An Open Letter to the Sigma Chi Fraternity at Hillsdale College, Urging a Continuation of the Jail-and-Bail Opt-Out List

G. Stolyarov II
September 20, 2009
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This open letter is addressed to Mr. James Bild of the Hillsdale College chapter of the Sigma Chi fraternity. Mr. Stolyarov wrote the letter after Mr. Bild refused to allow the continuation of the Jail and Bail Opt-Out List that proved so successful in minimizing campus tensions during the Sigma Chi fraternity’s Derby Days fundraising events.

Dear Mr. Bild:

I am addressing this open letter to the entire membership of the Hillsdale College chapter of the Sigma Chi fraternity – but in particular to you, as you are not only the person responsible for organizing the 2009 Sigma Chi Jail and Bail event at Hillsdale, but you also have been publicly quoted in this article as saying the following: “I don’t think that you will need to continue this new fad of having an opt-out list for Jail and Bail.” I believe that you are making a serious mistake, and I respectfully urge you to reconsider.

I am making this letter publicly available for two principal reasons: 1) because you have publicly voiced your opposition to continuing the opt-out list and 2) because your position on the opt-out list is of public significance to the students of Hillsdale College. As you are likely aware, I am the originator of the opt-out list for the Jail and Bail, whose 2008 version you can see here.  As I have graduated from Hillsdale College, I no longer stand to be personally affected by the Jail and Bail, so I hope that my present detachment from the consequences of this event will lend my arguments additional credence with you. My concern in this matter encompasses three principal areas: 1) the good name of the Sigma Chi fraternity, 2) the safety of Hillsdale College students, and 3) the principle of consent as the essential underpinning of charity and liberty alike.

I am not sure whether you are aware of just how much good will has been earned by the Sigma Chi fraternity in 2008, after the fraternity’s leadership consented to work with an independent student on a measure that satisfied all parties and ended the year-by-year escalation of the Jail and Bail to levels of increasing raucousness, compulsion, and violence. The Hillsdale Collegian runs a feature every year about the gulf in perceptions between fraternities and independents – but here was an instance where that gulf was breached and students from a wide variety of backgrounds and perspectives came together to cooperate in ensuring that the night of the Jail and Bail was safe and enjoyable for everybody.  Moreover, I received numerous comments after the 2008 Jail and Bail about how impeccably polite and civilized the Sigma Chi members were on that night. Being considerate and accommodating has certainly won the fraternity much more respect than being dismissive and confrontational ever did.

The opt-out list was a unique solution to a long-standing tension – and it was a solution that recognized every side’s perspective. On the one hand, the Sigma Chi members believe that the Jail and Bail event solicits money for a good cause and wish to preserve a long-standing tradition. On the other hand, numerous students at Hillsdale College either do not wish to support the particular charities selected by the Sigma Chi fraternity, or – which is more likely – do not wish to give money to any cause when their permission has not been asked beforehand. The essence of charity is that it must be freely given by an individual possessing the power to make an unconstrained choice either way. Many students at Hillsdale College oppose compulsory charity when the government engages in it with taxpayer funds; why should a private entity such as Sigma Chi be allowed to exert a degree of force which, even in a government, is seen as illegitimate?

This principled aversion to compulsory giving is not an attitude held by “a few disgruntled individuals,” as your comments indicated. Last year, 136 Hillsdale students took active measures to be included in the opt-out list – well over a tenth of the Hillsdale student body. Among these individuals were many academic high-achievers and leaders of campus organizations. You can visit the page to which I referred you and see their names for yourself. This is not a group of people whom you could afford to ignore or dismiss. They will be grateful to you, however, if you demonstrate a willingness to understand and address their concerns.  

While preserving the principle of consent, the opt-out list did not unduly burden the Sigma Chi fraternity. Unlike another possible option, an opt-in list, the opt-out list gave Sigma Chi’s assumptions the benefit of the doubt. Namely, the opt-out list conceded the premise that if an individual does not take the time to submit his name via e-mail, then he probably does not hold a strong enough opposition to participating in the Jail and Bail proceedings to feel violated if he were jailed. The opt-out list left Sigma Chi with the opportunity to involve some 85-88% of students in the event without upsetting those who wished to be left alone. Moreover, as I organized the list last year, it required minimal work on the part of Sigma Chi members. They needed only to be aware of the list and to avoid abducting the individuals whose names appeared in it.

I realize, of course, that this year’s Jail and Bail – like that of last year – is not quite the same as its pre-2008 version. You were quoted in this article as saying, “This year you’re going to want to be jailed.” It has also been indicated that the “jail” will have a much more civilized and hospitable atmosphere. I welcome these developments, and I realize that they are the Sigma Chi fraternity’s way of repairing the event’s image after debacles prior to 2008. If you are successful in attracting more prospective jailees, then the measures you plan to take might certainly considerably reduce the numbers of people that sign up for an opt-out list. However, I still believe that an opt-out list is necessary. In order to understand why I think this, it is necessary to take a longer-term perspective.

Because of your conscientious efforts, it may well be the case that the Jail and Bail this year and in the coming few years will proceed without much controversy. Be that as it may, the memory of past controversies tends to fade over time. When the current Hillsdale student contingent graduates and a few more years elapse thereafter, virtually nobody will remember why the Jail and Bail needed to be made so respectable; the natural tendency of future Sigma Chi leaders – who will not be familiar with the controversy and subsequent attempts at reconciliation – will be to allow the event to re-lapse into its former, unrestrained, violent nature. The benevolence of people like yourself can only be counted on while those people are in control of the situation. In order for the Jail and Bail to be permanently civilized, an institution needs to ensure that it remains civilized. The beauty of institutions is in their independence from particular individuals. By formalizing desirable patterns of behavior, institutions give these patterns a concrete presence in the lives of individuals who did not have personal experience with how and why the desirable behaviors arose. The opt-out list has the potential to become just as deeply-rooted an institution as the Jail and Bail itself. If it did so, it would demonstrate to the world just how deeply Hillsdale students value the ideas of liberty and consent – ideas that ought to animate our lives and actions, and not just abstract discussions.

Mr. Chuck Grimmett, fortunately, is an individual of the highest integrity and competence. He has volunteered to take over the institution of the opt-out list from me, and he has three years remaining at Hillsdale. When it comes time for him to graduate, he might pass on the institution to yet another second-year student – such that it might never be said that the students of Hillsdale failed to learn from the controversies and sub-optimal arrangements of the past.  Mr. Grimmett has indicated to me that he is still willing to administer an opt-out list, if you consent to the arrangement.

I hope that what I have written here will give you much thought and will impel you to reconsider your position. I can only advise you from a distance, but I assure you that I have the best intentions in mind as far as you and Sigma Chi are concerned. I appeal to your reason and prudence and hope that you will make the right decision on this matter.


Gennady Stolyarov II,

Hillsdale College Class of 2009

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