Piazza Center moves to become 'go-to' resource for Greek life across the nation

October 16, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In January 2019, Penn State leaders unveiled the launch of what they hope will be the nation’s principal home for identifying, testing and implementing best practices among Greek-life organizations on campus. Now, eight months later, the Timothy J. Piazza Center for Fraternity and Sorority Research and Reform is getting ready to release a national scorecard; gearing up to administer an ongoing nationwide survey; seeking resources to fund critical research; and raising important conversations on campuses across the United States.

“We are up and running and seeking partnerships with researchers in various disciplines to help us study, analyze and overcome the challenges in Greek-letter communities. In addition, we are seeking to identify best practices to make the fraternity and sorority experience safer and more meaningful,” said Steve Veldkamp, interim special assistant to Penn State’s vice president for Student Affairs and executive director of the Piazza Center. “The Piazza Center is poised to create unbiased answers to perennial questions regarding professional practice and policies related to fraternities and sororities. For too long there have only been studies related to the size, shape and extent of issues facing fraternities and sororities. However, there is little evidence related to professional practice in dealing with Greek-life organizations or in effective operations of these organizations. We must change that model.”  

Named in memory of Timothy Piazza, a sophomore at Penn State who died in February 2017 following alcohol-infused pledging activities at the now permanently banned Beta Theta Pi house, the new center builds upon the legacy of the Center for Fraternity and Sorority Research at Indiana University Bloomington. The center has now transitioned to Penn State and will benefit from dedicated full-time staff and research resources, according to Veldkamp. Currently, a total of seven staff members, four of which are full time, are planned.

“Our aim is to make the center a valuable resource for colleges and universities across the United States, as well as for members, chapters and organizations. The center will focus on research to support positive educational outcomes, student safety and the reduction of high-risk behaviors. What everyone in this field really seeks are sound, professional practices,” said Damon Sims, vice president for Student Affairs and a main advocate for creation of the center at Penn State. “The Piazza Center will study best practices in creating safer chapters, as well as the positive impact fraternity and sororities can create on campus and in the community.”

Multidisciplinary approach

Veldkamp said that as a multidisciplinary research center, plans are to build on and amplify professional practice by studying a wide range of areas, including the efficacy of different methods of advising chapters; the impact of changes to campus policies; and the implementation of educational programs that will create meaningful change. He said the center’s priority projects will be focused on student safety and eliminating high-risk behaviors.

“Learning how institutions move from identifying the problem to creating chapter, community and cultural change internally and externally is critical to the future of fraternity and sorority life,” Veldkamp explained. “Those are the kinds of things that the center can do, in addition to sponsoring fundamental research on these issues.”

Sims said he has had conversations with faculty in Penn State’s College of Education, as well as behavioral health faculty in the College of Health and Human Development, who have expressed interest in studying some of the issues within Greek life — such as those that are considered public health concerns. Sims also noted that there are business practices within the fraternity and sorority communities that Smeal College of Business faculty would be suited to explore, such as insurance needs, risk management and operational/financial models.

Growth phase

It is estimated that the overall costs to fully operate the center will require an $8 million endowment dedicated to this purpose. The University already committed $2 million in initial funding to establish the endowment and has launched a fundraising campaign aimed at garnering $3 million in private support, with the promise of an additional $3 million in matching funds to come from Penn State. An $8 million endowment will generate approximately $350,000 in annual operational funding to sustain a successful center for many years to come. 

In reaching out to other institutions, Veldkamp has found broad interest and a hunger for information. Already, a number of articles on the center and Greek life in general have been published, including a journal article in April by the Mary Christie Foundation titled “Penn State’s Piazza Center will shine light on Greek Life;” an online article related to Pennsylvania’s new anti-hazing law as well as an upcoming article focused specifically on the Piazza Center, both sponsored by the Association of Fraternity and Sorority Advisers; and a forthcoming chapter titled the “Development and Use of the Fraternity & Sorority Experience Survey” in the book "Foundations, Research, and Assessment of Fraternities and Sororities: Retrospective and Future Considerations" by Pietro A. Sasso, which talks about the current student experience in Greek-Life. 

In addition, Veldkamp is in the process of creating an advisory board comprised of what he calls “ dynamic thinkers,” who will help to guide the work of the center. The advisory board will be a mix of Penn State faculty along with luminaries and practitioners.

National Scorecard

The Piazza Center also is getting ready to unveil the inaugural National Fraternity and Sorority Scorecard project, which is the first exploratory study of activities for Greek-life organizations and national headquarters. The nationwide  fraternity and sorority chapter scorecard, which is similar to the Community Scorecard instituted in 2017 at Penn State, will eventually include information such as total members, cumulative GPA, alcohol and hazing violations, as well as chapter suspensions. Administrators at various universities have agreed that being able to look at national information with consistent metrics to determine how Greek chapters perform from institution to institution is useful, as is the ability to discern patterns associated with national Greek organizations. Work is being done to collect comparable data following the inaugural report.

“The National Scorecard will be an accountability process for campuses and headquarters to gauge their progress and benchmark against peers. The scorecard eventually will be a searchable database for the public,” Veldkamp said. “To date, 61 schools have joined in this effort to share data for this foundational report. Participation and reporting brings with it accountability and comparisons — both of which could help advance student safety and improve the overall student experience.” 

National survey of institutions

Also in the works is a nationwide survey that is being administered by the Piazza Center this year. In total, 51 schools will participate in The Fraternity Sorority Experience Survey (FSES), which provides aggregate data that allows researchers to examine trends and information about Greek-life related to operations, values, issues and impact. Previous versions of the survey presented an overview of perceptions about satisfaction with the fraternity/sorority experience, and measured learning outcomes.

Participating institutions and headquarters can use the data to create chapter and council benchmarks, as well as make critical decisions on where to focus program and advising support to create healthier and safer chapters and communities. Grouped results identify institutional strengths and challenges. 

Most importantly, the Piazza Center will now be able to see which campuses are excelling in specific areas.

“This is a game changer,” said Veldkamp. “This can help researchers pinpoint and understand how to replicate and create sound professional practice across the country.”

Pushing progress

These efforts, coupled with the center’s own research projects, will allow the center to become a trusted partner with campuses nationwide that need answers. Sims and Veldkamp said that embarking on the goal of providing access to resources to validate best practices is not only challenging, but something that requires participation from institutions and organizations across the U.S. to be successful.

The establishment of the Piazza Center at Penn State is a critical part of the University’s comprehensive response to refocusing its Greek-letter organizations on safety and the well-being of students. In addition to launching the Piazza Center, Penn State also has implemented an array of aggressive new measures that include the addition of more than a dozen staff members to better advise and communicate with students; extensive monitoring of chapters; a deferred recruiting process; and a ‘no tolerance’ policy on hazing. For information on Penn State’s national leadership related to Greek life on campus, visit https://news.psu.edu/story/549575/2018/11/29/administration/penn-state-leaders-discuss-greek-life-reform-national.

Last Updated October 16, 2019