Unlike generations past, universities crack down on fraternity transgressions

Universities are punishing fraternities for actions that a generation ago were deemed acceptable

The images of higher education seared themselves into the consciences of several generations: bad boys acting out, drinking too much, using too much profanity, torturing pledges, besmirching women and insulting racial groups. In recent weeks and months, fraternities in Pennsylvania and Texas, Michigan and Tennessee have been punished for the types of behavior earlier generations might have found more tolerable

At Penn State University, police are investigating members of Kappa Delta Rho, which was suspended for a year after a Facebook page surfaced with images of nude and partly naked women. An informant told police the fraternity was "operating a private, invite-only Facebook page ... [where] members share photos of unsuspecting victims, drug sales, and hazing," according to a warrant in the case.

Fraternity members knew they were running a risk, according to comments in the warrant. The members joked about the women and their state of undress.

"Lol delete those or we will be on CNN in a week," one member wrote in the group.

"373,217 views. All from us," said another one.

"Make that 373,218," another replied.

Times have changed, and educators around the nation have taken notice and have acted accordingly.

"The evidence offered by the Facebook postings is appalling, offensive and inconsistent with the university community's values and expectations," Damon Sims, vice president for student affairs at Penn State, said in a statement.

The university is working with the fraternity's national headquarters to determine whether Kappa Delta Rho will have a presence at Penn State in the future, according to Penn State President Eric Barron.

"It also brings us to a point where we must ask if a reevaluation of the fraternity system is required," Barron said in a statement. "Some members of the University senior leadership believe it is, and we are considering our options."

The Penn State fraternity suspension announced Tuesday came eight days after the University of Oklahoma's Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter was banned from campus because their members sang a racist chant against African Americans that was posted online. The SAE episode, which caused a national uproar, cast a spotlight on issues of racism and misconduct at fraternities.

Because fraternities were formed to be exclusive, they developed a "we versus they mentality," said Nicholas Syrett, author of "The Company He Keeps: A History of White College Fraternities."

"Most frats were originally all white," he said in an interview. "When students of color came to universities, many groups wrote clauses to bar them from membership. And while the clauses are gone, some remain all white."

On Wednesday, national leaders of the embattled SAE fraternity announced they would create a confidential hotline for reporting racist incidents such as the chant that thrust the group's OU chapter into the spotlight.

The hotline was part of a package of new diversity initiatives announced in Chicago by SAE Executive Director Blaine Ayers, who oversees 15,000 undergraduate fraternity members, 3% of whom are black.

"Now we must begin a task of seeking forgiveness and taking steps to ensure that this never happens again," Ayers said Wednesday at a televised news conference.

OU officials almost immediately threw out the 163-member SAE chapter after the racist video emerged March 8. University President and former Oklahoma Gov. David Boren, responding swiftly to his own outrage as well as to growing national scorn, expelled the two men identified as leaders of the chant, despite skepticism from legal experts who thought the racist song was protected by the 1st Amendment. The chapter has since retained Stephen Jones, the high-powered attorney who once represented Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh.

At Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, officials were investigating an incident last weekend involving three swastikas spray-painted at the house of the Jewish fraternity, the Tau chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi.

The incident is being investigated as a hate crime, school spokesman Jim Patterson told The Times on Wednesday. No arrests have been made.

According to the school, the vandalism took place between 1:55 and 3:22 a.m. on Saturday; two swastikas were spray-painted in the elevator and another on a basement door. The vandalism was discovered after a party at the fraternity house that attracted a number of people, mostly students.

"Regardless of who is responsible and what the motivation was, the university condemns the reprehensible depiction of this symbol that since the time of Nazi Germany has come to be associated with hate, anti-Semitism, violence, death and murder," Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Susan Wente said in a statement released Monday.

"We understand the anguish and pain that this hateful symbol causes, and we stand together to condemn any effort to intimidate or send an unwelcoming message to the Jewish members of the Vanderbilt community. We seek the perpetrators so that they may be held accountable and learn that this behavior is simply not tolerated at Vanderbilt."

At the University of Michigan, the Sigma Alpha Mu chapter was banned and a sorority and four other Greek organizations were sanctioned after the university determined they were involved in causing more than $100,000 in damage in January at two ski resorts in northern Michigan.

Even how fraternities recruit their members has come under fire, with complaints about unsafe rituals.

At the University of Houston, the Epsilon Xi chapter of the Sigma Chi fraternity was suspended after a hazing incident at the school. Five students have been suspended as well, university President Renu Khator said in a statement released Tuesday.

"Let me be clear, hazing is a criminal act, and consent is not a defense," Khator said. "Failure to report hazing also is a criminal offense and a violation of university policy. Those who engage in such reckless and immature behavior will be punished to the full extent of the law and in accordance with university policies."

matt.pearce@latimes.com | Twitter: @MattDPearce

sarah.parvini@latimes.com | Twitter: @ParviniParlance

Times staff writer John M. Glionna contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

4:37 p.m.: This story was updated with comments from Penn State President Eric Barron.

This post was originally published at 7 a.m.

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