Fraternities are in the hot seat again this week as authorities investigate the photos of unconscious nude women on a private Facebook page at Pennsylvania State University, as well as hazing allegations at the University of Houston and the University of Wisconsin.
The swift responses by university and national fraternity officials – suspensions of Kappa Delta Rho at Penn State and Sigma Chi in Houston and the elimination of Chi Phi at UW-Madison – suggest they feel a growing pressure to crack down. In the wake of the national uproar over a racist chant at a University of Oklahoma fraternity, these cases may add to a domino effect, prompting other students or alumni to come forward with reports of sexual harassment, misconduct, and hazing.
“Penn State immediately shutting down the fraternity shows they are willing to at least make swift progress when something like this happens.... Universities are starting to have more of a low-tolerance or zero-tolerance policy for racism and sexual violence on campus,” says Tracey Vitchers, spokeswoman for SAFER (Students Active for Ending Rape).
There may be heightened awareness of sexual abuse issues at Penn State given its history with Jerry Sandusky, the assistant football coach arrested in 2011 on multiple counts of child sexual abuse. Also, Penn State President Eric Barron recently accepted all 18 recommendations by a task force on sexual assault and sexual harassment, saying the changes would position the university as a leader in addressing sexual misconduct.
A former member of Kappa Delta Rho told police in January about an invitation-only Facebook page that included, according to the police affidavit, nude women in “sexual or embarrassing positions” who appeared unaware that photos were being taken, the Associated Press reports. Police contacted Facebook for the investigation and to block the site.
Crass comments under the pictures included such statements as “Lol delete these or we will be on cnn in a week,” according to OnwardState.com, an independent Penn State news site.
With the police investigation under way, Penn State’s vice president for student affairs, Damon Sims, said in a statement Tuesday that “the evidence offered by the Facebook postings is appalling, offensive and inconsistent with the University community's values and expectations.” In addition to the one-year suspension and reorganization of the chapter by the national fraternity, the campus, working with fraternity organizations and police, will hold students accountable once the investigation is complete, according to the statement by Mr. Sims.
Details of the hazing allegations at the University of Houston were not released because criminal charges may be filed. But President Renu Khator said in a statement that the chapter of Sigma Chi was suspended, as well as five individuals who are suspected of “disturbing” acts of hazing that threatened students’ health and safety. The investigation by UH police is expected to take two to three weeks, the university said Thursday.
At UW-Madison, the completed investigation – which led to Chi Phi no longer being a recognized student organization – found hazing that included “food deprivation,” “stints in hooded isolation,” the forcing of underage members to drink excessively, and degrading sexualized conduct, the university announced Wednesday.
Some fraternities are trying to get out in front on these issues, inviting advocacy groups to offer prevention training to members, and that offers some hope, Ms. Vitchers says, even if the motivation is largely risk management.
Last fall, the Fraternal Health & Safety Initiative Consortium, representing members on about 550 campuses, began offering research-based curriculums in three areas: alcohol and drug abuse, sexual misconduct and assault, and hazing. The effort is sponsored by James R. Favor & Co., an insurance company.
There are also 40 chapters of the Fraternal Values Society, a group that promotes peer-led work to make fraternities and sororities more centered on ethical values. It’s an extension of the Association of Fraternal Leadership & Values (AFLV), based in Fort Collins, Colo.
The fact that a fraternity member exposed the Facebook page at Penn State may suggest growing awareness and willingness to stand up for such values, says Mark Koepsell, AFLV’s executive director. “I applaud this member for stepping up to do the right thing,” he says.
But some critics of Greek campus organizations say it’s naive to think fraternities will reform themselves, given the deep roots of certain traditions and attitudes, in addition to the significant influence some fraternities can have because of the power and wealth of their alumni.
For real change, college administrators have to “either abolish [Greek life] or force it to go coed with a great deal of oversight,” says Andrew Lohse, a Dartmouth student and author of “Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy: A Memoir.” He says surveys at Dartmouth have indicated many students would like to see the Greek system there abolished. He predicts that “the era of the fraternity is ending, because now people have the tools to expose the inherent flaws in it.”