About 20 million students are descending on college campuses across the nation in the next few weeks, and nearly 750,000 of them will take part in a time-honored tradition of membership in a fraternity or sorority.
As president of a large public university, I am always concerned about student safety, and that concern is heightened dramatically in the first few months of the academic year. It’s during this time that first-year students are attempting to find their way, not just around campus but also in social settings and within peer groups. Part of their newfound freedom allows them to explore new ideas and push boundaries.
I worry a lot about the boundary part, knowing that alcohol misuse and other dangerous behaviors exist, particularly within fraternity and sorority communities, where all universities see a disproportionate problem with hazing, excessive drinking and related behaviors, such as sexual assault.
The recent tragic death of a student after a night of drinking at a Penn State fraternity, accompanied by horrific and incomprehensible video evidence, unnerved our university community and has further elevated awareness that the Greek-letter system, both on my campus and across the nation, is in dire need of reform. No family should ever have to endure such a tragic loss.
Alcohol misuse, hazing and sexual misconduct are exceptionally complex universal challenges that we have been working to address for decades at Penn State, in tandem with these independent Greek organizations — many of which occupy privately owned houses. The self-governance model for fraternities and sororities is not working and must be altered.
At one time, fraternity and sorority life in America was generally associated with leadership, service and brotherhood. Statistics often cited as examples include the 18 U.S. presidents who once were members of a fraternity and the 85% of Supreme Court justices, as well as the 85% of Fortune 500 CEOs, who are former Greek-letter members, as reported by The Atlantic in 2014.
Research shows that fraternity and sorority members make up some of the highest-risk college students in the nation, particularly with regard to continued and excessive substance abuse. All universities — large, small, public and private — are attempting to deal with the problems created by these independent groups, which are overseen in large part by their national organizations and the student members themselves.
The failure of guidance and lack of oversight by the national bodies that govern these young men and women, coupled with the increasingly excessive drinking culture that these groups have cultivated, have fostered a more dangerous reality — a large number of students are at risk on U.S. campuses. A Bloomberg study highlights this fact and the alarming need for change: From 2005 to 2013, freshmen students accounted for 40% of deaths on campuses in fraternity-related events involving hazing and drinking.
Clearly, we all have to do everything we can to help put an end to these problems. I have publicly said, “Enough is enough.” Careful consideration was given to our No. 1 priority of student safety. If Penn State were to disassociate completely from these organizations, the safety of our students’ environment would not be improved, and the sustainability of a system that has the potential to add value to student lives is not enhanced.
With student safety at the forefront, we have initiated a range of sweeping measures that, collectively, are unique to college campuses, especially one of Penn State’s size. At the heart of these changes, the university will now assume control and responsibility from the Greek-letter organizations for monitoring and adjudication of their chapter misconduct.
Our safety initiatives include unannounced drop-in monitoring at fraternity houses by university-hired and trained staff; eligibility requirements for new members that do not allow first-semester freshmen to join; a reformed and shortened new member (“pledging”) process; an informational scorecard for parents and students publicly displaying critical information about each chapter; strong social restrictions that limit alcohol availability and use; strict limits to the size and number of social gatherings; increased parent and new member education; and a no-tolerance policy regarding hazing — if a chapter is found to have jeopardized another student, we will immediately and permanently revoke Penn State recognition.
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I firmly believe that pushing beyond the self-governance model is imperative to protect students and recapture the positive elements of Greek life, but we cannot stop here, nor go it alone. We have joined Rep. Patrick Meehan, R-Pa., to support legislation that would require universities to report hazing under the Clery Act. We will push for statewide legislation to toughen penalties for hazing, and we will help gather university leaders across the nation to come together to improve student safety on all of our campuses.
We must also engage others closest to the issues — the North-American Interfraternity Conference, the National Panhellenic Conference, the national chapters overseeing these local organizations, fraternity and sorority alumni, student members, law enforcement, local community leaders and others — to partner for meaningful change. This is a deep, persistent and complex issue that requires everyone to play a role in order to prevent problems, intervene in troublesome situations, and curb dangerous behaviors.
Our reforms are challenging the conditions under which these dire issues take place and obliging others to play a greater role in safety. There are no easy solutions, and we do not claim to have all the answers. We will adjust and learn, and explore new ideas and best practices as we forge ahead.
Important, universities need the Greek-letter community to step up its role, and help ensure their organizations are sustainable, including looking more closely at amnesty and examining the risk-management policies of the national fraternity and sorority organizations that may create perverse incentives that discourage calls for medical attention. We all want students to have a positive, safe and productive experience that will support lifelong learning, friendship and community enrichment — all of which are hallmarks of Greek life at its best.
Penn State is committed to setting the foundation to make impactful, lasting change as the first step to restore the original Greek-letter goals of leadership, service and brotherhood.
Eric J. Barron is the president of Pennsylvania State University