Raucous music and hordes of party-goers are frequent features of celebratory occurrences on Frat Row. But to former Berkeley resident Paul Ghysels, they are the creators of a hostile and unwelcome environment. His former residence, a modest colonial home, sits on Durant Avenue and stands quiet — a stark contrast to the exuberant activities of its neighbors.
Since filing his lawsuit against 35 Interfraternity Council, or IFC, fraternities in 2010, Ghysels has been living in Sacramento with his wife, working with his small but dedicated team of attorneys. After being featured on national news programs such as 20/20, Ghysels has only felt more inclined to continue his battle. Despite facing a recent battle with cancer, he doesn’t express any signs fatigue or interest in falling back. Motivated by both the support and criticisms he has received, Ghysels is determined to win not only for the sake of his residence and family, but for the greater communities affected by issues rooted in the misconduct of fraternities.
“There’s a system here that’s totally out of whack,” Ghysels said. “Lawyers can get these fraternities off that result in death and sexual assault, just by doing legal maneuvers.”
Greek organizations are no stranger to controversy, but Ghysels’ concerns cast a more critical light on the increasingly problematic nature of fraternity activities. His staunch resilience raises the question of just how the organizations should be effectively moderated. Ghysels spoke with The Daily Californian about the progression of his lawsuit and the pursuit of what he sees as justice against what he alleges is inexcusable criminal behavior.
Editor’s note: The following interview has been edited for space and clarity.
The Daily Californian: So aside from the IFC’s attempt to delay the case, have you seen any kind of progress since last year?
Paul Ghysels: Absolutely. We’re in “discovery,” which is the last part, and I have to give my deposition, but the lawyers and fraternities have been fighting me giving my deposition because they know how damaging it will be. They try every week to get our case thrown out by stating that I’m a liar and that I’m crazy, so that’s their approach. The judge is starting to get perturbed at this behavior, so I think he’s starting to push them to begin moving. We’ll know more on March 9, our next court hearing, and that will be pertaining primarily to my deposition. I have the data, dates, the emails, names, videos — all that as evidence and proof. Even though I had a stroke at one time, I had a photographic memory and it’s still very good. So yeah, we’re progressing well (laughs).
DC: How have the university and Berkeley Police Department responded to your appeals?
PG: Well, the Berkeley police basically told me that they’re kind of in a neutral position on this because the DA will not pursue all the work they do. So the Berkeley police has the attitude that “Well, we really don’t want to get involved in this.” Even though people are dying and women and men are being sexually assaulted, the BPD has been hands-off. I personally think the city and police department want to see the outcome of my court case.
One thing the city hates is high-priced attorneys getting involved, so they have a tendency to back off very quickly if that happens. I have documentation of just that happening. I have PDF files from families of times that their kids were sexually assaulted or critically injured at frats, and they have been forwarding me a lot of their evidence. So it shows a pattern that when a fraternity is reprimanded, their lawyers get involved right away and put a little pressure, and then everybody backs off. They tried that with me, but nah. Being a Vietnam vet and a firefighter, nurse, patient advocate, having to fight for the rights of everybody — it’s gonna take more than that for me to back off.
DC: What kind of action are you looking for (the city) to take specifically?
PG: I’m looking for some of the things the city originally had stated in their mini-dorm ordinance. The city, pressured under the frat’s lawyers, basically backed off on a lot of it, especially regarding the IFC. I’m still pushing to have things changed, (such as) having to have a live-in adult manager. One of the frats said at the City Council meeting “Man, having a house director is gonna cost us $800 a month, we can’t afford that.” So stronger action will be needed for any changes to really occur because the way it’s setup right now is having the fox watch the henhouse.
In 2000, after my home was broken into the first time in 1999, I was told by the lawyers for the Chi Phis to call my insurance company and have them pay because they were protected by the social host ordinance. So the frats can do anything they want and never be held legally responsible. I actually started going to the IFC meetings and presenting the case to them and they ignored me. They know that they will be in front of the board sooner than later and they don’t want to be sanctioned.
“So it shows a pattern that when a fraternity is reprimanded, their lawyers get involved right away and put a little pressure, and then everybody backs off. They tried that with me, but nah. Being a Vietnam vet and a firefighter, nurse, patient advocate, having to fight for the rights of everybody — it’s gonna take more than that for me to back off.”
I’m preparing my YouTube and Facebook sites because when this does occur, those pages are going to be overwhelmed with people looking. Matter of fact, in Scotland’s St. Andrews college, they were talking about having a fraternity come in, and one of the students found my “UC Berkeley Frats” website and they looked at some of the things I posted pertaining to the fraternity that was hoping to come on campus. When the students voted, it was an overwhelming majority vote not to allow the American fraternity on campus.
DC: In a prior interview, you mentioned that there was a difference in behavior between when you first moved in and what you’ve been seeing recently. What do you think has aggravated that shift?
PG: Well I think part of it was cell phones, when cell phones and texting and social websites came on. Before, the parties were smaller and more easily controlled, so it kind of increased exponentially. Every time I complained the Chi Phis, (Sigma Alpha Mus) and other fraternities would come down and throw things at our house, shoot at our windows with pellet guns, throw trash at us, call me names and all this stuff. You know that (the IFC) is concerned because with these recent deaths and the new federal lawsuit against UC Berkeley, more and more of my information and my testimony will do damage to that institution and to the IFC.
We first moved there in 1988, (the house) was my wife’s grandmother’s and my wife actually grew up there a period of her life and she always wanted to move back. When we got there, the parties were smaller, on Mondays we got invited to the fraternities for lobster and steak and we had a very good relationship. Between 1988 and 1995, each fraternity would have one big party during each semester and a couple small ones. Now, it’s every single weekend. When the fraternities and their alumni and their lawyers do not intervene, this bad behavior escalates because the frats want to outdo the previous members. So each semester the behavior becomes more outrageous and more dangerous.
DC: Who do you think is responsible for encouraging this type of behavior? Is it a collective responsibility or is it matter of a group of individuals?
PG: I think it’s a collective now. It started out as being a few bad apples, but when the other fraternities saw that behavior not being disciplined and no interventions were being taken, it provoked what happens now. Each semester becomes more outrageous because they want to outdo the previous semesters. So it’s not just one group of people. It’s got to be their legal advisors, the IFC, their members, their presidents, their officers. Not all fraternities are bad during one semester, but they may be bad the next semester. We spent a year, my attorneys and I, prior to our lawsuit, sitting down and talking to representatives of fraternities and we were told to “go to hell.” Since 2010, we have more than a dozen sexual assaults at frats, you’ve had two deaths, you’ve had multiple critical injuries, all of these things could have been prevented if the fraternities legal advisors were to have sat down and said “Yes, we have a problem, let’s see what we can do.” But nope, their lawyers wanted to sit down and tell us to go to hell and they wanted to protect this dangerous behavior.
DC: So what type of formal action should the fraternities who are directly involved take?
PG: The IFC should actually get involved and do what they’re supposed to do instead of covering it up and ignoring the behavior. They don’t want to do that because they know within a year or so, they’re also going to be in trouble, and they don’t want to be sanctioned or to be fined. So right now, the IFC is just doing a token citation and how they determine it is very arbitrary and inconsistent.
I have sent pictures and videos of the Chi Phis breaking multiple IFC rules. I have shown the Zetes breaking multiple rules. Sigma Alpha Mu, multiple rules. And you know they did not get involved in any of those fraternities, they did not do any judicial punishment for all that. So if the IFC actually did what they were designed to do, what they refuse to do, the IFC could actually make major changes. And that was one of the many reasons why we included the IFC, because they’re the governing body of the fraternities and if they don’t change the fraternities won’t change. I sent an email to the IFC in July of the previous year and I said the same thing and (4) months later, (Vaibhev) Loomba dies at Zeta Psi, and they did nothing. So I’ve been predicting these deaths and these injuries and the IFC calls me crazy, and they continue to ignore this behavior. In order to actually get change there, you have to address the lack of IFC motivation to address these problems.
“Since 2010, we have more than a dozen sexual assaults at frats, you’ve had two deaths, you’ve had multiple critical injuries, all of these things could have been prevented if the fraternities legal advisors were to have sat down and said, ‘Yes, we have a problem, let’s see what we can do.'”
DC: Regarding your situation living between the frat houses, there have been a lot of people who’ve said that’s just part of the nature of living on frat row. What is your response to that position?
PG: Well, that’s the standard line I get from the alumni and some of the students, but you also have to realize that they’re breaking state and federal laws. It is illegal to serve alcohol to minors. It’s clear. There is no unequivocal argument. You cannot have a bar at a fraternity and serve alcohol. They’re completely out of any control or supervision, which creates a very dangerous environment. You have 31 women now who have just sued the university because of their mishandling of their sexual assaults, and many of those happen at frats. And so all this stuff is continuing, and when the people say “Well when you live on frat row you should expect this behavior.” No, I should not expect people to be raped, for people to be injured, for people to be drunk, for people to throw vodka bottles at my house and telling me to go screw myself. That is not the behavior I would think would be appropriate no matter where you live.
The attitude that I get from the frat boys is, “School is hard and since school is hard we have a right to party.” Well, you can party all you want as long as it doesn’t infringe on the neighbors. As long as it doesn’t break the law. When they had parties when we first moved there, the parties ended at 1 o’clock and we didn’t end up with damage to our house. And that’s what’s all being presented on Facebook. It shows the progression. It shows how all this behavior is ignored which now has resulted in multiple deaths and injuries in a very short period of time.
DC: Besides the lawsuit, are you currently looking into alternative measures to combat the issue?
PG: I’m taking it public and showing my evidence to the world. The comments I’ve been getting have been unbelievable. They’re saying “Wow, has the quality of students really declined at Berkeley?” I’m not down on Berkeley, I’m down on the decline that has occurred since I’ve been at Berkeley. Everybody there — especially the IFC — needs to act better, needs to follow the rules, and when they do, everything will be better for everyone: the neighbors, alumni, students and the men and women who join fraternities and sororities.
DC: So what’s the next step for you? Does there seem to be any hope for a resolution that can please both sides?
PG: My hope is (for) public pressure. When I first started this everybody on the north side of Berkeley didn’t want to get involved. Now Berkeley is charging every taxpayer an extra premium for paramedics guaranteeing an ambulance at your location within four minutes of the call. But because of the frat behavior on weekends, it can take more than 30 minutes. So the city of Berkeley is breaking its own rules and now the residents all over Berkeley are getting upset at this behavior. At all these meetings over mini-dorms, many of them are standing room only because all these people from town came in. I’ve gotten amicus — friends of the court — statements from all the neighborhood groups saying that the fraternities are a major issue and this problem needs to be addressed. In the end, because of the election, they gutted about 50 percent of the mini-dorm ordinance, but at least we got it in there. And now after the election we as a community can start pushing to get more stringent rules put in place.
Contact Hazel Romano at [email protected]
A previous version of this article failed to mention that the interview had been edited for space and clarity.
A previous version of this article also incorrectly stated that the house was vacant. In fact, Paul Ghysels’ brother-in-law is currently living there.
A previous version of this article also misquoted Ghysels as saying, “We spent a year, my attorneys and I, period to our lawsuit, sitting down and talking to representatives of fraternities and we were told to ‘go to hell.’ ” In fact, he said, “We spent a year, my attorneys and I, prior to our lawsuit, sitting down and talking to representatives of fraternities and we were told to ‘go to hell.’ “
A previous version of this article also misquoted Ghysels as saying that his house was first broken into in 1989. In fact, he said it was in 1999.