Post-reopening, COVID-19 outbreaks have already been reported at colleges and universities across the country, and institutions are scrambling to call off in-person classes and contain students as thoroughly as possible.
But who’s to blame when a group of 18- to 22-year-olds living communally in a sorority house all contract the same airborne virus (like the members of Pi Phi at OSU)? Not the sororities, if they took the advice of the companies that insure them. The biggest name in sorority insurance, MJ Sorority, released a “membership agreement addendum” template for its clients, with the suggestion the sororities distribute it to their members in order to “release” the chapters from responsibility for “the risks inherent in living in a communal environment.”
In the intro to the waiver, MJ Sorority also suggested that sororities refer to the agreement as a “wellness pledge,” to communicate “a positive statement about member responsibility.”
“I understand that while the House Corporation will take precautions to clean the facility and provide procedures to assist with social distancing, it will be up to me and to other residents of the property to limit outside exposure,” the agreement reads in part.
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MJ Sorority insures more member organizations in the National Panhellenic Conference than any other company, according to its website. This clientele makes the insurer a power player in the Greek life cottage industry. (None of the 18 national sorority offices that MJ Sorority claims to represent on its website responded to VICE’s request for comment.)
Liability insurance policy plays a large role in the everyday lives of NPC sorority members, especially those who live in their sorority house—many of the house rules are, reasonably, created with risk management (and avoiding lawsuits) in mind.
Outsiders might view house rules banning the possession of alcohol (even by those who are of legal drinking age), parties, or the presence of men upstairs as a matter of morality, and, sure, that might be part of it… but by banning these things outright, the sorority is less likely to be successfully sued, and its insurance policy ultimately becomes much cheaper.
Cindy Stellhorn, then a broker for MJ Insurance, told the Washington Post as much in 2016: “Insurance policies cost $25 to $50 a year per sorority member, Stellhorn said, but fraternity brothers, she estimates, pay up to $180 each. ‘They need more dollars to pay for the usual claims you can expect from young men who are drinking,’ she said.”
It follows, then, that a new health risk would call for a new round of rules designed to ostensibly protect members, but to mostly protect Greek organizations.
It’s unclear what good a waiver or “wellness pledge” would do with regard to protection from a lawsuit; according to a “Why the Fall Will Be a Liability Minefield,” a Chronicle of Higher Education article that MJ also shared with its clients, the measure may be more effective when it comes to making the sorority girls who sign it feel accountable for their actions: “For students… some document—if not a waiver then a disclosure or an acknowledgment of risk—can increase awareness of peril and underscore the communal responsibilities shared in a public-health crisis.”
Basically, it’s important for students to believe their health is in their hands, so if (or, ugh, when) they get sick, they chalk it up to their own behavior— instead, perhaps, of pointing the finger at the failures of their schools or housing corporations.
We know that sororities have already been linked to COVID-19 outbreaks, like the Pi Beta Phi chapter at Oklahoma State University forced into lockdown in August after more than 20 members tested positive for the virus. And given the number of outbreaks linked to Greek life in general, one has to wonder whether these chapters already distributed their wellness pledges, or whether they’re frantically doing so now. We also know that some college students have already signed waivers to help protect more powerful entities: college athletes, “voluntarily” participating in special pre-season practice sessions.
When VICE emailed Stellhorn, now an executive vice president for MJ, for comment on the member agreement, she responded that MJ Sorority “[pushes] out recommendations and it is up to each client to determine if and how they use our resources.” When asked whether or not the waiver had actually been used, she said this was “not data that we collect.”
If you or a loved one living in Greek housing signed a “wellness pledge” or something like it releasing your organization from legal liability, please reach out to VICE—because that’s data we’re extremely interested in.
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