A Focus: Making Greek life safer

June 21, 2017

This opinion piece, written by Penn State President Eric J. Barron, appeared online in both the Philadelphia Inquirer and Penn Live on June 21, 2017.

We’ve seen too many deaths related to dangerous drinking and hazing on campuses across the country. The horrific nature of Timothy Piazza’s death, has further catalyzed a universal understanding that enough is enough. Many question whether these organizations are still sustainable. We believe they are, but only if a new governance model is established and accepted by all.

Historically, the self-governance model of fraternities and sororities has provided an important educational opportunity for student leadership. Unfortunately, much of that positive aspect has eroded. These are private organizations, on private property, responsible for adjudicating their own misconduct and most universities have only two major levers: 1) remove recognition of fraternities and sororities as student organizations; 2) investigate individuals and adjudicate through the student conduct process. Whenever made aware of misconduct, the University has acted firmly, investigating and responding decisively by revoking recognition, and undertaking student conduct deliberations. In the tragic case of Timothy Piazza, where the evidence of misconduct is documented through disturbing video, it became patently clear to all that dramatic change is needed now.

We considered taking away recognition entirely from these groups. That would leave open a higher probability that chapters would go “underground” and organizations could opt to forgo the new regulations and establish themselves outside of University control. Instead, we recognized that significant components of the decades-old self-governance model are broken and must be replaced. The best way to protect student safety is to enact far-reaching change that puts oversight for serious issues within control of the University.  

Our new measures focus on student safety as the number-one priority. The 15-point action plan, approved unanimously by our Board of Trustees, partially includes:

We are transitioning to a new deferred recruitment policy for Greek-letter organizations. Many students come to campus for the first time, experiencing life on their own, making choices regarding education, relationships, alcohol and self-discipline. They have a need for community, and some turn to traditional collegiate social organizations. But, tragically, Greek life has changed - fostering a drinking culture that can put students at risk, academically and physically. A Bloomberg poll highlights the gravity: freshmen accounted for 40 percent of deaths on campuses in fraternity-related events involving hazing and drinking (2005-2013). We believe the freshman year should be a time for students to focus on academics and acclimate to the University, as well as mature in decision making.

The next step we’re taking is to insist that organizations live up to their policies and ideals. So, we are taking over control of the of the Greek-life misconduct and adjudication process and instituting a zero-tolerance policy for hazing. Any hazing that involves alcohol, physical or mental abuse will result in immediate and permanent revocation of University recognition. The University will implement strict social restrictions, and a University monitoring and spot-check team will identify safety violations, refer violations to the student misconduct office, and monitor relationships with neighborhood groups and law enforcement. With our oversight of the adjudication process and closer scrutiny through monitoring, our ability to detect and discipline wrongdoing is increased. Taken together, along with others that include a “compact” signed by all accepting the rules of behavior, we hope will make a real difference. Chapters that fail will have recognition removed permanently. The newly established Greek-life Response Team is in the process of implementing each measure.

Many other issues require attention. From tougher laws — like strengthening penalties for hazing, to looking more closely at amnesty and examining risk management policies of the nationals. But true change can only work if chapters, alumni boards, housing boards, councils, national fraternity trade associations, national fraternities and sororities and their members embrace the opportunity to partner.

Today, we call on all to enact meaningful change. Greek organizations could still opt to forgo the new regulations and establish themselves outside of university control.  But we believe, to do so, will bring enormous negative attention and greater realization of how they see their purpose.  We do see hopeful signs of change: one alumni group decided to temporarily close its fraternity (TKE) and make corrections now to ensure long-term viability. The positives are worth protecting, but only if these complex and vexing problems cease. The safety and well-being of our students comes first.

Eric Barron

President, Penn State

Last Updated June 21, 2017