ITHACA, N.Y.—A former Cornell University fraternity has launched legal actions against the school after accusing the university of stymieing their efforts to re-use their former chapter house as housing for student veterans.
The 17-page NYS Supreme Court summons was filed last week by local lawyer Edward Crossmore on behalf of the New York Alpha chapter of the Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity, with Cornell named as the defendant.
The Phi Kappa Psi fraternity had long operated a 19,500 square-foot chapter house at a Cornell-owned property at 525 Stewart Avenue/120 Mary Ann Wood Drive, constructed in the mid-1960s when Cornell promoted small-group housing. Fraternities that entered the deal with Cornell in the 1950s gave up control of their property in exchange for no longer having to pay taxes, receiving new housing paid for with state dormitory authority funds and tax-deductible alumni donations from each Greek chapter.
Built as “Group House #6” and later called “The Gables” after a 1998 renovation, the university-owned and built the property, and leased it back to Phi Kappa Psi, which had held a presence at Cornell since 1869, sold their previous house to Cornell (who then sold it with profit to an apartment developer a year later), and donated $120,000 towards construction costs of the new building (about $1.2 million today). The indefinite lease between Cornell and Phi Kappa Psi for 525 Stewart Avenue was contingent on the chapter handling and paying for property maintenance, and on good behavior.
However, the arrangement came to an end when Phi Kappa Psi had its recognition indefinitely revoked by the university in the fall of 2020. This came after investigations that showed the fraternity had been engaged in an unsanctioned “dirty rush” event in October 2019 that was attended by Cornell student Antonio Tsialas, who went missing later that night and whose body was later found in the Fall Creek gorge. While not directly implicated in Tsialas’ death, the university determined the fraternity had broken several rules and expelled the chapter from Cornell Greek life.
In the past couple of years, the house served as a COVID testing and service center, but not long after the chapter’s closing, explorations began on turning the house into a dry (alcohol-free), mixed-gender living center with housing and community programming for “veterans and civic-minded students.” The proposal was supported by Phi Kappa Psi’s alumni organization and subject to a robust letter-writing campaign by student veterans and their advocates.
However, in 2021, Cornell announced that it planned to use another former fraternity house at 625 University Avenue for use as veterans’ students housing, which Crossmore calls “vastly inferior” in the legal filing. 625 University Avenue is also privately owned, not by the university, though the university has “secured” it for operational purposes.
According to a 1966 agreement between the fraternity and Cornell, the chapter retains the right to reserve 525 Stewart Avenue for reorganization even if the active student chapter has been suspended or terminated. The legal filing notes that Cornell contributed two loans to help pay for the 1998 renovation, but that the loans were serviced by rental fees paid by active members, and that the loans were paid off by chapter alumni in 2020, a little before discussions began over the house’s use as veterans’ housing.
Crossmore accuses the university “on information and belief” of having promised the house to another Cornell fraternity, against the wishes of Phi Kappa Psi’s alumni group. Crossmore added that Cornell has issued notice that the fraternity clear out all its remaining possessions by January 2023 so that the university can begin renovations for other purposes.
The crux of this is that Crossmore is arguing that Cornell’s decisions are in violation of the 1966 agreement with the fraternity, a “breach of contract,” and that the university has gone against the wishes of the alumni group by not using the building for veteran’s housing, and for repurposing the building for other uses that the fraternity has not agreed to.
The counter argument is that the agreement was contingent on good behavior, something the chapter did not exhibit in 2019, and that a permanent suspension without hope of future reorganization would nullify the agreement. Crossmore seeks publication of the arrangement Cornell made in its settlement in the lawsuit brought by Tsialas’s parents in part to determine if a permanent ban of the chapter was a stipulation of the settlement.
Citing the breach of contract as a form of damages, the lawsuit seeks a monetary award in an amount to be determined, and that the courts reassert that Phi Kappa Psi has a right to use and control at 525 University Avenue and that future uses of the house cannot be made without their explicit consent. Cornell policy is to not provide comment on litigation, but the university will presumably make their views known to the court in due course.
Cornell officials did not respond to a request for comment in time for publication.
For Cornell, it’s but another potential headache, and a reminder that its land and real estate holdings are often more complicated than the Gordian knot. As for the future use of 525 Stewart Avenue, we’ll see what happens.