The Penn State Greek system is about to see major changes.
On Thursday, the university announced an “aggressive” course of action in changing fraternity and sorority activities after the death of Timothy Piazza, 19, in February.
Citing a “persistent pattern of serious alcohol abuse, hazing and the use and sale of illicit drugs,” Penn State announced the end of Beta Theta Pi, the fraternity where Piazza attended a party, fell and sustained the injuries that led to his death two days later.
Beta Theta Pi had been suspended by both the university and its national organization and then was banned for five years by Penn State. But Vice President of Student Affairs Damon Sims said that was not enough, delivering a permanent revocation of the fraternity’s recognition.
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“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. “The serious violations we have found include forced drinking, mandatory hazing and other illegal activity, which combine with a student’s tragic death to lead us to conclude that Beta Theta Pi, despite its notable history at Penn State, merits no continuing place in our community.”
Beta Theta Pi marketed itself as “Men of Principle.” On their website, the national organization trumpets: “By all accounts, Beta’s Men of Principle initiative has become a case-study in organizational change. True, systemic cultural change,” something undertaken to reverse the downsides of the fraternities that the organization said was making them “irrelevant.”
And Sims said he would have agreed, and that is why more needed to be done than just addressing what happened at the Penn State chapter.
“I think that what happened at Beta Theta Pi was a tragedy that, as we have investigated, we have learned a great deal more about the circumstances that had lead to it. A week before, if I had been asked to name the three best fraternities at (Penn State), I would have probably included Beta Theta Pi,” Sims said, listing things like full-time live-in supervision, an invested national organization, a beautiful and cared-for fraternity house and strong alumni presence.
“And yet what happened at Beta fell far short of our expectations and their stated expectations for themselves,” he said. “Even in the best situation, tragedies could occur.”
That’s why the university followed up the actions against Beta Theta Pi with actions against the entire system.
There will be no recruitment or “rush” in the fall. That was deferred to the spring for all Greek organizations. New members will also have to meet thresholds, such as completing at least 12 credits (about four classes) while enrolled full time. An overall deferment of rush until sophomore year is being considered for the 2018-19 school year, as well as limits to the size of membership classes.
Parties are also a target.
For one thing, “social activities,” defined as events with alcohol will not be what they have been in the past. There will be a maximum of 10 per year, down from a cap of 45. There will not be daylong events, the kind of thing that frequently happens during football season or the State Patty’s Day student-created drinking holiday in February.
Parties will also be capped at the capacity of the building.
Sims said that means no more than 225 or so for the largest fraternity, a dramatic shift from parties with more than 1,000 attending and spilling outside.
Asked about parties that aren’t tied to a location, like tailgates — something where Beta Theta Pi previously picked up criminal charges for furnishing alcohol to minors — university spokeswoman Lisa Powers said the university would not be tolerating loopholes.
“The measures being put in place today about restrictions on activities are specific,” she said. “Will there be people who do their best to work around these more aggressive measures? Yes, but they do so at the risk of losing their recognition as an organization at Penn State, and thus losing their ability to live in a fraternity house under borough ordinances. We will not be shy about scaling back organizations that do not comply with new requirements.”
“We need to try to set expectations very clearly,” Sims said. “This has not been working the way it should. We will not tolerate it to continue on the path it’s been on.”
That also means addressing underage drinking with trained servers through third parties, no kegs — beer and wine service only — and strict enforcement.
“Failure by the Greek-letter organizations to effectively prevent underage consumption and excessive drinking in their facilities and activities may lead the University to adopt further restrictions, including the possibility of declaring that the system must be completely dry,” Penn State said in a statement.
Hazing will also be addressed aggressively. Sims said five hazing incidents were reported in the week after Piazza’s death.
The measures come after not only the Beta Theta Pi incident, but after widespread attention was focused on Kappa Delta Rho in 2015 when a secret Facebook page detailing hazing, drinking and other potential illegal activity was made public. That chapter was suspended for three years.
Sims cited troubling statistics involving the Greek community, including: members being four times more likely to be heavy drinkers; sorority members being 50 percent more likely to be sexually assaulted; and fraternity members being 62 percent more likely to commit a sexual assault.
“There are a lot of markers that show things are not going well,” he said.
President Eric Barron formed a task force to address fraternity and sorority issues after the Kappa Delta Rho incident. Sims said some ideas for the measures did come from that group.
The university also plans to increase staff for the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, launching a new search for leadership in that office, consider requiring residential staff in fraternity houses and publishing a report card for chapter houses.
“We want to continue to participate with these groups, but we are declaring that we cannot defer to that leadership on these points,” Sims said.
The Penn State Interfraternity Council said in a release that it was “deeply disappointed the university administration did not follow through on its promise to engage students before making critical decisions.”
Beta Theta Pi’s national organization called the permanent charter revocation “unexpected” and expressed disappointment.
The fraternity chapter had been recognized by Penn State for more than 130 years and was named Chapter of the Year by the university twice since 2010, said Justin Warren, senior writer.
“Unfortunately, a tragic incident led to a discovery that the chapter’s culture had strayed from our founding mission,” he said. “The fraternity takes its reputation as a fraternal leader seriously, and we remain steadfast in the belief that the recent actions of certain Penn State students are not indicative of the high-quality fraternity experience that Beta Theta Pi is known for in State College and beyond.”
The state of the investigation
Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller issued a statement Thursday on the criminal investigation into Timothy Piazza’s death.
“Our office would like to assure the public that we are continuing to work diligently to comprehensively reconstruct the details of the events that evening through the early morning hours of the following day. We understand and appreciate the public’s concern regarding this community-changing tragedy. At this point, we anticipate sharing our findings and the results of our investigation by mid-April,” the release read.
The DA’s office credited State College police for the “immediate response and tireless investigation” and spoke to the “unimaginable loss” of the Piazza family.
“My office is dedicated to ensuring that every investigation is thoroughly accomplished and that justice, when demanded by the facts, is doggedly pursued. Rest assured that we will discover what truly transpired to Timothy Piazza behind the doors of Beta Theta Pi that evening,” Parks Miller said.