Critics say fraternities are beyond hope. Mizzou is trying to prove them wrong

When the calls came in the middle of the night, Devin Tarantino braced himself for a crisis at a fraternity.

A police officer busted a party and is arresting people. What do we do?

We’re calling an ambulance for the guy who came back to the house obliterated.

How do you control a party that’s grown to 500 people in less than an hour?

It was the spring of 2017, and Tarantino was serving his first semester as president of the student-led Interfraternity Council that governs 27 of the University of Missouri’s fraternities.

The fraternity leaders who would frantically call him were 19-, 20-, 21-year-old men, expected to keep hundreds of fraternity members in compliance with university rules while living in multimillion-dollar mansions that the university does not own or control.

But the last place any of them would look to for help was the university itself, an imposing entity that seemed to only pay attention to Greek students when it was out to discipline them.

The dynamic, Tarantino worried, could doom them. High-profile deaths involving Florida State and Penn State fraternities had spooked Greek leaders trying to prevent similar tragedies. But student efforts were failing to temper a growing problem with unregistered house parties and unchecked drinking.

So when new leadership at the university initiated a sweeping reform effort, Tarantino says he was cautiously open to change.

“It was a two-way street,” said Tarantino, a New York native who helped found the MU chapter of Delta Kappa Epsilon his freshman year. “If we don’t have a relationship with the university and they don’t have a relationship with us, the whole situation can really start to volcano. … I think in a lot of ways we need each other.”

Tarantino’s philosophy, for some, was a betrayal. That fall, fraternity men would approach him on campus or at bars around Columbia.

“You’re killing us,” they’d say.

Was he?

As classes are set to resume at the University of Missouri, students have been moving back into Frat Row, aka College Avenue in Columbia. Rich Sugg rsugg@kcstar.com

While some critics have called for the death of fraternities, MU says reforms will ensure its Greek system survives a national reckoning.

Last month, an advisory board convened by new leadership in the MU Chancellor’s Office released a series of recommendations that would transform the Interfraternity Council’s fraternities.

“There was concern that the university was looking for a reason to shut down, to eliminate the Greek system,” said Interim Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Gary Ward, who commissioned the advisory board. “Which is just the opposite. It is to save it. To further it. To set it in a position where it’s not in jeopardy.”

Greek reform, particularly for the nation’s historically white social fraternities, has challenged and perplexed universities across the country. Some say it’s a futile pursuit.

Yet MU’s Greek system, unlike most, faces two additional obstacles that could make reform daunting:

First, like the University of Kansas but unlike many other universities across the country, Mizzou does not own or control fraternity and sorority houses. Most are owned by housing corporations run by Greek alumni with both personal and economic reasons for preserving Greek life.

Second, those housing corporations have banded together to advocate for fraternities and sororities, making them a powerful force with real influence over their future.

“We don’t have as much authority as other institutions may have,” acknowledged Mizzou’s Dean of Students Jeffrey Zeilenga.

These splintered power dynamics mean that while national governing organizations, alumni-landlords and the university all influence fraternities and sororities, none can act alone to reform the system.

The setup requires a buy-in from the university’s 7,200 Greek members — particularly the IFC fraternities, which consultants identified as most at risk for alcohol and substance abuse and hazing.

“We cannot continue doing the things the way we are doing them right now,” Ward told The Star earlier this year. “But those decisions cannot be made from my desk. They need to be made in a very collaborative, open process.

“It has to be students. It has to be the alums. It has to be the advisers. It has to be owners of the houses.”

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Gary Ward, vice chancellor for operations and interim vice chancellor for student affairs University of Missouri

All parties have a vested interest in preserving the 149-year-old Mizzou Greek system, even if they haven’t historically agreed on how to do it.

The result of Ward’s efforts — a Fraternity and Sorority Advisory Board made up of 40 Greek student leaders, landlords, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, national leaders and university officials — last month released 18 pages of recommendations based on six months of study on how to make the Greek system safer and more inclusive.

“I don’t think I’m embellishing if I said to you that there are more changes being proposed in this report than probably have happened in 50 years or more for fraternity and sorority life on this campus,” said Zeilenga, who chaired the advisory board. “When we implement the approved parts of this report, we really will be a strong national model for what fraternity and sorority life should look like.”

The report includes diversity initiatives and policy changes for social events and academics in the four-pronged Greek system: the historically white Interfraternity Council fraternities and Panhellenic Association sororities, the historically black National Pan-Hellenic Council fraternities and sororities, and the Multicultural Greek Council chapters.

But many of the recommendations uproot traditions held by Interfraternity Council men:

The proposals would allow only exemplary houses to have live-in freshmen. And no pledges could move in before they are initiated.

MU would review any pledge initiation activities and cap them at six weeks.

Amnesty could be granted for those who report violations such as hazing.

As the new school year begins, the university will collect feedback from Greek students and look to implement some or all of these recommendations as soon as 2019. But a final question remains:

Will fraternities — with origins in secret societies formed to buck university influence — sacrifice tradition for the sake of survival?

“I hope there’s buy-in on it,” current IFC president Jake Eovladi said during the task force’s first meetings. “If no one follows it, it’s just a waste of time.”

Even Tarantino, who served on the Fraternity and Sorority Advisory Board this spring, at times wonders just how quickly Mizzou fraternities will budge.

“There’s so much change in such a little bit of time,” Tarantino said. “That’s a short amount of time compared to how long Greek life has been on campus. That’s going to be tough.”

Passion and power

Ward had been interim vice chancellor of student affairs for less than a week in May 2017 when he said he was flooded by a “tsunami” of messages about Greek life.

The Greek Life department, marred by budget cuts and dysfunction, had two staff members to handle 7,200 students. Greek house landlords told the university they were having trouble finding insurance providers.

Some thought the Greek system was spiraling toward tragedy.

Others thought school officials had neglected their relationship with Greek students and alumni, failing to support the students who consistently produce massive philanthropies, Mizzou Homecoming events, academic accolades and campus leadership.

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Devin Tarantino, former president of MU’s Interfraternity Council, and Gabrielle Gresge, former president of the Panhellenic Association, pictured here as part of the Greek Week Royalty Court. From Devin Tarantino

“Over the past few years, I fielded many concerns from alumni about the status of Greek life at Mizzou,” a school official wrote to Ward. “The prevailing thought is MU treats Greek life like a liability instead of the asset it could be/is for Mizzou.”

For Ward, it was a visceral reminder of the passion and power behind Mizzou’s fraternities and sororities, with their network of more than 40,000 alumni, as well as the problems that might crop up in any large institution: infighting, conflicting interests and disorganization.

“We have a very strong and vocal student population. We have a strong and vocal administration. And a strong and vocal alumni base,” said former Panhellenic Association President Gabrielle Gresge. “Sometimes those groups work in perfect harmony. And sometimes they don’t.”

At the same time, tragedies involving fraternities continued to capture the nation’s attention.

Last year at Penn State University, a pledge with a blood-alcohol content four times the legal limit fell down the stairs twice and died on a fraternity house floor. His brothers continued to party around him and shoved a man who encouraged them to call for help.

A Florida State chancellor shut down all Greek activities after a new member died at a fraternity party.

In May 2017, Jim and Evelyn Piazza stood by prosecutors investigating the death of their son, Tim Piazza, seen in the photo. He died after a night of drinking at his Penn State fraternity. Centre Daily Times Abby Drey

Ward said he lost sleep wondering if Mizzou was primed for such a tragedy as he heard more concerns about the Greek system. He swiftly decided to hire a consultant to perform a risk assessment.

“I am having Student Affairs stuff come to me like trying to take a sip of water from an open fire hydrant,” Ward said. “And I wanted to know, at the University of Missouri, did I have a Greek Life system that was a bomb with the fuse lit?”

The $22,000 Dyad Strategies report, released in October, called the university’s Greek system dangerous. It was even uglier than some imagined. The report painted the IFC-governed fraternities as the Wild Wild West of drug abuse, hazing and drinking: unchecked, unsupervised and out of control. And it called the university’s Greek office dysfunctional and irrelevant.

Fraternity leaders read the consultant’s report for the first time in silence at a somber meeting in a Strickland Hall classroom, Tarantino said. Some wondered if fraternities’ days were numbered.

As the fraternities felt vulnerable and under attack, leaders reminded themselves of their own power, Tarantino said.

“The guys were scared and I was scared too for a bit,” Tarantino said. “We’re talking about 2,700 guys that are going up against a $3 billion enterprise.

“The only real asset we have is that we have a chapter house that isn’t owned by the university,” he said. “But the biggest thing we realized is that we have 30 chapters and the IFC and we can do this together.”

A university’s limited control

To understand the power that this system of governance affords its young participants and why university officials would want to bring students on board reform efforts, look no further than the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

Earlier this year, KU officials, concerned about hazing and excessive partying, quietly worked to persuade a few members of the council governing fraternities to invoke a freeze on social activities. But Greek leaders banded together and found the decision violated their bylaws. The housing corporations rallied behind them.

The freeze lasted four days.

Like KU, Mizzou may have the power to yank recognition from individual chapters, bar them from participating in campus Greek life and discipline them for infractions. But because it does not own the land or the houses that fraternities operate from, the university cannot directly enforce its rules, close chapter houses or evict members without the help of national headquarters or fraternity landlords.

Worse: Chapters that lose university recognition can continue to operate with the blessing of their national headquarters or housing corporations. They simply go underground, with even less oversight or regulations. Tragedy can still come back to tarnish the university.

It can be a confusing concept for those not familiar with the Greek system.

A Sigma Pi student reportedly almost died in a hazing case that prompted MU to withdraw its recognition of the chapter and ban it from returning. But in May 2017, a relative wrote to a Greek office official in dismay. How could the chapter still be operating and recruiting if it was no longer recognized by the university?

“After I explained to him how they were still able to operate without recognition from the university, he seemed to still be confused,” Office of Greek Life coordinator Jonathan Rummel wrote in a heads-up email to Ward.

More recently, the rising national attention on fraternities has prompted swift reaction from MU’s disparate parties.

National headquarters — fueled by public relations fiascoes, rising insurance rates and public pressure — closed fraternity chapters at unprecedented rates.

The national headquarters of Sigma Alpha Epsilon ordered its University of Missouri chapter to stop operating. File photo

Last school year alone, the national leaders of FarmHouse, Sigma Alpha Epsilon and Sigma Phi Epsilon closed their MU chapters after reports of alcohol and drug abuse and hazing.

MU leaders supported those decisions but are also trying less drastic measures, such as amnesty for individuals or chapters who work with the university to solve problems.

This year for the first time, Zeilenga said, the university sent amnesty letters to 12 fraternities suspected of violations. The advisory council later recommended that the university write that process into policy so students might be more willing to report wrongdoing.

“That’s why it’s part of the recommendations … to make sure that it’s an institutional policy,” said Kathryn O’Hagan, the assistant director of the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life. “So it’s not just a philosophy, it’s a procedure.”

Tarantino thinks the tactic could work in some situations — but only if the university makes good on its promise to work with students. “If it goes really well, that’s going to be a turning point.”

Officials have already enacted several ways to involve students. They’ve created a judicial board where fraternity and sorority members adjudicate low-level conduct violations. (The Office of Student Accountability & Support still handles the most severe allegations.)

They have hired three more staffers to the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life’s previously depleted staff of two.

They’ve created a scorecard so parents and potential recruits can easily find the academic and disciplinary history of the university’s chapters.

But the stakes are high. Sigma Phi Epsilon and Kappa Alpha are just two MU chapters that closed after students were injured in hazing activities. A lawsuit filed by two freshmen alleges that Sigma Phi Epsilon members beat and struck them as part of initiation rituals, causing brain trauma and a broken jaw.

Another lawsuit alleges that Kappa Alpha members did not seek medical help for a pledge who became severely intoxicated at the house, and instead placed a backpack on his back so he would not roll over and possibly choke on vomit in his sleep. Paramedics found him unconscious and foaming at the mouth when they were called the next morning.

Ward has made it clear that he will not hesitate to reevaluate compromises he has made with alumni and students — such as MU’s plan to allow exemplary fraternities to house freshmen — if student safety is in jeopardy.

Tradition, he said, will not trump student safety anymore.

“We need to take our head out of the sand and take a look and say there’s an issue,” Ward said. “We have to start addressing it, or we run the risk of losing it. And it’s just too important to lose.”

Will students buy in?

As a former president of his own fraternity, Tarantino said he experienced firsthand how juggling the expectations of universities, national fraternal organizations and Greek house landlords can swiftly put you at odds with some members who did not join these ancient brotherhoods to be told what or what not to do.

It’s this attitude that critics have argued makes Greek reform so difficult and prompted some critics to decry fraternities as beyond reprieve.

“To capitulate to the reasonable demands of outsiders would be to fundamentally change their culture, their role on campus, their very reason for existing. Avoiding risk and obeying common sense safety guidelines would undermine their fundamental character,” Lisa Wade, a college professor and author of “American Hookup: The New Culture of Sex on Campus,” wrote in a controversial piece for Time magazine earlier this year.

Tarantino calls the characterization “sweeping generalizations.”

“The rest of the chapter is studying, doing stuff like being involved on campus, starting clubs, whatever they are doing with their life,” said Tarantino, who co-founded his own real estate and property management company with a buddy last year and expects to graduate with a degree in hospitality administration/management this semester. “Those kinds of people aren’t speaking up because they are busy.”

University of Missouri’s fraternities and sororities are clustered in two areas in Columbia: Frat Row (pictured here), east of campus, and Greek Town on the west side. Rich Sugg rsugg@kcstar.com

But he said he also understands how fraternity men may never escape being judged collectively.

While he and other leaders think it’s worth losing some autonomy to improve the system, they know the average fraternity member may have a hard time adopting a new normal. Mizzou and national Greek experts say student buy-in is possible, even if total compliance is a challenging if not impossible standard.

Universities with model Greek systems have taken a collaborative, not an authoritative approach to reform, said national consultant Gentry McCreary, who wrote the Dyad Strategies report.

“For most students, knowing that their peers disapprove of their behavior is the most powerful motivator for behavioral change,” McCreary wrote in his blog. “If a student’s peers go out of their way to confront the student about their behavior, that conversation is much more likely to influence behavior than that student being punished by authority figures (even if the authority figures are, in fact, a student’s peers, as would be the case with a standards committee).”

The reform is also about making sure fraternities understand that in this age of social media, impropriety rarely remains a secret, said Jack Blevins, who served as the Mizzou IFC risk manager in 2017 and is now a graduate student.

“What was happening would have already been going to the university,” Blevins said. “They would have found out eventually. It’s a lot better to be proactive than reactive.”

He said keeping Greek students safe isn’t about “more or less rules and regulations.

“It’s about the right regulations. Putting up policies that don’t have a logical backing can create a lot of hostility in students’ minds.”

Will these?

The proposed limit on freshmen living in Greek houses was designed to prevent Greek burnout among upperclassmen and shield the youngest members from hazing. It comes with exceptions for houses with exemplary behavior and academics.

But the move could place economic constraints on smaller, newer houses that rely on freshmen paying to live in houses. And it would all but end the fraternal tradition of recruiting members out of high school.

The plan to address hazing by controlling pledge activities could also be a tough sell. Pledging traditions are not just ingrained in the fraternity experience but embraced by many members.

Greek organizations that have operated in independent silos may bristle at uniform rules limiting alcohol and social events. For some, rules exist to be broken. This spring, 12 fraternities were sanctioned for violating university policy.

Tarantino thinks progress and reform will be slow. Eventually, fraternity men who see the university as their adversary will graduate, and the school’s involvement in Greek protocols may begin to feel normal.

“It’s the best moving forward kind of deal. But it’s drastic. It’s necessary,” Tarantino said. “But it’s going to be tough to swallow.”

School leaders have said they cannot guarantee 100 percent success. The sheer scope of the economics behind Greek life, coupled with centuries-old traditions, makes student missteps certain.

They understand how important it is to make students safe. So that when students fail, it is not because of a culture of secrecy. So that fraternity members see that within the very real power they wield is the ability to ensure their own survival.

“If you don’t build that peer culture, I think you are going to struggle with everything else,” Zeilenga said. “You can’t have the adults in the room telling students how to behave in college. It doesn’t work like that.”

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