With the legal ramifications of the death last year of a Pennsylvania State University freshman in a hazing incident at the campus’ now-defunct chapter of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity still being sorted out by the justice system, locals beginning their undergraduate studies in State College this month have been attentively following the news.
“It’s kind of hard to not pay attention to it,” remarked Zach Rudoy.
“I’ve been following the news very closely,” echoed Jacob Beiriger.
On Aug. 8, Joseph Ems Jr., a former Beta Theta Pi brother, pleaded guilty to charges including one count of hazing and one count of illegal conduct pertaining to alcohol. The charges were not related to the February 2017 death of Timothy Piazza, but instead concerned a 19-year-old student to whom Ems had given a bottle of vodka.
Ems was the second Beta Theta Pi defendant to plead guilty. In June, Ryan Burke became the first of the more than 20 defendants charged in the Piazza case to be spared jail time late last month when Judge Brian Marshall sentenced him to three months of house arrest, 27 months of probation and 100 hours of community service, and imposed more than $3,000 dollars in fines, according to the Centre Daily Times.
Burke pleaded guilty to nine charges, including four counts of hazing. The remaining defendants, who have pleaded not guilty, are scheduled to begin trial in February 2019.
While Rudoy and Beiriger have both followed the case, the incoming freshmen are divided on whether they will participate in Greek life on campus. Although Rudoy, a 2018 Mt. Lebanon High School graduate, doubts he will join a fraternity, Beiriger, a 2018 Winchester Thurston School graduate, is more committed to going Greek.
“I would like to,” said Beiriger, “I’m interested in Greek life, and just the general gist of it. I’m interested in the general brotherhood it gives you.”
Because of his dedication to hockey, “I’ll probably have a brotherhood of my own, and I might not have time for that,” said Rudoy, who plans on joining Penn State’s club team.
Despite their divergent likelihoods on joining a fraternity, both incoming freshmen claim old tropes regarding Greek life on campus no longer ring true.
“I feel like I’ve talked to a bunch of friends who go to Penn State, and they don’t see any of that extreme [hazing] ever. If you’re taking part in that, it’s equivalent to bullying and harassment,” said Rudoy.
Even at an orientation session earlier this summer, there was a “big emphasis” placed by Penn State representatives on the emergence of a new climate, said Beiriger.
Since Piazza’s death — which according to prosecutors, occurred less than two days after an initiation ritual in which Piazza was given 18 drinks in 82 minutes before falling down a flight of stairs — the university has spurred changes to its Greek life system, according to a statement from Penn State’s Board of Trustees.
When it comes to hazing and harmful initiation rituals, “if it’s public knowledge that you take part in those actions it’s not looked upon in great view,” said Rudoy. “People are starting to wake up and get their wits about them about how things should go about.”
“Frat life has changed and the whole vibe about it has changed,” he said.
In fact, there is even a “distinct possibility” that Greek life at Penn State could end, according to Eric J. Barron, the university’s president. In an April 2018 interview with The Chronicle of Higher Education, Barron said, “Certainly there are people out there saying, ‘What’s the value? Let’s just end it now.’”
At the time of the story, of the university’s 74 Greek organizations, 16 were out of commission due to suspensions, the report noted.
Yet, Barron added that while there are those seeking to terminate Greek life, “we’re also seeing a lot of houses modeling really good behavior and alumni groups that have said, ‘Not my house.’”
Before subscribing to a particular side in the Greek life divide, Beiriger said, people should approach the subject with an open mind. “People shouldn’t come in thinking it’s bad or thinking it’s good.”
The soon-to-be pre-med student said he’s adopting that kind of attitude.
“I am kind of going in with an open mindset, and not let other people influence [my] mindset about Greek life,” he said. “Make your own judgments. Don’t let other people make judgments for you.” PJC