By Tom Shakely, March 31, 2017
I remember touring Beta Theta Pi a few years ago. It was over Arts Fest in 2013, and I had been invited along with some other members of The Nittany Valley Society to see inside the new crown jewel of Penn State’s fraternity system.
An alum had contributed a huge sum of $6+ million to entirely renovating the historic fraternity basically from floor to ceiling and now that it was in physically excellent shape, Penn State administrators had been making a show of the place and talking on their website, their magazines, and everywhere in between about what a model Beta would be for fraternities. Beta had cameras throughout for monitoring conduct in its public spaces. It had a house mother to help regulate basic administration of the property. It had a working relationship with Schreyer Honors College, if I remember correctly—or at least a minimum GPA requirement and other superlative standards for membership. And it had been reformed as a dry chapter.
It was a lovely story, and one I was tempted to believe. If anything could work to pull Greek life away from the worst stereotypes of Animal House culture, maybe it was Penn State’s effort with Beta. I took some photos during my tour of the house that summer:
It took less than a decade for Penn Staters to learn what we got in return for $6+ million in alumni generosity and a years-long PR-campaign from administration: one of the the worst breeding grounds for scandal and ultimately tragedy in modern Penn State fraternity history.
After the terrible death of Timothy Piazza during a drinking party at Beta earlier this year, administrators hastily suspended the chapter and booted its members midway through the semester. And today, as criminal investigations continue into the total neglect of Beta brothers to look after a sophomore at their house, Penn State administrators announced there will no longer be a Beta chapter. I can’t help but marvel at what’s happened at/to Beta in so short a time.
A Penn State challenge, not a Greek problem
While the question of legal culpability for Timothy Piazza’s death is determined through the legal system, the larger question that we can all consider is the moral culpability of Penn Staters writ large—and administrators in particular—in modeling ethical and moral behavior for our 45 fraternities and dozens of sororities.
I wasn’t in a fraternity at Penn State, but I care about fraternities and sororities because I believe in their potential as distinctive communities to form young boys and girls into men and women. I believe in this potential because we know that historically they did exactly this—particularly through ethical and moral formation and the development of brotherhood and sisterhood. (John Shakely, my grandfather, was in a fraternity at Penn State, and my grandmother Marion was in a sorority at Penn. I saw the formative impact those experiences had on them even late in life.) If nothing else, America desperately needs to rejuvenate social structures and experiences that cultivate character and singular men and women with confident and grounded senses of self who are capable of being strong threads in the communities they settle. Fraternities and sororities served that role once, and while we could get rid of them due to the nuisance they’ve become, it’s not clear we’d be any closer to some better system of social development for young people. Fixing them seems a far more worthwhile challenge than the easier route, which would be washing them down a drain that’s already clogged with cultural traditions jettisoned over the the last century.
So I care a great deal about Penn State’s fraternities and sororities. I think the young people in them have largely been abandoned and left to their own idle and directionless ends for decades. After the death of Timothy Piazza, I was amazed at the number of older people so ready to condemn kids aged 18-22 for their negligence. I was amazed not because I condoned their negligence, but because I wondered what other than blame-shifting and poor behavior we could expect from the kids in an environment where they receive no meaningful ethical or moral instruction—or more importantly, actual modeled behavior.
Penn State administrators did just about everything right in their renovation and reform of Beta except the most important thing in failing to provide any concrete sense of ethical or moral vision for a fraternity. Instead, they held up lofty words. But words have little meaning when divorced from behavior, and something our culture almost universally lacks today is the sort of sustained and authentic relationships where modeled behavior has a chance of influencing another person. Without relationships, words are just abstractions and bound for failure.
Abstractions v. concretes
Beta had words: “To Develop Men of Principle for a Principled Life.” Beta had a purported vision, which included things like “Betas will be universally known as friends, gentlemen and scholars” and “Beta Theta Pi will be acclaimed and respected by the academic community” and “Betas will be in high demand by leaders of business, government and the professions.” And Beta had a mission, which included things like “devotion to intellectual excellence” and “high standards of moral conduct and responsible citizenship.” Beta sought to cultivate “lifelong friendship” and “cultivation of the intellect” and “responsible leadership” and “responsible social conduct” and “commitment to community.”
Beta shared, more or less, basically the same sort of vision and mission of every fraternity and sorority. Let me suggest that the problem with Beta’s words are that they’re abstractions. And abstractions can be bent to mean anything, or nothing.
Aspirations (for fraternities and sororities especially) need to find expression in concrete habits and traditions and ways of being. You’re not “universally known as friends.” Instead, you’re “known as the smiling and stopping-to-help fraternity.” You’re not “devoted to intellectual excellence.” You’re the “top-tier engineering fraternity.” You’re not “committed to community.” You’re “the visiting-sick-and-elderly fraternity.” You’re not “developing men of principle.” You’re “a fraternity that attends mass/synagogue/mosque together.”
These are the sort of specific habits and traditions that can sink into the bones of those involved. They’re not abstract, fluffy PR material constructed to earn “acclaim and respect” from the academy community.
I’d bet every fraternity and sorority proclaims some sort of commitment to “intellectual excellence.” That’s a beautiful thing. If it’s true, then tell me: Where are the obviously and distinctly intellectual Greek students? Why aren’t they being spotlighted every fall at Homecoming? Why don’t any specific names immediately leap to faculty or administrators’ minds at every Board of Trustees meeting, so they’re thinking, “I need Trustee Such-and-such to meet fraternity-brother So-and-so.” More broadly, where are fraternities and sororities cultivating distinctive strengths? Let’s have fewer vague pleasantries about “commitment to philanthropy” and instead be able to answer specific questions like, “Point me to the jazz sorority, please.”
We don’t literally need a “jazz sorority,” but we should be cultivating a Greek system as distinctive and full of obviously (and literally) remarkable men and women as we can. That’s what real community looks like.
Not alcohol, but a lack of spiritual meaning
Every time a tragedy at a fraternity or sorority happens, some alcohol or hazing or illicit behavior is cited as the problem. That’s certainly the case today:
Alcohol misuse, hazing and sexual misconduct among students are challenges at nearly every college and university across the country. Greek-letter communities throughout higher education are distinctly affected by these issues, and have generally failed to effectively address them through their self-governance processes. The same is true at Penn State, where research shows that fraternity and sorority members are four times more likely than the general student population to be heavy drinkers; sorority women are 50 percent more likely than other female students to be sexually assaulted; and fraternity men are 62 percent more likely to commit a sexual assault than non-fraternity men.
A large part of the challenge stems from the autonomy these groups have assumed. Typically, colleges and universities cede ultimate responsibility to the organizations themselves, and while alumni boards and national organizations share part of that responsibility, the undergraduate members are often given broad latitude.
I think the second paragraph could have been better written, but if its identification of “autonomy” is speaking to the need for better relationships between fraternity and sorority students with others, then I agree.
What we need, though, are not legal relationships for the purposes of rear-end covering. We need the sort of authentic relationships with young people that can say something like: “You’re 20 years old, and have just joined a fraternity whose mission is to cultivate ‘principled men.’ How specifically are you going to achieve that, and how will you make amends if you fall short?”
That’s the sort of question that hasn’t been asked for decades. And because no one in a position of authority has been asking that sort of question, young people have lost connection to ethical and moral vision and consequently what I’ll call a sense of “spiritual meaning” for what they’re doing in a fraternity or sorority in the first place.
It’s for these reasons that I think the solution lies not in fixing the drinking problem, but fixing the spiritual void that leads to total, unregulated, and unrepentant public drunkenness and debauchery in the first place. It’s a spiritual problem, in other words.
(I don’t mean to take this “spiritual meaning” problem too literally, but I have to point out that for the first 50 years of fraternity life at Penn State, something as specific as Sunday chapel attendance was mandatory for all students, not just fraternity and sorority students. There was a larger, common campus culture that rooted behavior. We’re less than 90 years removed from mandatory chapel, and many within living memory still remember how a practiced religious experience publicly shaped their lives and behavior, rather than simply serving as a sanitized, privatized “worship” service that wasn’t supposed to be seen or discussed in polite company.)
Too many today will brush aside the idea of a “spiritual meaning” problem, and ignore the void of meaning that I think exists in the hearts of most people (not simply young fraternity and sorority members) and will instead decide that trying to better regulate alcohol consumption, or make already-illegal activities like hazing somehow more prohibited (one of today’s recommendations), will be a better way to help people. Down that path lies the dual fate of morally-pleasurable virtue signaling for the “helpers” and ultimately disaster for the “helped.”
We can’t look to our collegiate peers for help. If someone else had fixed the root problems of Greek life, we would have heard about it. Continuing to adopt one another’s surface-level policy reforms won’t fundamentally change Penn State’s fraternities and sororities. That’s just a recipe for becoming derivative, and if that’s the plan, then we might as well close shop. No one seems to be doing any better, and that means we have an opportunity to lead rather than follow. To attempt to foster a whole sense of Penn State community again. If we want a better outcome than what we’ve got for nearly 50 years, we’ve got to consider different approaches.
Do we really care?
Do we really care? This is the uncomfortable question at the center of this conversation.
If we care, we’ll figure out how to mandate that fraternity and sorority students have full-time older people who live with them and have meaningful power to regulate their personal behavior—not only through an enforceable code of conduct, but also by earning respect through real relationships and decades of personal investment.
If we care, we’ll figure out how regular alumni (Greek and non-Greek) can be routinely and specifically invited into fraternities and sororities during special times of the year like Homecoming to be impressed by the talents and habits and traditions of young people, and those alumni will be given ways to form relationships with those young people. We’ll do this because we’re smart enough to remember that every passionate alumni giving relationship is simply one form of commitment to the community, and it’s well past time to cultivate deeper relationships with those graduates.
If we care, the reaction of townspeople and administration and faculty will not be to first condemn or tsk-tsk fraternities and sororities at every turn, but to figure out how to model behavior and form relationships (and even publicly shame them when necessary) in ways that encourage a healthier way of being. When is the last time a professor, for instance, showed an interest in building up the sense of self of a fraternity or sorority student, let alone a chapter or the system? When have professors been encouraged by the Faculty Senate or administration to do this as a necessary part of earning tenure—or simply as something looked upon favorably during contract renewal season?
As much as the students at Beta are morally culpable for Timothy Piazza’s death, so are Penn State administrators who have an obligation more directly than any other to elevate the Greek system. Today’s steps are small but important ones, but I can’t help but point out that Penn State’s Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life has lacked a leader for quite some time. (And its last prominent leader was most recently in the news on charges of disorderly conduct and prostitution.) Today’s statement identifies “autonomy” as a large part of Greek life’s challenge, but it’s an autonomy that a generally indifferent administration has long seemed to be fine with—getting to condemn the Greek system’s worst cases of debauchery without ever being willing to insinuate itself into the day-to-day lives of those young men and women.
(A key threat in today’s news is that future sanctions could result in Penn State declaring the entire Greek system dry. What kind of a plan is that, given that Beta itself was allegedly dry? We’re instructing students that the solution is to drink less, but we’re not instructing them in how to drink responsibly—which isn’t typically the same thing as simply drinking less.)
It’s an indictment of administration, but also all of us in the larger Penn State community, that it’s taken a student’s death to even take today’s small steps toward changing something deeper than surface-level policy in viewing Greek problems as our whole community’s challenge rather than some vague sense that every generation of socially neglected 20 year olds have faulty ethics.
Showing that we care
Ours is a problem of spiritual meaning, and the solution lies somewhere near the cultivation of authentic relationships with the young people in fraternities and sororities that every Penn Stater should be encouraged to visit, know, mentor, and help elevate as distinctive members of our community.