Fraternities Reach Breaking Points: Recent News Makes It More Visible

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Several fraternities at West Virginia University have severed ties with the university due to rules applied only to Greek-letter organizations. The President, Gordon Gee, sent a statement to parents advising that they steer their adult children away from rogue organizations. This is not an unusual event, and you will see more of it in the coming years. 

I have posted before about these types of things, but the story of WVU is a response to increasingly limiting policies enacted by fraternity/sorority professionals, politicians, and college administrations. Last year a Sigma Phi Epsilon chapter disassociated from its national at the University of Chicago. Several chapters at Tufts University have disaffiliated from their national organization.

Several chapters at the University of Nevada, Reno disaffiliated with the university and established their own IFC, which is not too different than what may happen at WVU and what happened last decade at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Consider these the warning shots – and those of us who roll our eyes are very likely contributing to the division.

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction

A law of physics (data-driven)

Now we have two more bits of news. One out of Beta Theta Pi and another from the North American Inter-Fraternity Conference (NIC). 

Beta Theta Pi Settles With Family of Deceased Member

Beta Theta Pi fraternity settled with the Piazza family for an undisclosed monetary amount and 17 new initiatives that Beta Theta Pi must carry out. Keep in mind, the Fraternity is now bound by law to ensure each of these 17 things happen. They are as follows:

  1. Immediately supporting the proposed Timothy J. Piazza Anti-hazing Law in Pennsylvania.
  2. Requiring all chapter houses to be alcohol-and substance-free by August of 2020.
  3. Including the Piazzas in any decision-making process involving the future use of the closed Beta chapter at Penn State if the property is retained by the local house corporation.
  4. Withdrawing recognition, a prerequisite to operating a chapter, in the event a host college or university withdraws recognition based on conduct violations that have been fully and finally adjudicated at the local level.
  5. Establishing and communicating — on the chapter’s website, along with other related conduct policies and procedures — to those throughout the organization that any “action causing injury” to another is grounds for expulsion.
  6. Requiring that the college or university’s police and/or public safety department be immediately notified of any reported student conduct violations that result in serious bodily injury or death of a member, new member or third-party guest.
  7. Requiring enhanced education and training — including on a semester rather than annual basis — regarding social event planning, bystander engagement and prevention of hazing, alcohol/substance abuse, sexual assault and other abuses that could result in personal injury.
  8. Requiring chapters to publicly list online all chapter events and dates within their new member education programs as a part of Beta’s standardized new member education program and annual certification process.
  9. Requiring all chapters to complete annual safe event planning education prior to holding social events.
  10. Encouraging local house corporations to have a policy of a live-in house advisor as a best practice.
  11. Using reasonable efforts to implement a standardized new member education program limited to four weeks in length prior to initiation of new members.
  12. Encouraging chapters to have security cameras installed at all chapter housing.
  13. Establishing a relationship statement between Beta and members, including prospective members, in Fall 2018.
  14. Publishing notice on the Beta Theta Pi website regarding chapter status changes that result from violations of fraternity policies, including fraternity policies on alcohol and hazing.
  15. Encouraging open and full access to all chapter housing common areas to third-parties who are authorized by Beta Theta Pi or the host institution to visit during social events as a best practice.
  16. Requiring all chapters to have a chapter faculty advisor on their advising roster at the beginning of each academic year as part of Beta’s chapter recognition requirements.
  17. Including bystander intervention training in Beta’s risk management education each semester and continue to provide anonymous reporting options for students and parents.

Within the first four points, Beta Theta Phi has surrendered its ability to govern itself by tying its recognition of chapters to that of the college or university at which the chapter is located, endorsing irrelevant red-tape legislation, and preventing students from associating under the name of “Beta Theta Phi” at Penn State without permission from a family (does that pass on to any other relatives when the parents eventually pass?).

I am not opposed to all of the measures – for example, when I was Chapter President I shortened the new member period of our chapter to 4 weeks because the 8 week process delayed our new members’ ability to take part in the life of the chapter and learn how things work.

Still, that these are mandated at the national level, that many will require the investment of student funds (from chapters without such issues) and that these are now bound by law is reason enough to understand why chapters of Beta Theta Pi may choose to disaffiliate (or re-affiliate with another fraternity or as a new fraternity) rather than comply. 

That might be because the chapter is full of terrible people who just don’t like rules or it might be because a chapter is excellent and doesn’t want to be penalized for another’s stupid mistakes. It might not happen at all, but these are the types of actions which inspire the reactions we are seeing at WVU, Tufts and UIC.

Expect more fraternities to follow in Beta Theta Pi’s footsteps and more chapters to disaffiliate and go local in the coming years. Hell, this may inspire the next big, amazing NIC policy. . . speaking of which:

NIC Takes More “Decisive Action” In The Form Of A New Policy

The NIC (the United Nations for fraternities) has enacted a new “hard alcohol-free” policy for fraternity chapters. In reality the policy is not too different than what many (if not most) fraternities or colleges/universities already have in place. I don’t care about the policy, but it certainly doesn’t fall in line with the NIC’s desire to make “data-driven decisions” (See here) and NIC’s’ methods are a cause for concern. 

The issue, and why several fraternities have already left the NIC, is that once again a high power with exceptional intentions has ignored several million people in its decision-making process – one which happens out in the open and yet entirely behind closed doors. 

I ask you (and posed some of these questions to the NIC via email): Did you know this was being voted on? Were you given a chance to share your thoughts or the data which disproves the validity of such policies? Do you feel this falls in the realm of NIC activity (“advocate | collaborate | educate”)? Do you know how many votes your fraternity purchases or how your fraternity voted?

Perhaps in 2019 they should consider signing on to The Amethyst Initiative along with 136 college/university presidents in favor of lowering the national drinking age to 18. At least that would signal that NIC fraternities consider their members adults – even if alcohol is banished from actual fraternity functions.

In summary we see two extremes: one which pushes for greater centralization and regulation (codeword: standards) and another which seeks to decentralize and personalize the fraternity experience. Each responds to the other and neither is perfect in its purest form. That being said – the efforts to centralize and regulate fraternities have been in motion for decades, and we are just now starting to see legitimate pushback.

As those organizations respond with tough, “decisive” action, expect component organizations (local chapters, nat’l orgs, IFCs – depending on which central authority we are speaking of) to seek greater self-government to focus on the core interests of their organization (whether that is partying or providing a life-improving experience for young men and/or women). 

I’m very much in favor of greater decision rights at the student level (#DemocratizeFraternities) – no need to point that out any further. . . I am aware – but the push and pull relationship described above is real. As with everything in the news, it will appear tumultuous, but this is merely a growing pain as fraternities adapt to the times.

We may get to a place where every fraternity is the same and intensely regulated at the federal, state and collegiate level and we may get to a place with a more locally-oriented fraternity community. There may be other options or in-betweens which I have not yet considered.

All that said: The more that college students are treated as a source of funding, a research project, or manpower for positive-publicity events which have nothing to do with why they joined in the first place, the more likely they are to take their money, talent and time elsewhere.