West Virginia University is the flagship institution of higher learning in the Mountain State, is in the Big 12 conference and has a sturdy academic reputation, with several of its programs getting high marks nationally. Its alumni include several West Virginia governors, the opera singer James Valenti and Bantz J. Craddock, a retired Army general and former supreme allied commander of Europe.
There's one area, though, where WVU always ranks near the top. Just as "Citizen Kane" is always No. 1 or No. 2 when lists of the greatest movies ever made are drawn up, or the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" consistently gets best-album-ever laurels, WVU year after year wins the trophy for most raucous party school. Perhaps even more than its bumper crop of degree programs, WVU has made a name for itself across the country for its couch-burning revelry and alcohol-fueled debauchery.
This designation surely causes some faculty and administrators to cringe, and last week WVU took a step that could cool the party-hardy atmosphere around campus. On Wednesday, the university announced that it would stop recruiting and social activities by 16 of its fraternities, launch a review of the Greek system and intensify its oversight. The fraternities will be allowed to continue their philanthropic endeavors and maintain their basic operations.
Also, WVU is raising the grade point average necessary to join a fraternity from 2.5 to 2.75, and eventually to 3.0. Fraternity members would have to maintain a 3.0 average in order to remain eligible.
WVU's moves comes amid growing calls for Greek systems to be extensively overhauled and for fraternities to clean up their acts. The university said it was motivated by recent national headlines about fraternity mayhem that has resulted in injuries and death, as well as behavioral issues with fraternities on its own campus. Although administrators did not point to a specific incident, one fraternity member was captured on video using a racial slur against a waitress at a Morgantown, W.Va., nightclub, and it ended up being circulated on social media last weekend.
"We are at a tipping point," said Gordon Gee, WVU's president. "We have seen the headlines across the country. We have had a few of our own in recent weeks. I cannot in good conscience, as your president, stand by and do nothing."
He continued, "We have two paths before us. One is the path that many of our peers have chosen: Shut down Greek life. Or two, work together as partners -- the university, students, alumni and our national leaderships -- to create real change. I wish to choose the latter."
Fraternities ostensibly have a presence on campuses in order to provide social and philanthropic opportunities for members, and also allow them to make professional connections that could be helpful in their post-collegiate careers. But fraternities have come under fierce criticism for being exclusionary and elitist and, above all else, fostering a heedless, boys-will-be-boys culture that has condoned unrestrained drinking and sexual assault.
Deaths during hazing periods, including a fatality at Penn State University last year, have shined a profoundly unflattering light on fraternities. Some universities have suspended their Greek programs, with proposals being floated in some states to ban them entirely. A more reasonable approach would center on colleges, universities and national chapters of fraternities cracking down on the worst offenders by shutting them down and publicly revealing alcohol-related incidents.
Above all, it's up to fraternities to live up to their supposed mission of doing good, rather than wreaking havoc. As Gee said, "We need to get to work now to change the dynamic."