Greek life discussion highlights risks, progress in fraternity, sorority reform

November 14, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State has made notable progress related to efforts to promote student safety and decrease risk related to Greek-letter organizations. In addition, these efforts have been adopted quickly by Greek-life members and the University’s Greek student leaders support the reforms and share the overarching goal of enhanced student safety. 

In a meeting (Nov. 14) as part of Penn State’s Board of Trustees Committee on Academic Affairs and Student Life, Damon Sims, vice president for Student Affairs, was joined by administrative colleagues, key student leaders representing the four Greek councils and Tom Fountaine, State College Borough manager, to discuss risks present in fraternity and sorority life and the collaborative efforts among many constituencies to minimize those risks.

Key reforms aimed at increasing safety and minimizing risk

In 2017, the University instituted a series of reforms meant to increase safety and address unsafe behaviors within the Greek community – particularly high-risk drinking, hazing and sexual misconduct. 

Sims and others discussed how these reforms, which included important changes to the nature of the relationship the University has with its fraternities and sororities, have been implemented within the past few years. University staff now monitor social activities and manage the organizational misconduct process when violations are found. Chapters also are expected to submit risk management proposals for social events they intend to host. This new oversight has led to the suspension or revocation of multiple Greek-letter organizations. 

In addition, mandatory education initiatives, new officer training, deferred recruitment, alcohol-free recruitment activities and updates to the new member process have been integrated into the member experience. 

Penn State also has made it clear that it has no tolerance for hazing and advocated for the recently passed Timothy J. Piazza Anti-Hazing Law, which established meaningful consequences for individuals and organizations found responsible for hazing. 

Early progress in managing risk 

While it’s too early to claim success in managing the risks associated with Greek life, Sims said, the University has seen significant progress in key areas. 

Alcohol-related crimes in the Highlands neighborhood near the University Park campus, where most of Penn State’s 35 Interfraternity Council chapters are located, fell by 47% last year. In this same time period, alcohol-related emergency room visits by students fell by 17%. 

In the past year, there has been a 31% decrease in crimes occurring at fraternity houses, and noise-related violations in the Highlands neighborhood have fallen 51%.   

Students involved in Greek life also are generally performing better academically. The members of fraternity and sorority chapters in each of the four Greek governing councils have experienced increases in grade point averages since the implementation of reforms. The Panhellenic Council’s GPA increased by 0.3; the Interfraternity Council’s aggregate GPA went up 0.2; and both the National Pan-Hellenic Council and the Multicultural Greek Council’s averages increased 0.1.  

Ongoing challenges and looking to the future

The progress made through Greek-life reforms is “very real, but so are the challenges that remain,” according to Sims. The vice president discussed some of the ongoing challenges the University continues to navigate, including the current housing model for Greek-letter organizations; the relationship of these organizations to the University; and the “inherent secrecy” within the organizations that can heighten the risks associated with alcohol, sexual assault and hazing. 

Some of the most concerning challenges revolve around situations where the University lacks the ability to provide oversight, such as with “rogue” organizations, Sims said. These are organizations that have been suspended by the University but continue to live in their privately owned houses and function independent of the University.  Another challenge is “away” or “senior” houses. These off-campus residences, often unknown to the University, are locations where older members of the fraternity community live together and host social events.

Sims said the multiple measures put in place are not only aimed at reducing risk, but also continuing the viability of Greek life at Penn State. Sims indicated that when fraternities and sororities function with a commitment to their stated core values — brotherhood and sisterhood, scholarship, character, leadership, service and responsibility — they encourage student success and add to the student experience outside the classroom. 

“While the risks at times seem to outweigh the benefits, we are encouraged by the progress toward a safer community and a recommitment to those values,” Sims said. 

New tools, such as the Greek Chapter Scorecard, which shows a snapshot of key measures for each chapter, provide vital information and help the University communicate with students, parents and others around how individual chapters are performing. 

Penn State also has become a leader in the national conversation about Greek life. The launch of the Timothy J. Piazza Center for Fraternity and Sorority Reform in January 2019 helped to solidify the University’s commitment to advancing research on Greek-letter organizations that would help inform best practices and decisions. The center is now poised to become an important resource for Greek life across the nation. As a multi-disciplinary research center, the Piazza Center will produce actionable data to give practitioners the information needed to enact meaningful change on their campuses. 

The Piazza Center also is currently administering a nationwide survey of more than 50 institutions to examine trends in Greek life. In addition, the center will be releasing the first National Fraternity and Sorority Scorecard  this year, which will provide metrics related to how Greek chapters perform. The intent of this newly launched tool is to give institutions the information needed to benchmark local chapters against the national landscape, as well as have meaningful and constructive dialogues with these organizations.

Last Updated November 19, 2019