PSU frat alum welcomes fewer parties, but not delayed recruitment

Fraternity House Deadly Fall
Jim and Evelyn Piazza stand by as Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller (left) announces the results of an investigation into the death of their son, Timothy Piazza, seen in photo at right.

When Pennsylvania State University announced this spring that it was reducing the number and size of parties that fraternities could host each semester, Ed Sidwell, secretary of a Penn State fraternity alumni association, wondered what took so long.

“We’ve been fighting for the last six or seven years to get some of the restrictions that Penn State is now imposing,” said Sidwell, a retired salesman from Bellefonte, Pa., who belongs to Sigma Nu.

His group, the Lion Fraternity Alumni Association, also provided input to a university task force on Greek life in 2015 and became frustrated when action was not taken, he said.

“Some of the parties were absolutely out of hand, and the fraternities themselves lost control,” he said. “The crowds would just ram the doors and barge right on through. Then you would have 1,200 people in a house that should only have 200.”

But he said one thing his members do not favor is the university’s decision to roll back recruitment to second semester of freshman year — and the possibility of delaying it until sophomore year.

“Some of the fraternities probably will not be able to survive that,” he said.

Sidwell said that many upperclassmen move out of fraternity houses and that if recruitment were delayed, that could mean too few students to fill the vacancies in the houses and result in financial problems.

But fewer parties, he said, would be welcomed.

On the books, each fraternity and sorority could host up to 45 parties per semester before Penn State reduced the limit to 10. It was one of several steps the school took in response to the death of sophomore Tim Piazza, who died after a Beta Theta Pi pledge night party, where, a grand jury report says, he was forced to consume large amounts of alcohol and later fell down stairs.

Sidwell said his association, which includes representatives of more than 20 Penn State fraternities, was bracing for the possibility that the university will ban alcohol permanently at events held by the school’s 83 fraternities and sororities. The university instituted a moratorium for the rest of the spring semester after Piazza’s death.

The board of trustees has scheduled a meeting for Friday to discuss and announce more changes to the Greek system. University officials have been mum on the changes they will propose.

Alumni, locally and nationally, are working with the university’s student-run Interfraternity Council on proposals to improve Greek life at the university, Sidwell said. Jim Edwards, president of the Lion Fraternity Alumni Association, declined to be interviewed, saying, “We are in the middle of some very critical work” and “have a tight deadline.”

Heather Kirk, chief communications officer for the North-American Interfraternity Conference, which also is helping, said last week the proposals were not ready for release.

Sidwell said that few fraternities — he estimates 10 percent — were responsible for the current problems, and that those guided by alumni who live in the State College area have done better.

Since 2015, there have been 170 chapter conduct cases among the university’s fraternities, Penn State has said. More than 40 percent of them were for infractions such as unregistered socials, use of glass bottles, failure to use wristbands, and lack of signs for exits or other areas in the fraternity house. The remaining citations run the gamut from serving minors, noise violations and multiple points of alcohol distribution to a lack of event monitors and two hazing violations, the school said.

Penn State permanently banned Beta Theta Pi after Piazza’s death, citing hazing, forced drinking and other illegal activity.

Eighteen Beta Theta Pi members were charged in Piazza’s death with offenses that include involuntary manslaughter,  aggravated assault, hazing, and reckless endangerment. Piazza died of a non-recoverable brain injury, ruptured spleen, and collapsed lung. No one called for emergency help for nearly 12 hours after he fell down the stairs on Feb. 2.

The grand jury faulted Penn State’s Greek community for nurturing “an environment so permissive of excessive drinking and hazing that it emboldened its members to repeatedly act with reckless disregard to human life.”

In another high-profile case, the university in 2015 revoked Kappa Delta Rho fraternity’s recognition for three years, citing hazing, underage drinking, and sexual harassment. James Vivenzio, a former member, is suing the university, alleging that it failed to act on his reports of hazing.

Vivenzio’s lawyer, Aaron Friewald, last week hailed a court ruling that allowed Vivenzio to proceed with fraud claims against the university and the Interfraternity Council.

“When you put this together with what the grand jury said about the environment and the culture, I think it’s a big deal,” Friewald said.

Penn State spokeswoman Lisa Powers said: “In every instance when Penn State is alerted to any allegations of hazing, the university takes immediate action to investigate and impose sanctions.”

Vivenzio maintained in his lawsuit that as a Kappa Delta Rho pledge in 2012, he was force-fed buckets of liquor mixed with urine, vomit, and hot sauce; made to guzzle hard alcohol until he vomited; burned on the chest with a cigarette; and beaten by a fraternity member after he failed to participate in a ritual.