Penn State President Eric Barron and his vice president of student affairs Damon Sims have been in the spotlight this year.
The headlines, the cable news, the morning shows and national magazines have all talked about Penn State’s fraternity problem. And they’ll talk about it again Monday — when Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller holds a press conference about a video that allegedly shows Beta Theta Pi members’ inaction in helping junior Timothy Piazza. The junior died in February after what police labeled a hazing ritual.
Barron and Sims’ response has been consistent, however. There is a problem, they have said. There is too much alcohol. There is hazing. But it isn’t just a Penn State issue.
“This is a national problem,” Barron said May 5.
Indeed, Penn State hasn’t been the only name in the news. The universities dealing with highly publicized fraternity and alcohol issues are all over the map. At least a half-dozen incidents have made front-page headlines this past year, from the three fraternities suspended at Lehigh University in September to a brain injury suffered during a fraternity hazing ritual at the University of Oklahoma to an 18-year-old’s death at LSU in a “potential hazing incident,” to more.
The issue boils down to what action Penn State, or any school for that matter, might take. Penn State has dealt with previous fraternity issues in the tried and true method of suspension for a year or two or three. But Barron and Sims have expressed frustration at the few weapons they have to deal with the problem as the houses are separate from the university.
The Piazza case prompted a bigger response. Social activities for all Greek organizations were shut down. There was a moratorium placed on recruiting. Monitoring stiffened.
In June, they addressed what they could do when the trustees changed the rules, taking discipline for the fraternities and sororities away from the four student-run oversight organizations. They put out a scorecard for the chapters, addressing GPA’s, alcohol violations, hazing violations and more. They restricted pledging to students with at least 12 credits, and required education for both parents and students on what Greek life entails. They limited the number of alcohol-related events, demanded certified bartenders and real monitoring, and set fees to charge them for it.
The changes, they said, were about shifting the model for fraternities away from the separate, self-governing model to something new and more responsible to the university. They wanted to change the game and national leaders.
“I think every university out there is watching,” Barron told the Centre Daily Times. “They all hope that what happened here doesn’t happen again.”
The responses at some others are showing similar tactics.
University of Michigan’s student-run Interfraternity Council has suspended all social activities after allegations of hazing and sexual misconduct.
Florida State, where Barron was president before coming to Penn State, did what some advocated or feared would happen in Happy Valley. President John Thrasher shut the Greek system down.
But is it working?
Penn State has shut the doors on 13 Greek chapters in two years, according to Sims at a university trustees committee meeting Thursday. Several have happened since Piazza’s death, including Sigma Alpha Mu, which was linked to misconduct that occurred over Parents Weekend.
Does that mean parents are part of the problem?
“Absolutely,” Barron said. “We have parents that actually thwart the rules. We have parents that buy the alcohol.”
He said the problems won’t be corrected until parents, students, national organizations, law enforcement and universities all work together on a solutions.
Sometimes that doesn’t happen. Barron noted that two of those 13 chapters where Penn State revoked recognition did not have their national organizations do the same.
But sometimes it does. Tau Kappa Epsilon shut itself down form the 2017-2018 year.
It leaves Barron with one question.
“What needs to happen to get everyone all in? I’d like to know what has to happen,” he said. “There has to be an answer, but I don’t know what it is.”