Pennsylvania State University permanently banned a fraternity from its campus and imposed a series of new restrictions on parties as investigations continue into the death of a student.
In February, Timothy Piazza, a sophomore at Penn State who had accepted an invitation to join the fraternity, fell down the stairs after drinking at a Beta Theta Pi fraternity party. But no one called for help for almost 12 hours, according to police, who found him unconscious and took him to a hospital. He died the next morning.
Colleges across the country have long struggled with problems with drinking, hazing and sexual assaults at fraternity parties. Two years ago, another fraternity at Penn State came under scrutiny when people learned members kept a private Facebook page with photos of hazing incidents, drugs and partially dressed, passed-out women. University officials found that Greek members are four times more likely to be heavy drinkers than others at Penn State; sorority members are 50 percent more likely to be sexually assaulted than other female students; and that fraternity members are 62 percent more likely to commit a sexual assault than men not in such organizations.
University officials had already suspended alcohol use at Greek parties for the semester, but this week they imposed new rules for fraternities and sororities, including no liquor, kegs or day-long parties. The time for new-member recruitment, known as rush, was moved from the fall to the spring. Greek parties with alcohol were cut from 45 socials allowed per semester to 10. And compliance is to be monitored by both students and university staff.
There’s a long history and tradition of Greek organizations being independent and autonomous, said Damon Sims, vice president for student affairs, and universities typically defer to that. But a task force working to solve the problems was unable to reach any kind of consensus, with some feeling the status quo should be maintained and others calling for dramatic change.
“The thing that’s most important about this is we’ve determined we don’t need, as a university, to find consensus around these things,” he said. “We need to determine for ourselves what our expectations for these groups will be and how we’ll hold them accountable for those expectations. That’s a fairly significant departure.”
In a statement to the community, Sims explained the university has concluded the groups have too much autonomy and no longer believe that putting so much responsibility on their own self-governance will improve things. “Today, Penn State is drawing a line and imposing critical changes. Enough is enough.”
The university also said other changes might be necessary, such as significantly increased staffing for the office of fraternity and sorority life, the possibility of having a resident adviser in each house, and moving chapter locations.
The president of the Pennsylvania State University Interfraternity Council did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday.
Capt. Matthew Wilson of the State College Police Department said there was no new information in the investigation into Piazza’s death. The university’s student-conduct investigation continues.
“But we’ve gotten to the point where we knew enough to know we really needed to act,” Sims said, “make some declaration about our expectations of the community,” especially as the weather improves and Greek social life tends to amp up.
He said response has been resounding, with many people unhappy with the changes to their social life or an organization they had loved while students, but with others, including Greek students, applauding the changes as necessary. He said they value the contributions such groups can make, including philanthropy, leadership and a strong sense of community on a large campus, and their simple goal is to eliminate the bad elements. “It’s not going to be simple to achieve,” he said, “but that is the simplicity of our objective.”
The school banned Beta Theta Pi after finding “a persistent pattern of serious alcohol abuse, hazing and the use and sale of illicit drugs” at the chapter. “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,” Sims said in a statement.
“Given the levels of cooperation Beta Theta Pi has maintained to this point, we are disappointed in the university’s unexpected announcement on Thursday,” Justin Warren, a spokesman for the national headquarters of the fraternity, said in a statement. “While we stand by our February decision to close the Penn State chapter, the Fraternity’s disappointment stems from both its long-term desire to return to the Penn State Greek community and the belief that it can be a part of the solution.
“Beta Theta Pi brought more than 130 years of positive contributions to Penn State’s campus, even being named Chapter of the Year by the university twice since 2010 — as recently as 2015. In recent interviews, the university’s senior leadership recognized the chapter’s superior support from the national organization and characterized Beta as among the three best fraternities at Penn State.
“Unfortunately, a tragic incident led to a discovery that the chapter’s culture had strayed from our founding mission. 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.”