STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Hundreds of young women filled the student center at Pennsylvania State University one day last week, excited and hopeful that they would leave with what they came for: an invitation to join the sorority of their choice.
“Bid day” had arrived on the university’s flagship campus. There were photo booths, confetti cannons, balloon arches, loud singing and chanting, as young women clutching yellow envelopes with offers rushed to meet their new sisters.
“Everyone is so excited to have these new members,” said Lauren Eskin, 20, a finance major from Horsham and president of Alpha Omicron Pi sorority. “People are, like, breaking down the door to get in to meet them.”
By the time it was over, Penn State sororities had welcomed 1,000 new members into the sisterhood, a path that includes philanthropic endeavors and community service, and brings a built-in set of friends, some of whom will last a lifetime if prior experience is any indication.
But this year, sororities at Penn State and on other campuses are being called on by their national conference to do more: Drive critical change in the Greek community, as schools crack down on out-of-control drinking, hazing, and other unruly behavior at fraternities. The very preservation of the Greek-life experience could be at stake, said Carole Jones, chair of the National Panhellenic Conference, which oversees 26 member sororities with more than 418,000 undergraduate members.
“We just feel it’s time that our women become more engaged in the fight against hazing and alcohol abuse,” said Jones, a retired journalist and member of Alpha Omicron Pi. “If women decide as a group that they are going to stand up against something or decide they want to change a culture, I think they have strength in numbers, and the men will follow them.”
Sororities most often aren’t the ones getting in trouble. Their members aren’t the ones dying in high-profile hazing and alcohol-related deaths, and, at least at Penn State, they tend to be much better academic performers.
But sororities still feel vested, because they often co-host parties with fraternities, partner on projects, and see themselves as part of the same community.
“Solving these issues is not just for the men’s groups in a vacuum,” Jones said. “We have to be part of the solution. A lot of times our women are bystanders, and they need to stand up and report if something is happening.”
Members of the national conference, along with outside experts and university staff from schools including Texas Christian University, the University of Alabama, and the University of Illinois, plan to come up with recommendations for the full board to consider in May.
Sorority members on local campuses, including Molly Bankuti, 21, a member of Zeta Tau Alpha at Lehigh University, like the proposal. She also serves as president of Lehigh’s Panhellenic Council, which includes nine sororities.
“We could do more to hold people accountable,” said Bankuti, a finance and accounting major from Sudbury, Mass. “It’s our community, so it’s also our responsibility. People see Greek letters, they don’t know if they are a sorority or a fraternity, so we inherently have to feel responsible for that.”
The North American Interfraternity Conference also is working on improvements, including a pilot program launched this month to remove hard liquor from fraternity events, provide safer social gatherings, and emphasize a “more balanced, academic-centered fraternity experience,” said Heather Kirk, chief communications officer.
It’s been nearly a year since Penn State sophomore Tim Piazza died after an alleged booze-fueled hazing ritual at the Beta Theta Pi house during his bid acceptance party. In the aftermath, the university made several changes, including prohibiting freshmen from joining sororities or fraternities until they earn 14 credits and have a 2.5 GPA; for most that means waiting until second semester.
At Penn State, 13 fraternities are under suspension for violations, including hazing and alcohol-related infractions. In comparison, only one sorority — one that is not under the National Panhellenic Council — has been banned for hazing.
“It is uncommon for us to receive reports related to allegations of misbehavior for sororities,” said Danny Shaha, Penn State’s interim assistant vice president for student rights and responsibilities.
Fraternities are more prone to sanctions because they have private off-campus houses where socials, sometimes serving alcohol, are held, Shaha acknowledged. No sororities have houses; they each have a suite and a floor in a campus residence hall where some members live.
But reasons for the difference run deeper.
Sorority advisers and alumnae generally play a more hands-on role, and the national sorority offices “are much more involved with the activities of the local chapters, setting expectations, following through with those expectations, and holding accountable chapters that may not live up to those expectations,” Shaha said.
Alpha Omicron Pi wouldn’t consider hazing or mistreating new members, Eskin said.
“If you’re mistreating someone during their first two weeks in the chapter, they’re not going to be loyal to you for the rest of their life,” she said.
The group doesn’t even have a pledge process. The day members receive their bid, they are allowed to wear the sorority’s letters, she said.
“We consider you part of our chapter, one of our sisters,” Eskin said.
Sorority women also tend to be stronger academic performers than their fraternity counterparts. Of the 22 Panhellenic sororities, 19 groups, or 86 percent, had an average GPA higher than — or in one case equal to — the overall average for female students at Penn State of 3.27, according to the university’s Greek report card for fall 2017.
The 150 members in Alpha Omicron Pi scored an average GPA of 3.54, making it one of 10 sororities with a 3.5 or higher.
In comparison, 22 of 39 fraternity chapters — a little more than half — had a GPA higher or in one case equal to the overall average for male students of 3.1, according to the university’s data.
None had an average GPA of 3.5 or higher.
Kirk, of the national fraternity conference, said the average GPA for all their fraternities is higher than the overall male GPA.
At Penn State, sororities tend to stress academics and have built-in standards, said Evan Ditty, assistant director for training and development in Penn State’s fraternity and sorority life office.
“Many of them require a 2.7 or 2.8 to get into the chapter,” he said, “and they have to maintain certain GPAs to remain a member in good standing.”
Teresa DiGioia, 19, a sophomore and president of Kappa Alpha Theta, said members are held to high academic standards.
“We have a GPA requirement, and girls can’t hold offices if they fall below that,” said DiGioia, whose 155-member sorority had an average GPA of 3.53 last semester.
Members who struggle also are required to meet with a scholarship adviser, who steers them toward peer mentors and other help.
The emphasis on academics was part of the appeal for DiGioia, a marketing major from Rockville, Md.
“I wanted to become part of something bigger than myself at college,” she said, “and I knew right off the bat a sorority could be that thing for me.”
Eskin knew, too. Her mom, a Penn State graduate, was in one and still has many of her sorority friends.
“Seeing that it’s a lifelong thing, I grew up wanting that,” she said.
Both Eskin and DiGioia said they also enjoy being part of a group that helps others. Alpha Omicron Pi donates to arthritis research, participates in Penn State’s Thon, which raises money for pediatric cancer research, and raises money for the community’s homeless. Kappa Alpha Theta, also in Thon, helps provide support for children in foster care.
Eskin welcomes the national initiative to improve Greek life and sees the need for it.
“There is a lot of room for improvement on this campus and nationwide,” she said. “I would hope that something like this would work, and people would stop the call to end Greek life. I would hope people could see all the immense benefits that are coming from it.”