The terrible circumstances that led to the hazing-related death of Penn State freshman Timothy Piazza are tragic because they were completely avoidable. And they are frustrating because they have been replicated all too frequently. Indeed, the problems related to fraternities on campuses have gotten so bad that two major universities -- the University of Michigan and Florida State University -- have even gone so far as to suspend the social activities of fraternities and sororities or all Greek life entirely.
Twenty years ago this September, I arrived on the scene of a similar tragedy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a staff member of the national office for Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. A freshman, Scott Krueger, was in a coma after drinking nearly a fifth of a gallon of alcohol as part of a fraternity event where pledges were introduced to their pledge fathers (in some chapters they are referred to as big brothers). Drinking is part of such activities at colleges and universities virtually all of the time. Krueger passed out and was taken to his bed, where he was left until morning; he asphyxiated on his own vomit. By the time anyone checked on him, his skin had begun to turn blue. He died a few days later.
Plenty of outrage followed Krueger’s death, and some steps were taken. As part of a legal agreement following the tragedy, Phi Gamma Delta produced an educational video entitled “Tell Me Something I Don’t Know” and distributed it to all of its chapters and other people who wished to view it. The fraternity also updated the video in 2008.
Apparently few members of Beta Theta Pi at Penn State viewed it -- or, at least, remembered any of its lessons. Apparently, few at Sigma Alpha Epsilon at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo did, either, back in 2008. Carson Starkey, a freshman pledge there, died from alcohol poisoning after being forced to drink a large amount of alcohol at a pledge event and being left alone to “sleep it off.”
I started the Society Advocating Fraternal Excellence to catalog public information regarding the good and bad about fraternities after reading about Starkey’s hazing death in California. The circumstances of his death were so similar to Krueger’s death at MIT that I realized little had been done to change the fraternity culture. Piazza’s death is a recent example, along with the death of Max Gruver at Louisiana State University.
It should be noted that none of these tragedies occurred as a result of anyone’s ill intent. No one woke up in the morning and said, “Let’s kill a pledge tonight.” College kids just don’t think it is going to happen to them. They think they are invincible.
Such terrible tragedies, which ruin lives and damage higher education, are a result of inadequate management. It is that simple. And the solution is stronger management and coaching by either university staff members, fraternity volunteers or a combination of both. The growth of these tragedies can be traced to the elimination of this management structure (in loco parentis) during the 1970s. Indeed, the national fraternity offices know that problems are few, if any, at those chapters where a good adviser is in place.
In fact, in those cases, the men excel and can create the type of environment any institution would want to have on their campus. They achieve academic success, have fun and support their institution. In contrast, at places with inadequate adult supervision, we find academic problems, out of control partying, sexual assault and even death.
Colleges and universities have made numerous attempts to create training programs or educational initiatives to change behavior and encourage better results. I would argue that few if any of them have achieved long-term success. Failure was not the result of poor intentions or an insincere desire to make change. It was due to the lack of alumni infrastructure to carry and sustain a message for longer than a few weeks or months.
As a comparison, if the University of Alabama allowed its football team to play a 12-game schedule without proper coaching, they might win some games. But they would not be as successful as they have been under the guidance of several adults with a vested interest in their success.
The other dirty little secret is that few students really know what they are joining when affiliating with a fraternity. The national fraternity headquarters and colleges or universities should provide more information on the behavior of fraternity chapters, such as each chapter’s average GPA and any violations of campus or national fraternity rules. Also, national fraternities should make available the field reports of their respective chapters. Such information would allow parents and their college-bound students the opportunity to make safer and more informed decisions about affiliating with a fraternity.
That is, in fact, the spirit behind a law passed recently in the state of South Carolina, the Tucker Hipps Transparency Act. Oh, yes, Hipps, a fraternity pledge, died there, too, in 2014, and again, there was plenty of outrage. Other legislative efforts are being pursued: a bill was introduced recently in the U.S. House of Representatives amending the Higher Education Act of 1965 to require colleges to report all incidents of hazing as part of their campus crime report. But while the fraternal industry’s trade group, the North American Interfraternity Conference, or NIC, supports the congressional legislation, it exempts its member groups from publicly reporting much of such information that would help parents and prospective pledges from making a more informed decision.
Most of the member groups of the NIC have field staff that travel to each of their respective chapters and file a report that includes all the information I have previously mentioned. Those reports can easily be converted to PDF files and made available at each fraternity’s national website, at the fraternal affairs section of colleges and universities websites, at the NIC’s website, or at all of them. Names of specific students or alumni could be redacted if necessary. Currently, the University of Arizona does an excellent job cataloging violations of campus policy by fraternities and documents the violating chapter’s status. Penn State University should also be commended for creating a “Greek Scorecard” as part of their plan to improve the safety of their system following Piazza’s death.
In sum, to try to reduce the likelihood of further tragedies, my two key recommendations are:
Colleges and universities should assess current alumni support of each fraternity group and require each chapter have a trained alumni adviser as a condition of maintaining its recognition with the institution. If no adviser exists for a chapter, the campus Greek affairs office should partner with the respective headquarters office to locate one. Many alumni never volunteer because they are not asked. Also, while many chapters have an adviser on paper, in my experience, many of them are not adequately engaged. If training programs are needed, either the NIC or the Association of Fraternity Advisers are excellent resources to develop a program focusing on adviser expectations, strategies to encourage fraternal excellence, housing quality and safety, risk management, and fostering academic achievement. Both the national fraternity and the college or university have a mutual interest in having a person of integrity and quality guiding or coaching these chapters.
Each fraternity would be required to publish key data online for viewing by parents and prospective pledges. The data would include, among other information:
- chapter grade point average information and its relation to grade point averages of all men on campus and other fraternities’ grade point averages;
- whether the chapter has an adviser credentialed by the national fraternity;
- the number of men in the chapter;
- the last chapter house safety inspection;
- a list of any violations of campus or fraternity rules or policies; and
- a list of awards and recognition. (Yes, many groups do many fantastic things.)
National fraternities should provide their field reports, as they contain much of this information. They could be made available online in a matter of days.
I have learned over 20 years of working with college fraternity men as a national headquarters staff member and volunteer that outrage has not saved any lives. Simply trying to abolish Greek life or regulate it to its demise is not the answer. Educational programs are good, but they will not succeed if they operate without the proper alumni engagement to sustain the message. Rather, strengthening the guidance that fraternities receive and providing good data will go a long way toward reducing problems -- including the terrible deaths resulting from irresponsible and stupid behavior.