Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on May 17, 2021.
On March 4, a fraternity hazing tragedy occurred when 20-year-old sophomore pledge Stone Foltz died of fatal alcohol intoxication. He had attended a Pi Kappa Alpha off-campus new member initiation event at Bowling Green University.
The pledges were told that it was a tradition for each of them to drink the entire contents of a fifth of liquor (750 milliliters). Foltz consumed most of the alcohol in the bottle. His blood-alcohol content was .35, compared with the legal limit of .08.
Eight members of the fraternity have been indicted on charges of first-degree felony manslaughter and reckless homicide. They destroyed their future careers and will live their lives knowing they were responsible for the death of Foltz.
On May 12, Foltz’s parents filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the fraternity and the members involved in their son’s death.
A similar tragedy occurred at Penn State University in February 2017, when pledge Timothy Piazza died of alcohol poisoning at a Beta Theta Pi fraternity event. In March 2017, I wrote an article about that event, “Amid tragedy at Penn State fraternity, leadership was lacking.” The hard lessons of this Penn State tragedy were not taught to or were ignored by members of Pi Kappa Alpha at Bowling Green.
In my March 2017 article, I wrote, “the members of the fraternity have a fiduciary responsibility for the safety of their pledges.” Most people think of fiduciary in terms of financial affairs. However, the Merriam-Webster dictionary provides a much broader definition. Merriam-Webster states, “‘fiduciary’ applies to any situation in which one person justifiably places confidence and trust in someone else and seeks that person’s help or advice in some matter.”
Certainly, “fiduciary” applies to the responsibility that fraternity members have for their pledges. They have a responsibility to keep them safe, especially in light of the power differential between fraternity members and their pledges.
After graduation, fraternity members will learn very quickly that safety is a paramount cultural norm in business, and as leaders rising up through the ranks of their company, they will be held accountable for the safety of employees who work within their organization. They will also be held accountable for exercising common sense and good critical judgment.
What happened at Penn State and again at Bowling Green should provide a warning to all colleges and universities that they need to frequently educate their fraternity members about their fiduciary responsibilities to pledges, as well as institute continual oversight to ensure that rules are not violated.
This is also the responsibility of a fraternity’s national organization. Ongoing education at fraternity chapters needs to occur about hazing practices that put the lives of pledges in danger. This is especially important due to the frequency of turnover as new undergrads join fraternities each year.
In September, as universities return to normal after a year of remote learning, there will be a pent-up demand by students for social interaction to make up for a lost year. This will be a time to double-down on education to avoid another tragedy.
Stone Foltz and Timothy Piazza died due to the actions of young men who had a responsibility for their safety. These young men did not act as responsible, ethical leaders, and the results were catastrophic for Foltz, Piazza, their families and themselves.
Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.