In just over one month, 30 fraternity chapters have been suspended or closed

Experts cite move toward 'zero-tolerance' punishments

Since the beginning of March, 30 fraternity chapters have been shut down by their national office or university for conduct violations, Huffington Post's Tyler Kingkade reports.

Some chapters are suspended for just a short time until school and police investigations conclude, while others face longer bans lasting two to three years. A handful of chapters lost their charters, meaning they will have to earn new endorsement from their schools and national offices in order to reopen.

It is difficult to compare how many institutions are punishing Greek organizations today compared with previous years, says Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA. But anecdotally, he says, schools were more likely a decade ago to discipline chapters through educational programs rather than suspending or disbanding them.

This school year has been an "unusually strong season" for fraternity closures, says Peter Lake, director of Stetson University College of Law's Center for Higher Education Law and Policy. "It's some of the most challenging leadership decisions a generation of college presidents has faced," he says.

This is possibly because the prevalence of the Internet means fraternity member misbehavior is easier to catch—and spread beyond locals, experts say.

"The smart-ass comment you might have said over the telephone and [that would go] away because no one remembered it, is now being perpetuated out there for a long, long time and is easy to distribute to others who were never supposed to hear the asinine comment," says Tim Burke of Fraternal Law Partners.

Today, administrators show a movement toward "zero tolerance" policies, Kruger says, adding that in light of an incident, "schools will be acting quickly because they have a liability and repetitional (sic) risk, and they'll be acting fairly severely.

"People feel a pressure to respond and to respond in a way that's not seen as white-washing," Lake says.

The swift, harsh actions from administrators have been met with a variety of responses, from calls for stricter punishments to assertions they overstepped their authority.

Most notably, when a video went viral depicting members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon's (SAE) University of Oklahoma (UO) chapter signing a racist chant, OU president David Boren permanently closed the chapter and expelled two students.

President Obama weighed in, praising Boren's "quick reaction," but so did free speech advocates who say the expulsions violated students' constitutional rights.

Continually addressing issues

While some have called for dissolving the entire fraternity system, the organizations are protected by the constitutional right to free association, say Douglas Fierberg, an attorney who has represented hazing and sexual assault victims in lawsuits against houses.

"So the question is, how can they be effectively regulated?" asks Fierberg.

It is difficult for national officers to constantly monitor all of their chapters all of the time, acknowledges Burke.

Racism, sexual assault, hazing, and binge drinking are not unique to Greek life, but they are issues leadership must address, says Pete Smithhisler, president of the North-American Interfraternity Conference. And while "the vast majority" of fraternity members have positive experiences, Smithhisler says, "We must continually re-education our members... what the expectations are."

"We're so quick to denigrate and say, 'you're horrid,' 'you're a racist,' 'you're a bigot and sexist,' even though there's truth to that we raised the kids to be that way," says Jason Lake a professor at San José State University (Kingkade, Huffington Post, 4/7).

The takeaway: Fraternities are coming under harsher punishments as the Internet more broadly and quickly spreads conduct infractions and presidents move towards zero-tolerance policies.

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