UK has struggled to fix drinking culture. Will ‘shock’ of tragedy force a change?

Students enjoyed tailgating in the Gameday Zone before the University of Kentucky played Mississippi State on Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium. The Gameday Zone “wasn’t too hot or popular,” says Nima Mahmoodi, president of the UK Interfraternity Council.
Students enjoyed tailgating in the Gameday Zone before the University of Kentucky played Mississippi State on Saturday night at Commonwealth Stadium. The Gameday Zone “wasn’t too hot or popular,” says Nima Mahmoodi, president of the UK Interfraternity Council.

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In 2017, amid a deluge of national headlines about student drinking and campus sexual assault, UK administrators came up with a series of ideas to make campus safer, including the tricky issue of tailgate parties at football games.

They decided to change a long tradition of fraternities and other groups tailgating in “the Bowl,” a dip of land along Cooper Drive across from Kroger Field, where students milled around largely unregulated.

Instead, they decided, all student tailgating would be moved into the nearby Pieratt Field. The new “Gameday Zone” would be more tightly controlled: Any student organizations would have to register their tailgate and provide guest lists. Students would have to show IDs in order to drink alcohol, but even that would be limited to one six-pack per person. No glass allowed, but officials hoped free food and some game tickets would be a draw. The idea was more safety, more community and more inclusivity than the fraternity heavy Bowl or off campus parties had provided.

“The Gameday Zone was about creating a safe environment for tailgating,” said Greg Heileman, UK associate provost for student and academic life.

The Zone started at the first two home football games this fall, but it did not stop the tragedy of Sept. 15, when an 18-year-old pledge from Alpha Tau Omega hit a four-year-old child on Cooper Drive. The boy later died. UK freshman Jacob Heil was charged with DUI; allegedly he was part of an off-campus tailgate held by ATO on Waller Avenue, where minors were served alcohol, according to a UK investigation. That investigation also found that pledges were forced to serve alcohol to brothers, which is a hazing violation.

UK has banned alcohol in fraternities and on campus for years, but off campus fraternity “party houses” are one of a myriad of ways that students, including those under 21, find ways to drink. UK officials say they’ve been trying to change an unsafe party culture at fraternities and everywhere else on campus, but the death of Marco Lee Shemwell, 4, puts a searing spotlight on all the ways that culture hasn’t budged.

The Gameday Zone “wasn’t too hot or popular,” said Nima Mahmoodi, a senior member of Chi Psi and president of the UK Interfraternity Council who served on Gameday Zone committee. “And ultimately, this past weekend we saw that people are still doing events off campus, rather than registering events.”

As soon as Mahmoodi heard about the wreck, he convened a meeting of the IFC, a meeting that was quickly expanded to all Greek organizations and top UK officials, including Provost David Blackwell.

“It was a very somber occasion,” Blackwell said Thursday. “This incident has grabbed the attention of our campus and our students and I believe the leadership of the Greek governing organizations are committed to helping us change the culture.”

Mahmoodi said he has made it clear that there will be zero tolerance for any fraternity holding off campus parties, which are against most fraternities’ rules, as well as UK. “I think administration is vital but student leaders standing up and setting expectations is also very important,” he said.

Certainly, both UK and the ATO national organization acted quickly. By Tuesday, UK had opened its own investigation, suspended Heil and suspended ATO, which just this summer won the True Merit award as top ATO chapter in the country. On Wednesday, ATO’s national organization had revoked the UK charter, effectively closing the house. Its members will have to move mid-semester.

Still, it’s not clear how much the tragedy or its aftermath will really affect fraternity drinking culture, “party houses,” or underage drinking.

“Drinking is so baked into fraternity culture, it would take a massive change to stop and understand the dangers,” said John Hechinger, an editor at Bloomberg News and the author of “True Gentleman: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities.” “All the social science research shows that fraternity men binge drink at twice the level of other students —they’re the center of it, they often provide the alcohol, and they contribute more than their share to the problem.”

Hazing and alcohol

The issue of hazing has taken on particular urgency in the past few years because of a rash of deaths, most of them related to drinking, including the gruesome tale of Tim Piazza, a pledge at Penn State University’s Beta Theta Pi fraternity in 2017. After a night of hard drinking, Piazza fell down the stairs, but fraternity members waited 12 hours before seeking medical help. He died the next day with brain and spleen injuries.

Earlier this month, the North-American Interfraternity Conference voted to create a ban on hard alcohol at its 6,100 chapters on 800 campuses, a ban set to take place next year.

“Over the last year, the NIC has been in a period of deep reflection looking at how to help make colleges and fraternities safer,” said spokeswoman Heather Kirk. “We have piloted and assessed several measures on colleges campuses, as well as spoken with thousands of students about their experiences. The No. 1 thing that came back in our research and interaction with students is that we must address hard-alcohol. There is no silver bullet, but it’s a common denominator in many of the issues we see.”

In addition, the group is working on a “medical Good Samaritan policy,” to encourage students to call for help, when, say, someone is lying unconscious at the bottom of a flight of stairs.

The ban will affect numerous fraternities around the nation, but at UK, alcohol is already banned at fraternities and sororities. The only exception is for registered events with guest lists that prove everyone allowed to drink is 21.

Another reaction has been to ban Greek life altogether. Last winter, the Greek powerhouse of Ohio State University banned all fraternities for three months after 11 houses were put on probation for student conduct violations. Murray State University set out a similar ban, allowing the school to have a period of reflection and service.

Right now at UK, Pennsylvania Avenue will be a much quieter place, as ATO’s next door neighbor, Sigma Chi, was recently suspended for alcohol and drug violations.

But there are numerous reasons that fraternity life will not disappear from U.S. campuses, including housing and pressure from national organizations and influential donors.

At UK, for example, Sigma Alpha Epsilon has been home to some of UK’s most notorious fraternity incidents and some of UK’s most distinguished alumni. The chapter was shut down for a year in 2010 after a member set fire to a toilet paper-wrapped member, while two of its members were recently convicted for an attempt at drug dealing.

The fraternity is currently being sued by a UK student who says he was punched at an off-campus SAE party house. The lawsuit also targets the house’s landlords for allegedly knowing the property would be used as a party house, but not specifically forbidding parties.

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SAE’s chapters nationwide are the main focus of Hechinger’s book on fraternity racism, misogyny and hazing deaths, partly, he said, because SAE is one of the biggest fraternities and had the most hazing deaths nationwide between 2005 and 2013.

But Provost David Blackwell said he thinks there’s plenty of positive elements about fraternities.

Members “perform well academically, they get involved with other parts of campus and they do a lot of service work,” he said. “We don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater. It’s a longstanding culture and we want to give it every opportunity to succeed.”

Historically, SAE’s alumni have included W.T. Young, one of UK’s most important donors for whom W.T. Young Library is named, along with former Kentucky Govs. Keen Johnson and Edward T. “Ned” Breathitt, as well as Outback Steakhouse founder Chris Sullivan and coal magnate Joe Craft.

“The drinking culture is a problem that’s been with us for decades,” Blackwell added. “Those efforts will continue year after year after year because that’s how you change a culture, you provide same messaging, the same training, the same demonstrating to students that violating those policies and violating those laws have consequences on campus.”

Student Government Association President Michael Hamilton said the culture change may have started, as the Gameday Zone for the Sept. 22 game against Mississippi State is booked solid by Greek and non-Greek organizations.

“I think last weekend’s events have really shocked students into listening and buying into a new culture to be better about practices surrounding tailgating,” he said. “That shock is resulting in action, hopefully, that’s systemic change.”