Florida State University’s suspension of all fraternity and sorority activities in the wake of a student’s death has received near unanimous support from faculty, politicians and even students. But as the state turns its eyes toward Tallahassee to see if it can reform its Greek life, the question remains: Will anything work?

 

“For this suspension to end there will need to be a new normal for Greek Life at the university,” Florida State President John Thrasher said Nov. 6 in announcing the halt to Greek activity. “There must be a new culture and our students must be full participants in creating it.”

Louisiana State University instituted a similar suspension earlier this semester, but after Greek life was re-instated, fraternities and sororities continued to break the college’s rules. Penn State similarly suspended its organizations, even threatening to permanently end Greek life. Five fraternities have since faced discipline. Last week, the University of Michigan suspended the social activities of its fraternities after multiple reported sexual assaults and hazing incidents.

It remains unclear how Florida State or any of these other schools will know when the culture has changed.

Andrew Coffey, a pledge at Florida State’s Pi Kappa Phi, died Nov. 3. The 20-year-old from Pompano Beach had been found unresponsive after a party and police said alcohol may have been a factor, but they have not yet said if the death was related to hazing.

Immediately, the university suspended Pi Kappa Phi, then three days later the school announced all Greek activities were suspended. About one in five students at the school is in a fraternity or sorority.

In unrelated cases last week, the school’s police department arrested two men who were fraternity members, one of whom was a member of the same fraternity Coffey was pledging. They were both accused of selling cocaine. The Florida State police chief said he anticipated more drug charges soon.

The student body president, Kyle Joshua Hill, said he supported Thrasher’s decision. “A pause of our Greek life is necessary. We all recognize that our campus may be losing sight of our founding principles of brotherhood/sisterhood, leadership and philanthropy that these organizations espouse because of increasing numbers of unhealthy, high-risk behaviors that we all have come to accept and dismiss as normal.”

The national Pi Kappa Phi organization has since announced it has permanently revoked its Florida State charter.

ISSUES OF GOVERNANCE

Hank Nuwer, a journalism professor at Franklin College in Indiana who has studied hazing deaths for 40 years, said an all-out suspension could facilitate underground fraternities. Those organizations, with no oversight from the university, could lead to worse problems. “When you squelch communication, you’re dealing with a rebellion.”

Louisiana State kept its suspension for a month, but it didn’t change fraternities’ behavior the way it intended. About half of the school’s fraternities have gotten into trouble, according to the Baton Rouge Advocate, meaning they’ve been either kicked off campus, placed on probation or given a letter of reprimand.

Nuwer said universities also run a risk when they don’t hire enough staff to regulate and oversee activities. He recommended universities begin task forces, consisting of university officials and students, to agree on reforms.

Nuwer has tracked 12 hazing deaths connected to Pi Kappa Phi alone. They do not include Florida State’s death, which has not yet been connected to hazing.

Nuwer also pointed out, traditionally, the problems historically white fraternities like Pi Kappa Phi face are different from those at historically African American fraternities face. “The nuances are different.”

White fraternities, he said, more often struggle with alcohol and drug abuse, along with sexual assault. While black fraternities have had some alcohol-related deaths, their problems historically stemmed from violent initiations involving things like paddling, whipping and branding.

Douglas Fierberg, a Washington-based attorney who has pursued lawsuits over hazing deaths, said he’s skeptical suspensions go far enough, after Florida State became at least the third school to do so this year.

“I think campuses are doing it because they believe some form of a perceived strong reaction is a necessity,” Fierberg said, adding schools typically lift the suspensions without changing the self-governance of the Greek houses or adding transparency on incidents. “That’s like having the fox watching the chicken coop. This structure has proven to fail for decades.”

Students can continue to live in their fraternity or sorority houses and can hold meetings with the university or their national chapter, but won’t be allowed to hold any other events, including any organized participation in homecoming.

Thrasher has also banned alcohol at all student organization events during the suspension.

The state university system’s board of governors endorsed Thrasher’s decisions and will re-visit the issue in January to determine if there are reforms that can be made statewide to Greek life.

HOMECOMING IMPACTS

The suspension hits the campus as it prepares for events that usually deeply involve Greek houses, which includes a homecoming parade Nov. 17.

“It will be more tame and not as festive as it usually is because there are a lot of floats during the parade and competitions during the week,” Florida State student Rachel Humphries said.

However, penalizing all Greek houses seemed unfair to freshman Lila Pullo, who was supposed to be initiated into the Delta Gamma sorority.

“For me, and a lot of the people who are entering, we’re all pretty upset because we are trying to get the reputation back up,” she said. “Most of the organizations getting in trouble are fraternities. If they did end Greek life, the atmosphere on campus will go down a lot.”

But Florida State Faculty Senate President Todd Adams said, “President Thrasher felt he needed to wake people up by doing this broad suspension of activities. We agree this is a way forward. It has woken people up to the seriousness of the issues.”

He and others said they don’t think this is an end to Greek life, but that changes to policies like the availability of alcohol at sanctioned events might be necessary.

ALCOHOL AND ‘SOCIAL CAPITAL’

At the University of Central Florida, which suspended a fraternity in August after police said a woman was raped, faculty union president Scott Launier said he thinks the state needs to re-invest in academics. Large class sizes make it difficult for students to socialize outside of groups like fraternities and sororities, and he also said a renewed emphasis on the humanities and arts can help students learn how to be more mindful of others. “In terms of potentially harmful behavior, it’s not directly going to stop it, but over time, hopefully it helps students to be more aware.”

A new study by economists at Union College in New York found, at one school, Greek membership lowered GPAs by 0.25 points, but raised future earnings by 36 percent. “It is difficult to tell whether fraternity membership decreases grades, and increases drinking and social networking, or whether low achieving, hard drinking and highly social students select into fraternities,” the study said. “The available evidence suggests causation likely runs in both directions.”

Lewis Davis, one of the study’s authors, said his study found alcohol didn’t have a significant impact on grades or later salaries. “You could do a lot to curb the role of alcohol in fraternities without greatly affecting their impact on social capital.” He also said he suspects fraternities are more beneficial to people who enter college without a lot of connections, as opposed to wealthier students who might already have family connections that could lead to jobs.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.