Looking back on one year after infamous Greek life ski trip incident

Chronology of the Treetops incident

Chronology of the Treetops incident Buy this photo
Design by Mariah Gardziola

 

 
Thursday, January 21, 2016 - 9:11pm

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Chronology of the Treetops incident

Chronology of the Treetops incident Buy this photo
Design by Mariah Gardziola

 

One year after vandalism and destruction at multiple Northern Michigan ski resorts involving four University fraternities and sororities last winter — garnering intense media, legal and University scrutiny — Greek life and the larger campus community have undergone several changes in response.

In February 2015, the University announced it would no longer affiliate with the Sigma Alpha Mu chapter on campus for causing roughly $430,000 in damage to ceiling tiles, furniture and carpeting in several rooms at the Treetops Resort in Gaylord during a Martin Luther King Jr. weekend ski trip.

The international board of SAM revoked the chapter’s charter following the refusal of fraternity members to cooperate in a criminal investigation, and members lost their campus house. Also present at the ski trip last year was University sorority Sigma Delta Tau, who were suspended by the University until 2017.

The same weekend, Pi Kappa Alpha, Chi Psi, Alpha Phi and Delta Gamma caused damage to a lesser extent to Boyne Highlands in Harbor Springs, Mich. and have faced University sanctions, though their actions didn’t generate the same amount of media scrutiny. The damages caused at Boyne were determined to be non-malicious.

Four members of SAM fraternity, including the chapter’s former president and treasurer, have faced criminal charges on accounts of malicious destruction of property and the provision of alcohol and drugs to minors over the incident.

Mary Beth Seiler, director of Greek life at the University, said the events served as a call to action for members of the Greek life community.

“It was a huge wake up call I think for everybody,” Seiler said. “I think there was a lot of surprise at what ultimately happened to the organizations that were involved. Maybe organizations didn’t realize when it first happened how big it could get and what that public opinion meant.”

In September 2015, University President Mark Schlissel spoke at a community-wide Greek life assembly that required at least 70 percent of all chapters to attend — an unprecedented assembly and action for a University president. Fraternities and sororities were told that if they didn’t meet the attendance requirement, they would face a $1,000 fine and social probation.

The meeting marked the first time the entire Greek community, including the National Pan-Hellenic Council and Multicultural Greek Council, gathered in the 170-year history of Greek life on campus.

Central topics of the September meeting included a pressing need for Greek organizations to curb sexual assault and alcohol abuse, stemming from what was characterized by administrators as excessive party culture. Schlissel warned students their behavior would ultimately devalue their own degrees and taint the University’s national image.

“The value of their degrees are gonna go down because the reputation of the University of Michigan won’t be the excitement in the Big House or our teams doing well under our fantastic new coach,” Schlissel said at the September meeting. “It’s not gonna be the kids who receive the Rhodes Scholarships and the Fulbright Scholarships, and the famous professors who do the work that you’re going to get reflected on for, or the National Medal for the Arts that our faculty won this past week. It’s going to be the ‘Shmacked’ videos. So it’s really up to you what the value of your education is going to be, what the reputation of this institution’s going to be.”

Speaking to Schlissel’s September statement, Seiler said she had concerns over the heightened visibility and therefore negative scrutiny Greek life organizations attract on campus.

She said Greek life tends to be a target for scrutiny due to the 6,000-person membership as well as visible letters on clothing and houses. She noted, however, that the poor decisions of some organizations unfairly reflect poorly on others.

In an interview with the Daily directly following September’s mass meeting, one fraternity member — choosing to remain anonymous due to Greek life chapters’ strict rules prohibiting members of organizations from speaking to news or media outlets — expressed similar sentiments, saying Greek life receives magnified scrutiny for campus-wide issues.

"If anything, a lot of the times when incidents happen it's people from outside of the organization that come to our parties and cause trouble,” he said at the time. “So, it's a message that really should have been transmitted to the entire University."

Seiler said she thought Schlissel’s comments may not apply to all Greek life members, and that she hoped joining a Greek life organization would not devalue a Michigan education.

“I would certainly hope that it wouldn’t devalue the education, and that would be the last thing that anybody who’s in a fraternity or sorority would want for them or for anybody,” Seiler said. “I hope that that is not true or that it wouldn’t happen. It was a pretty powerful statement. I have to admit that.”

Whatever the individual reception of the meeting was, Seiler said Schlissel’s speech did effectively force members of the Greek community to recognize the widespread attention their behavior draws, encouraging them to change their behavior accordingly.

Student leaders, staff and members of the University community have since begun work on several initiatives to introduce new programs and strengthen existing programs to improve safety and security within Greek life.

Over the summer, immediate past Greek life council presidents and University alums Maddy Walsh, Reid McManus, Alex Krupiak and Kelly Gee researched and drafted recommendations for policy changes and potential programs.

Laura Blake Jones, University dean of students, said the University held two conferences over the summer to discuss the future of Greek life on campus, with both Greek alumni and national representatives from 32 different Greek life organizations that have chapters on campus in attendance.

Jones said the conferences served as a way for chapters on campus to learn from each other and implement the strengths of other chapters.

“Some organizations are doing excellent work in one area or another,” Jones said. “How can we build those educational programs or processes or advising structures and take what’s working somewhere really well and make it comprehensively applied across our program at Michigan?”

This past Tuesday, the University announced that a 30-member task force, chaired by former Panhellenic Association President Maddy Walsh and former Interfraternity Council President Alex Krupiak, will review final versions of Greek life policy reform suggestions by the end of the semester. The task force will have multiple subcommittees focusing on specific areas of Greek life, including ones dedicated to promoting diversity and inclusion within chapters, improving pre-recruitment education and investigating whether or not fall is an appropriate time to hold the rush process.

Aside from the task force that is underway, several new programs have already been implemented within this past year to spur a culture change within the Greek life community.

Over this summer, Greek life leaders held optional information sessions at new student orientations for those interested in rushing in the fall. The sessions, according to Jones, served to emphasize to incoming freshmen the many values central to the creation of the individual organizations beyond the social aspect.

“If you boil down, some of what the problems (include) values’ incongruence and us not living our chapter values,” Jones said. “If we make sure that new students coming into the organizations understand the values, then they’d be more likely to live into them.”

An extra layer of pre-recruitment education was also added to the rush process in the form of an online module that emphasizes risk and harm reduction, sexual assault misconduct prevention, alcohol abuse and drug prevention and lessons on the philanthropic and moral missions associated with Greek life.

In an interview Walsh, the former president of Panhellenic, said she is most enthusiastic about the Panhellenic Association’s new partnership with the Sexual Assault Prevention Awareness Center on campus.

According to results from the University’s sexual misconduct survey published last year, members of Greek life were 2.5 times more likely to experience an instance of sexual misconduct than those who are not affiliated with Greek life.

“We really took that seriously and are thinking of many different ways to improve that within Greek life,” Walsh said.

Through the partnership, Panhel recently launched a peer educator program mandating that at least one and up to five members of each sorority be trained as a resource in sexual assault misconduct prevention and support. The peer educators facilitate workshops and conversations about sexual assault misconduct and prevention.

Walsh also expressed pride in Greek life’s improved risk and tailgate management policies.

This year, Greek life expanded and improved its Michigan Ambassador Program, a collaboration between Greek life and the University of Michigan Police Department and Ann Arbor Police Department. The program trains Greek life members in basic risk intervention, requiring these designated members to walk around on football game days and other “high risk” days — such as St. Patrick’s day and Halloween — looking for and alerting police officers to unsafe situations.

Current Greek life students declined to comment regarding the events involving Greek life throughout the past year.

Jones said while it is too soon to measure the level of success the expanded program has had, she has seen indicators to suggest steps in the right direction. According to Jones, at specific times during the year when the University expects increased alcohol related hospital transports, such as rivalry game days and Welcome Week, the numbers have either gone down this school year or stayed the same.

Other new developments within Greek life include support for the University’s requests to eliminate hard liquor and vodka from social events. The Interfraternity Council, for instance, voted to only provide beer and wine at their largest events in 2015.

In addition to limits on hard liquor, the Greek community has also taken safety and prevention steps in expanding its sober monitor training program. This year the Panhellenic Association piloted its own sober monitor training program, which was initially a program only for members of fraternities.  

Mary Jo Desprez, director of Wolverine Wellness, a unit within University Health Services that promotes student health, noted a large percentage of alcohol transports to the hospital are results of hard liquor or vodka consumption. However, Desprez said a decreased number of alcohol transports to the hospital does not necessarily measure a changing culture within Greek life.

“When alcohol transports go up, I don’t necessarily always think that’s a bad thing,” Desprez said.

Due to the increased alcohol abuse prevention training incoming students and members of Greek life receive, as well as the Michigan medical amnesty law passed in 2012, an increase in alcohol transports may signal a more responsible student body, she added.

“Sometimes an increase in alcohol transports can be a sign of a caring community — that people are looking at people passed out and caring about them and calling for help,” Desprez said.

Desprez added that her team will, moving forward, examine more closely whether future alcohol transport cases are due to high BACs or whether they demonstrate instances of responsible caution.

Despite the initiatives taken by Greek life following nationwide scrutiny after the ski resort vandalism last year, Walsh admitted changing the culture within the community might be a slow process. However, she noted it was well worth the effort.

“Any change in a 6,000-person organization is going to be kind of slow to come,” Walsh said. “But I think right now it’s important for us to recognize the small things — they aren’t going to be perfect all of a sudden, but we do have the infrastructure in place.”

Clarification: This article has been updated to clarify University President Mark Schlissel did not hold the community-wide assembly, but rather spoke at the assembly.