Amid Tragedy at Penn State Fraternity, Leadership Was Lacking

Article originally published in the American City Business Journals on May 16, 2017

One of the missions of college fraternities and sororities is to develop leaders. Beta Theta Pi fraternity at Penn State University failed in that mission. The fraternity and the University permitted violations of the law as well as their own internal policies, which resulted in the tragic death of 19-year-old pledge Timothy Piazza.

Beta Theta Pi and 18 of its members have been charged with multiple criminal counts including involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault, tampering with evidence and furnishing alcohol to minors. In addition, the University, the fraternity and its members face wrongful death lawsuits.

Reading the 65-page grand jury indictment that describes the events surrounding Piazza’s death is a chilling experience. Pledges of the fraternity underwent hazing that included consumption of copious amounts of alcohol during a series of drinking games conducted for the entertainment of the fraternity members. The games ended when the intoxicated Piazza fell 15 feet down a flight of steps and suffered serious external and internal injuries.

The fraternity’s leaders, not wanting their actions or events that night to go on the record, ignored pleas by pledges and other fraternity members to call for help. Freshman brother Kordel Davis told his fellow fraternity brothers that Piazza needed help immediately. Quoting the grand jury report, “[Davis] screamed at them to get help. [In response, upper classman and brother] Jonah Neuman, … shoved Davis into … [a] wall. Neuman instructed Davis to leave and that they had it under control.”

Finally, some 12 hours after Piazza’s fall, 911 was called, and he was taken to the hospital. Surgery revealed a shattered spleen and severe internal bleeding. Piazza also suffered skull injuries and underwent a craniotomy to relieve brain swelling. He died two days later.

Piazza’s death leads one to question why the members of the fraternity did not exercise common sense and good critical judgment. Why didn’t they call 9-1-1 as soon as it became apparent that Piazza was seriously injured?

Where was the judgment of fraternity leaders when they compelled those pledging to drink so much alcohol that in Piazza’s case, his blood alcohol content was between .28 and .35, approximately four times over the legal limit for operating a motor vehicle?

Why did the members of Beta Theta Pi feel it was acceptable to ignore the policies of their national fraternity, which, quoting from the grand jury indictment, states, “[Abuse] or the consumption of alcoholic beverages by any fraternity member or guest while on chapter premises, during an official fraternity event … shall be prohibited”?

The policies of the national fraternity also state, “No member shall permit, tolerate, encourage or participate in ‘drinking games’ or other activities that encourage excessive consumption of alcohol. … [No] chapter … shall engage in hazing activities. Permission or approval by a person being hazed is not a defense.”

Penn State, Beta Theta Pi, and the members of the fraternity have a fiduciary responsibility for the safety of their pledges. Penn State knows this. Did the members of Beta Theta Pi know it? They should have been educated about how to act as leaders so they could effectively carry out this responsibility.

Speaking about the inaction of Penn State to previous fraternity policy violations, Tom Kline, attorney for Piazza’s parents, stated “There was a taskforce that was impaneled a few years earlier that did nothing to stop this. The problem was widespread. The problem was endemic at Penn State. They looked away.”

What happened at Penn State should provide a warning to all colleges and universities that they need to proactively educate their students about the dangers of violating the rules, as well as institute continuing oversight to ensure that the rules are not violated. Piazza died due to the actions and inactions of 18 young men charged in his death and were responsible for his safety. These young men did not act as responsible, ethical leaders that night.

A life has been lost and the lives of 18 individuals have been changed forever. Will hazing practices change as a result of the tragic death of Tim Piazza? Time will tell.

Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated writer on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.

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