers do not and will never condone racism and are deeply concerned about the present situation. Fiji is willing at this point or at any other time to discuss any issue concerning these events in a suitable environment. We at Fiji hope that these issues can be resolved in a positive manner based on the facts. We look forward to an open, honest, and rational dialogue by which the current tensions on campus can be alleviated.”

FIJI members later mocked up party fliers that parodied the CBSC’s posters and opened old wounds. “Wanted: Partyers at Large,” the flier read. “If you find yourself alone with any member of this fraternity, Be Warned! You are about to Party!”

But the worst ambassador for Phi Gamma Delta likely came in the form of Brendan Mernin, who pledged the fraternity as a freshman in the spring of 1984—a year before Gorsuch would arrive on campus. In a piece for the Spectator, Mernin said he left the fraternity after a friend was allegedly raped by some of his brothers.

In the piece, Mernin said “the goal of [fraternity] parties is to intoxicate women and fuck them.” And FIJI’s Island Party, Mernin claimed, was the worst of the bunch. “As far as degrading women, that’s it. There is always grain alcohol in punch, and bamboo huts (called ‘Smut Huts’) there with the expressed idea that you get women drunk and take them in there,” Mernin said.

The secrecy afforded to and required from frat members, as a rule, Mernin said, was another reason for concern.

“When there is opposition, because of a rape or something, fraternities have an automatic system which protects itself. Because they’re so secretive, it’s hard to single out incidents of rape. Women who go to their parties and are raped are made to think ‘It’s my fault.’ It becomes an individual against 40 guys,” said Mernin.

In a phone call, Mernin says he stands by the piece. “What I said was true. What I said was what I witnessed.”

Date rape—the terminology if not the phenomenon—was an emerging issue on college campuses in the 1980s. In 1986, Columbia started a Rape Intervention Program, partnering with a local hospital where students were sent for counseling after reported assaults. In the spring of 1988, Columbia’s sister school Barnard College organized 400 women to march in protest of violence against women in the school’s first “Take Back the Night” event.

Carrying signs and chanting, “Break the silence, Protest the violence,” women marched down fraternity row and stopped in front of the FIJI house, according to Leah Kopperman, the event’s original Columbia campus organizer.

“FIJI was of real concern,” Kopperman remembers. “We had a whole group of women involved, and we decided to stop there and at another house, based on the experiences and concerns of the group.”

Some men on fraternity row reportedly yelled to the women to “Go home” according to a report in the Spectator, while a dispatch in Barnard College’s newspaper reported water being thrown from the FIJI house onto marchers. “By the display of defensiveness, they were just emphasizing that the fact that FIJI closes its eyes to violence against women. They were obviously threatened by what we were doing and I wonder why,” marcher Susan Cooper reportedly said.

“At that point in time, the perception of rape was a stranger in the street pulling you into the bushes,” Kopperman says now. “Date rape was just a thing that happened—a date gone wrong or you made a bad choice. One of our goals for Take Back the Night was to change that.”

A 1987 article in the Barnard Bulletin seems to support the notion that Columbia women kept their sexual assaults hidden. It quoted Barnard College’s Health Services gynecological nurse on students coming in for a morning-after pill and tests for sexually transmitted diseases. “They know they did something they didn’t want to do, but usually don’t know they have been raped,” the nurse said.

As hundreds of women stood protesting in front of FIJI’s house, then moved to an open-mic event where individuals shared stories of rape and sexual violence, Columbia’s student affairs committee met to decide on the future of the fraternity system. It ultimately sided with Gorsuch’s own position, releasing a report that called for the fraternities like FIJI to remain single-sex, but advocating for what it saw as necessary reforms. Along with recommendations that the number of men-only fraternities be matched by co-ed fraternities and sororities, the student group suggested fraternity members be educated on the topic of sexual harassment and date rape, specifically recommending that every fraternity be required to host a date-rape prevention program.

For Gorsuch, the issues that moved activists in his final year at Columbia—racial division, a university crackdown on protests, a student election scandal, and a fight for equality and safety for women and minorities at fraternities—were of little consequence. A bore, really.

“At the core of this spring’s demonstrations and rallies are causes that inspire no one and offer no fresh ideas or important notions for the students or school to consider,” Gorsuch wrote in a characteristically snide opinion column for the Spectator shortly before his graduation. “There simply is no burning ‘issue’ of spring, 1988. But don’t worry: There’s always next year.”

As a Columbia undergraduate, Gorsuch was also keenly aware of the stamp his college years would leave on his future ambitions.

“[Students] are coming to the realization that one’s actions in college and one’s conduct as a young adult will be examined in relentless detail should one chose to enter the public sector,” then junior Gorsuch and his colleagues presciently wrote in a November 1987 editorial in The Federalist Paper.

“One bare fact cannot be ignored. College students are to be held responsible for their actions to a certain degree.”