University president takes candid approach to Greek life

Wednesday, September 30, 2015 - 7:35pm

University President Mark Schlissel and his administration have spent the last academic year working to roll out new policy initiatives regarding several campus issues — most notably athletics, diversity, sexual assault, alcohol abuse and Greek life. This week, The Michigan Daily reviews the events that got the ball rolling. Today, we consider Schlissel’s approach to initiating culture changes in Greek life and alcohol use on campus.

The overview: Upon arriving at the University, Schlissel said addressing risky drinking on campus would be a top priority for his first year on campus. A 2015 study produced by the Office of Student Conflict resolution reported that alcohol and drug-related violations of the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities increased by 29 percent over 2014.

The changes: Before this year’s Welcome Week, the University rolled out a package of initiatives designed to curb alcohol abuse on campus, including a policy to notify the parents of students with repeat alcohol offenses and a program to ramp up Division of Public Safety and Security engagement efforts in student-heavy neighborhoods. Schlissel also spoke candidly during an all-chapter Greek life meeting, in which he called on the organization to address its role in perpetuating campus drinking culture.

The context: The first move to approach the issue in recent years began before Welcome Week in 2014.  In an attempt to decrease risky drinking, the University opted to shorten Welcome Week. The period between dorm move in and the first day of classes, according to administrators, is generally marked by increased alcohol consumption.

Last fall, DPSS said a shortened Welcome Week reduced on-campus alcohol-related activity during that time. The number of ambulance requests to University Housing facilities, calls to the DPSS Communications Center related to drinking, noise complaints, urinating in public and visits to University Emergency Departments all dropped considerably from 2013.

However, events during the last year have shed a more intense light on the University’s party culture.

In January, four University fraternities and sororities inflicted hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property damage on two ski resorts in northern Michigan.

The Sigma Alpha Mu fraternity and Sigma Delta Tau sorority, who stayed at the Treetops Resort in Gaylord, Mich. during the weekend of Jan. 16, were estimated to have caused $430,000 in damages, according to the resort’s general manager.

That same weekend, fraternities Pi Kappa Alpha and Chi Psi and sororities Delta Gamma and Alpha Phi damaged rooms at Boyne Highlands, a ski resort in Harbor Springs, Mich.

The damage reported at the two resorts included felled ceiling tiles, broken walls and dismantled furniture.

Both Schlissel and E. Royster Harper, vice president for student life, have insisted on the necessity of creating a social environment less influenced by alcohol.

In a January interview with the Daily, Harper said the January ski trip incidents illustrated part of the problem at hand.

“We can’t keep going this way,” she said. “Too much at risk. Too many safety issues. We can’t keep behaving like we have this system, and because there are so many good things about the system, that makes the things that are unhealthy and dangerous about the system OK. And that’s what we’ve been doing. I think that Up North was a wakeup call for us as an institution and as a community.”

However, Schlissel has acknowledged that expecting students not to drink is an unrealistic goal, and he would focus the bulk of his efforts on efforts to reduce the harm.

“I think it’s impractical to have as a goal that students won’t drink on campus,” he said in a November interview with the Daily. “Even though most of students are drinking illegally, I don’t think that’s an enforceable law, but looking at it from the safety perspective is what I want to do.”

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In the past month, the University has launched or floated ideas to introduce several initiatives designed to curb drinking on campus, as well as a party culture administrators have said Greek life plays a role in.

In August, the University unveiled a plan to involve the parents of first-year students who violate school alcohol policies on a case-by-case basis.

The University plans to notify parents if a first-year student under the age of 21 “commits a violation accompanied by other serious behavior such as needing medical attention, significant property damage or driving under the influence,” or if one of these students “has a second alcohol or drug infraction.”

Harper said the policy will only be implemented in certain instances.

“Part of what we have talked about is trying to leave some space,” Harper said. “Should, in the course of having a conversation with a student, there is a sense that actually calling would not be in their best interest, then we won’t.”

Mary Jo Desprez, the director of Wolverine Wellness, said the policy is not meant as a punishment, but as a preventative measure. She pointed to the close relationship many students share with their parents.

“Part of this also is, students tell us, when we ask them, ‘Who is the biggest influence on your decisions and your values?’ they always say parents or family,” Desprez said. “So part of this is us partnering with the people they have told us are the biggest part of their support network.”

In a September interview with the Daily, Harper said the University was considering delaying Greek rush.

“Does it make sense to have students come, and in a week, by the whole pledging process, we have thrown them into a whole environment that we’re worried about?” Harper asked. “Should we stay on this path we have, where we’ve been so committed to self-governance, that we allow rush to happen sometimes less than a week after students get here? So we’re certainly going to take a look at that.”

Members of the University’s Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs have also floated the idea of increasing the number of Friday classes to curb Thursday night drinking — a move University Provost Martha Pollack has said she would be open to.

The administration has seemingly identified Greek life as helping drive a University culture marked by excessive drinking. In September, the University called a historic, all-chapter meeting of Greek life, in which administrators said change must occur, or the future of Greek life could be in peril.

Schlissel told the crowd that the University’s reputation was at stake.

“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,” he said. “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.”

Moving forward: In response to negative attention directed at Greek life in the last year, LSA junior Sean Pitt, vice president of public relations for the University’s Interfraternity Council, said the IFC has begun to revise its existing risk management policies.

“This summer, the Interfraternity Council … has undertaken a major review of all of our risk management policies to determine how and where they can be strengthened in order to better protect and educate our members,” Pitt wrote in an e-mail. “In addition to this work, we have been rapidly developing and escalating our existing partnerships with SAPAC and UHS to bring peer led, Greek Life tailored, sexual assault prevention presentations to our chapters in order to ensure the retention of bystander intervention training information that our members are given upon entry into the Greek Community.”

Pitt said the IFC worked to address sexual assault even before the University’s survey results on the topic were released over the summer.

Among these efforts, he said Winter 2015 pledges signed a sexual misconduct prevention pledge “agreeing to voluntarily resign their membership if they do not uphold the ideals, standards, and values of the Interfraternity Council and Greek Community at the University of Michigan and commit an act of sexual misconduct.”

Members of Greek life have had mixed reactions to the administration’s calls for reform. Many sorority and fraternity members expressed frustration with the administration for effectively linking the Greek community to the problem of excessive alcohol consumption.

“That was the one big thing that people were against is that it was spoken as just the Greek community,” one fraternity member told the Daily after the September Greek life meeting with Schlissel. “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. So, it's a message that really should have been transmitted to the entire University.”

Many members who spoke with the Daily said Greek life actually does a better job than other organizations at ensuring parties are safe. Unlike students hosting house parties or athletic teams hosting team parties, members say Greek life parties are heavily regulated.

“We have sober monitors, attendance lists, strict alcohol rules and risk-management policies,” one member said. “Removing Greek life wouldn’t remove parties, it would remove safe parties.”

Dean of Students Laura Blake Jones said enacting change in the Greek community will require more comprehensive support — from national organizations, the Office of Greek Life, alumni advisors and parents.

“I’ve been talking with a lot of parents of Greek life students who, similarly, want to be involved in helping support, and so we’re taking a really comprehensive approach to how do we create a foundation for these organizations to work from that’s really going to help them to be able to live into their values and be all the positive things that we know Greek life can be in the community,” Blake Jones said.

She added that any work to improve Greek culture will have to focus on a variety of issues.

“We have five major areas of emphasis where we think we need to do work. The first one is education, the second one is leadership development, the third one is risk management, the fourth one is environmental management and the fifth is accountability measures,” Jones said.

She acknowledged that having the entire Greek community, rather than just executive officers, care about enacting a culture shift will be key to making real progress.

“There’s such a focus at times in some groups on the social scene, and then that eclipses the service, the academic focus, sisterhood, the brotherhood — the other common elements of the values,” she said. “And so if we could have our groups moderate their behavior and really be thoughtful about potential harm that could happen, and have not just the president and the social chair and the risk manager worry about those things, but everybody in the organization understand and be committed to wanting to ensure the safety of everyone, we would come a long, long way in achieving our goals.”