‘Let’s sit down and talk’: Rep. John DeBerry explains why Greek Life bill is misunderstood, MTSU representatives condemn proposed ban

Photo by Andrew Wigdor / MTSU Sidelines

Last Tuesday, Jan. 30, 2018, Rep. John DeBerry introduced a controversial bill that proposed a ban on fraternities and sororities on Tennessee campuses. Since the bill’s introduction, DeBerry has said that the legislation was misunderstood and that the ban was simply the “start of a conversation.” MTSU Greek Life representatives have stated that the potential good intentions behind the bill do not make it any less offensive or any more efficient.

“The bill is a caption,” DeBerry said. “It’s more or less to open up discussion. I’ve put in bills in the past about openness and transparency as far as what happens on college campuses as far as hazing and assaults and other crimes go and have gotten nowhere with it. So, this bill was basically a shot across the bow to say, ‘Let’s sit down and talk.'”

Profession-based fraternities and honor societies are excluded from the proposed ban. The legislation states that all other Greek organizations “shall not be recognized or otherwise permitted to associate with, or operate on the campus of, any state institution of higher education.”

“What this bill does is say, ‘Let’s sit down,'” DeBerry said. “‘Let’s come up with uniform rules. Let’s have transparency. Let’s make sure that the rules are fairly enforced to all of the fraternities and sororities, whether they are black or white or whatever.’ And, that’s what the bill seeks to do. It’s not about banning Greek Life. That was the caption of the bill, and that opens up the bill so that we can discuss what it is we actually want to put into the law. The ‘Animal House’ imagery of fraternities and sororities has to go the way of the dinosaur.”

DeBerry said that instances of violence and sexual assault involving Greek Life representatives cannot go overlooked in the current political and social environment.

“It was cute in the ’80s, I suppose, when they were making those ‘Revenge of the Nerds’ movies and all that,” DeBerry said. “But, in this environment, this ‘Me Too’ environment, it’s always good to have a good understanding of what’s expected of everybody.”

DeBerry also stated that he has been in contact with Greek Life leadership from schools, such as the University of Tennessee, in attempts to determine how the legislation can work for all parties.

“When I finally go to committee with the bill, it’s going to be in the posture where everybody is onboard, and we’re going to do something that is good for everybody,” DeBerry said. “Every now and then, you have to shoot across the bow so that folks will realize that we’ve been playing around with this for too long.”

DeBerry said that he met with the leaders of five different Tennessee fraternities in the past week and will be meeting with them again on Feb. 16.

The bill comes after a slew of hazing-related deaths from Greek organizations across the country made national news in the past several years. In 2014, Tucker Hipps, a 19-year-old Clemson University student and Sigma Phi Epsilon pledge, died after falling off of a bridge during a fraternity pre-dawn run. In 2016, Ryan Abele, an 18-year-old University of Nevada, Reno student and Sigma Nu pledge, fell down a flight of stairs and died after being ordered to clean the fraternity house basement while highly intoxicated. In 2017, Maxwell Gruver, an 18-year-old Phi Delta Theta pledge and Louisiana State University student, died from alcohol poisoning after playing a fraternity initiation drinking game.

MTSU, as well, has not always been free of hazing-related incidents. Within the past three years, three fraternities, Phi Delta Theta, Sigma Nu and Pi Kappa Phi, at MTSU have faced disciplinary action due to hazing, drug and alcohol-related incidents.

Despite incidents such as these, MTSU Greek Life representatives have stated that DeBerry’s bill and proposed ban is the wrong way to address the issue.

“As an individual member of Fraternity and Sorority Life, I do not see positive changes coming from the bill, should it pass, because of how many students would be affected,” said Hannah Leyhew, the former president of the MTSU Panhellenic Council and a senior. “So many students, myself included, greatly benefit from their time in Fraternity and Sorority Life, and to think that future students at Tennessee universities might not have that chance is disappointing.”

Leyhew said that she understood the thought process behind wanting to put a stop to hazing incidents but that it was wrong to place the blame all sororities and fraternities in the country.

“I understand why legislators would want to initiate change in our society, because it has been scary to see students die or be critically injured from the ignorant choices of their peers,” Leyhew said. “However, I don’t think its fair to blame fraternal organizations for what has happened and to think banning their presence on a university campus would stop the tragedies.”

Leyhew also stated that MTSU Greek Life has continuously worked to create a healthy and safe environment within their organizations.

“I became a new member of this community in 2014, which was at the tail-end of many changes for organizations on campus,” Leyhew said. “In the four years since, I have seen so much growth in our chapters and members, and I whole-heartedly believe we have distanced ourselves from hazing and other negative aspects of Greek life. One of the main goals for the councils in the last few years has been recruiting more members that align with our organizational beliefs and values, and by doing so, I believe we will continue to stay on a positive path.”

Angel Hernandez, the president of the MTSU chapter of Alpha Tau Omega and a junior, shared Leyhew’s view on MTSU’s issues with hazing.

“Zach and Leslie, our FSL coordinators, are doing a great job to change the culture here at MTSU,” Hernandez said. “I don’t feel like it’s as big of an issue as it would be somewhere else. I feel like all the fraternities and sororities here are on the same page when it comes to being against hazing.”

Hernandez also agreed that the ban, while it may come with good intentions, was not the right way to start the conversation.

“I don’t think it was the best way to go about it,” Hernandez said. “The proposal is to ban all (fraternities and sororities). So, it’s starting the conversation off in a negative way. It’s not the best way to start a conversation. The best way to go about it, in my opinion, is to speak at universities or something.”

Following the news of the bill, MTSU Fraternity and Sorority Life Director Leslie Merritt released a statement, which condemned the proposed ban.

The statement read,

“We feel this bill is a disservice to the 1,000+ MTSU fraternity and sorority members who have had positive experiences and the many members who came before them. Fraternities and sororities provide the ability to develop leadership skills, perform community service, raise money for those in need, achieve academic success, network with alumni and form lifelong friendships. The bill fails to acknowledge the good fraternities and sororities provide not only to their members and the universities but also the community as a whole. During the 2016-17 academic year, fraternity and sorority members at MTSU donated $111,425 and almost 16,400 hands-on service hours to local and national causes. MTSU Greek organizations will continue to strive for excellence, and we have a disciplinary process in place when or if someone chooses not to uphold their fraternal values or follow our code of student conduct.”

MTSU Coordinator of Fraternity and Sorority Life Zachery Gosa-Lewis told Sidelines, “I agree with (Merritt) completely, and I am in full support of our students’ rights to associate.”

For more information and updates on the bill, visit here.

To contact News Editor Andrew Wigdor, email newseditor@mtsusidelines.com.

For more news, follow us at www.mtsusidelines.com, on Facebook at MTSU Sidelines and on Twitter at @Sidelines_News.

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