Penn State’s Piazza Center will shine light on Greek Life
It is fair to say that the current relationship between higher education and fraternities and sororities is strained. After a series of heartbreaking and high-profile hazing deaths, including that of Penn State freshman Timothy Piazza, stakeholders already concerned about the exclusion and abuses associated with these organizations are questioning their very existence.
Once the iconic image of American college life, fraternities, in particular, have become polarizing litmus tests – are you for them or against them? In the aftermath of Piazza’s death, Penn State took an unusual stance on the issue by introducing a “third way” of looking at Greek life – through a research lens that the university hopes will lead to evidence-based practice and reform.
With the gracious support of the Piazza family, the Timothy J. Piazza Center for Fraternity and Sorority Research and Reform is both a promising new institute aimed at meaningful change and, by its name, a somber reminder of what remains at risk. The university has committed $2 million to an endowment for the center and has made a further commitment to match up to $3 million in additional funds.
The man behind the Piazza Center is Penn State’s Vice President of Student Affairs, Dr. Damon Sims, who calls the Greek experience on college campuses “infinitely more complicated than people are aware.”
“What we found after Tim’s tragic death, when all of our attention turned to fraternities and sororities, was that there wasn’t any evidence of proof for some of the theories we were operating within,” said Sims. “When you get into arguments about the impact of interventions, for example, schools make one claim and the national fraternities make another, and neither side has any hard evidence to support its position.”
The Piazza Center hopes to provide that evidence through a number of initiatives, some of which are extensions of the Center for Fraternity and Sorority Research (CFSR), which has been moved from Indiana University in Bloomington to the Piazza Center, where it is now more visible and better funded.
Before coming to Penn State, Sims spent 33 years in Bloomington as both a student and an administrator and was aware of CFSR’s work. Its Executive Director, Dr. Stevan Veldkamp, is a long-time student affairs professional whose responsibilities include fraternities and sororities. He is now Sims’s special assistant and interim director of the Piazza Center.
“There’s been a ton of work done on problem identification,” said VeldKamp. “But the Piazza Center will produce what everyone in this field is really clamoring for — sound, professional practices.”
Veldkamp says the center’s priority projects will be on student safety and high-risk behaviors. He sees the transfer of CFSR to Penn State as an opportunity to fulfill the organization’s original mission to be a resource for colleges and universities as well as Greek organizations.
Begun in 1975 with the backing of national fraternities and sororities, CFSR set out to identify gaps – both problems and opportunities – in the Greek life experience.
But uncovering factors such as the undeniably strong correlation between fraternities and alcohol was not what the original funders hoped the center would pursue and publicize. Many of them withdrew their support.
CFSR continued its work focusing primarily on one signature instrument – the Fraternity and Sorority Experience Survey (FSCS), designed to provide data to colleges and universities about what’s happening within their sororities and fraternities. The feedback is then used by schools to improve programing and provide some emerging best practices.
The Piazza Center will administer a new version of the survey to participating schools and provide aggregate data that will allow researchers to examine trends.
Another initiative the center will pursue is the national scorecard of fraternities and sororities. The brain child of Penn State President Eric Barron, the scorecard is a separate survey that gathers data from institutions around the country and gives stakeholders, including students and parents, a sense of how well these organizations are doing on a range of issues – from leadership opportunities to alcohol and sexual assault violations.
Transparent in its desire to be pure of any influences, the center will provide research that supports positive educational outcomes, student safety and the reduction of high-risk behaviors. Sims hopes these efforts, together with sponsored research on other campuses, and national convenings, will shine light on an area that for too long has been in the shadows.
“I think all of us would admit that for decades we were trying to influence outcomes in fraternities and sororities without a lot of evidence,” he said. “We need to understand whether the actions we are taking, the tools we are using, are going to be effective based on what the research tells us.”
Dr. Jeremiah Shinn provides an example. Shinn is a senior administrator at Boise State University and has been an expert advisor to fraternities and sororities for many years.
“A lot of times what happens is when there is a student death – or a rash of alcohol transports – universities say to the organizations, ‘we’re going to make you defer recruitment until the second semester,’ which is a very common thing universities do.
But there is no proof that joining a fraternity in the second semester creates more conditions for health and safety and there’s no information that says the opposite. Despite having no evidence, universities commonly make decisions so they can feel like they’re doing something.”
There are a number of reasons why Greek life is under-examined, and why, despite decades of trying, colleges and universities have had little influence in preventing tragedies like Timothy Piazza’s death. One of the main reasons lies in the loose relationship that exists between the schools and the organizations themselves.
Fraternities and sororities are typically chapters of national organizations, independent and autonomous from the institutions they are associated with. In many cases, they are on private property, created by other entities with outside influencers like leadership boards and engaged alumni.
This “arms-length” relationship has been both a plus and a minus for schools who hope to infuse positive practices into fraternities and sororities on their campuses while at the same time often distance themselves from them when something bad happens.
Sims says that while schools often point to their independence in these cases for liability reasons, it matters little in the court of public opinion because the perception is that these entities are part of the university.
Rethinking the school’s relationship with its fraternities and sororities was a key part of his strategy in creating the Piazza Center.
“The argument I made after Tim’s death was that we needed not to distance ourselves more from these organizations but instead, to draw them closer to us — have more influence over them, and as a consequence, improve outcomes within these groups,” he said.
Dr. Shinn shares the perspective that schools need to have a strong relationship with these organizations and notes that fraternities and sororities that have the best reputations are those that are most closely associated with their institutions.
“My view is that fraternities and sororities can be enormously valuable for students to the extent they are aligned with the mission and purpose of the university they are partnered with.”
Student affairs professionals assigned to Greek life can play a significant role.
Dan Wrona, a consultant and researcher in this area, recently wrote, “The campus fraternity/sorority professional does not exist to help Greeks do Greek life better; but to help members of fraternities and sororities better achieve the objectives of the institution.”
Bring the Good – Leave the Bad
Though not explicitly stated, the ultimate goal of the Piazza Center may well be to help retain what is beneficial about Greek life while preventing the negative outcomes that have the entire system under siege.
Kaye Schendel is the Chairman of CFSR’s Board and is the Director of Global Initiatives at the Delta Upsilon International Fraternity where she arranges service trips for members. She was a Tri Sigma at the University of Wisconsin and served as the sorority’s president for six years.
“I believe that fraternity and sorority life, when done right, can be one of the most positive experiences a student can have,” she said. “The key is to emphasize and work on those positive aspects.”
While invoking the “one bad apple” theory in defending the system, many proponents of Greek life point to life-long benefits that are not remotely similar to the shenanigans portrayed in “Animal House.” Role model organizations are engaged in student affairs programming within their chapters, from bystander intervention training to mental health peer support.
Both fraternities and sororities provide leadership and mentoring opportunities, community service engagement and, perhaps, most important, a sense of belonging.
In a recent presentation at NASPA’s annual conference, Dr. Veldkamp revealed the results of the latest experience survey which showed that, among men, the number one reason to join a fraternity was friendship (74%); followed by social opportunities (49%) and leadership development (44%). Among women, friendship was also on top at 79%; followed by philanthropy and community services (43%); with leadership development and social opportunities tied at 38%.
Campus community groups – whether they be Greek organizations or learning communities – are viewed as a way to connect and draw comfort at a time when college students with mental health issues are presenting with greater frequency, severity and complexity (Benton, 2003; Gallagher, 2007).
Isolation is the cause of particular stress with 55% of men and 62.8% of women reporting “feeling very lonely” in the past 12 months, according to the American College Health Association’s 2018 survey.
Dr. Shinn believes that the sense of “mattering and belonging” is the differentiator between the positive and negative behaviors associated with Greek life.
“What we found (at Boise State) was that the extent to which members of a chapter feel like they matter and belong is what is most associated with pro-social behaviors,” he said.
Sororities have a role to play as safe, supportive communities for women but are often “lumped in” with their male counterparts as part of the anti-Greek life argument. The recent Harvard lawsuit over the discouragement of single-gender houses argues that women’s groups are unjustly taking the fall for a ban aimed at the misogynistic attitudes of men’s “finals clubs.”
But fraternities, too, are defensive, stating that most members are not “hazers,” and that the organizations provide institution-aligned benefits such as career and leadership development.
With the proliferation of chapters for specific groups like Black and Latino or gay and transgender students, many believe that fraternities today are “not your father’s frat houses.”
In a recent article, entitled “A Frat Boy and a Gentleman”, researcher and author Alexandra Robbins argues that fraternities can help men develop “productive masculinity,” writing, “It is wrong to assume that every male group is toxic. I found many fraternities offering a comforting family away from home, a safe space for guys who worried that it would be hard to be themselves or find friends in college.”
Sims agrees, to a point.
“There’s no question that these are strong, powerful communities that can have profound impacts that can be very positive, not just in college but throughout a person’s life,” Sims said. “We’ve accepted the notion that these things are possible. At the same time, there are certain assumptions about the positive aspects of them that early research has not proved to be true. Again, we need more information.”
To his earlier point, “Greek life is complicated,” and it is clear that higher education has much to learn from a thorough examination of its practices and outcomes. Ultimately, one of the most compelling reasons to study Greek life is that students continue to want to participate in it which makes the Piazza Center’s work so important and the Piazza family’s involvement so commendable.