I am a member of the teaching faculty at Penn State. I work with incredible researchers and scientists and interact on a daily basis with talented and hard-working students. I love my job and my university for many reasons, but this cannot deter me from questioning Penn State when I believe its actions contradict the university’s long-held values of respecting and protecting its students.
On February 8th, Penn State and the Intrafraternity Council (IFC) agreed to suspend all social activities until further notice. The University’s official statement continues:
This suspension will continue while the University, the IFC and its chapters, relevant alumni and national fraternity organizations, the Panhellenic Council, and the Borough of State College determine significant changes in social policies and practices for these groups. Recent events, including a tragic student death associated with activities in a fraternity house, as well as growing allegations of misconduct in these organizations, including hazing and sexual assault, compel this joint action.
Social activities are defined in the statement as: any activity sponsored by a chapter or its members, on or off chapter property, where alcohol is present, regardless the source, including third-party vendors.
This suspension appears to come as a direct result of the death of a male student on Feb. 2, 2017, who fell down a flight of stairs at a fraternity party and did not receive medical attention until the following morning. The death of this young man is indisputably a tragedy: for his family, for his friends, and for the Penn State community. Although I applaud my university for shutting down the IFC to examine the fraternal culture and seek significant changes to better protect its students, I also find myself asking the question: Why now?
Penn State continues to recover from the Jerry Sandusky scandal involving numerous counts of child sexual abuse occurring on campus. A variety of changes to campus culture occurred in the wake of these events, including mandatory child abuse trainings for faculty and staff, the active recruiting of faculty (including in my own department of HDFS) who study child maltreatment prevention, and the creation of the Network on Child Protection and Well-Being. Similarly, Penn State responded to its investigation of Title IX violations (related to the handling of sexual assault cases) by initiating a Task Force on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment and creating the Office of Sexual Misconduct Prevention and Response. Although these actions will certainly advance the safety of the community and student body, I strongly believe Penn State had clear evidence that its fraternity culture required significant intervention as well.
In the summer of 2015, one Penn State fraternity was suspended until 2018 and some of its members expelled from the fraternity for hosting a Facebook page where photos of naked and unconscious undergraduate women were posted with sexually explicit comments accompanying the photos. It’s important to note, though, that the men expelled from the fraternity received no sanctions on their standing as students in the University. They remained on campus, taking classes and participating in the social life of Penn State students.
Those who participate in the emergency alert system on campus, used for notifying subscribers of emergency events on campus, continue to receive regular ‘alerts’ that a sexual assault has occurred on campus or in an non-campus fraternity house. Since the beginning of Spring semester on January 9, 2017, there have been 14 reported sexual assaults at the University Park campus. According to Penn State’s annual crime report, provided in compliance with the Clery Act, there were 15 on campus and 12 non-campus reported rapes in 2014 and 31 on campus and 20 non-campus reported rapes in 2015. The Clery Report for 2016 data is not yet available, but the Centre Daily Times reports that by Dec. 21, 2016, 34 reports of on-campus sexual assault had been made for that year. Although some of this reporting increase can be explained as a result of increased awareness of sexual assault, the steady climb over three years remains concerning, especially considering that Penn State initiated a prevention program for sexual assault around the same time.
Penn State rolled out their Stand for State initiative, implementing the Green Dot bystander training (a program whose efficacy in preventing sexual assault is promising, though not yet ‘effective’ according to CDC guidelines), in Spring semester 2016 as a prevention program for sexual assault on campus. As I was teaching a course on College Student Life, I sought out a representative from Stand for State to come and present to my students about their intervention. I was eventually connected with a staff member with the alumni association who came and provided an abbreviated training for my students. The presentation involved a video demonstrating bystander techniques used from a program implemented in New Zealand. Admittedly, I was taken aback at the lack of organization and staff support for the program. There are over 45,000 undergraduates at Penn State’s University Park campus who stand to benefit from this training. Even now, a year later, it appears there is only one woman heading up this program, and the website for the initiative remains relatively bare and uninformative. I’ve encountered anecdotal evidence that Stand for State is collaborating with Penn State’s fraternities and sororities to organize trainings, but I was unable to find any official documentation of this partnership.
Although Penn State is taking steps in a direction of creating a safe environment for its students, I am still startled to see the death of a young man be the trigger for finally reevaluating the fraternity culture at the university. The numerous sexual assaults, the expulsion of a fraternity for their criminal behavior, and the national attention brought to the inequity of sexual assaults on campus against women were not enough to encourage Penn State and the IFC to push for a cultural shift.
It took the death of a male student.
Again, I don’t want to belittle the life lost by this young man. What I do want to point out is how my university’s failure to take strong action to address the problems in the fraternity system belittles the victimization of their female students who were assaulted and raped in these institutions.
In my opinion, this suspension and reexamination should have already happened. And if it had, it’s highly likely that the young man who died would still be alive.
Sarah K. Stephens is a developmental psychologist and a senior lecturer at Penn State University. Although Fall and Spring find her in the classroom, she remains a writer year-round. Her short stories and essays have appeared in LitHub, The Millions, National Book Critics Circle: Critical Mass, Five on the Fifth, The Indianola Review, and (parenthetical). Her debut novel, A Flash of Red, was released in December 2016 by Pandamoon Publishing.