Where Does Greek Life Stand in the Wake of Tragedy?

A Question of Morals: Greek Life in the Wake of Tragedy

On a dark night in February, a young man who joined an organization that promised fun, growth, and connections was found dead. Eight members of the Penn State fraternity Beta Theta Pi were just charged this month for the manslaughter of nineteen-year-old Timothy Piazza, who died due to traumatic brain injury from several falls and a dangerously high blood alcohol content level. His death was not simply an unfortunate accident, but a direct result of reckless conduct from the fraternity.

With this tragedy, Penn State is being forced to take a hard look at the environment which allowed this fatal incident to occur. Their current revamping of their Greek system is bringing into question whether these organizations are worth the risk to the student body – not just at Penn State, but at colleges and universities across the country.

However, while there is no doubt that the traditional aspects of partying, rites of passage, and peer pressure can contribute to the intense atmosphere of fraternities and sororities, these aspects are usually are not deadly. Incidents such as these are tragic extremes that occur when individuals are irresponsible within the community which seeks to give students a challenging and rewarding college experience.

Of course, the goal of a Greek organization is to promote a safe and welcoming environment. It provides a sense of being part of something large and influential. It’s socially beneficial, providing a support system that is literally deemed your second family while you are away from your own. It’s tragically ironic that its reputation has spiraled into the exact opposite in this modern age.

The environment of drinking and hazing that routinely goes on in Greek organizations, prominently in the fraternities, can transform into a dangerous climate of hyper-masculinity that pushes bodies beyond what they can handle. However, this is not the only place where this environment exists. College life in general, whether you belong to a certain group or not, subjects its students to the dangers of peer pressure. Parties exist beyond Greek Life that push students into dangerous territory of abusing substances.

The problem at hand is the individuals within the specific environment. While Greek Life does its best to cultivate “upright” members that fit their community standards, these standards can vary widely. I have experienced the party atmospheres both inside and outside the Greek community at UCI. I have seen instances of peer pressure and dangerous activity in both. The difference I’ve noticed at UCI is the tight, supportive Greek life community that is cultivated here. While questionable behavior may occur, it is clear that safety is a top concern for Greek life organizations at UCI, and they accomplish this by being a community that looks out for its members in any possibly hazardous setting.

But this is just one school. While organizations here may look for loyal, morally upright students, that does not mean other fraternities do the same or notice when a student with questionable judgement joins their organization. The death of Timothy Piazza, and similar incidents, were due to a lack of action and character on behalf of its members, not the structure and goals of Greek life itself. While tragedies such as these are not to be minimized, I believe it is fair to only blame those at hand for neglecting to get Piazza the proper help he needed to survive instead of the organization as a whole. Their specific environment may have been toxic due to the character of these men, but for every toxic Greek environment there is one that has given a young student a safe and welcoming home. To consider getting rid of Greek life as a whole would be to unfairly generalize an experience that has produced millions of positive outcomes.

Claire Harvey is a second-year literary journalism major. She can be reached at cpharvey@uci.edu