The Uncomfortable Truth

Like so many, as I read the horrific details about the events surrounding Timothy Piazza’s death, I found myself completely shaken. As a father, I struggle to imagine how Tim’s parents must feel, especially since their loss was senseless and preventable. As an alumnus of Beta Theta Pi, I’m embarrassed and angry.

In my role as President and CEO of the North American Interfraternity Conference, people are asking me, “How do we fix Penn State’s fraternity culture?”

The reality is that substance abuse and hazing are not isolated to Penn State, and they are not isolated to fraternities. Research shows how many high school graduates come to college already having experience with both—meaning these problems are pervasive across thousands of high schools and hundreds of college campuses.

Because so many people—fraternity men, parents, alumni and campus administrators—know the value and benefits of a good fraternal experience and want to see it continue and evolve, they are coming to me with “we should” statements. Their motivation is right—we must do something. But we must also recognize that many of the industry’s best prevention practices—substance-free housing, a live-in advisor, an anti-hazing policy, and strong educational programming—were already in place for this chapter at Penn State.

Clearly parents, alumni, campus administrators and national fraternity organizations must continue to maintain strong expectations and provide education that fosters health and safety for all students. When it comes to accountability, we must immediately respond with strong action to ensure unacceptable behavior isn’t tolerated.

Yet, the uncomfortable truth is that the inherent limitation of our interventions is that they attempt to influence student behavior from a position of external power. Time and time again, we are humbled by the fact that our efforts are shallow unless students are committed to doing the right thing in the moment. While so many outstanding students do rise to the challenge of leadership, others fall short of their responsibility to effectively govern.

Therefore, we must pause to ask tough questions about the student experience before moving forward:

  • How do students embrace meaningful and safe rites of passage instead of dangerous “traditions,” which many seek no matter how many times we warn against them?
  • How do students keep substance abuse and hazing out of their chapters when so many come to college having experienced these things in high school?
  • How do students craft positive experiences when they are so heavily influenced by popular media sources that glorify substance abuse and hazing?
  • How do students pay attention to their gut to do what is right—in this case, call 9-1-1—rather than be overcome by desires to belong and avoid getting in trouble?
  • How do students work on long-term change initiatives that require hardiness and perseverance when they have grown up in a world of instant gratification?

As parents, alumni, campus administrators and national fraternity organizations, we must also ask difficult questions of ourselves:

  • How do we work with students when their daily interactions are on technology platforms designed to disrupt traditional forms of authority and accountability?
  • How do we have authentic conversations with students about responsible drinking when so many see the legal drinking age as a speed bump to their fun?
  • How do we approach students with firm expectations and accountability, while being humble and authentic about our own shortcomings?
  • How do we embrace increased levels of transparency, as sunlight is the best disinfectant?
  • How do we facilitate openness for students to seek help when they are constantly bombarded with declarations of zero tolerance with severe consequences?
  • How do we prioritize addressing substance abuse and hazing when higher education is equally challenged with important issues like mental health, sexual assault and inclusivity?
  • How do we foster the necessary stakeholder buy-in and collaboration toward significant change, requiring an investment of time, when society demands immediate results?
  • How do we remain faithful that the clear majority of good students will rise to the challenge of doing the right thing?

Such deep reflection isn’t inaction—it’s an important step that lays the foundation for transformational change. Fraternal leaders have been asking questions like these as we work together to address critical issues facing fraternity men.

Our Vision for Fraternity Communities, crafted by higher education and fraternal experts, provides a framework to prepare communities for change; foster humble, confident fraternity men; and address substance abuse. This blueprint is designed to meet students and campuses where they are, with the goal of bringing local stakeholders together to move their campus culture in the right direction. Our plan is to work with more than 20 campuses next year to implement these reforms, including Penn State, and more in the future.

At the core of fraternity is the notion that people united around a common purpose can do greater good together than on their own. This tragedy serves as a powerful call that we must redouble our commitment to work together to develop young men who are ready to lead their communities with empathy, respect and integrity.

Judson Horras
NIC President & CEO