One provocative purple cooler, 30 yards of trash and over 72,000 Facebook shares later, the University of Oregon is under scrutiny for the behavior of some of its students at Shasta Lake.
Photos, posted by Facebook user Jennifer Vick Cox, got Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity suspended by its national headquarters. A barrage of online messages targeted the roughly 1,000 students who visited Shasta Lake on the weekend of May 20. The disapproval is especially aimed at UO Fraternity and Sorority Life.
The incident is a microcosm of larger problems within the Oregon fraternities: Almost 40 percent of UO’s recognized fraternities have received sanctions from the university.
The reasons for these sanctions — underage drinking, hazing and sexual assault — are not surprising. They exist in fraternities across the country, too.
But preventing incidents like Shasta, which are neither university-sanctioned nor FSL-sanctioned, is much more complicated.
In March, the university received the results of a third-party external review of its FSL infrastructure. Over 100 people were interviewed in 48 hours to “assess the impact of fraternity/sorority chapters” on campus.
The review, which was commissioned by UO’s Division of Student Life, was prepared by Boise State University Vice President of Student Affairs Jeremiah Shinn and Mark Koepsell, the executive director of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors.
Its goal was to analyze the state of FSL and its 3,677 members, which makes up 17 percent of the UO student body.
Review shows FSL students struggle with the conduct process.
Koepsell understands the public’s reaction to the Shasta pictures that went viral on Facebook; his reaction was much the same. But he feels that deeper issues needs to be addressed than just the garbage left after a weekend of partying in the woods.
Student conduct violations are reviewed on a case-by-case basis, according to Katy Larkin, who handles conduct investigations for UO student groups.
Sanctions at the UO are divided into two categories: educational sanctions and status sanctions. The latter is the more severe one and has six different subcategories — ranging from “reprimand” to “expulsion,” says FSL director Justin Shukas.
That’s just the university’s conduct process. After a major incident, chapters could undergo investigations by their national headquarters, too.
And the discipline a chapter may receive from UO may not be the same as its national chapter’s.
During Phi Delta Theta’s suspension in December 2015, its national headquarters wanted a four-year suspension. The university ended up suspending the fraternity from campus for only two years.
“There is a difference in standards processes and the way that national organizations operate, but we try to facilitate a very collaborative relationship,” said Shukas. “Part of my job is to build those relationships with national organizations and it’s a really critical aspect to be effective.”
Shukas, along with Laura Hinman, the associate director of FSL, are the main line of communication between the university and FSL — a relationship the external review reports as “ill-defined.”
Some staff and students in FSL feel the university keeps chapters at arm’s length until disciplinary action is necessary.
VP of Student Life Robin Holmes, who requested the report, disagrees with that sentiment.
“This is not true. We have full-time staff members who work closely with FSL at all times,” said Holmes. “We also work closely with FSL when things go wrong, which is to be expected.”
One area where disciplining chapter is difficult is when it comes to live-out houses, or any other off-campus activities like Shasta.
The FSL students surveyed in the external review feel local chapter leadership ignores live-outs (when a group of students affiliated with one chapter live together outside of their assigned facility) because they’re too complicated to regulate. Live-outs might violate chapter rules, for instance, or pose a liability to the main chapter house.
“I think there is a large argument that when student are off campus the university [and national chapters are] less liable, but at the end of the day, they are both perceived by the public as being responsible for those students,” said Koepsell.
But these problems with Greek life aren’t just happening at Oregon.
“Truly every campus has their own unique circumstances,” said Koepsell. “I think it is fair to say that alcohol abuse is common anywhere where you’ve got 18-22-year-olds. I think the problem with the ‘live outs’ is unique to this campus and it is going to take some unique strategy, different than you find in other places.”
What’s the relationship status?
Koepsell said many of the issues facing FSL stem from a lack of support by university staff.
Not having the appropriate amount of staff devoted to assisting FSL could be part of the problem. In Koepsell’s opinion, Oregon’s two dedicated officials are overburdened and unable to offer the support FSL needs.
Shinn, the student affairs official from Boise State, agrees student leadership is sometimes ill-equipped to handle the some problems.
“They lack the necessary experience, knowledge or expertise to effectively navigate other issues internally,” said Shinn.
Since the release of the external review two months ago, the university had already made plans to put together an advisory group and hire more full-time professional staff for more oversight of FSL.
In the immediate aftermath of Shasta, however, Holmes said the university has four workgroups that are set to provide additional, modified recommendations in the next few weeks.
Koepsell sees recent events as an opportunity for universities and national fraternity organizations to address the issues culturally. He believes reactionary steps will not be as productive as a proactive approach.
“I would advocate it is everybody’s responsibility. The alumni are responsible, the national headquarters are responsible. Everybody needs to take their part in providing both the challenge and support,” he said.
Kira Hoffelmeyer is a member of Kappa Alpha Theta.