Punished for Punishing Frats?

Clemson University has replaced its vice president of student affairs. Why are some Greek leaders celebrating?

December 8, 2014

The vice president of student affairs who attempted to rein in Clemson University’s Greek system after a student death earlier this semester is being replaced, the university announced last week. The university offered no explanation for the sudden departure of Gail DiSabatino, who served as student affairs vice president for eight years, but the shake-up came amid rising tensions between university officials and campus fraternities. 

Almeda Jacks, whom DiSabatino replaced as vice president in 2006, has temporarily returned to the position while the university searches for a full-time replacement. 

“We appreciate Gail’s eight years of service to Clemson and wish her the best in the future,” Clemson's president said in a statement.

DiSabatino led the university’s response to the death of Tucker Hipps in September. The Clemson sophomore’s body was found floating under a bridge after he went missing during what was described as an early-morning group run with his Sigma Phi Epsilon pledge brothers. Hipps’s parents have stated they believe their son died after falling from the bridge during a hazing ritual, a charge Sigma Phi’s national office denies. 

Two days after the death of Hipps, DiSabatino announced that fraternity social activities would be temporarily suspended while the university tried to address concerns about Greek culture on campus. At the time, there were more than a dozen active allegations of hazing, sexual misconduct, and alcohol abuse at Clemson fraternities. 

“It is especially prudent to suspend fraternity activities given the tragic death of Tucker Hipps,” DiSabatino said in September. “There has been a high number of reports of serious incidents involving fraternity activities, ranging from alcohol-related medical emergencies to sexual misconduct. These behaviors are unacceptable and mandate swift and effective action to protect students. There is no higher priority than the safety and welfare of our students.” 

Hipps’s death remains unsolved, and Crime Stoppers fliers urging students to step forward with information can be found posted around campus.

Though the suspension was technically decided upon by Clemson’s interfraternity council, DiSabatino’s involvement in the decision was not well-received by some Clemson fraternity members who felt that they were all being punished for the misdeeds of a few. Their frustration was reportedly further compounded by uncertainty about whether the suspension would impact the annual tradition of building homecoming floats. (It did not.)

One former fraternity president said Clemson fraternities feel that they didn't receive clear messages or plans of action from the administration following the suspension. He said fraternities feel like they are “a donkey chasing a carrot.” 

“There was little favor for Gail amongst my peers involved with student affairs,” said the former president, who added he got along fine with the former vice president but that tensions had increased over the last year. “I also think this departure is in response to the poor performance Greek life saw from students affairs this semester.”

Clemson previously threatened to ban Greek social activities in 2010, prompting some Greek alumni to email the university saying such a suspension would jeopardize donations to the Clemson Fund. Some faculty and students had speculated that similar threats had been made leading to DiSabatino's departure, but Robin Denny, Clemson's director of media relations, said those comments were "unfortunate and uninformed."

While it remains unclear how involved fraternities and their alumni were in DiSabatino’s ousting, some members reacted with glee to the news of her departure, with one fraternity allegedly singing, “Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead.” Others took to Twitter to express their happiness. “Don’t let the door hit your big ass on the way out," one Clemson graduate and alumnus of Alpha Tau Omega tweeted.

Tweeted a Clemson student who identifies as a member of Phi Sigma Kappa, "Clemson Greek life -1, Gail -0." 

Other students and faculty last week said they were largely in the dark about why DiSabatino had been replaced. Leaders of the student government, the Panhellenic Council, and the Faculty Senate said the only information they had so far received was from the university’s brief statement on the matter. The Clemson Interfraternity Council did not respond to requests for comment, and DiSabatino could not be reached. The university declined to elaborate on what led to the leadership change.

Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, said he was surprised by the news. DiSabatino is well-regarded among student affairs professionals and the suddenness of her departure has left those in the association confused. Clemson and DiSabatino are not alone in their approach to handling fraternities this semester, Kruger said, and he expects more systemwide suspensions to come next semester. 

Clemson is among at least seven colleges and universities to suspend Greek social activities this year.

"The job of vice president of student affairs is increasingly challenging,” Kruger said. “Student suicides, crisis management,  sexual assault, alcohol abuse -- these are the range of issues that are on their plates almost on a weekly basis. They require actions that are often not very popular, and vice presidents of student affairs are right in the firing line."


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