Texas State University lost two students in fraternity-related deaths over the past two years — not because the university’s rules allowed reckless bingeing on alcohol, but because the culture did.
This week, the university announced sweeping new policies for Greek organizations after the deaths of Matthew McKinley Ellis and Jordin Taylor. We welcome this more vigorous effort to prohibit underage drinking, but let’s not forget that Texas State already had such policies on the books. Bulking up the rulebook isn’t enough. Administrators must promote a culture shift by using new tools to publicly hold fraternities and sororities accountable and by imposing swift, serious penalties for students who endanger others.
Texas State suspended all Greek activities and launched its policy review after the November death of Ellis, a 20-year-old Phi Kappa Psi pledge who died of alcohol poisoning after an off-campus fraternity event. His autopsy revealed a shocking blood-alcohol level of 0.38, more than four times the 0.08 legal limit for driving.
Apart from the state laws and campus policies prohibiting underage drinking and providing alcohol to minors, Ellis’ death never should have happened: A week earlier, the fraternity’s national organization ordered its Texas State chapter to cease social activities because of an investigation into another complaint, the details of which have not been made public.
Ellis’ death came a year after Taylor, a 20-year-old member of the Alpha Delta Pi sorority, died after being hit and dragged by a bus outside a fraternity-sponsored Halloween party that drew up to 3,000 people to the Cool River Ranch in Martindale, a music and tubing venue where the alcohol flowed so freely that many students passed out or threw up at the event, according to a university memo. Tests showed alcohol and marijuana in Taylor’s system, according to reports, and her father later filed a $10 million lawsuit against four fraternities, the venue and the charter bus company.
Weeks earlier, the university had declined an application by three fraternities to host the event, saying it would be too large. It later allowed two organizations — Alpha Tau Omega and Pi Kappa Alpha — to host the event, but in reality, the party was also sponsored by Kappa Alpha Order, which was not allowed to host an event because it was not in good standing with its national organization, and Delta Tau Delta, which could only host alcohol-free events because it was on social probation, according to university memos. The fraternities ignored other Texas State rules limiting parties to two guests per member and requiring a guest list for admission when the event offers free access to alcohol.
The tragic deaths of Ellis, a sophomore majoring in business administration, and Taylor, a freshman studying respiratory care, were wholly avoidable. No parent should bring a son or daughter home from college in a casket.
Texas State’s new policies take an important step forward by creating a report card that will be posted on the university website for each fraternity and sorority. The report card will include the number of members, average GPA and information about any disciplinary findings. It will also provide information on the valuable contributions that many Greek organizations make: hours of community service provided, amount of money raised for philanthropic purposes, awards and other achievements.
This report card will provide greater transparency to prospective pledges and their parents, while also holding organizations accountable more publicly than ever before. Chapters with higher GPAs will be allowed to host more social events the next semester. Chapters that score too low on the report card overall will be suspended for the following academic year. The university could strengthen this effort by ensuring such a suspension would be noted on each member’s academic transcript.
The new policies include other positive efforts, such as banning hard liquor from fraternity houses, creating new training for prospective members, and requiring at least 75 percent of a chapter’s members to attend safety training before the organization can host an event.
These measures represent progress, but Texas State can do more. Texas State should define specific penalties that individuals and the chapter can expect if they are caught hazing or facilitating underage drinking. The promise of swift and certain punishments would be a powerful deterrent to dangerous behaviors. The current rules list penalties ranging from training to losing chapter status, leaving students to guess how seriously the university will treat a violation.
Finally, the university should encourage Greek organizations to eliminate pledging periods altogether. State law and campus policy already prohibit hazing. Campus policies are also clear that any recruiting or pledging events should be alcohol-free. Dropping the “new member education” period, which typically lasts from four to six weeks, would ease the temptation to hold such activities.
About 2,400 Texas State students — or roughly 6 percent of the university’s 39,000 students — belong to Greek organizations. Membership can have a sizable impact on those who belong, providing a social network, opportunities for service and leadership, and potential pathways to jobs.
Tragedy and death are rarely part of the package.
After losing two students, Texas State was right to revamp its rules. Now, it’s time for the culture to catch up.