The Last Straw

Bloomsburg University permanently eliminated its entire Greek life program after fraternities and sororities were placed on several months of probation and some continued to violate conduct codes and an antihazing policy.

May 17, 2021
 
Paul Weaver/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Bloomsburg University permanently terminated all activity by fraternities and sororities at the public institution last week and also severed ties with the national and international organizations that currently have chapters on the Pennsylvania campus.

Students got the news that their Greek organizations will no longer be officially recognized by the university in a curt, two-sentence email from President Bashar Hanna on May 13.

"Effective immediately, Bloomsburg University is terminating its fraternity and sorority life (FSL) program and severing ties with all national and local FSL organizations currently affiliated with the University," Hanna's email said. "All students are reminded that their conduct remains subject to all applicable University policies."

The announcement gave no explanation for the decision, and Tom McGuire, director of communications at the university, declined to provide one.

The decision came less than a week after Leah Burke, a sophomore and member of a sorority, died on May 8, causing students, alumni and fraternity and sorority affiliates to speculate about the incident, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. But McGuire wrote in an email that a university investigation into her death is “not related to Greek life.” He said the university will put out more information “when it is appropriate.”

According to the Inquirer, a county coroner said Burke’s death “is not considered suspicious,” was not “trauma related” and that “nothing nefarious was involved.” The coroner is investigating whether Burke had a possible undiagnosed medical condition, the newspaper reported.

Another student and fraternity pledge, Justin King, died in September 2019 after he attended a party sponsored by a fraternity and hosted by a sorority. King’s mother alleged in an ongoing lawsuit that he was coerced to drink “life-threatening amounts of alcohol” by Greek life members, the Inquirer reported. Kappa Sigma, the fraternity, was removed from campus, and the sorority, Alpha Sigma Tau, was suspended, the newspaper reported.

The sweeping decision to eliminate fraternities and sororities on campus was a long time coming, students and alumni said. Several organizations were suspended or kicked off campus for violating the university's student code of conduct and antihazing policy over the 20 months since King's death.

Some students and alumni praised the move on social media.

“About damn time,” one 2020 graduate wrote on Twitter in response to Hanna’s announcement.

A representative of Delta Pi, a fraternity on campus, said the organizations were told during a meeting with the university's director of fraternity and sorority life at the beginning of the semester that it would be “the last straw” if one more conduct violation occurred. The representative, who did not want to be named, said no university official or Thursday's announcement explained what the "last straw" meant, and little information was shared with the fraternity about why the decision was made.

“We all knew it was going to happen,” he said. “Give us some more insight. We need a story, we need something. We can’t just take this and have no say.”

Earlier this year, the university cut ties with two fraternities and a sorority that had previously been suspended for violating conduct policies, including the antihazing policy, modeled after Pennsylvania’s landmark antihazing law. All fraternities and sororities were placed on probation in December 2019 and the university extended that period until spring 2022, warning students that any infraction by remaining Greek organizations would result in disaffiliation, or removal of their official university status, according to a January press release.

Despite a university initiative to reform fraternities and sororities months after King’s death, students in the organizations “nevertheless continue to make poor choices that are negatively impacting the university community and placing concern that their actions will jeopardize the health and well-being of BU students and have a negative impact on the community at large,” the press release said.

Leaders of national and international affiliates of Greek organizations at Bloomsburg said the decision to remove the groups seemed out of the blue and extreme.

Nicole DeFeo, international executive director of Delta Phi Epsilon, a sorority with a chapter on campus, said she was “taken by surprise.” Bloomsburg administrators did not reach out to the sorority’s headquarters to discuss the decision or what led up to it, DeFeo said.

Leaders at the National Panhellenic Conference, an umbrella organization that governs 26 sororities, including Delta Phi Epsilon, found out about the decision through sorority leaders and students who forwarded Hanna’s email, she said.

“I’ve been working in this role for almost 15 years, and this is the first campus that we have been on that had a unilateral closing down of Greek life,” DeFeo said. “It really did come from left field for us. There was no olive branch extended to have a conversation about reform.”

The North American Interfraternity Conference, another umbrella organization representing 58 fraternities, said the decision came “without meaningful dialogue or collaboration” between university and the organizations' national leaders, according to a statement emailed by Todd Shelton, a spokesman for the conference. The conference’s leaders were disappointed, the statement said.

“Fraternities are a flourishing part of the community on hundreds of campuses across the United States and provide structure, rules of conduct and discipline for members,” the conference’s statement said. “Fraternities can, and do, operate successfully without university affiliation while continuing to hold individuals accountable to health and safety standards.”

In response, McGuire said, “This was an administrative decision and we have no further comment.”

Some alumni of fraternities on campus were outraged by the decision. Scott Johnson, a 1988 graduate and founder of the alumni association for the Zeta Psi fraternity chapter at Bloomsburg, said the student members are “confused, scared and intimidated” by the termination.

Johnson, a past adviser to Zeta Psi, said he saw the decision coming, not only because of the student deaths, but because of how administrators have unilaterally punished all fraternities and sororities on the campus for the actions of a few members. The university’s student code of conduct includes a policy that prohibits students from engaging with fraternities and sororities suspended or not recognized by Bloomsburg. The prohibition includes attending events or social gatherings sponsored by the suspended group. Johnson said the policy has also disrupted the activities of nonsuspended groups, including Zeta Psi, over the last year and a half.

“If one violates something, they’re all out. To me that’s ridiculous,” Johnson said. “We try to talk to them, guide them, keep their noses clean and do things right. But there’s such a stigma that no matter what they do, they’re just going to throw them out.”

Dave Decoteau, a 1986 graduate and Delta Pi fraternity member, said he sat on several university committees over more than a decade that worked on solving some of the pervasive problems that plague fraternities and sororities.

He said hazing became a particular focus in 2018 after the passage of the state’s antihazing law, which is named for Timothy Piazza, a Pennsylvania State University sophomore who died after a night of hazing by members of the fraternity he was pledging. The law made hazing a felony in the state if it results in serious injury or death, specifically defines what constitutes hazing, and requires colleges in the state to publicly post antihazing policies and report hazing violations.

Decoteau believes the law and university policy that followed it have excessively limited Greek life activities and put “a target” on the backs of fraternity members. Students are hesitant about taking leadership positions within the organizations because of the additional scrutiny by university administrators under the policies. He said the policies also hurt the organizations' recruiting efforts, causing the groups to attract “mediocre men” who see the fraternities as drinking clubs.

“We’ve been screaming really hard for the past 10 years about hazing and curtailing the activities, but are the numbers really going down? Is drinking down? Are fewer people going to the hospital?” Decoteau said. “From what I can gather, it looks like more kids are getting hurt.”

“This is not to say that Greek life doesn’t have warts,” he added. “There’s definitely problems, and if someone says there aren’t, they’re lying to you.”

Stevan Veldkamp, executive director of the Piazza Center for Fraternity and Sorority Research and Reform at Penn State, which is led by student affairs officials, said in an email that although campuswide moratoriums are some administrators’ approach to curtailing hazing, “We do not know if they actually deter or exacerbate bad behavior.”

“Holding other groups accountable based on labels seems erroneous unless there is evidence that they are somehow part or party to the negative behavior,” said Veldkamp, who is also special assistant to the vice president of student affairs at Penn State.

He added, however, that fraternity and sorority members and leaders should be concerned about the behavior of their organizations individually and collectively and should hold each other accountable.

“There should be a heightened concern for community behaviors," Veldkamp said.

Decoteau anticipates a “chaotic period” among Greek organizations as they react and adjust to their cancellation on campus. Johnson, the founder of Zeta Psi's alumni association, fears it will only cause the organizations to move “underground” into unaffiliated and secretive groups, which lack university oversight and accountability measures.

Veldkamp said the center has seen “rogue organizations” continue to operate after being officially unaffiliated with the campus, but more research needs to be done on their behavior.

Johnson said some alumni who are attorneys have come forward offering pro bono services for students who are unfairly punished by the university. He believes the policies that sanction students for engaging with disaffiliated organizations violate the First Amendment.

“As far as I’m concerned, someone should contact the ACLU,” Johnson said. “This is a very, very sad day. There’s going to be a lot of people who are angry about this. The school could have handled this another way.”

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

We have retired comments and introduced Letters to the Editor. Letters may be sent to [email protected].

Read the Letters to the Editor  »

Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed

Inside Higher Ed’s Quick Takes

Back to Top