An Acacian's Pledge
by Benjamin Turconi, California '12
-10 Minute Read-
On Thursday, February 2, 2016, no one in State College could have predicted what was about to happen and how a death would change the atmosphere of not only the campus, but the fraternal landscape as a whole. It was that evening that the alleged “Gauntlet” event held by the Beta Theta Pi chapter at Penn State would lead to the death of Tim Piazza, a sophomore at Penn State who was pledging the fraternity. This event would lead to a 65-page report from a Centre County grand jury with 1,098 criminal charges against 18 members of the fraternity and against the fraternity itself.
The media has covered Tim Piazza’s death on a daily basis – which is appropriate for such a preventable tragedy. What has not been discussed is how other fraternities have continued on in the wake of this event. In the wake of a tragedy, it is up to chapters like Penn State Acacia to ensure fraternities continue to provide a “fine fraternal experience” for any students interested in claiming Pythagoras as a mentor.
Chartered in 1909, Acacia has had a long history at Penn State, operating continuously for over a century. Consistently recognized as one of the best chapters of Acacia and at Penn State, this group has raised nearly $2 million for THON, a student-run philanthropy for children and families affected by childhood cancer. The chapter consistently places in the top third of GPAs - this year they were second – and they have won the Bischoff Trophy for being the All-Sports Intramural Champion a record 13 times, the most of any fraternity on campus. With more than 2,000 initiated members, many distinguished alumni have walked through the halls of the Acacia home in State College, Pennsylvania. But a record like this compares little to the loss of a life, so a better discussion encompasses what the Acacia men at Penn State are doing to ensure an incident like what happened at Beta never happens again on their campus.
I talked with Penn State’s 2017 Venerable Dean, Brandon Brodsky, about what it was like to lead a large, successful chapter in the midst of a crisis.
Brandon said that when the chapter first heard – in the grand jury’s report and following police report – about what happened to Tim in vivid detail that the chapter was shocked. “We thought it was common knowledge that you don’t do those things.” By “things,” he was referring to forced consumption of alcohol, physical abuse, and waiting hours to get help for Tim after he was injured.
Brandon went on to say that “the failure of Beta was an internal issue, not a result of the external environment. Every chapter culture is different. It’s like saying that every ‘frat boy’ is the same…Painting everyone the same color for someone’s actions isn’t the best way to describe a community,” which is what has happened for all members of fraternities at Penn State.
Upon hearing about the incident, Penn State Acacia decided to take proactive steps to ensure it was acting as a positive part of the community. They decided to suspend all social activities before Penn State President Eric Barron hit the pause button for the Greek life community. They told all members that if they didn’t follow the guidelines, that they would be removed from membership or pledging.
Many changes have occurred on the State College campus since Tim Piazza’s death. By Brandon’s own admission, many students seek out and attend Penn State for the social atmosphere. However, since Tim’s death, the campus is a bit more “uptight” and the rules at social events are much more strict. Hard alcohol is frowned upon and is not allowed in the Penn State Acacia house, and all social functions have a strict guest list. “Some chapters [on campus] have a reckless disregard for the rules,” Brandon says, “and three have been kicked off this semester alone. When that happens, it makes us know we are doing the right thing.”
It is here that we see what has stayed the same for Acacia at Penn State – the feeling of family and pride in accomplishments. I asked Brandon what has stayed the same and without hesitation he replied, “The brotherhood.” He continued on to say that “Brotherhood and education for our chapter are pretty huge.” They have made adjustments when it comes to recruitment and social events, but the core of what makes the brotherhood has remained the same. The obligations of an Acacian, are to academics, fraternity, and other campus obligations, in that order, and Penn State Acacia has held true to an Acacian’s pledge.
Brandon owed their success in navigating the campus tragedy to the quality of members in the chapter and to their alumni support. From the beginning, the Chapter Council knew what they had to do and decided to bear down and do the right thing. Were there some bumps along the way? Of course. They had to gain their chapter’s buy-in to make the necessary changes to their socials and overall environment.
Brother Brodsky was always transparent with alumni and was prepared to answer any question they had. He would tell them that despite the setbacks, they were going to devote themselves to their academics, their philanthropic endeavors, and other campus commitments. Brandon said that “when you have strong support from your upper level alumni, then you have a backing and that is huge in a situation like this. This was an example of why alumni, if anything, should donate to the chapter and not the university.”
Brandon had a final piece of advice to the active member that finds themselves in a similar situation: “When something like this happens, it is your responsibility [as VD] to “be the bad guy.” Make adjustments as you go along and if you realize there are major adjustments that need to be made, then you were doing something wrong from the beginning.” That is, as the leader of the chapter it is your duty to address problematic behaviors and make decisions that may not be popular.
Greek life in State College will never be the same, Tim Piazza’s death will continue to reverberate throughout the community for years to come, but the purpose of fraternity has not changed. Penn State Acacia has had a great history and now possesses an inspiring future: being a leader on campus to create a better community in the wake of a tragedy.