Greek-life reform and refocus: Progress update and our steadfast commitment

After a profound tragedy, Penn State was faced with a decision. It was clear the existing model of Greek self-governance here and at universities across the country was broken. We considered withdrawing University recognition of Greek-letter organizations and walking away from Greek-life altogether. But we believed that Greek organizations operating without University oversight would make our community less safe. We also believed, that through concerted effort, we could both recapture many of the positive ideals of Greek life and minimize risky behaviors.

Consequently, we implemented a number of sweeping changes in 2017, the heart of which were aimed at increasing student safety and decreasing risky behaviors — particularly heavy drinking and hazing. We opened new lines of communication with national organizations, chapters, alumni, trustees and our own students. And to that end, many students, together with alumni, legislators and law enforcement, have stepped up as important partners.

Is reform working?
Although it is probably too early to claim a trend or to demonstrate a clear causal relationship to the reforms, the signs are encouraging. For the first full academic year with Greek-life reforms in place, Highlands neighborhood total crimes reported are down by 20 percent and total cases at fraternities are down approximately 30 percent compared to the last year without reforms in place. For the fall 2018 semester, there were 17 percent fewer alcohol-related Mount Nittany Medical Center emergency department visits by students than in the fall 2017 semester. And, Greek-life academic performance is stronger with Panhellenic grade points up by 0.3 and Interfraternity Council grade points up by 0.2. All four student-led Greek councils have increased their new member grade-point averages since the implementation of deferred recruitment and enhanced eligibility requirements.

In addition to the State College Borough statistics, we are collecting data and sharing it through our Greek Chapter Scorecards — and it has been met with great interest. Our scorecard, for example, had almost 10,000 unique downloads between March and December alone. This is proving to be a vital tool for the community — for students and their parents it provides key information about the strengths and weaknesses of individual chapters, encouraging decisions to be made with much greater awareness. We have harnessed learnings and are committed to sharing outcomes here and beyond.

Through our compliance coordinators, hotline reports, police and direct reports to Student Conduct, we have seen the departure of 12 organizations in the past two years for violation of our stated expectations for their behavior. We also welcomed new Greek-letter organizations. I am particularly pleased to see growth within the National Pan-Hellenic Council, which governs historically black fraternity and sorority chapters. The council added two chapters in 2018 — Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. last spring and Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc. — and is in the process of adding other organizations in the coming months.

Our momentum continues in our collective efforts to promote student safety. This year, the Timothy J. Piazza Antihazing legislation was signed into Pennsylvania law and codifies significant criminal penalties designed to prevent hazing. Pennsylvania’s Medical Amnesty Law and Penn State’s Responsible Action Protocol protect students from prosecution for consumption of alcohol when they seek help for a peer who is passed out, unconscious or unresponsive as the result of over-consumption.

Continued challenges
These measured improvements haven’t come without challenges. To be successful, we need collaboration and cooperation on all fronts, not resistance.

A recent challenge to the State College Borough ordinance to maintain properties as fraternity housing without University recognition is a critical issue. A November 2018 court decision will allow members of two suspended fraternities that lost University recognition to continue to live together and operate as fraternity houses in the borough. The ruling goes against a longstanding municipal housing ordinance that prohibits groups of unrelated individuals from living together in the same house unless they are recognized by the University as a fraternity. This would impede any ability to promote student and community safety. This is an example in which some unrecognized student organizations are operating independently of the University, and in some cases national fraternity organizations are sustaining charters under these circumstances — it is questionable and troubling judgment as well as potentially dangerous.

We have communicated with parents to warn them about students joining these rogue chapters — Sigma Alpha Mu and Alpha Sigma Phi. We also have expressed our frustration with the national chapters and call on the media and public to hold these organizations accountable. And, we are supportive of the borough’s efforts to appeal the decision. As hospital emergency room visits by students decline significantly, as crime rates decrease, and as grade points go up, we simply can’t afford to go backward.

On balance, we are making progress, but face significant challenges here, and across the country. We thank our Greek-life partners who have embraced change, and we encourage others to seriously consider the lasting consequences of decisions that are counter to the tenets of student safety and well-being.

I am proud of the students who have stepped up in the face of adversity. Because of them, I see a future where Greek-letter organizations at Penn State can continue with a renewed purpose, focused on leadership, service and camaraderie. I commend the student organizations and alumni that have embraced our new measures, and especially those that have gone above and beyond to not only implement necessary changes, but who also are taking responsibility for their organizational outcomes, and commitment to their missions and values.

I remain hopeful that we will continue on this trajectory in 2019. Penn State remains steadfast in its commitment to transforming the Greek-letter community.

The Free Expression of Religious Beliefs

Freedom of religion is at the very foundation of the United States, codified as the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights. Even more importantly, we recognize the free choice of worship as a fundamental human right. We are approaching a season where many of us will be celebrating some of our most valued traditions and beliefs. It is worth taking a moment to consider how we would feel if the symbols of our religious beliefs were stolen, or vandalized, or if the expression of our most sacred beliefs risked violence.

The menorah shares the universal message of religious freedom. It symbolizes universal enlightenment, and that good will prevail over evil, freedom over oppression, and light over darkness. Lighting the menorah is a joyous time that gives us the opportunity to celebrate and reflect on the messages of light, truth and goodness.

Unfortunately, today my thoughts are on anti-Semitism and the ugly truth that it still exists in our society. My thoughts are on the risks to every religion and set of beliefs if we do not join together in protecting our fundamental human rights.

Within the last week, the Zeta Beta Tau menorah was vandalized and then stolen in two separate incidents. I am deeply saddened by these incidents. Every individual who treasures their personal faith should be saddened by these incidents.

Attacks that target the Jewish faith are chilling, particularly in light of the recent horrific shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue, which serves many Penn State faculty, staff, students and alumni. Nationally there is an increase of anti-Semitism. According to the Anti-Defamation League’s report, the number of anti-Semitic incidents was nearly 60 percent higher in 2017 than in 2016, marking the largest single-year increase on record and the second-highest number reported since the organization began collecting incident data. In the context of the national climate, we need to protect against hate and prejudice of any kind, they have no place in our community or society.

The Zeta Beta Tau menorah was recovered, but there is lasting damage — to the menorah, the Jewish community, and to all Penn Staters who value their own personal rights of worship. It is difficult for me to fathom why anyone would engage in such acts, and I know I’m not alone. I have seen our Penn State community unite to support and encourage one another. There is tremendous good in the hearts of those who live, learn and work on our campuses. We cannot allow the misguided and hateful acts of a few to stand unchallenged. If you see something, say something.

At this time, I also ask that you extend extra kindness to those in Zeta Beta Tau and the entire Jewish community. Let them know they are not alone, and we are united in condemning all acts of hate and intimidation. Resources are available for individuals in our community through CAPS, and I encourage you to use them.

Finally, I ask you reflect on what the menorah means. I ask you to reflect on the importance of being able to worship freely to you personally, regardless of your faith. We have an obligation to illuminate the world, and to be one by cherishing our diversity and our fundamental human rights. Thank you for taking this moment to reflect on what we value. I hope to see you at Wednesday’s menorah lighting on Old Main lawn.


Honoring Those Who Serve

With Veterans Day comes the official end of Penn State’s Military Appreciation Week events for 2018, although military appreciation is an ongoing commitment for Penn State. What began in 2011 with a football game has grown into a nearly monthlong celebration — featuring the largest annual Military Appreciation event in the Big Ten — beginning in October and running through Veterans Day, observed on Nov. 12.

Today is a special time to honor and reflect on our nation’s heroes and the families who support them.

One example of Penn State’s commitment to military veterans, service members and their families is the Seats for Service Members Program, which provided complimentary tickets to active duty, guard and reserve military, veterans, and fallen and Gold Stars families for the Penn State football game (Oct. 27) against Iowa. Over 6,000 seats were donated by Penn Staters, community members and businesses for these heroes. And, a host of volunteers in the hundreds worked tirelessly to make the Military Appreciation Tailgate an extraordinary event. I wish to extend my sincere appreciation to all of the volunteers, organizers and donors who made our Military Appreciation events possible.

At the Military Appreciation Tailgate, I had the privilege of meeting a veteran of World War II. He was so proud and so pleased to be with us for the tailgate and game. He told me attending the event was a dream come true, and it was the best day he could remember having in a very long time. It was our honor to host him and recognize his service, along with so many other heroes.

At Penn State, our connections to the armed services run long and deep. Ever since 1863 when Penn State took on its role as Pennsylvania’s sole land-grant university, our relationship with the military has been part of our DNA. Military science and training have an important place in our curriculum, and the University continues a strong tradition of supporting the military community.

Veterans have had a profound impact on our institution over the years. Several of our past presidents were veterans, including George Atherton, John Fraser and James Beaver, who served in the Civil War. They all played a key role in shaping our college as a land-grant institution. Presidents John Oswald and Bryce Jordan served in World War II and helped Penn State grow through the 1970s and 80s.

Not only did the University’s veteran leaders have an impact, but so have our student veterans. After World War II, Penn State reserved student slots for our returning veterans. In 1946, 55 percent of Penn State’s full-time students were veterans and that number increased to 80 percent by the fall of 1947. The personal qualities and life experiences that student veterans brought with them to Penn State, and the second order benefits of the G.I. Bill, led to the greatest expansion of higher education in this country.

Today, more than 5,600 military-connected students are taking advantage of G.I. Bill benefits at our University, and Penn State has one of the largest, oldest and most successful ROTC programs in the nation.

Penn State also is one of the leading research universities associated with the federal Department of Defense. Our faculty, students and staff conduct about $200 million a year in defense-related research. As a result of our long record of outstanding work, the U.S. Navy recently awarded a 10-year, $2.1 billion contract to the Applied Research Laboratory at Penn State — to conduct research and development to improve U.S. national security.

Penn State is consistently ranked as a military-friendly institution. For veteran students at every Penn State campus and online through the World Campus, the University offers peer counseling services and assists with VA benefits, the college application process, financial aid and living arrangements through our Office of Veterans Programs. We’re proud of that ranking, and we’re proud of our role in preparing those who serve and protect our nation.

Our student veterans and service members enrich our University with their diverse life experiences and with their demonstration of the true meaning of hard work and sacrifice. Thank you for your service and for being a part of Penn State.

Support and Resources for Adult Veteran Students

Penn State is committed to providing the necessary resources and support to help veteran students succeed in and out of the classroom, including:

  • Aid for student veterans’ transitions from service to college through a host of programs, including a peer-to-peer sponsorship and mentoring program run by current student veterans, veteran student clubs and organization, and a veteran-only first-year seminar class, “Transition is the Mission.”
  • Penn State’s Office of Veterans Programs provides services in outreach, certification, mentorship and general counseling to veterans and Department of Veterans Affairs benefits recipients.
  • The Penn State Law Veterans and Servicemembers Legal Clinic provides students hands-on experience representing veterans and current service members in some of the unique legal issues they encounter.
  • Penn State World Campus has aligned its online degree and certificate programs, student support services, and policies to address the unique needs of military and veteran students. World Campus also has an academic military support team, representing every academic and support unit within the University to help facilitate student success and achievement.
  • The Clearinghouse for Military Family Readiness is a valuable, interactive and comprehensive resource for professionals working with military families. Its staff engage in applied research and evaluation, implementation science, education and outreach to advance the well-being and health of military families.

Penn State continues efforts to foster diversity and inclusion in campus community


Dear Penn State Community:

Penn State is beginning the new academic year on a high note thanks to the support and achievements of so many in the Penn State family. A top 50 world academic ranking, a record-setting year for fundraising, record research expenditures, great success by our student-athletes, and positive outcomes for our students—clearly indicate that Penn State is making important strides. While there are encouraging advances taking place across our campuses, unfortunately, like many other higher education institutions, we are not immune to the uncertainty, polarization and conflict happening nationally and internationally. From conversations I’ve had with many of you, I am aware that this atmosphere may be impacting each of you in different ways.

Penn State increasingly reflects the changing face of our nation, and I hope the entire Penn State community feels a shared commitment to being a welcoming and inclusive campus. Throughout our history, when Penn Staters have faced discrimination and hatred, our community has stepped up to embrace differences and promote respect. That is the true meaning of “We are,” and it’s what binds us all together.

In that spirit, I wanted to begin the semester with a few updates on new initiatives that focus on fostering respect and meaningful dialogue within our community. Some of these efforts build on All In, launched two years ago based on the suggestion of students. Other initiatives are important new steps designed to make Penn State a place where all members of our campus community – each of whom has earned the right to be here – feel welcomed and safe at Penn State.

Take a look to see how you can get involved.

  • Addressing Hate

Last spring, various groups of undergraduate and graduate students participated in several meetings to develop an interactive website of resources that begin to address the many challenges Penn State students face when navigating politics, opinions and views, discriminatory behavior, bias, and more. The site will offer resources for community members at each campus, as well as advice, scenarios, and decision-making tips to help students, faculty, and staff better understand these complex issues. Students at University Park will be invited to participate in a fall meeting before the launch, and students at the Commonwealth campuses also will be invited to take part in launch events.

  • Social Media and Hateful Language

This past year, we saw several incidents of hateful language, videos and conversations on social media channels. Penn State has a consistent message – hate has no place on a university campus and we take such acts seriously. Our administrators met with individual students to discuss these issues on a case-by-case basis.

  • Student Code of Conduct and Report Bias Hotline

In April, Penn State administrators also met with students to discuss Penn State’s student code of conduct, the University’s communications protocol and strategy, and the Report Bias Hotline and reporting process. Students offered recommendations, which are currently being reviewed.

  • New Student Orientation and Welcome Week Theatrical Production

Over the summer, the Offices of Student Affairs, Educational Equity, and Undergraduate Education, collaborated with the School of Theatre and Center for Pedagogy in Arts and Design to develop an interactive theatre production – written and performed by Penn State students. This production, premiering this month, will educate incoming first-year and transfer students on Penn State’s Values and topics such as diversity and inclusion, bystander intervention, sexual assault prevention, and alcohol and drug use and abuse.

  • Penn State 2017 Values and Culture Survey

In June, the results from this ongoing initiative to gauge the climate at Penn State and focus on the well-being and safety of the University community were shared with all students, faculty and staff. While there were many positive outcomes, we still have work to do in some areas. Penn State leaders hosted a town hall to discuss the survey results, answer questions and outline future University initiatives to create a safe and encouraging environment for our community.

  • Student Focus Groups

As we develop a new University-wide climate survey, we plan to engage students through focus groups. The survey will launch in spring 2019 and will use a national instrument focusing on diversity, equity and inclusion to inform our continuous efforts to create an inclusive campus climate, better understand challenges, build a diverse student body and workforce, and prepare community members for active participation in a global world.

Finally, for students who are interested, there is a range of on-campus support and educational resources available to you, including the Office of Educational Equity, Multicultural Resource Center, Paul Robeson Cultural Center, LGBTQA Student Resource Center, Gender Equity Center and Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).

I feel it’s important to acknowledge that while much work is underway, we understand that Penn State can do better.  I invite your ideas, support and criticism, in the spirit of reaching our full potential as a community to create a more just and equitable environment, where everyone at Penn State has the opportunity and support needed to reach their full potential.  It is also my hope that each of us takes time to reflect on the role we can play in this process, as we begin the new academic year together.

Eric Barron
President, Penn State


Hazing and dangerous drinking in college will remain without solid partnership among many

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.

Speaking up

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


COVID-19 Update from Penn State

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