Penn State president issues threat to fraternities, sororities

Last Updated Apr 13, 2017 3:48 PM EDT

Fraternities and sororities could disappear from Penn State University.

The university’s president used an open letter to slam years of bad behavior by students in the Greek system, citing alcohol abuse, hazing and sexual assault.

The school has faced intense scrutiny since February when sophomore Timothy Piazza died following what a Penn State official called a fraternity hazing ritual involving heavy drinking.  

Penn State’s impressive fraternity and sorority homes are a symbol of long standing tradition. Seventeen percent of the university’s students are members of Greek life, reports CBS News correspondent Michelle Miller.

The school tightened up its party policy earlier this year by banning kegs and hard liquor at parties. It also started unannounced compliance checks, among other things.

In an open letter posted online Monday, Penn State president Dr. Eric Barron said despite the guidelines, “nine of the university’s 82 fraternities and sororities” broke rules during parents weekend. There are signs that the “bad behavior will not end with our rules” and will “just go underground,” he wrote.

“Never in a million years are they going to close those fraternities down,” said Caitlin Flanagan, a contributing editor to The Atlantic.

“College presidents, they have almost no power. The fraternities are privately-owned organizations, they take place off campus in privately owned houses on privately held land,” Flanagan said.  

According to Penn State, Greek life community members at the college are “four times more likely to be heavy drinkers” and sorority women are “50 percent more likely” to be “sexually assaulted.”

Penn State frat suspended after student's death

In February, sophomore Timothy Piazza fell down a flight of stairs at a pledge party at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house and died two days later.

A school offical described a “hazing ritual” at the frat that night involving “the gross misuse of alcohol” where students “were compelled to ingest enormous amounts of alochol.” Penn State banned the chapter after the incident.

In 2015, the fraternity Kappa Delta Rho received a three-year suspension for hazing, selling drugs, underage drinking and harassing women. 

The problem goes beyond Penn State. Conor Donnelly, a student at Binghamton University in New York, died while climbing a balcony during a frat party in March. Last fall, Jeffny Pally, a sorority member at the University of Connecticut, was run over and killed after leaving a frat party.

“I’d love to see a college president really take a stand against this but you know the leadership has to come from inside the fraternities themselves,” Flanagan said.

In a statement to CBS News, Penn State’s interfraternity council executive board addressed President Barron saying they want to work with him on these issues, but they also expressed disappointment that he chose to write an open letter and post it online rather than talking to the Greek community first.

This story has been updated to include Penn State’s characterization of the events at Beta Theta Pi.