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Penn State cracks down on fraternities and sororities

Stepping up its crackdown on Greek life, Pennsylvania State University on Thursday announced new restrictions on its fraternities and sororities, including a  reduction in the number of allowed parties and the permanent ban of a frat where a student died earlier this year, and a criminal investigation continues.

Given the severity of the problems, Damon Sims, vice president for student affairs, said the university considered a total shutdown of the Greek life system at the 46,000-student University Park campus — and said "some have urged us to go in that direction."

But the university, he said, decided against the "nuclear option" because of all the good that the fraternities and sororities do, including philanthropy and community service.

"Most importantly, I think they give students a sense of belonging, which I think is very important when you come to a university as large as Penn State," he said.

But Sims left no doubt that Greek life at Penn State, home to 82 fraternities and sororities, would undergo an overhaul. University officials said they will no longer rely on the student-run governance system of Greek life — its Interfraternity and Panhellenic Councils — to enforce rules.

"Today, Penn State is drawing a line and imposing critical changes," Sims said. "Enough is enough."

The university last month banned alcohol at all fraternity parties for the semester and instituted a minimum five-year ban on Beta Theta Pi, where pledge Timothy Piazza, 19, a sophomore engineering major from Lebanon, N.J., died after falling down a stairwell while intoxicated. Members of the frat didn't call for help until 12 hours later, and police have said they are investigating whether hazing was involved in his death.

Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller said the investigation is continuing and is expected to be completed in the next couple of weeks.

On Thursday, Sims said the university — as far as he knows for the first time in its history — has  instituted a permanent ban on the frat after a university investigation found rampant "forced drinking, hazing and other illegal activity." One member was arrested and charged with selling  drugs, he said.

"The university's investigation has produced deeply disturbing evidence showing that Beta Theta Pi fell far short of its professed policies and values," Sims said.

The problems aren't Beta Theta Pi's alone.

The Greek system at Penn State, to which 18 percent, or 7,468 undergraduates, belong, has widespread problems, most notably underage drinking, university officials have found. Its members are four times as likely as the general student population to be heavy drinkers, Sims said, citing statistics from a 2015 survey. 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, he said, citing statistics from a campus survey last year.

Sims said student leaders who oversee fraternities and sororities were "quite surprised if not stunned" when he told them that each group would be permitted to hold no more than 10  socials with alcohol per semester, down from  45.

"I made it as clear as I could that that is not negotiable," he said.

Recruitment of members no longer will be allowed in the first semester of the freshman year and can occur in the second semester only if students have completed 12 credits. Penn State will consider delaying recruitment until sophomore year for 2018-19, Sims said.

Dean Vetere, president of the Interfraternity Council, faulted Penn State for not involving students in the decision.

"We don't accept that restricting students' basic right to choose when they join an organization is an effective way to build partnership to achieve significant change," he said in a statement on Onward State, an online student publication.

The national office of Beta Theta Pi expressed disappointment, too, given the fraternity's cooperation and history.

"Beta Theta Pi brought more than 130 years of positive contributions to Penn State's campus, even being named Chapter of the Year by the university twice since 2010 -- as recently as 2015," said Justin Warren, of the Ohio-based Beta Theta Pi Foundation. "Unfortunately, a tragic incident led to a discovery that the chapter's culture had strayed from our founding mission."

Heather Matthews Kirk, of the North American Interfraternity Conference, said her organization opposes deferring recruitment to the second semester.

"There is zero evidence it positively affects student success," she said. "The vast majority of campus fraternity communities host recruitment in early fall with freshmen through seniors eligible to participate."

But she said the conference supports the alcohol measures "because they align with proven industry best practices."

Penn State also will continue to prohibit kegs and underage drinking at parties, as well as enforce party size limits. No daylong events will be allowed. The regulations will be enforced by third-party monitors and a combination of student leaders and university staff, Sims said.

Failure to comply could result in a permanent no-alcohol policy for the entire Greek system, the university warned.

Terry Ford, student body president at Penn State, said he hopes that students wait to learn all the facts of the criminal investigation rather than "rush to judgment" about the university's action.

"I hope that everybody can take a step back and be patient," he said. "There are a lot of details about this particular investigation that people do not know yet."

Sims said other action could be coming, including more staff and new leadership for the office of fraternity and sorority life.

In 2015, Penn State established a task force to look into Greek life on its campus after allegations that Kappa Delta Rho members posted pictures of nude and partially nude women — some of whom appeared to be sleeping or passed out — on private Facebook pages.

But Sims said that the work of the task force, which included students and alumni, wasn't leading to any meaningful change, and university officials decided to initiate much stronger action.

Universities around the country have struggled with how best to monitor and enforce rules within their fraternity systems. The groups are private associations and often live in off-campus housing, but universities have the hammer of official recognition, which allows them to hold events and recruit on campus. The former Beta Theta Pi house, which was home to 39 members, is privately owned and on private property.

"Our ability to influence outcomes among these young adults is profoundly limited, yet the university's recognition is vital to all of these organizations," Sims said.