Penn State student Timothy Piazza died in February 2017 after participating in pledge acceptance night activities with the Beta Theta Pi fraternity. His death—which a grand jury has called “the direct result of encouraged reckless conduct”—reignited an age-old debate about the role of fraternities and sororities in campus life.
Penn State took swift action, permanently banning Beta Theta Pi, canceling 2017 rush, eliminating daylong Greek events, prohibiting kegs at frat parties and restricting the number of events at which alcohol is served.
More changes are under consideration, with a recent statement promising “options that will depart drastically” from common measures elsewhere.
The question of how to accommodate Greek life is a continued conundrum for college officials nationwide. The fact that Penn State’s Beta Theta Pi chapter had previously won awards for conduct and integrity underscores what North-American Interfraternity Conference President and CEO Judson Horras calls “an uncomfortable truth.”
In a May 12 blog post, Horras wrote: “The inherent limitations of our interventions is that they attempt to influence student behavior from a position of external power.”
In other words, higher ed will need more than rules set by national Greek organizations to eliminate hazing, excessive alcohol use, sexual harassment and other misbehavior.
Efforts to educate students in making healthy choices is crucial, and colleges should commit to building relationships with the Greek system, says Laura Blake Jones, dean of students at the University of Michigan.
A partnership approach
The amount of direct control colleges have over Greek life depends, in part, on whether or not Greek residences are on or off university-owned property—and the location of that housing is a variable that college officials ultimately can’t control. Policies regulating Greek life and student behavior can’t guarantee compliance or good outcomes either.
That’s why the University of Michigan, Lafayette College in Pennsylvania and others focus time and attention on Greek life connections. In fact, the No. 1 recommendation made by Lafayette’s Working on Greek Life and Campus Community is “improving relationships between the college and the Greek community.”
A partnership approach is more productive than an antagonistic one, and Lafayette’s working group notes that fraternities and sororities need support, such as college-provided Greek advisor training, to function optimally.
“The best way we can control and influence what happens in fraternity and sorority houses is through relationships,” says Jones at Michigan. “It’s one of the key factors in answering the question of how we can maximize safety for students.”
At her institution, about 22 percent of undergraduates are involved in Greek life. Four Greek councils oversee the university’s 48 fraternities and 17 sororities, and university staff “work with officers of the governing councils in a really intensive way,” Jones says.
Council leaders receive training in leadership, risk management, alcohol and drug abuse, and hazing prevention; chapter presidents meet with their Greek life advisor at least monthly. Administrators also curate relationships with the national chapters of each Greek organization represented on campus.
The Lafayette working group recommends “meaningful interaction, either in person or via teleconference” each semester between the VP for campus life, senior diversity officer, dean of students, Greek advisor, executives from the national organizations and student leaders.
Association of Fraternity & Sorority Advisors, afa1976.org
North-American Intrafraternity Conference (NIC), nicindy.org
If a fraternity or sorority is not living up to its stated values or following university guidelines, national Greek officials can intervene.
“I can’t remove an individual from membership in a private organization,” Jones says, “but I can use my influence to talk to the national organization.”
A consultant is then typically sent to campus to interview every member of the organization individually. “If people are not living up to the values of the organization,” she adds, “they can remove them from membership.”