I spent most of last week at the University of Miami at Oxford, OH.
The Miami campus is where my college social fraternity, Beta Theta Pi, was founded 180 years ago on Aug. 8, 1839. Beta holds an annual convention early every August and this year it was held in Oxford where it all began.
Many of you know from previous columns that I am still deeply involved with Beta Theta Pi, something that has been pretty consistent in my life the last 20 years or so.
My adult experience started when an old classmate, then the University of South Dakota chapter counselor, asked me to help advise the actives with their alumni newsletter.
The adviser role eventually turned into serving six years as the University of South Dakota chapter counselor, then six more years as the South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa state district chief and most recently at the north central regional chief. The north central region covers 15 chapters in five states including two in St. Louis and one in Kansas City, MO.
It has been a good experience, overall. Beta has taken on the position of raising up “Men of Principle” and has placed great emphasis on scholarship, leadership and building character the most recent years. There also has been an effort to encourage safe chapter houses. The key, but not only issue, to be a safe house, is being a dry house.
That is not always easy. When I directed one of my chapters to “go dry” a few years ago, I received two phone calls from parents complaining about the action: “I sent my son to college to learn to drink,” they said.
That seemed to me to be poor reason for an expensive education.
But convincing college age men to be smart in all their decision making can be difficult at times. There is no place for excessive drinking or hazing in modern fraternity life. There are more important reasons for attending college and joining what should be an experience that lasts a lifetime than to escape the rules of home or to stretch the limits of personal good conduct.
Those of us working directly with the 130 plus Beta chapters across America — 10 regional chiefs and almost 50 district and assistant district chiefs — understood that well. So did the fraternity’s board of trustees, executive director and professional management team that oversee Beta’s day-to-day operations.
But all that concern was not enough. On Saturday, Feb. 4, 2017, a new Beta pledge, Tim Piazza, died at Penn State University from forced drinking, hazing and chapter ignorance. It made the national news for weeks.
Yes, my fraternity, Beta Theta Pi, is that fraternity. But the issue of over-drinking, hazing and unnecessary loss of life because of those situations have existed at most all national social and even some professional fraternities.
The national Beta organization has taken important steps over the past two decades to end such activities and to protect pledges and actives as well as any guests at the house.
In the three years since Piazza’s death, Beta’s general secretary has ordered the closure of numerous chapters because of that local group’s unwillingness to live up to the rules.
Those numbers have been greatly reduced each year and with only one chapter closed this past year.
So why am I writing this? The reason is I want N’West Iowa to know the trend is changing — for the better — as it must.
Beta, like most national fraternities, has established new rules that have already restructured in-house drinking and will require all chapters to exist under safe house rules by the beginning of the 2020 fall semester.
It comes from legislation proposed by the board of trustees and approved, after much discussion, during the 2018 convention legislative session. A legislature made up mostly of representatives of all existing Beta chapters.
Interestingly, there were 24 new proposals being considered for the 2019 convention with the majority concerning liquor in the chapter houses. The greatest number were submitted by two alumni associations. It appears some alumni can’t get over the idea that they can’t use their old chapter house as a party place when returning for football or basketball games.
Too often bad habits — often called traditions — are brought back to a local chapter by some alum or group of alumni who believe their negative actions of the past are essential to maintaining the spirit of the present.
But here is the good news. Sitting in on those legislative sessions, I watched and listened as every one of those motions, except one, were voted down by the college age representatives, but not without debate.
Nobody wants to give away freedoms they think they may want or need in the future. Nor does anyone what to be told by a higher authority what they should do.
But the chapter representatives, at least for the most part, understood what really was at stake. They know for the health and long life of their brothers, and the future existence of Beta Theta Pi things must change.
Their actions made me proud to be a Beta. Caring for one another, after all, is why college fraternities came into existence in the first place.
Peter W. Wagner lives in Sibley. He is the founder/publisher of The N’West Iowa REVIEW and may be reached at email@example.com.