Education

With three fraternity pledges dead in two months, what’s the future of Greek life?

The Pi Kappa Phi fraternity house where a 20-year-old pledge died is seen near Florida State University in Tallahassee, Fla., Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. FSU President John Thrasher and Florida International University President Mark Rosenberg have both called for more accountability following bad behavior in their Greek systems.
The Pi Kappa Phi fraternity house where a 20-year-old pledge died is seen near Florida State University in Tallahassee, Fla., Tuesday, Nov. 7, 2017. FSU President John Thrasher and Florida International University President Mark Rosenberg have both called for more accountability following bad behavior in their Greek systems. AP

The days of “wink and nod” responses to bad behavior in Greek Life — the college system of social fraternities and sororities — are over. Universities are getting more aggressive as the list of Greek-related deaths grows.

This year alone, four young men pledging fraternities at universities around the country died after parties or initiation events. At all four schools — including Florida State University — campus presidents suspended Greek life.

Matthew Ellis, a pledge to Texas State University’s Phi Kappa Psi chapter, was found dead Monday. He was 20.

Andrew Coffey, a 20-year-old pledge to FSU’s Pi Kappa Phi fraternity, was found dead on November 3. He went to Pompano Beach High School.

Maxwell Gruver, 18, died during a hazing ritual for Louisiana State University’s Phi Delta Theta fraternity on September 14. His blood alcohol content was .496 percent.

Timothy Piazza, 19, died February 4 while pledging Beta Theta Pi’s Penn State chapter. Investigators found he had at least 18 drinks in less than two hours.

Alongside the death toll is a string of bad — and occasionally illegal — behaviors, including accusations of cocaine trafficking, racist hazing of sorority women and leaked conversations at Florida International University revealing Anti-Semitic jokes and references to pedophilia.

As FIU President Mark Rosenberg put it during an interview with The Miami Herald Editorial Board earlier this month, “The Greek system in this country is hanging by a thread.”

A fraternity at his school was suspended recently after leaked screenshots showed a group chat full of lewd (and possibly illegal) messages and photos.

The behavior isn’t new. It was immortalized in pop culture nearly 40 years ago with the raunchy comedy “Animal House.” What’s different is the severity of the response, even if critics say it’s been slow in coming.

“We’re in a space where things that may have been around for awhile just aren’t acceptable anymore,” said Kevin Kruger. “There’s no kind of wink and nod. There’s no second chances.”

Kruger, the president of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, has been in academia for decades. He’s watched campus presidents struggle to get a handle on the social organizations so inextricably linked with the college experience, and whose alumni historically are top donors and legislators to the schools. Supporters for the often-attacked Greek system note that it builds strong communities and better students as well as significant philanthropic donations. Despite the dilemma, Kruger said he’s seen campus presidents eventually decide that an activist role is the best way forward.

An increasing number of schools aren’t afraid to kick a chapter off campus. Neither are the national organizations that govern each chapter and hold the lion’s share of liability when things go wrong. Pi Kappa Phi national leadership yanked FSU’s charter a week after Coffey’s death.

“The status quo is unacceptable,” Kruger said.

On this, everyone seems to agree.

In announcing the Nov. 6 suspension — a big deal at a school where more than 20 percent of students wear Greek letters — FSU President John Thrasher called for “ a new normal for Greek Life.”

“There must be a new culture, and our students must be full participants in creating it,” Thrasher said in a statement.

In a letter to Thrasher, Coffey’s family members said they supported the president’s suspension of a system they call “obviously broken,” the Sun Sentinel reported.

“We are encouraged to see that FSU is using their powerful position to open the necessary conversations and lead the way in making this change,” they wrote.

Experts say that change has to come from within. Elizabeth Allen, a professor at the University of Maine and director of the National Hazing Prevention Consortium, said creating and enforcing policy only goes so far in changing the culture. Her soon-to-be published research shows that visible leadership — from administrators, student organizations and “really anyone who has the courage to stand up and step up,” she said — makes a big difference.

It’s not uncommon for student groups and administrators to condemn indefensible behaviors publicly. But rarely do those critiques come from inside the Greek system.

At FIU, a fraternity’s leaked group chat revealed non-consensually shared photos of nude women, Holocaust memes, drug sale references and jokes about rape and pedophilia. It’s the second time a fraternity’s illicit private conversations have been revealed at FIU, with the second one coming just before the former frat’s five year suspension was up.

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A series of the leaked screenshots from Florida International University’s TKE fraternity group chat, where members shared nude images of women, made anti-Semitic jokes and talked about drug use. Florida International University

The university suspended the fraternity when the messages were revealed, and an investigation into seven of the 100 members should be wrapped up in mid-November.

A group of sorority leaders announced they would halt all interactions with members of Theta Kappa Epsilon, calling the frat’s actions “disgusting and obscene” and chastising the university for not pursuing justice more aggressively.

“Their lack of action shows that dumb luck is reason enough for dishonorable behavior to be excused,” the women wrote in a letter. “We now see that the brothers of TKE and the Student Code of Conduct have failed the FIU community by doing nothing.”

The scathing statement is unusual, Allen said, and she hopes to see more like it in the future. Sororities have a significant amount of power in shifting the culture, she said. And sorority women argue there’s a lot worth preserving in the Greek system, more than the “burn the whole system down” critics give them credit for.

Krista Schmidt, FIU’s student body president and a sister of one of the sororities behind the statement, pointed to the millions of dollars Greeks raise annually for charity and the community it creates for people looking for a family when they’re far from home. She said she found lifelong friends in her sorority, women she respects and admires.

“Our sisterhood was put to the test, and we passed,” she said.

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