This week, President Barron invited Damon Sims, vice president for Student Affairs, to share his thoughts on the progress the University has made to refocus Greek-letter organizations on safety at Penn State and across the nation.

Much has happened in the months since Tim Piazza’s tragic death after a night of drinking and hazing activities in the Beta Theta Pi house. The national spotlight on fraternity and sorority issues across the country has revealed the scope of the problems within many of these organizations everywhere and the profound consequences that too often result. Penn State’s own declaration that “enough is enough” has become a national cry, as colleges and universities of all shapes and sizes wrestle with finding the right balance and direction in their relationship with Greek-letter organizations.

Despite the deeply ingrained nature of the challenges of risky drinking, hazing and sexual misconduct, meaningful progress has been made. At Penn State, which quickly became a national leader on this front, we have successfully launched key initiatives aimed at re-focusing our Greek community on safety. The choice to lead the change requires new institutional responsibilities and challenges, but it is clearly the right choice.

Focus on safety

Nothing is more important to Penn State than the success and well-being of our students. Most of our students are young adults, enjoying newfound freedom and accepting commensurate responsibility for the first time. Much of what they learn is discovered outside the classroom — by making their own decisions, creating their own communities and leading their own activities and interactions. They require the necessary latitude in these matters if they are to become independent and responsible citizens in the world beyond Penn State.

And so it is with fraternities and sororities, where relationship building and autonomy have long been central themes. These organizations form lasting bonds among their members, creating opportunities for personal growth and providing support that adds value to the student experience. But with their secrecy, autonomy and internal loyalties may come risky activities that substantially jeopardize the safety and security of members and non-members alike. Foremost among these risks are those associated with the misuse of alcohol. Combine that misuse with hazing, and the results, as we know too well, can be deadly.

Leading change

When the behavior and culture within Greek-letter organizations not only threaten lives, but lead to a student’s death, and nothing the organizations have done over a period of years has meaningfully reduced the risks involved, the University faces two choices.

Either we can turn away from our association with these private groups because their behavior violates core University values, or we can demand the changes necessary to put these groups and their members on a safer and more sustainable path. Penn State’s senior leaders chose the latter — and better — possibility, and I am grateful we did.

As we begin a new school year, important changes in our relationship with our fraternities and sororities should be noted.

Most significant among them is that the University’s own staff now monitor the social activities in fraternity houses and manage the organizational misconduct process when apparent violations are found. In the past, the natural autonomy assumed by these private organizations, located, as many of them are, on private property beyond the University’s reach, led the governing councils to monitor and discipline their member organizations.

In exchange for the University’s continued recognition of these groups, which brings with it substantial benefits, we have set an expectation that our own newly established Office of Fraternity and Sorority Compliance staff will monitor these organizations and report to the University’s Office of Student Conduct any apparent violations they find.

This effort alone represents a sea change.

We now have inserted ourselves into the lives of these students in ways never done at Penn State, and rarely, if ever, done in any large public university. Penn State’s continued responsibility for managing individual student misconduct, coupled with its new responsibility for physically monitoring and then managing organizational misconduct within these groups, has led to the discovery of various violations, which has resulted in the revocation or suspension of multiple Greek-letter organizations in the past year alone.

Meaningful progress

Our students know the University is serious about addressing issues of excessive and underage drinking, hazing, sexual misconduct and overly large disruptive gatherings. We will continue to do what we reasonably can to bring those behaviors to an end and allow the good that results from Greek membership to flourish.

  • We are arming prospective fraternity and sorority members and their parents with information that allows them to make informed choices about Greek membership. Our new publicly available Greek Chapter Scorecard provides key information about the strengths and weaknesses of individual chapters, encouraging those considering the benefits of membership to make their decision with greater awareness.
  • Our newly expanded and mandatory educational initiatives, built around themes related to alcohol, hazing and sexual misconduct, continue, as do our restrictions on the number and nature of social events sponsored by Greek-letter organizations.
  • We have sustained our requirement that recruitment of new fraternity and sorority members be delayed until the spring semester, so that incoming students have the chance to gain a solid footing academically and personally before immersing themselves in Greek membership.
  • And our determination to provide robust resources to our Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, so that our constructive partnership with Greek student leaders will be enhanced, is fully in place.

Collective action; The Piazzas speaking on campus 

In response to questions about whether these efforts are likely to succeed, I have consistently said that I am hopeful. Hope and optimism, admittedly, are not the same. But as we begin a new year, my hope is increasingly edging toward optimism. Not least among the reasons for this change is the growing support we are receiving from students, alumni and others.

Of note among our partners in this effort are the parents of Tim Piazza themselves, who have bravely and vigorously advocated for meaningful change in the wake of their son’s senseless death. The Piazzas have brought together parents of other victims of fraternity misconduct, similar to how the University has brought together schools across the nation, in Chicago last spring, and in Washington DC recently, to talk about these issues and push for the change required.

The Piazzas will be on the University Park campus this week speaking to fraternity and sorority leaders, who will be convened by our Fraternity and Sorority Life staff. We are joined with the Piazzas in a deeply sincere quest for progress and change that avoids further pain for other families. I believe our student leaders are sincerely committed to the necessary changes, too.

It is a meaningful and challenging pursuit, and we remain at its beginning. But our hope can become optimism, and our optimism can become reality, if we stay the course, and I promise that we shall.

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