Hundreds of fraternity freshmen, dressed up in coats and ties, sat quietly as a fellow University of Kansas student reminded them of a long tradition of achievement for KU’s fraternities — and warned them not to blow it.
“We graduate, we have better grades, we have higher retention, less drop out. That’s all great,” the speaker said. “But I’m here to give a news flash to some of you: None of that matters the second one person dies, the second one person is sexually assaulted or raped by one of our members, the second somebody has been hazed on our premises.”
The speech, delivered at banquet room in KU’s student union last week, came from junior Marty Sedlacek, president of the student-led Interfraternity Council, which governs the 22 fraternities there.
“Nobody cares about the endless community service or the money you’ve donated in philanthropy, or the grades you are getting or the job you have lined up out of college if any of that happens.”
Sedlacek wasn’t speaking at the invitation of the university but in partnership with the Kansas Fraternity Landlords’ League, a nonprofit made of up housing directors and Greek alumni associated with 11 of KU’s fraternities.
The league hosted the freshmen event, called Building Brothers, for the second year in a row.
The event comes as fraternities across the nation are under scrutiny following high-profile deaths involving hazing and alcohol abuse. Many KU fraternity leaders believe those tragedies elsewhere unfairly detract from the positive accomplishments Greek students bring to campus.
And it comes after the suspension of several KU fraternities for health and safety violations that sparked debate on campus about the best way to address conduct issues.
A couple hours down Interstate 70, the University of Missouri is working with fraternity and sorority leaders to reform the system.
At KU, new initiatives such as required training for fraternities and a new Greek advisory board may lead to new partnerships between university officials and the Greek system. But Greek alumni say they are still working to both inspire and police their own.
At its annual meeting with freshmen, the landlords league aims to reinforce high expectations. Last semester, its fraternities had an average grade point average of 3.1, slightly above the university’s average for undergraduate men. Almost 65 percent of fraternity men graduate in four years, compared to 42 percent of non-fraternity men.
“This is what you are going to be expected to achieve,” the league’s president, David Steen, told his fraternities’ newest members. “Fraternity and sorority members are supposed to be leaders, so when you make questionable decisions people notice.”
It’s a message members say is all the more important following a semester when university officials, fraternity executive officers and alumni butted heads about the “constitutionality” of a brief ban on Greek social activities.
In March, a few executive officers on the nine-member Interfraternity Council announced a temporary freeze on all social activities. Chancellor Douglas Girod swiftly endorsed the decision as a way to address “systemic problems related to student conduct” in the fraternity system.
But an interim council said the policy violated bylaws because it was not voted on by the General Assembly of fraternity leaders and had limited support from IFC executive board members.
The council revoked the freeze only four days after it was announced.
Instead, student leaders announced new initiatives related to “health, safety and wellness,” some of which will go into effect this semester, Sedlacek said.
KU’s Student Involvement and Leadership Center, which oversees fraternities and sororities, will review every IFC chapter’s new-member plans — activities pledges are expected to participate in before and after they join.
The chapters will undergo training through university programs about sexual assault and drug and alcohol abuse.
The university also plans to form an advisory board made up of Greek alumni and current leaders, student government officers and university officials that will allow those involved in the Greek system to communicate directly with school leaders.
Julie Murray, the chancellor’s chief of staff organizing that process, did not return an email asking for more information.
League leaders told The Star they do not wish any partnerships with the university like those at MU.
This year, Mizzou commissioned a task force of Greek stakeholders who announced a series of reforms that will dramatically alter fraternity traditions, if implemented.
The reforms include limiting freshmen from living in chapter houses and encouraging fraternities to no longer rush members before the school year begins. They are meant to mitigate risks of hazing and alcohol consumption.
KU’s league members say they hope for an improved relationship with the university. But as house directors with the power to evict and influence members, they say they will also continue to develop their own programs, like the Building Brothers event, to play their part in helping fraternity members make good decisions.
This year, they invited Darol Rodrock, founder and CEO of Rodrock Development, to speak about finding a family in the KU fraternity system after growing up in an abusive household, experiencing homelessness and entering foster care as a child.
Fraternity members also heard from Douglas County senior assistant district attorney CJ Rieg, who walked freshmen through local laws, particularly the amnesty law for those who call the police, cooperate with paramedics and remain on scene with someone in medical distress or danger.
“You are not going to get in trouble if you get your friend help,” Rieg said.
Two senior fraternity members spoke to freshmen as a condition of a diversion program following aggravated battery charges they received for beating up another student while drinking underage.
“It will be seared in my memory for the rest of my life, pretty much,” the senior pharmacy student told a crowd that had grown silent. “Think before you act. You never know what could happen.”