Penn State cracks down on fraternities and sororities

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Stepping up its crackdown on Greek life, Pennsylvania State University Thursday announced a new round of restrictions on its fraternities and sororities, including a substantial reduction in the allowed number of parties and an unprecedented permanent ban of one frat where a student died earlier this year and a criminal investigation continues.

Given the severity of the problems, Damon Sims, vice president for student affairs, said the university considered a total shutdown of the Greek life system at the 46,00-student University Park campus — and said “some have urged us to go in that direction.”

But university leaders, he said, decided against the “nuclear option” because of all the good that the fraternities and sororities do, including philanthropy and community service.

“Most importantly, I think they give students a sense of belonging, which I think is very important when you come to a university as large as Penn State,” he said.

But Sims left no doubt that Greek life at Penn State, home to 82 fraternities and sororities, was about to undergo an overhaul. University officials said they no longer will rely on the student-run governance system of Greek life — its Interfraternity and Panhellenic councils — to enforce rules.

“Today, Penn State is drawing a line and imposing critical changes,” Sims said. “Enough is enough.”

The university last month banned alcohol at all fraternity parties for the semester and instituted a minimum five-year ban on Beta Theta Pi where Timothy Piazza, 19, a sophomore engineering major from Lebanon, N.J., fell down a stairwell while intoxicated and died. Members of the frat didn’t call for help until 12 hours later.

But on Thursday, Sims said the university — perhaps for the first time in its history — will institute a permanent ban on Beta Theta after a university investigation found rampant “forced drinking, hazing and other illegal activity.” One member of the group was arrested and charged with selling illegal drugs, he said.

“The university’s investigation has produced deeply disturbing evidence showing that Beta Theta Pi fell far short of its professed policies and values … ” Sims said. “Despite its notable history at Penn State, [the fraternity] merits no continuing place in our community.”

The problems, he said, are not limited to Beta Theta Pi. The Greek system at Penn State, to which 18 percent, or 7,468 undergraduates, belong, has widespread problems, most notably underage drinking, university officials have found. Its members are four times more likely than the general student population to be heavy drinkers, Sims said. Sorority women are 50 percent more likely than other female students to be sexually assaulted. And fraternity men are 62 percent more likely to commit a sexual assault than non-fraternity men.

Sims said student leaders who oversee fraternities and sororities were “quite surprised if not stunned” when he told them earlier this morning that each group would be permitted to hold no more than 10 parties or socials with alcohol per semester, a walloping decrease from the current limit of 45.

“I made it as clear as I could that that is not negotiable,” he said.

Recruitment of new members, known as rush, no longer will be permitted first semester freshman year and can only occur second semester if students have completed 12 credits.

The university will consider delaying rush until sophomore year for 2018-19, which a good number of universities already do.

But Sims noted that all of its peer schools in the Big Ten conference allow membership to begin freshman year.

The university also will continue to prohibit underage drinking at the events and a ban on kegs. No day-long events will be allowed. The regulations will be enforced under a “new monitoring protocol” that will include third parties and a combination of student leadership and university staff, Sims said.

“When discovered, any violations of these expectations will result in appropriate and significant disciplinary action,” Sims said.

Other action could be coming, Sims said, including more staff and new leadership for the office of fraternity and sorority life, staff in frat houses and a publication of a report card on the groups.

Penn State in September 2015 established a task force to look into Greek life on its campus after allegations that Kappa Delta Rho members posted pictures of nude and partially nude women — some of whom appeared to be sleeping or passed out — on private Facebook pages.

But Sims said that the task force’s work wasn’t leading to any meaningful change and university officials decided to initiate much stronger action.

“There was nothing as plain or strong out of the task force,” he said, which included some students and alumni.

Universities around the country have struggled with how best to monitor and enforce rules within their fraternity systems. The groups are private associations and often live in off campus housing, but universities have the hammer of official recognition, which allows the groups to hold events and recruit on campus.

“Our ability to influence outcomes among these young adults is profoundly limited, yet the university’s recognition is vital to all of these organizations, and their success as safe, healthy, constructive and sustainable enterprises, is equally important to us,” Sims said.

At Penn State, the former Beta Theta Pi house is privately owned and on private property. Thirty-nine members had lived in the house before the university announced its previous five-year ban. The university offered each of the members Penn State housing for the rest of the semester.

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