Widespread Suspensions for Hazing

Ohio University’s decision to suspend most of its male Greek organizations will affect 1,000 students, and critics question whether it’s likely to work. Update: Three sororities and a professional fraternity at the university are also under investigation.

October 10, 2019
 
©Ohio University

Ohio University has suspended 15 of the fraternities that operate on campus after administrators received reports that more than half of the organizations had hazed new members.

The decision, which was announced Monday, will affect all the members of the university's Interfraternity Council, whether or not they were accused of participating in hazing. Nine of these chapters are under administrative investigation and one is also under campus police investigation for reports of hazing new members. The fraternities received formal suspension notices Oct. 3, after seven chapters were accused of hazing within a 48-hour period from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2, which prompted reports of two more chapters hazing new members. (Note: first two paragraphs changed to reflect correct information).

“These troubling allegations, which will be thoroughly investigated, indicate a potentially escalating systemic culture within our IFC organizations, and Ohio University will not put at risk the health and safety of our students,” Jenny Hall-Jones, the dean of students, wrote in a letter to IFC chapters. The letter ordered an immediate halt of all chapter operations.

The suspension will impact more than 1,000 men in Ohio University’s IFC. Late Wednesday, the university announced that three sororities governed by the Women’s Panhellenic Association and one professional fraternity on campus will also be investigated for hazing allegations.

"At this time, we do not have reason to believe there is a systemic culture issue within the Women’s Panhellenic Association organizations nor within our professional fraternal organizations," said a statement from Ohio University, announcing the four additional suspensions. (Update: This article has been updated from a previous version to add information about new actions by the university).

The two Multicultural Greek Council chapters and six organizations in the National Pan-Hellenic Council on campus, have not had reports of hazing filed against them, said Carly Leatherwood, senior director of university communications. These chapters were directed to honor the IFC suspension in Hall-Jones’s letter, which means any events in conjunction with IFC chapters will likely be canceled.

“This decision was not entered into lightly,” Leatherwood said. “We knew that it would punish students that do not participate in these behaviors.”

The sweeping disciplinary action comes nearly a year after the death of Collin Wiant, 18, a freshman whose body was found in an “annex house” of Sigma Pi, an IFC chapter at Ohio. The fraternity was later expelled from campus for hazing violations ranging from hitting new members with belts to coercing consumption of drugs and alcohol, The Columbus Dispatch reported. Wiant’s parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the chapter and Sigma Pi International earlier this year.

University administrators have since taken steps to address hazing more directly. A new director of Greek life was hired in August to increase staffing in the Office of Sorority and Fraternity Life, and the university created a hazing-prevention task force on Sept. 25 made up of students, faculty members and other university staff members to address a culture of hazing at the university, Leatherwood said.

Similar efforts to deter hazing following student deaths on various college campuses have proved unsuccessful over the years. Experts say that all-encompassing suspensions are hard for universities to enforce and do not improve behavior over the long term. There were fewer universities using this method of punishment last year than in past years, said Judson Horras, president and CEO of the North-American Interfraternity Conference, or NIC, which provides oversight of IFC chapters at colleges and universities.

"We have seen a decline of these suspensions," Horras said. "Ohio University is the only one who has done it this year."

The six Ohio chapters that are not under investigation will have their suspension lifted on a case-by-case basis after completing a “reinstatement plan” with the university’s Greek life office, Leatherwood said. The nine chapters under investigation will have to wait until the investigation is completed and violations are determined before considering reinstatement, she said. Until then, all IFC chapters are prohibited from holding social events, meetings and new member activities on campus, and they will not be able to participate in homecoming events taking place this week.

Despite the efforts to end hazing, university administrators may have a hard time policing such behavior.

All of the fraternity houses are located off campus and are privately owned, Leatherwood said. This limits how much Ohio University can discipline the fraternities beyond banning them from university-sponsored events and eliminating their housing exemption, which allows sophomores -- who are typically required to live on campus -- to live in chapter houses. Sophomores will not be forced out of the chapter houses for now "because these are just allegations,​" Leatherwood said.

"If the fraternity house is owned privately, universities have the power to sanction student groups and generally control the relationship between the student group and the university," said Zach Greenberg, a program officer at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a students' rights advocacy group commonly known as FIRE. "But when it comes to private properties and where students can and cannot live, the universities’ power is much less, compared to on-campus housing and residential student groups."

Overarching suspensions such as those imposed by Ohio University are “fairly common” when there’s misconduct in fraternity chapters, Greenberg said. Universities have historically viewed all fraternities on campus as one big group and disciplined them as such, he said.

“Any college that purports to uphold fundamental fairness for its student groups must reject guilt by association, which is all too common when it comes to fraternities, the vast majority of which contribute positively to the campus environment,” Greenberg wrote in an email.

The NIC is strongly opposed to Ohio University's decision to suspend all the fraternities. The broad suspension sets a bad precedent for well-behaved fraternity members, Horras said. He believes the move could discourage members from reporting hazing for fear that their own fraternity could come under fire for another chapter’s wrongdoing.

“When you are a good chapter following the rules, or you are a student who knows about hazing in other chapters, you are now not motivated to do the good behaviors and report the bad ones,” Horras said. “It pits good students against the universities, instead of allowing them to work together.”

Leatherwood said more students have been coming forward to report hazing after the suspension than before, and that the suspension is an action of both the university and fraternity community “collectively taking a pause” to re-evaluate their standards and values.

Horras said the action was far from collective. He criticized the lack of involvement of chapter alumni and officers of the various fraternities' headquarters on campus -- each chapter is established at the university under a national branch, which provides guidance and oversight to local members in the decision making.

Leatherwood noted that chapter advisers, who are often alumni, and the fraternities' headquarters were made aware of the suspensions, but they are not involved with the task force working to stop hazing.

“As a general rule, cultural change and addressing these concerns requires a partnership between the students, the alumni, the parents, the national organization and the administration,” Horras said. “Expecting one entity to do it is a failed model … any action that pulls apart that system -- you can bet you’re not going to get the level of change that you want.”

He noted that Troy University, a public university in Alabama, took a targeted approach in its disciplinary process after hazing allegations were made against two of its eight IFC member fraternities at the start of the fall semester.

Troy suspended all pledging activities at its IFC chapters for a short period -- from Oct. 1 to Oct. 7 -- rather than suspending all fraternity activity indefinitely, as Ohio University did. The suspension followed a full suspension on Sept. 9 of Sigma Chi for the remainder of the semester, said Herb Reeves, the dean of student services. A second fraternity, Delta Kappa Epsilon, was suspended Sept. 20 and is under investigation for hazing allegations that prompted the weeklong ban on pledging.

The investigation into Sigma Chi was conducted jointly by both Sigma Chi headquarters and Troy. Reeves said the administration tries to partner with fraternities’ national organizations as much as possible when there are conduct violations at the university. Troy has also been in communication with the NIC throughout the investigation of the two chapters, he said.

In response to this semester’s hazing issues, Troy will assign adult advisers to IFC chapters and form an alumni board of former members to oversee the new member process and enforce national fraternity regulations and risk-management strategies, Reeves said.

“I’ve been here a long time, and the chapters that are more successful are the ones who have engaged alumni and adult support,” Reeves said. “We feel that the fraternities certainly have a place here. We want to strengthen and build the proper chapters that everybody would want to be a part of, and right now, that’s not what we’re seeing.”

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