In a two-sentence email on Thursday, Bloomsburg University President Bashar Hanna told students that the university terminated its program for fraternities and sororities, and is “severing ties” with the national and international organizations that currently have chapters at the Pennsylvania campus.
The announcement gave no explanation for the decision, and Tom McGuire, director of communications at the university, declined to provide one. The decision came the week after Leah Burke, a sophomore and member of a sorority, died on May 8, causing students, alumni and fraternity and sorority affiliates to speculate about the incident. But McGuire wrote in an email that a university investigation into her death is “not related to Greek life.” He said university will put out more information “when it is appropriate.”
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, a county coroner said Burke’s death “is not considered suspicious,” was not “trauma related” and that “nothing nefarious was involved.” The coroner is investigating whether Burke had a possible undiagnosed medical condition, the Inquirer reported. Another student and fraternity pledge, Justin King, died in September 2019 after he attended a party hosted by a sorority, and King’s mother alleged in an ongoing lawsuit that he was coerced to drink “life-threatening amounts of alcohol,” the Inquirer reported. The fraternity involved was removed from campus and the sorority was suspended, the newspaper reported.
The sweeping decision to eliminate fraternities and sororities on campus was a long time coming, students and alumni said. Some students on social media praised the move, which came after several organizations were suspended and removed for violating the student code of conduct and anti-hazing policy.
“About damn time,” one 2020 graduate wrote on Twitter in response to Hanna’s announcement.
The public relations chair of Delta Pi, a fraternity on campus, said the organizations were told by the director of fraternity and sorority life at the beginning of the semester that if one more conduct violation were to happen, it would be “the last straw.” But it’s unclear to the members what the last straw was because of how little information the university is sharing, said the Delta Pi chair, who did not want his name used.
“We all knew it was going to happen,” he said. “Give us some more insight. We need a story, we need something. We can’t just take this and have no say.”
Earlier this year, the university cut ties with two fraternities and a sorority that had previously been suspended for violating conduct policies for students and student organizations, including the anti-hazing policy, which is modeled after Pennsylvania’s landmark anti-hazing law. All fraternities and sororities were placed on probation in December 2019, and this semester, the university extended that period until spring 2022, warning students that any infraction by the remaining organizations would result in disaffiliation, or removal of their official university status, according to a January press release by McGuire.
Despite a plan put forward by the university to reform fraternities and sororities months after King’s death, students in the organizations “nevertheless continue to make poor choices that are negatively impacting the university community and placing concern that their actions will jeopardize the health and well-being of BU students and have a negative impact on the community at large,” the press release said.
However, for other Bloomsburg fraternity and sorority affiliates off campus, such as leaders from the organizations’ international and national headquarters, the decision to remove the groups seemed out of the blue and extreme.
Nicole DeFeo, international executive director of Delta Phi Epsilon, a sorority with a chapter on campus, said she was “taken by surprise.” Bloomsburg administrators did not reach out to the sorority’s headquarters to talk about the decision or what led up to it, DeFeo said. Leaders at the National Panhellenic Conference, an umbrella organization that governs 26 sororities, including Delta Phi Epsilon, found out about the decision through sorority leaders and students who forwarded Hanna’s email, she said.
“I’ve been working in this role for almost 15 years and this is the first campus that we have been on that had a unilateral closing down of Greek life,” DeFeo said. “It really did come from left field for us. There was no olive branch extended to have a conversation about reform.”
The North American Interfraternity Conference, a similar umbrella organization for 58 fraternities, said the decision came “without meaningful dialogue or collaboration” between the university and national leaders, said a statement emailed by Todd Shelton, a spokesman for the conference. The conference’s leaders were disappointed, the statement said.
“Fraternities are a flourishing part of the community on hundreds of campuses across the United States and provide structure, rules of conduct and discipline for members,” the conference’s statement said. “Fraternities can, and do, operate successfully without university affiliation while continuing to hold individuals accountable to health and safety standards.”
In response, McGuire said “This was an administrative decision and we have no further comment.”
Some alumni of fraternities at the campus were outraged by the decision, such as Scott Johnson, an 1988 alumnus and founder of the alumni association for the Zeta Psi fraternity chapter at Bloomsburg. Johnson, who served as an adviser to the fraternity in the past, said the student members are “confused, scared and intimidated” by the termination.
He could see the decision coming, not only because of the deaths, but because of how administrators have universally punished all fraternities and sororities on the campus for the actions of some members. The university’s student code of conduct includes a policy that prohibits students from engaging with suspended or unrecognized fraternities and sororities, which can include attending events or social gatherings sponsored by the suspended group. Johnson said the policy has disrupted the activities of the non-suspended groups -- like Zeta Psi -- over the last year and a half as well.
“If one violates something, they’re all out. To me that’s ridiculous,” Johnson said. “We try to talk to them, guide them, keep their noses clean and do things right. But there’s such a stigma that no matter what they do, they’re just going to throw them out.”
Dave Decoteau, a 1986 alumnus and member of the Delta Pi fraternity at Bloomsburg, said for more than a decade, he sat on several university committees that were aimed at solving some of the pervasive issues in the fraternities and sororities.
Decoteau said hazing became a particular focus in 2018 after the passage of the state’s anti-hazing law, which is named for Timothy Piazza, a Pennsylvania State University sophomore, who was pledging a fraternity and died after a night of hazing. The law made hazing a felony in the state if it results in serious injury or death, closely defines what constitutes as hazing and requires that colleges in the state publicly post anti-hazing policies and report hazing violations.
But Decoteau believes that the law and university policy that followed it have limited Greek life activities too much and put “a target” on the backs of fraternity members. Students are discouraged from taking leadership positions within the organizations because of the additional scrutiny of their behavior and instead of bringing in promising students, the groups are “attracting mediocre men,” who see the fraternities as drinking clubs, he said.
“We’ve been screaming really hard for the past 10 years about hazing and curtailing the activities, but are the numbers really going down? Is drinking down? Are fewer people going to the hospital?” Decoteau said. “From what I can gather, it looks like more kids are getting hurt.”
“This is not to say that Greek life doesn’t have warts,” he added. “There’s definitely problems and if someone says there aren’t, they’re lying to you.”
Stevan Veldkamp, executive director of the Piazza Center for Fraternity and Sorority Research and Reform at Penn State, which is led by student affairs officials and studies the organizations and solutions to misconduct, said in an email that campus-wide moratoriums have been some administrators’ approach to hazing issues. “But we do not know if they actually deter or exacerbate bad behavior,” he said.
“Holding other groups accountable based on labels seems erroneous unless there is evidence that they are somehow part or party to the negative behavior,” said Veldkamp, who is also special assistant to the vice president of student affairs at Penn State. “However, fraternities and sororities express community values affirming there should be a heightened concern for community behaviors.”
Decoteau anticipates a “chaotic period” as the groups reel from the termination. Johnson fears it will only cause the students to move “underground” into unaffiliated and secretive groups, which lack the university’s oversight and accountability measures. Veldkamp said the center has seen “rogue organizations” that continue after being removed from campus, but more research needs to be done on their behavior.
Johnson said some alumni who are attorneys have come forward offering pro bono services for students who are unfairly punished by the university. He believes the policies that sanction students for engaging with disaffiliated organizations violate the First Amendment -- Bloomsburg is a public university.
“As far as I’m concerned, someone should contact the ACLU,” Johnson said. “This is a very, very sad day. There’s going to be a lot of people who are angry about this. The school could have handled this another way.”