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United States: Serious reforms at university’s fraternities after student’s death

The Old Main building at Penn State. The university says it will take more control of the Greek system on its campus. Source: Shutterstock

Pennsylvania State University has agreed to reform how it handles its fraternities and sororities after the hazing death of a student, Timothy Piazza, at a frat party, the university leaders announced last Friday.

According to The Washington Post, the university admitted the self-governance model of “Greek life” is now broken and as such, disciplinary matters, including sanctions for violations, will now be in the university’s hands instead.

“These new safety and reform initiatives represent a significant departure from the Greek system’s broken self-governance model and indicate steps necessary to address the complex problems,” Penn State president Eric Barron said.

“We are going to take much more control of the Greek system.”

“Greek life” is a feature of American universities where undergraduates pledge to be a member of a fraternity or sorority through a selection process. If accepted, they live and take part in activities together, usually on private property.

These organisations have had a history of alcohol abuse, which have at times resulted in unfortunate consequences – Piazza fell to his death after a pledging party at the Beta Theta Pi chapter house in February, where new pledgers were forced to drink alcohol excessively, according to investigation findings.

Prosecutors have issued criminal charges on the fraternity and 18 of its members for taking 12 hours before calling 911 about Piazza’s multiple falls throughout the night, including down flights of stairs.

Penn State News listed the following new measures endorsed at the special meeting called to address these issues last Friday:

  • University control of the fraternity and sorority organisational misconduct and adjudication process.
  • Hazing that involves alcohol, physical abuse, or any behaviour that puts a student’s mental or physical health at risk will result in swift permanent revocation of university recognition for the chapter involved.
  • Transition to deferred recruitment/rush process for fraternities and sororities.
  • Strict social restrictions.
  • Monitoring of social events by university staff members.
  • Relationship statement signed by all fraternity and sorority members that clarifies the respective rights and responsibilities of the university, the chapters and their respective members.
  • Further parent education: availability of report card, messages to reinforce with their students.
  • Capitation fee for support of extra services, spot-checkers/monitors, and educational activities.

Barron said the university wants to “preserve what is good and valuable” about Greek life, but called for “significant shifts” in how its frats and sororities interact with the university, in order to affect “true change”, where student safety is put at the forefront.

But some experts are not convinced Penn State is doing enough, an opinion shared by Piazza’s parents as well, Evelyn and James.

The Piazzas “aspirationally appear to share similar goals with Penn State, but are disappointed the promised ‘drastic change,’ at least as of today, is no change at all,” their attorney said, as reported by The Washington Post.

Experts believe the core issue that lies behind the abuses of Greek life is not being addressed.

Shan Wu, an attorney for student legal issue told NBC News the Penn State’s measures do not tackle the root of the problem, which he says are how universities handle ‘Greek life’ misconduct.

“Most schools already have university controls in place over Greek life activities, a zero-tolerance policy for hazing and medical amnesty for students reporting underage drinking-related incidents,” Wu said.

For Andrew Lohse, author of Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy, the Greek life system – which is rife with peer pressure and secrecy – is the problem itself.

And while it is beneficial Penn State will now step in to police fraternities, Lohse said schools also cannot be trusted to be transparent about incidents and not diminish its impact if the university’s reputation is at stake.

“Essentially, the school is saying, ‘We’re going to permit the fraternities to still exist, and if anything goes wrong, you come to us,'” Lohse said.

“Something will go wrong at a certain point — this type of harm is a function of the system itself.”

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