When Pennsylvania State University’s Board of Trustees meets this week to discuss possible changes to its fraternities and sororities, more than a couple of members of the Greek system will be at the table.
At least 14 of the 38 trustees were in fraternities or sororities as undergraduates, most of them at Penn State, and at least a handful of them have children who were members, the Inquirer has confirmed.
Several of them agreed to talk about their membership, how it led to lifelong friends, career enhancement, and leadership skills and how the death of a Penn State pledge in February has been particularly heart-wrenching. They also say they want to help the university’s fraternities and sororities find a way forward, serving as liaisons between the school and Greek system.
“I’m very pro-fraternity. I’m pro-Greek,” said former State Sen. Robert Jubelirer, an alumni-elected trustee who is a member of Beta Sigma Rho, now Beta Sigma Beta.
But Jubelirer, a 1959 Penn State graduate, said “the hazing part of it has got to change completely. I don’t want to hear from anybody [who says] ‘I had to go through it. So should they.’ Baloney! In some of those days, you didn’t have society as it is today or the access to hard liquor that seems to be more prevalent than ever.”
The debate on the Greek system ensues as the university continues to reel from the death of 19-year-old Tim Piazza following an alcohol-fueled pledge-night party Feb. 2 at Beta Theta Pi, which the university has since permanently banned. It also comes as the grand jury earlier this month handed up charges against the fraternity and 18 of its members and prepares to release a report that is expected to be highly critical of Penn State and its Greek system. The May 5 presentment already dealt a blow.
“The Penn State Greek community nurtured an environment so permissive of excessive drinking and hazing,” the presentment said, “that it emboldened its members to repeatedly act with reckless disregard to human life.”
Trustees who were interviewed acknowledged that changes are needed and endorsed most of the steps that the university already has taken, including limiting the number, size, and length of parties that can be held each semester.
Bill Oldsey, a 1976 Penn State graduate who was president of the Phi Kappa Theta fraternity, said he will volunteer to help change the system because it’s worth saving.
“This is a good-enough system that it attracted a kid of the high caliber and character of Tim Piazza,” said Oldsey, an alumni-elected trustee and an independent consultant in educational publishing. “Everything I heard about Tim Piazza and his family is that he was just a superb human being. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about this kid and his family.”
Just what new reforms the university administration will put forward at Friday’s meeting are uncertain.
“I’ve heard all kinds of dramatic … responses from people on what should be done,” said Robert Capretto, a gubernatorial-appointed trustee and 1968 Penn State graduate who belongs to Phi Gamma Delta. “You really have to assess it. Somebody drives down Main Street in Philadelphia — a drunk driver — and kills somebody, you can’t close all the bars, hotels, and restaurants in Philadelphia.”
But, he said, because of Piazza’s death, “I have to really look at this hard. … In the end, we’ll do the right thing.”
According to the grand jury presentment, Piazza was forced to drink large amounts of alcohol at stations in the frat house and later fell down a flight of stairs. No one called for emergency help until about 12 hours later, and in the interim, Piazza fell several other times, was slapped, had liquid poured on him, and was left to languish on a couch, the report said. Piazza died Feb. 4, having suffered a non-recoverable head injury, ruptured spleen, and collapsed lung. Fraternity members face charges including involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, hazing, and reckless endangerment.
Capretto, principal at the investment management group Oak Hill Holdings, and other trustees recalled what passed as hazing in their day. For some, it involved having to do push-ups or eating bad food. For others, it meant cleaning a gross section of the house or being awakened at odd hours. But they all emphasized that no alcohol was involved.
“It was just a rite of passage,” Capretto said.
That’s changed, Jubelirer, a lawyer, said: “It’s no rite of passage if you don’t live to tell about it.”
One challenge, Jubelirer said, is that upperclassmen move to apartments, leaving house leadership to freshmen and sophomores.
“I don’t know if there’s anything we can do, but it is an issue,” he said.
He plans to meet with undergraduate members of his fraternity to address alcohol abuse and hazing.
“The rules have changed,” he said. “People better understand that.”
He said he hopes all students get that message.
“If they haven’t learned anything from the loss of life,” he said, “then they put the entire Greek system at risk.”
Trustees emphasized all the good that fraternities and sororities do. They were the primary force behind the creation of Penn State’s renowned pediatric cancer fund-raiser, Thon, which is still heavily supported by Greek organizations and their alumni.
“We have decades-long friends who have a relationship with undergraduates because of sororities and fraternities and Thon,” said Ted Brown, an alumni-elected trustee and member of Theta Delta Chi. “And together, we’re helping to raise money for kids with cancer.”
Former board chairman Keith Masser, a member of Alpha Gamma Rho, touted the virtues of his experience in a 2014 fraternity magazine feature.
“Fraternity life provides a unique experience for young men in their college years in managing a business of their own and building bonds of friendship at the same time,” Masser told the magazine. “… being in the chapter also gave me a great sense of pride because of AGR’s agricultural roots and the importance of the [agriculture] industry to our country’s future. Being surrounded with a brotherhood of shared values and lack of entitlement philosophy helped me as well.”
Other board members with ties to the Greek system include Elliott W. Weinstein, Alpha Epsilon Pi; Ryan McCombie, Phi Delta Theta; Walter Rakowich, Pi Kappa Phi; Kay Salvino, Chi Omega; Robert J. Tribeck, Pi Lambda Phi; Richard Dandrea, Phi Gamma Delta; Dan Mead, Tau Kappa Epsilon; Russell Redding, Delta Theta Sigma; and Mark Dambly, Sigma Pi.
Brown, a 1968 graduate who was fraternity president, said his father and son-in-law were in fraternities and his two daughters in sororities. He said his fraternity-leadership experience got him his first job at IBM — and even more.
“I credit my fraternity experience with pretty much my whole career,” said Brown, who is in crisis management and communications and heads his own firm, “which gives you an idea about why I’m so passionate.”