Skepticism on New Greek Rules

Florida State has allowed fraternities and sororities to operate on campus again under strict new measures, but experts say many will be hard to enforce.

January 31, 2018
 
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After a hazing death at Florida State University, President John E. Thrasher shut down fraternities and sororities in November and promised major reforms. Those new rules have now been announced, but experts in Greek life aren’t convinced they can be enforced, however well intentioned they may be.

The death of Pi Kappa Phi pledge Andrew Coffey, 20, prompted Thrasher to ban alcohol among the Greek chapters and student-run organizations. He halted the activities of all fraternities and sororities, proclaiming the entire network of 50-some Greek chapters needed to be reworked with the help of students.

Notable among the stringent new measures announced this week were restrictions on the ways and how often Greek organizations can serve alcohol at parties.

Academics and experts have often cited alcohol and the pledging period as the two factors that lead to hazing and deaths among Greek organization members.

Florida State now requires all fraternities and sororities to use a third-party vendor to supply their booze. Students can’t stand behind the bar and serve it themselves, and in theory this would eliminate underage drinking, as those outside providers would check IDs. Only a certain number of events with alcohol are allowed per semester -- four socials in the fall and six in the spring. Greek chapters need to hire approved security for parties with alcohol, too.

The “rush” recruitment period has also been reduced from eight weeks to six.

While these steps can improve the health of the Florida State Greek system, true change will only come with the total elimination of pledging and alcohol-fueled parties, said Hank Nuwer, a journalism professor at Franklin College who has written extensively about hazing.

“That is not going to be attractive to a lot of undergraduates, but that will be the return to values, a return to what we hoped for,” Nuwer said.

Complicating matters are the innumerable spaces -- the off-campus apartments and houses -- where fraternity and sorority members can go to drink, outside the purview and watch of the university. Thrasher acknowledged this at a press conference this week.

“One of the things we’re asking the fraternities and sororities to do themselves is monitor those kind of things,” Thrasher told reporters. “And understand the ramifications … We can’t necessarily control that. What we control, though, is the idea that this is a bad activity that resulted in a terrible, terrible tragedy. And I hope that’s what’s getting through.”

The university can crack down to an extent if campus police step up to monitor Greek housing more than they have in the past, said John Hechinger, a senior editor at Bloomberg News and author of True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities.

Hechinger said he was particularly impressed with Florida State’s new policies on alcohol, saying they could reduce overdoses and sexual assaults. Many of the national branches of fraternities have in their rule books that the chapters must serve alcohol via these vendors, but that’s hardly ever followed, he said. Some of the nationals also permit a BYOB system that limits how much alcohol members can bring to social events, but again, it’s rarely enforced, he said.

“It’s very elaborate, with wristbands, and you’re supposed to track each beer and limit them per person, but it’s never done correctly -- that’s a joke,” Hechinger said.

Doing away with the pledging period would also be more effective, Hechinger said.

Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity did this four years ago, and the number of injuries -- and thus their insurance rates -- dropped, Hechinger said.

Nuwer was skeptical that a two-week reduction in the recruitment period would make any sort of difference, but he said the constituencies to which Florida State answers would have objected to a complete ban. Prominent donors and alumni would likely withdraw their cash.

“It’s all about money at this time,” he said.

Thrasher also announced changes to the academic and philanthropic requirements of Greek chapters. Every fraternity and sorority must maintain an average 2.5 grade point average, and every member must complete 10 hours of service per semester. National chapters will visit Florida State to help chapters review all their members. Nick Altwies, founder of the Society Advocating Fraternal Excellence, a pro-Greek group, likened the reviews to an annual employee evaluation -- “making sure they’re adding something to the company.”

A new “scorecard” is being published on the Florida State website with information about all the chapters. This emulates a system put in place by Penn State University, which also had a high-profile hazing death, that of Beta Theta Pi pledge Timothy Piazza, last year.

Florida State’s database will include details of a chapter’s conduct violations -- if it hazed its members, or if a member committed a sexual assault, said Amy Hecht, Florida State’s vice president for student affairs.

It will also list average member GPA, chapter size and the adviser-to-member ratio, average hours of community service and amount of money raised for charity, as well as awards and achievements.

Currently at least two fraternities are suspended pending an appeal, and another is on social probation, according to the Florida State website.

The university is also adding four new employees to its Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, funded by new membership dues. Their titles, roles and salaries have yet to be determined, Hecht said.

Chapters are also now being required to create individual advisory boards -- Hecht said the university hasn’t figured who will sit on these panels yet.

Hecht said during the press conference that she was confident the chapters would “hold up their end of the deal,” but if they flouted the rules they would be subject to punishment under the university’s conduct code.

“We will remain vigilant in assessing our campus community, the effectiveness of programs, policies, and initiatives, and we will hold our students accountable per our student and student organization codes of conduct. Sanctions include probation, suspension and dismissal for both students and organizations depending on the violations,” she said via email.

Previously, a five-student panel would hear conduct cases involving Greek organizations, but the university is adding faculty and staff members to those.

The alcohol ban remains in effect, but Hecht said that it could be lifted by the end of the semester if the fraternities and sororities show they’re following the new rules.

Heather Kirk, a spokeswoman with the North-American Interfraternity Conference, which represents many fraternities nationally, provided a statement to Inside Higher Ed: “While we have concerns about the implementation of a student fee and ensuring an economically inclusive fraternal community, the national fraternity organizations look forward to continuing to work collaboratively with local stakeholders to enhance health and safety in the FSU community through these measures.”

Altwies said as long as the restrictions are enforced, they could change the Greek life system for the better -- he said the university was clearly intent on transparency, too, with the scorecard.

“It’s impossible to create a policy that’s completely going to eliminate problems -- it’s really, really, really tough to do, but with the expectations they’ve outlined, with more university staff, problems can be solved if you work through them,” he said.

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