Pennsylvania State University leaders announced changes to Greek life Friday, including a takeover of the disciplinary proceedings for fraternities and sororities and zero tolerance for certain behaviors, in the wake of the hazing death of student Timothy Piazza this spring.
“We are going to take much more control of the Greek system,” Eric Barron, Penn State’s president, said Friday afternoon.
In a special meeting to address these issues, the university’s Board of Trustees and administrators promised a “fundamental shift” and challenged the way the private, off-campus social groups are run. Decades of efforts by the university to combat problems of hazing, sexual assault, drug use and excessive drinking in fraternities have been hindered by their self-governance, university officials said.
An attorney speaking for Piazza’s parents, James and Evelyn Piazza, who have urged the university to make changes to prevent another death like their son’s, said they “aspirationally appear to share similar goals with Penn State but are disappointed that the promised ‘drastic change,’ at least as of today, is no change at all.”
Thomas R. Kline, the Piazzas’ civil attorney, said they were responding to the resolution by the board, which expressed strong support for such measures but did not formally initiate action. They said they hope the board will do so in the future.
Fraternities and sororities are an important part of the social life at Penn State. Timothy Piazza’s death this spring shocked the campus and turned a national spotlight onto the problems of drinking and hazing and the failures of fraternity members in some cases to appropriately police their own behavior.
Fraternity culture has been a vexing problem for colleges across the country — even as it often creates lasting and powerful bonds between graduates and institutions. So administrators are often faced with a delicate balance as they try to ensure student safety at the autonomous, self-governing groups, without alienating the groups’ supporters.
Penn State is now trying to force the groups to emphasize the best of their missions — friendship, leadership, philanthropy — rather than the dangerous and ugly parts.
“We must mitigate the bad while doing our best to save those elements that we know, historically, have been important for student success,” Barron said.
He spoke of the difficulty “of managing what people do on private property behind closed doors,” as opposed to the kind of control they have over behavior in campus dorms, and said the university’s most powerful tool is the ability to revoke recognition of a chapter. “Our recognition is important,” he said. “We hope it’s important enough.”
“We are totally dedicated to fixing this,” he said later. “If some of these actions that we’re taking aren’t good enough, we’re not going to give up until we find our way through it.”
It’s clear the system is broken, Kevin Kruger, the president of NASPA — Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, said. He said things such as zero tolerance for hazing and deferring rush until students have had more time on campus “sends a clear message. I think we’ll see other presidents taking a fresh look at their system, and perhaps following suit.”
He said some schools have chosen to distance themselves legally from fraternities, but said that more institutional oversight, not less, is needed.
“You have to be willing to make hard decisions about the future of a particular fraternity on your campus regardless of who the alumni are, who the donors,” legislators or trustees are, Kruger said.
Heather Kirk, a spokeswoman for the North-American Interfraternity Council, wrote in an email Friday, “The NIC believes that the best fraternity and sorority communities have a strong partnership between university administrators, students, alumni, parents, and national organizations. What is working? — Meaningful change created through such intentional collaboration. While not all, most of the accountability and judicial reforms President Barron outlined today are in place at many institutions.”
Barron said that investigating and adjudicating bad behavior will now be a university responsibility, rather than an inter-fraternity council responsibility. Monitoring and spot checks will be done by university employees.
“In reflecting on how profoundly sorry we are for what happened to the Piazza family, we need to move to a place where we take even more decisive actions to protect the safety of our students,” Barron said. “We believe after years of trying to adjust and improve the self-governance model for the Greek system, that we need to take control of some key aspects of it.”
Asked whether they considered eliminating Greek life entirely, Barron said they explored many options and concluded “this decision is the one that best protects student safety.”
Timothy Piazza was 19 when he pledged the Beta Theta Pi chapter at Penn State. At a party for students who had just committed to join the fraternity, he was forced to drink toxic levels of alcohol. A grand jury investigation’s findings were harrowing: It described Piazza falling multiple times, including down the stairs, trying to get out the door of the fraternity house, over many hours, while fraternity members failed to call for help. At one point, when another newly initiated member yelled at others, saying Piazza needed to go to the hospital, one member pushed him against the wall and said they had it under control.
After finding him in the morning unconscious, with blood on his face and cold skin, fraternity members still didn’t call for help until 40 minutes later, according to the findings. He died the next morning.
Eighteen members of the fraternity, and the chapter itself, were charged in his death. Beta Theta Pi was permanently banned from Penn State, and the university took other actions including limiting the number of parties Greek organizations could hold with alcohol, a ban on liquor, kegs and day-long parties.
Piazza’s parents asked for much more dramatic change.
“Our son died on your watch because of ignorance and denial by Penn State,” James and Evelyn Piazza wrote in advance of the board meeting. ” … Penn State has a long history of harsh hazing, excessive drinking and sexual assaults in its Greek Life. Penn State also has a long history of looking the other way at difficult situations. This must stop and all those who are part of turning a blind eye must be held accountable …Penn State University failed our son and failed us. As noted, the Administration and its Trustees knew about the problems and the issues but chose to turn a blind eye.”
They asked the university to support more stringent laws against hazing and more protection for “Good Samaritans” who report problems. They called on the university to take full legal authority to control Greek life, including ownership of housing. They asked the university to expel all students culpable in the death of their son. And they demanded that the university fire employees who “turned a blind eye” to problems in fraternities, including an administrator whom they said assured them and other parents there was no hazing at Penn State, and one who lived in the chapter house and was present the night their son died.
When asked about their letter, Barron said, “I think it’s clear that we have the same goal — that is to fix this problem.
“In our case, we’re completely and totally focused with that as the objective: What can we do, to make sure that we do our best to never have something like this happen again.”
Kline, the Piazzas’ civil attorney, said, “While a significant portion of the proposals for the future are in line with proposals suggested by the Piazzas, including a zero-tolerance-for-hazing policy and university control of fraternity life — all of which is welcome — the board took no action today.
“It adopted nothing — and simply resolved, literally, using that word, to take action to implement safety measures in the future.
“There are no concrete rules, regulations, let alone a time frame, that are prescribed in any action by the board today, which is today’s disappointment.”
He said the family wants to be constructive in this process, adding “We look to the day when we see the details and the actual plan.”
The Pennsylvania State University Interfraternity Council president did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday afternoon.
Friday brought another bitter reminder for Penn State: Former university president Graham Spanier was sentenced to two months in jail and an additional two to 10 months of house arrest for failing to contact police about a 2001 incident involving former assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky and a boy in a campus shower. Two other top former university officials were also sentenced to jail for the same misdemeanor charge of child endangerment.
Sandusky was convicted in 2012 of sexually abusing boys he met through his charity for at-risk children.
Read the board’s resolution here:
Read the Piazzas’ full letter here: