Penn State President Says ‘Self-governance’ for Fraternities and Sororities Needs to End

There are no easy solutions, and we do not claim to have all the answers. We will adjust and learn, and explore new ideas as we forge ahead.

by Eric J. Barron

About 20 million students are descending on college campuses across the nation in the next few weeks, and nearly 750,000 of them will take part in a time-honored tradition of membership in a fraternity or sorority.

As president of a large public university, I am always concerned about student safety, and that concern is heightened dramatically in the first few months of the academic year. It’s during this time that first-year students are attempting to find their way, not just around campus but also in social settings and within peer groups. Part of their newfound freedom allows them to explore new ideas and push boundaries.

I worry a lot about the boundary part, knowing that alcohol misuse and other dangerous behaviors exist, particularly within fraternity and sorority communities, where all universities see a disproportionate problem with hazing, excessive drinking and related behaviors, such as sexual assault.

The recent tragic death of a student after a night of drinking at a Penn State fraternity, accompanied by horrific and incomprehensible video evidence, unnerved our university community and has further elevated awareness that the Greek-letter system, both on my campus and across the nation, is in dire need of reform. No family should ever have to endure such a tragic loss.

Alcohol misuse, hazing and sexual misconduct are exceptionally complex universal challenges that we have been working to address for decades at Penn State, in tandem with these independent Greek organizations — many of which occupy privately owned houses. The self-governance model for fraternities and sororities is not working and must be altered.

At one time, fraternity and sorority life in America was generally associated with leadership, service and brotherhood. Statistics often cited as examples include the 18 U.S. presidents who once were members of a fraternity and the 85% of Supreme Court justices, as well as the 85% of Fortune 500 CEOs, who are former Greek-letter members, as reported by The Atlantic in 2014.

Research shows that fraternity and sorority members make up some of the highest-risk college students in the nation, particularly with regard to continued and excessive substance abuse. All universities — large, small, public and private — are attempting to deal with the problems created by these independent groups, which are overseen in large part by their national organizations and the student members themselves.

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Eric J. Barron is the president of Pennsylvania State University.