Sunday , 16 December 2018

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After Tragedies, a Call to Change Greek Life’s Culture

A national organization representing hundreds of thousands of sorority members in the U.S. has issued a “call for critical change” in Greek social life and pledged to develop a set of recommendations to improve campus safety.

“The campus tragedies our fraternity and sorority communities have experienced in recent months reinforce that we have an obligation and duty to redouble our efforts on campus safety,” Carole Jones, chairman of the National Panhellenic Conference, an umbrella organization that represents some 400,000 undergraduate sorority members, said in a statement this week.

The announcement and call come on the heels of a decidedly brutal year for Greek life, in which a string of fraternity-related deaths sparked national outrage, caused a slate of colleges and universities to suspend all Greek activity and fueled a conversation about the future of such organizations, even as membership in them is widely viewed as a rite of passage for many college students.

Notably, the public indignation has been aimed squarely at fraternities, not sororities. But sorority leaders have been quick to embrace the notion that their organizations are inextricably linked to fraternities in the sense that they both equally represent Greek life and its ethos. They’re also keenly aware of the unique role they could play to help change the conversation and culture.

“Just as the fight against campus sexual assault demands action from men’s and women’s groups alike, it’s also on us all to fight against hazing, alcohol abuse and dangerous party cultures on college campuses,” Jones said. “The sorority community can, and must, do its part to create safer campus cultures where students advocate for one another.”

The National Panhellenic Conference held an initial meeting Thursday in Indianapolis to address issues stretching beyond hazing and alcohol in Greek life to also include illegal drug use and trafficking, sexual misconduct, and racist and anti-Semitic posturing.

The session convened officials from within the conference and other Greek life organizations, as well as experts in risk prevention and curriculum design and senior student affairs professionals from nearly a dozen colleges and universities – including Penn State University, Florida State University, Louisiana State University and Texas State University. Fraternity pledges at each of those schools died in 2017, with alcohol at least a suspected factor in each case.

The group organized by the National Panhellenic Conference will continue meeting to craft a set of policy recommendations it plans to publicly unveil in May.

“Preventing the types of tragedies we’ve seen in recent years demands the type of holistic approach to shaping student culture that cannot be accomplished by campus professionals alone,” Kathy Cavins-Tull, the vice chancellor for student affairs at Texas Christian University, said in a statement after Thursday’s meeting. “Our work here is essential to developing a truly comprehensive approach, and one that is more likely both to succeed and have a lasting impact.”

Fraternities, for their part, have been more subdued when it comes to a collective call to action – though by no means have they remained silent.

The North-American Interfraternity Conference, which represents 66 men’s fraternities, was set to start a pilot project this year in which it would work with some schools to remove hard alcohol from fraternities, reprioritize academics for students and find ways to create safer social events.

Last year, the conference also created a new position: The director of health and safety is specifically tasked with overseeing the pilot and keeping tabs on risks and safety concerns associated with social life.

Moreover, multiple fraternity and sorority umbrella organizations, collectively representing more than 140 fraternities and sororities across the country, have backed bipartisan congressional legislation introduced last year that would require colleges and universities to disclose information about hazing on campus in their annual crime reports. The measure also would require colleges or universities that accept federal funding to provide hazing prevention education to students.

Many in and around academia have stressed that a sea change is coming for Greek life, pointing to university-wide enforcement actions – including the suspension of all fraternity and sorority events that some schools have ordered – that they say signal the coming change.

They acknowledge, however, that changing the system in a way that results in permanent and sustainable improvements still may be an uphill battle.

“Changing student cultures at this scale requires an unprecedented level of collaboration and cooperation between student leaders, university officials, and fraternity and sorority advisors,” said Holiday “Holly” McKiernan, executive vice president, chief operating officer and general counsel for the Lumina Foundation, an Indianapolis-based organization that works on issues related to higher education.

McKiernan previously served as the executive director of the Alpha Chi Omega sorority and has been named the facilitator of the group organized by the National Panhellenic Conference.

“And our ability to achieve such seamless cooperation will require an equally unprecedented level of candor and open discussion amongst our participants,” she said. “The roots of these challenges are deep, but they can be overcome, and our goal is to create a collaborative approach for doing so.”

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