At Pitt, recruitment functions for Greek organizations are the most fun, painless meetings of the year. But on a frigid night last January, a member of Pitt’s Sigma Chi fraternity lay limp in the hospital from a “serious alcohol incident” after an off-campus recruitment event.
In response to this alarming occurence, Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner suspended the fraternity and banned the presence of alcohol at all Greek life events for an unspecified time period — he lifted the modified social probation last week after working with community members to draft a much anticipated community action plan.
The new plan requires sororities and fraternities to register all events with University officials and record the types of food and drink at their events, and it strictly prohibits the consumption of hard liquor. These are great first steps, but not nearly enough to eradicate these appalling drug- and alcohol-related “accidents” at fraternities — many of which turn fatal.
Timothy Piazza, a pledge in Penn State’s Beta Theta Pi fraternity, died as a result of hazing during the 2017 recruitment season. His case, which reached a settlement yesterday, included a 17-point reform program that will eliminate drugs and alcohol from all chapters of that frat by 2020.
This is exactly what Pitt should do in response to Sigma Chi’s alcohol incident — only a blanket ban on drinking at Greek functions can put an end to Greek-related alcohol abuse for good.
According to Pitt’s 2017 Policies and Procedures Manual for Fraternity & Sorority Life, hard liquor was already prohibited at Greek events when this incident happened — so reiterating an existing clause of the Greek life manual won’t do a thing to combat alcohol abuse at Pitt or other universities.
The community action plan was specifically drafted to address fraternity recruitment functions — but these recruitment functions were already expected to be alcohol-free, so nothing outlined in this policy would have prevented the Sigma Chi incident from happening in the first place.
Although it may seem unfair to punish all fraternities and sororities for something that only one fraternity did, Pitt’s approach to regulating alcohol needs to become much more heavy-handed to ensure these incidents don’t happen again. But Dean Bonner’s prescription for remedying the issue suggests that Pitt’s administrators aren’t ready to take an active step in reducing binge drinking at all.
“At some point, you’re all adults, you’re all leaders, you’re all responsible people — and I think reasonable people,” Bonner said. “And you have a responsibility to manage your organizations.”
This is the kind of complacency that’ll just land more students in the hospital. Greek students — at Pitt, Penn State and across the country — have proven they aren’t responsible enough to handle alcohol. Sigma Chi’s members broke blatantly written policies and seriously endangered their classmate as a result.
Although the University is attempting to make consuming alcohol safer, it’s still failing to protect students. The community action plan relies heavily on reducing the percentage of students who have access to alcohol, but it only takes one problematic drinker to influence others. According to a study from NYU, peer pressure is a major reason why so many college students binge drink.
“Students are highly susceptible to peer pressure,” the study reads. “Perceived drinking norms influence a college student’s level of drinking through the observation and comparison of their peers’ drinking levels.”
This recent hospitalization of Sigma Chi’s new recruit shows that Pitt is far from immune to peer pressure issues. As long as students have access to alcohol and have a few bad examples in their lives, they’ll fall into the binge drinking trap as well.
And while Pitt’s Sigma Chi member was lucky to survive after consuming excessive amounts of alcohol, many students — like Timothy Piazza — weren’t so lucky. According to a study from the National Institutes of Health, alcohol causes 1,400 student deaths per year — so lackadaisical policies like the ones listed in the community action plan could normalize problematic behavior and ultimately cost students their lives.
The dangers relating to alcohol abuse — especially in fraternities — are immensely clear. So, why, after all these months with no improvements in student conduct, was the modified social probation lifted? For fear of offending wealthy Greek alumni.
According to Kris Kindelsperger, Sigma Chi’s chapter advisor for 18 years, Greek life alumni represent the largest group of lifetime donors to their alma maters and donate almost four times as much as alumni who did not participate in Greek life.
“Antagonizing fraternity alumni, who are often as loyal to their chapter as to their school, may be especially dicy at a time of unpredictable market returns and pressure to restrain tuition increases,” Kindelsperger wrote in a 2013 Bloomberg article. “The risk is that you alienate people of every generation, going back to the oldest generation of alumni.”
But Pitt isn’t in desperate need of money — it has a nearly $4 billion endowment, making it the 27th richest university North America. In fact, Pitt froze tuition for in-state students this year because it has managed to keep its operating costs low — by contrast, public four year colleges raised tuition by an average of 3.2 percent.
Bonner and other University officials shouldn’t worry about a slight reduction in donations — especially if it promotes student safety. But the administration’s lackluster response to Sigma Chi’s “incident” shows that’s exactly what they’re doing.
Instead, Pitt needs to foster a community that’s opposed to these harmful, potentially deadly habits. To amend binge drinking issues embedded in the culture of fraternities, we need to eliminate alcohol from their events entirely.
Write to Hayden at firstname.lastname@example.org.