The Board of Trustees approved $5 million for construction of a new student activities center, a courtyard and eight non-residential cottages to be completed in time for Homecoming next year during their Feb. 18 meeting.

Richmond's seven sororities will rent one cottage each at the rate of $50 per semester per sorority member, and other student organizations can book the eighth cottage for free until Richmond incorporates an eighth sorority. Students can also book the student activities center, which has a seating capacity of 200 versus each cottage's 85, at no charge.

The houses, which are planned to be built beside the tennis courts behind South Court, will be furnished with kitchens, restrooms, office spaces and storage closets. Additionally, each sorority is allocated a one-time grant of $7,000 for purchasing decorations, furniture and electrical appliances.

"It once seemed like an idealistic goal," said Caitlin Harman, president of Richmond's Delta Gamma chapter. "We are really happy with the Board of Trustees' decision."

That decision came after both the Student Affairs Committee and the Business Management Committee had met to unanimously approve of the project.

On Feb. 23, Alison Bartel Keller, the director of Greek life for the last 26 years, wrote an e-mail notifying sorority leaders: "After 23 years of effort and commitment by many alumnae, students, and staff persons, eight cottages, a courtyard and a student activities center will become a reality for student life at the University of Richmond. Through the deliberate, focused leadership of Dr. Ayers, the persistent commitment of Dr. Bisese, the financial vision of Hossien Sadid and Louie Love, the creative design and development of John Hoogaker, the leadership of Ann Lloyd Breeden and the pure desire of many alumnae and staff who believed in Greek Life for women and this project, the anticipated ribbon cutting is [scheduled for fall] 2012.

"That specific year will mark the 25-year anniversary of the largest women's Panhellenic system establishment in National Panhellenic Conference history."

Steve Bisese, vice president for student development, said the houses would alleviate the problem of insufficient meeting space faced by members of the nearly 300 clubs active at Richmond. He reasoned that the Tyler Haynes Commons meeting room had been booked for all weekend nights since fall break and that 60 percent of the bookings were sorority-related.

"It's obvious that what sororities have to offer is popular," he said.

As of fall 2010, 43 percent of all Richmond women were in sororities.

The sororities, unlike Richmond's fraternities, will not host alcoholic parties as per restrictions of the national bodies from which each chapter is derived, Keller said. "They won't be open to the public on weekends like fraternity lodges are," said Robin Hawbaker, president of Richmond's Pi Beta Phi Chapter.

In addition to the the $5 million it allocated for construction, the university also set aside $1.9 million for redesigning existing infrastructure, including streets and parking spaces, Keller said.

According to a 30-year-long projection, the university is paying 85 percent of total expenses, and the sorority members are paying the rest through rent, said Louie Love, director of treasury services.

"We were most concerned with what we were charging the students," he said. "It's not too excessive and it wouldn't prevent anyone who wanted to be a member from participating."

Brittany Brady, the Panhellenic Council president, said of the $50 that sorority members would be charged for rent, "It's insane that they were able to do that!"

Average sorority membership dues are $50 per semester for each member, Keller said.

To raise revenue during the summer, the new student activity center and the cottages could be used to host academic conferences and sports camps, Love said.

"They would pay for the space they use, and they would pay for living on campus if they choose to stay overnight," he said.

When asked how her sorority would use its cottage, Harman said that their space would host Sunday chapter meetings, movie nights, an office for her sorority's adviser and sisterhood and preference-night parties during recruitment.

"Every girl who is going through recruitment goes to each sorority and has an opportunity to talk to sisters during the last two nights of recruitment," she explained. "The only person who would ever live there is our collegiate development representative from nationals who comes yearly to evaluate the chapter."

Brady, who is also a member of Kappa Alpha Theta, said "[The cottages] are going to be huge for ritual." She explained that each sorority's ritual involved "traditions that are held secret and dear to the sorority," that they sometimes required materials she could not identify, and that it could be understood in terms of religious rituals by those who have never encountered it.

When asked if the new facilities would persuade sororities to be more inclusive and admit more women, both Brady and Hawbaker said that it would not, since availability of space was unrelated to the recruitment goal of each sorority.

"Strong chapters aren't defined by numbers, but by the experience," Harman said. "I would encourage non-Greeks to think harder about joining."

Praising the role of Richmond sororities, Lucie Dufour, music chairman of Richmond's Kappa Alpha Theta chapter, said: "Sororities are a great way of getting to know a lot of other people. [It is] a lot easier for you to transition to school if you have those bonds."

When senior Caleb Routhier, a non-Greek Richmond College student who serves on the judicial council, was asked how he felt about Richmond allocating funds to build new sorority cottages, he said: "Even if you spend on D-Hall, not everyone eats at D-Hall. Maybe it's just the sororities' turn this time."

When asked if he foresaw judicial council cases arising from possible conflicts at sorority cottages, he said, "We have had absolutely zero cases regarding women ... much less sororities."

The university has not decided on a donor's name to be part of the title for the new student activity center.

"It's certainly a naming opportunity down the road," Keller said.

Contact staff writer Tanveer Ahmed at tanveer.ahmed@richmond.edu