This op-ed appeared originally in PennLive.
Student deaths and other near tragedies from hazing and dangerous drinking sadly persist despite renewed attention across the country. As I reflect on the past year and look ahead to the future, I must pause to focus on the critical importance of partnership to the success of any national efforts to combat hazing and dangerous drinking in fraternity and sorority life.
Penn State is committed to taking a lead on these issues nationally among universities, but we and other similarly committed universities cannot do it alone.
Over the past year, we have made strong progress in implementing far reaching new measures, designed to re-focus our Greek community on safety. But if we as a society are to change the current model, and see an end to the hazardous behavior that we have witnessed at Penn State and nationally, we need to find positive, lasting, broad-based solutions. To do that requires commitment from everyone involved. Regrettably, we have encountered some roadblocks to solving this national problem.
Resistance by some Greek-letter organizations
While we continue to see progress on many fronts at Penn State, we also face frustrating obstacles put in place by a number of organizations whose priorities are not aligned with our commitment to safety, accountability and cooperation. For example, three Greek chapters suspended by Penn State — Alpha Chi Rho, Alpha Sigma Phi and Sigma Alpha Mu — are still chartered by their national organizations after we have withdrawn University recognition.
The longstanding actions by some nationals of sustaining charters in such circumstances is irresponsible, and we are determined to do what we can to change this practice.
It is true that all off-campus fraternity houses at Penn State are privately owned and each chapter must meet certain requirements and be subject to drop-in monitoring in house common areas in return for university recognition. However, because these three chapters have lost university recognition, but have not had their national recognition revoked, they now operate as unaffiliated, independent groups — unmonitored, unaccountable and left to their own devices.
And it doesn’t end there. Sadly, some who own the fraternity houses are taking it a step further, now fighting a longstanding municipal ordinance that prohibits groups of unrelated individuals from living in the same house — unless they carry official recognition from the university as a fraternity. This legal dispute is deeply concerning. The ordinance as it stands has broad support: from neighbors in the community, colleagues in municipal government, local police forces, and Penn State. If landlords and property owners — many of whom are alumni who operate fraternity houses through housing corporations they have formed — prevail in this challenge, additional chapters may forego university recognition and operate on their own, negatively affecting safety, organizational accountability, and our community. We need all parties involved, including nationals, alumni advisors, and housing corporations, to join us in focusing their full attention on the critical concerns of safety, security, and wellbeing.
At Penn State, as well as elsewhere, members of our Greek-letter community must embrace change and dedicate themselves to a renewed mission. Safety must be the top priority. Some have reported dangerous hazing and drinking to police or university authorities and we applaud this forward action. Unfortunately many students, parents and friends attempt to provide tips about poor behaviors in Greek organizations, but for a variety of reasons do not wish to be specific or on the record. Unfortunately, vague or non-specific information is often insufficient to hold anyone accountable. I understand that at times this may be sensitive but safety is at stake. Coming forward to make a report is not always an easy thing to do, and sometimes may not be possible.
Most recently in fact, individuals did come forward and their information enabled Penn State and the national organization to conduct a thorough investigation into chapter misconduct. We know, real change cannot take place without the willingness of our own community members to come forward with concrete information needed to successfully investigate. The tendency of some to lean toward secrecy, at potential detriment to the common good, must be reconsidered. For our part, we will continue to search for additional ways to make reporting as easy as it can be, beyond our anonymous hotline and online reporting measures.
Further, no one should participate in an organization whose members and practices are jeopardizing the safety and wellbeing of people. Students must be willing to drop out of a recruitment process or leave a fraternity or sorority that does not value safety, and to seek out others that truly fulfill the ideals of brotherhood or sisterhood and service to which Greek-letter organizations aspire. Parents who learn of unacceptable behaviors must be willing to have tough conversations with their sons and daughters to leave the offending organization.
Creation of a national safety database
We must maintain pressure and continue to demand that all involved put safety first. Many are working together with us, with an eye toward action.
But it is collective change on a national scale, involving universities and national Greek-letter organizations that is required to address student safety. To that end, Penn State is organizing a national conference on April 23 and 24, gathering presidents, provosts and student affairs leaders from universities across the country to examine shared challenges and to explore ideas for cooperative action.
For example, I propose that all universities have access to a common, public database tracking violations and suspensions at fraternity and sorority chapters nationally. Similar in concept to Penn State’s own Greek Chapter Scorecard, the database would allow all university administrators to have a clear view of national organizations, such as Sigma Alpha Mu, whose chapters have widespread troubles. The database would also allow students (and their parents) to make more informed decisions about which fraternities and sororities to join.
Building on progress
Penn State is driving efforts state- and nation-wide. Although partnerships are needed to do more, we have taken control of and responsibility for organizational monitoring and discipline for Greek-letter organizations. We have hired a team of monitors for unannounced drop-in checks at private Greek houses. Each Greek chapter is now required to sign a relationship statement, clearly outlining expectations. Fourteen fraternities or sororities are suspended for specific time periods, and will not be recognized by the university without significant changes to the way they operate. One fraternity has been permanently banned. We have updated policies (Responsible Action Protocol) that provide protection for students who are under the influence of drugs or alcohol when they seek help for another person.
We are aggressively advocating for changes to current laws, in partnership with legislators at the state and federal level. Penn State’s team in the Office of Government and Community Relations has been working closely with Pennsylvania Senate Majority Leader Jake Corman, R-Centre, to increase penalties for hazing across the Commonwealth. This legislation has the potential to be a model for other states to adopt, and we look forward to advocating for its passage. We also have advocated with the U.S. Congress for a bill that would strengthen requirements of universities nationwide in reporting incidents of hazing under the Clery Act. We will continue to meet with lawmakers on this topic until we can reach our mutual goal, with the hope that tragic deaths related to hazing cease to occur.
This is by no means a complete list, but does highlight some of the significant steps Penn State is taking to end dangerous behaviors. Other universities are applying various measures of increased control over Greek-letter organizations and re-evaluating every aspect of their relationships with these groups. We anticipate having a robust discussion in April to examine these concerns with university leaders from across the country, and begin to explore cooperative action. These are critical issues that impact student safety and wellbeing at universities nationwide — private and public, large or small — and we urge them all to join us in finding meaningful solutions.
To students, families, Greek-letter organizations and communities nationwide: I am encouraged that some have accepted the need for change, but we have much to do if we are to realize progress on a national scale. This will only happen when we see much stronger engagement by everyone involved.
We all have a role to play. At Penn State, we will not rest in our efforts, and we are committed to leading in the search for solutions to these serious, complex challenges.
President Eric J. Barron