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Fraternity Fallout: Changing the negative, keeping the positives

by on February 13, 2020 8:11 AM

(Editor’s note: This is the final part of a six-story series that explores the fallout of the Timothy Piazza hazing death in 2017. This week, the series’ focus is on the changes in Greek life since the tragedy and how fraternities are taking positive steps moving forward.)

STATE COLLEGE — Fraternities are a longtime part of Penn State tradition. The large, historic-looking houses sit on campus and on Fraternity Row, just off campus in the heart of town. You can see their Greek letters held up high and proud during THON and you can hear their parties roar late into the night on football weekends.

“There is no other organization on campus that can build the sense of belonging that Greek life does.”
Nate Brodsky
president, Interfraternity Council

But, of course, one fraternity house on campus sits empty — a reminder that just because some things are a part of tradition, it doesn’t mean there doesn’t need to be change. And after the alcohol-related death of Timothy Piazza three years ago, things have changed. The university and Greek life stakeholders are working to make this part of Penn State and of college culture in the United States safer and more transparent.

They are working to keep the academic achievement, service and philanthropy, leadership, brotherhood and sisterhood, social and alumni involvement that Greek life involves and to change the negatives that led to Piazza’s death and others across the county.

CHANGING THE NARRATIVE

Current IFC president, Penn State junior Nate Brodsky, remembers when he first decided to be a part of the IFC leadership. It was the summer after his freshman year, when he had told a woman who he had never met at a family party that he had joined a fraternity that past spring. He said when he told her, almost instantly, she started to treat him differently because he was part of frat.

“From that moment on she talked to me completely differently, almost talking down on me like I lacked knowledge or was limited to success,” said Brodsky.

This was a year removed from the Piazza tragedy. Brodsky was a senior in high school when Piazza died, and he said he wasn’t sure at first that he wanted to join a fraternity, but eventually, he chose to. His brother told him about the camaraderie and friendships he had formed when he was in a frat at Penn State, and he wanted to feel that too. Once he did, he said he gained a lot from the experience.

“There is no other organization on campus that can build the sense of belonging that Greek life does. That is the core purpose, obviously, along with networking and professional development, along with the community service,” said Brodsky.

The numbers show that community service is a big part of fraternity life. In fall 2019, the 37 fraternities under the IFC raised a total of $18,399.16 to a variety of different philanthropies and 5,853 hours of community service, according to the official IFC Greek scorecard.

And we all know THON by its full name — Penn State IFC Panhellenic Dance Marathon.

“They (fraternity members) leave Penn State a better person than when they come in,” said Brodsky. “A lot of chapter mottos say ‘Build a better man’ or ‘more well-rounded individuals.’ That is what we want to do.”

Brodsky said he wished that everyone understood the positive side of fraternity life. He didn’t want people to change their minds about him in a negative way when they heard he was in fraternity, referencing the woman he met at the family party, so he decided to become a part of the IFC leadership so he could help work to change that.

“My motto is ‘Everywhere I go in life, I try to find the opportunities that I can best try and leave a legacy,’ and that legacy is an impact on other people,” said Brodsky. “I saw in that moment that this was my opportunity at Penn State to do that because there was a need for improvement. There was this perspective that needed to be changed.”

Current seniors at Penn State were on campus when Piazza died, but the whole of the IFC executive board are juniors or younger and only know frat life after Piazza’s death. They were not allowed to rush the fall of their freshman years and have come up under the tighter restrictions and scrutiny of post-Piazza Greek life.

The Interfraternity Council is the governing body for the 37 fraternity chapters at the Pennsylvania State University. The executive board is composed of 11 affiliated members of these fraternities and serves to unify and oversee operations related to the actions and events held by the members of the council.

The IFC is one of four governing bodies overseeing Greek Life at Penn State, which also includes the Panhellenic Council, National Pan-Hellenic Council and the Multicultural Greek Council. The IFC is working to help fraternities understand what their role is in moving forward.

“Our overarching goal is to change the narrative, change the way we do everything. The core purpose is to defect those stereotypes that we were talking about,” said Brodsky. He said a change in the mindset of fraternities includes an increase in transparency, a stakeholder’s approach and a focus on the members of fraternities.

“That means starting to talk about hazing, having these hard conversations that we typically hesitate to talk about, but we won’t move past them unless we talk about them,” said Brodsky.

“Our goal by the end of our term is to earn the trust of Greek life members,” said Brodsky.

Some recent changes the IFC implemented was reducing the length of all new member programs down to four weeks from six, meaning new associate member only have to wait four weeks to be considered a “brother” of the fraternity.

The fraternities also must submit schedules to the Office of Sorority and Greek Like to outline what new members are doing.

“Through that we are able to see that they are doing what they say they are doing. They are giving members safe proper and free of hazing introduction into Greek life,” said IFC’s Leonard Fontes.

“It is a great way to hold people accountable,” said Brodsky. He said the IFC can provide recommendation to help them with new recruits.

“Let’s say a chapter has a lower GPA, but on their schedule they don’t have any study hours in the library. That is something we can recommend to them,” Brodsky said.

Another recommendation is that prospective members visit at least 12 houses before selecting one to join, offering them the best chance to find a good fit.

“We want them to find the best chapter that coincides with their values,” said Brosky. “I like to say, we have 37 chapters on this campus. There is a chapter for everyone, you just have to find it. No matter who you are, what your interests are or what you like to do in your free time, there is a chapter for you in Greek life.”

“Penn State has a lot of eyes on them because we are a school that experienced an unbelievable tragedy that a lot of people would expect would lead to the complete shut-down of Greek life, and instead we came together … instead of shutting down and instead of going away, we decided we were going to work to find a new definition to a new era to Greek life and what it is,” said Fontes. “Penn State is not the only school that is experiencing this. So, we are fighting back to create a new model, so that these schools that experience tragedies in their own Greek community can look at Penn State to see how we fought the adversity of trouble and came into a new era that is safer, one that is a better experience and one that gives most to the people who are a part of it.”

Of course parties still exist at fraternities, but with many regulations to make sure that they are safe. Changing the narrative from out-of-control frat parties to a controlled environment, those things are in place to prevent tragedy in the future but keep Greek life alive at Penn State so it can be a positive part of the community.

THE PIAZZA CENTER

Last January, The Timothy J. Piazza Center for Fraternity and Sorority Research and Reform was formed at Penn State. The multidisciplinary research center was named in the memory of Timothy Piazza. The new center builds upon the legacy of the Center for Fraternity and Sorority Research, which was located at Indiana University Bloomington since 1979 and was transitioned to Penn State in 2019.

The Piazza Center extends the local efforts at Penn State to overcome challenges in its Greek-letter community relating to hazing, the misuse of alcohol, sexual assault and overly large and disruptive social events by providing the scholarship required to study and learn from them, but also to develop and manage a national scorecard on fraternities and sororities, host national conversations on these topics, collect and distribute best practices and sponsor original research that will inform practice in this field.

In the past year, center director Steve Veldkamp has been collecting and analyzing data and expects to release a national scorecard on fraternities and sororities this summer.

“That will be a report card on kind of the size and shape, the conduct issues, grades, service hours, philanthropy hours, for communities across the country, so we are busy collecting the data currently,” said Veldkamp.

The hope is to produce scholarship from the research so that campuses can keep and promote safe and successful and sustainable Greek organizations.

Veldkamp said that while there has been success at universities across the country in making positive changes to Greek life, the information has never been compiled in order to provide data to show what works where, and why.

“That is the change the Piazza Center is trying to make — to pull that information together and bring it to light so that we can have a revolution in fraternity and sorority life at the university level and at large,” said Veldkamp. “That is our call to action.”

So what needs to change? Veldkamp said that data shown at national conferences reveal that roughly 80 to 90 percent of people in Greek life are reporting a mostly positive experience.

“Looking at it from a data driven prospective, by and large these organizations are mostly positive,” said Veldkamp. “But where there are problems, there are significant problems in term of hazing , sexual misconduct and violence, harassment and also a lot of behaviors around drug and alcohol misuses and abuse. So I would say from what the data is telling us, it is mostly positive, but when it is bad it is really bad.”

In the same vein, the organization is mostly having a positive impact on the community and the university. The organizations are providing a sense of community, providing community service and philanthropy to the community and creating positive conditions for personal and professional success, said Veldkamp.

“The flip side of that is that there are organizations that are appearing negative in the data and proving detrimental to themselves and the community. So it is the good and the bad. So the question is, how do you create policies and practices for the good, while at the same time, some of these organizations are performing not just poorly, but are creating very dangerous environments?”

Veldkamp said that Penn State has shown a commitment to make the needed changes to Greek life by providing the seed money for the Piazza Center to study it.

“That is an exciting way that Penn State is leading the conversation,” said Veldkamp. He also cited the leadership of President Eric Barron as a way that Penn State is committed to making a change.

Veldkamp said mentorship helps. When chapters are mentored by older students or former students or staff and parents, the data shows that binge drinking and drug use goes down. Basically, safer conditions are created, he said.

“I think mentoring has a huge part to play in creating successful and stable organizations. So you have a call to action for people to step up and to be more involved in the organizations,” said Veldkamp.

The numbers will come in through surveys and show whether efforts will changes Greek life and they will come into the Piazza Center to be analyzed.

 



Vincent Corso is writer for Town&Gown and the Centre County Gazette.
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