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Streak of violations puts fraternities, sororities in spotlight

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POTSDAM - Hazing, underage drinking and an alleged sexual assault have village and SUNY Potsdam officials taking a hard look at the role fraternities and sororities play in the community.

The college created a Greek Life Task Force to try to find a solution to an alleged culture of bad behavior among student organizations.

The task force held its first public meeting on Monday to solicit feedback from students, staff and faculty. Most of those who attended were members of Greek organizations, defending their groups’ contributions to the college and the community.

“Folks spent a lot of time talking about the benefits they’ve had and the positive connections they have made,” according to professor Alan L. Hersker, chair of the task force.

Lately, those benefits have taken a backseat to reports of bad behavior.

The college is investigating four reported cases of hazing from last semester. The details are unknown, as the college cannot comment on ongoing investigations according to Julie M. Dold, assistant director of Student Life.

Since 2009, three of SUNY Potsdam’s Greek organizations have lost their recognition from the college.

Members of the Sigma Pi fraternity were charged with incidents of drug use and assaults before being banned in 2009. The Phi Chi Epsilon fraternity was also banned in 2009 for pledging new members and hosting a party with alcohol while under probation. The Psi Phi Delta fraternity was banned in 2011 for repeated hazing and alcohol violation.

In response to the rash of reported hazing incidents, SUNY Potsdam instituted a new set of temporary restrictions until a more permanent solution could be found.

“If we just keep doing the same thing over, we’re not going to see different results,” Ms. Dold said.

The restrictions state that the training period for prospective new members must last three weeks or less. Any pledging programs must take place between 9 a.m. and midnight on a public campus location, with plans for the events submitted to college officials beforehand.

Most Greek organizations have been working hard to make sure they stay within the guidelines, according to Ms. Dold, but the behavioral issues have not disappeared.

A female SUNY Potsdam student was allegedly sexually assaulted at an off-campus fraternity house last month. The identity of the fraternity has not been revealed, so it is unknown whether it is one officially recognized by SUNY Potsdam or Clarkson University.

Incidents with fraternities and sororities tend to occur in spikes and valleys, Ms. Dold said. The task force exists to cut down on the spikes.

It is not an easy task. Greek life has a longstanding culture, built up over decades at colleges nationwide.

“It’s hard to change systems,” Ms. Dold said.

The problem is a national one, and everyone is short on answers, according to Ms. Dold.

“The research on hazing prevention is very much behind the times,” she said.

The good work done by Greek organizations does not cancel out negative incidents, and vice versa, according to Ms. Dold.

“They are not mutually exclusive.”

Fraternities and sororities tend to donate a large portion of their time and money to service. SUNY Potsdam fraternities donated a collective $10,000 for the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life on campus last week.

The task force will spend the rest of the semester continuing to gather information about the impact fraternities and sororities have on the community. It will make recommendations to the college administration in May.

“That’s what our challenge is, to sift through all the different information available to us and try to get to the objective part of it all,” Mr. Hesker said.

“Based on the comments I heard last night, fraternities and sororities are willing to change,” he said.

Clarkson University has had fewer reported incidents of Greek misbehavior, although the Tau Delta Kappa fraternity was banned last year for repeated incidents of providing alcohol to minors.

Behavior among Greek organizations has been mostly good for the last few years, said Clarkson’s interim Dean of Students Stephen I. Newkofsky.

“We went through what it seems like SUNY is going through back in the late ‘90s,” he said.

At that time Clarkson put stricter rules in place. Over time the most troublesome groups were banned, with only those with a history of good behavior remaining.

“We all knew back then that the cream would rise to the top,” he said.

No matter what restrictions are put in place at the colleges, they have very little control over fraternities that operate without official recognition.

“Those groups are operating on their own agenda,” Ms. Dold said.

The village plans to crack down on these groups with a proposed change to village housing law. Under the current law, Greek organizations recognized by either a college or national organization are eligible to get village permission to live in a group home. The proposed update, which will be discussed by trustees Monday, would only allow groups recognized by the colleges to have a house in the village’s normal residential areas. Tau Delta Kappa is already at risk of losing its home at 29 Bay St., because it lost its college recognition status and is not recognized by any national organization.

The SUNY Potsdam Greek Life Task Force will hold its next public meeting at 6 p.m. May 6. All are welcome to attend.

Community members who wish to comment on the task force’s efforts can email GreekTaskForce@potsdam.edu.

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