National conference on fraternities and sororities fueled by shared challenges

April 24, 2018

ROSEMONT, Ill. — College and university leaders met this week to examine fraternity and sorority life, with a focus on dangerous behaviors that include hazing and binge drinking. This meeting is the first step in an ongoing conversation to identify meaningful solutions to create transformational change.

“Fraternities and Sororities: What Next,” sponsored by Penn State and the universities of Iowa and Nebraska–Lincoln, brought together more than 50 academic leaders — including university presidents, provosts, top student affairs officials and others — from 31 institutions across the country. Some of those attending the conference were from institutions with the largest fraternity and sorority systems in the nation. The event was hosted at the Big Ten Conference headquarters in Rosemont, Illinois.

At the end of two days of examining challenges and complications, progress and potential collaborative actions, the institutions return to their campuses to continue exploring opportunities for new solutions. Some promising ideas brought forward during the conference have the potential to be joint ventures, such as the development of a national scorecard, uniform consequences and consistent data gathering. Other topics discussed included deferred recruitment, the connection between pledging and hazing, and the values of fraternity and sorority organizations. Also prevalent in the conversation was the need to address inclusion within these organizations, and the lack of diversity. These discussions and ideas will continue to be explored. The Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU) has agreed to provide a forum for a broader discussion with public university leaders from across the country. APLU has a membership of 237 public colleges and universities.

“Continued tragic deaths of students across the nation due to dangerous behaviors dramatically underscore that a culture shift in fraternities and sororities is needed,” said Penn State President Eric J. Barron. “All universities — large, small, public and private — are attempting to deal with similar challenges created by these independent groups. If Greek organizations are to return to their espoused ideals of brotherhood, service and academic achievement, change is imperative.”

Together, the higher education leaders discussed and analyzed not only the complex relationship each institution has with its fraternity and sorority life community, but also the shared challenges faced by colleges and universities that are affiliated with the nearly 12,000 fraternity and sorority chapters in the United States and their 750,000-plus student members. In addition, a broad mix of presentations and sessions took place, ranging from presidential perspectives, case studies, key data and legal issues, to a look at the University of Colorado and its challenges with a system that is not recognized by the university nor has any oversight, and expert speakers on hazing and culture.

“What was clear from the variety of presentations is that the challenges are complex, real and ingrained in many cases, and our individual and collective action is needed if we wish to make meaningful and long-term change,” said University of Iowa President Bruce Harreld. “This will take time to peel back the layers as we look for solutions, and we need our partners, we need our students and community to join us in these efforts as we continue this conversation.”

Barron, who served as a presidential panelist along with Florida State University President John Thrasher and Louisiana State University President King Alexander, said change of this magnitude requires the commitment from everyone involved, including the outside national organizations that oversee fraternity and sorority chapters. All three of the presidential panelists experienced a recent student death connected to their campuses due to fraternity hazing. As a result, in the past year, Penn State instituted aggressive measures, including assuming control of the fraternity and sorority organizational misconduct and disciplinary process. Other universities also have made recent changes on their campuses, including banning alcohol, deferring recruitment, restricting activities and suspending organizations.

Conference attendees were informed by individuals who have researched fraternity and sorority organizations. The speakers and panelists included John Hechinger, author of the book “True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities” and a senior editor at Bloomberg News; Hank Nuwer, a journalism professor at Franklin College in Indiana who has been researching hazing deaths since the 1970s and author of “Hazing: Destroying Young Lives”; Elizabeth Allen, a professor at the University of Maine, who studies campus culture and has worked for decades on the issue of hazing; and David Westol, a consultant for fraternities, sororities and other nonprofit associations, as well as former executive director of Theta Chi fraternity.

“Alcohol misuse, sexual misconduct and hazing are exceptionally complex universal challenges that university leaders have been working for decades to address. Progress has been made, but not enough,” said University of Nebraska–Lincoln Chancellor Ronnie Green. “We must involve all partners, including national organizations, alumni, parents and student members if we are to refocus successfully on eliminating these threats to the positive benefits of the Greek system.”

Barron said that the hope among the conference attendees is that this national conversation, now just in its initial stages, will continue with robust engagement from presidents who are part of the APLU.

“Are the issues plaguing fraternities and sororities solvable?” Penn State’s Barron asked. “We do not yet know, but we must for the sake of our students and the overall safety of our community continue to explore these complex questions.”

Last Updated April 24, 2018