A Fraternity Responds to a Tragedy

I called my father 13 years ago to let him know I was planning to pledge a fraternity. His response: “Don’t become a statistic.”

At Cal State-Fresno this past weekend, we saw coverage of the kind of event that leads so many parents to say similar messages to their sons. Regardless of the circumstances of the death of Philip Dhanens, a Theta Chi Fraternity pledge, it’s certainly a tragic event and a blemish on the reputation of the Greek system, Cal State-Fresno and Theta Chi Fraternity (full disclosure: I am also a Theta Chi).

Theta Chi has responded to the event with this statement:

The thoughts and prayers of the members of Theta Chi International Fraternity are with the family and friends of Philip Dhanens. Our deepest sympathy is with them during this difficult time.

Theta Chi Fraternity has a strict anti-hazing policy, and strict guidelines for chapters which prohibit underage alcohol consumption. Theta Chi Fraternity has dispatched senior representatives of the international organization to Fresno to assess the situation. The Fraternity intends to fully cooperate with local authorities and the administration of California State University, Fresno, to find out exactly what happened, and to determine what course of action to take next with respect to the local chapter. Based upon the preliminary details reported to our International Headquarters office, the CSU Fresno chapter was suspended by the Fraternity on Saturday.

What does this statement do well?

  • It expresses sympathy without laying blame. We aren’t sure about exact details of Philip’s death yet, but we know it was a tragic event and I’m sure that everyone is sorry that it happened. It’s sad that organizations have to think this way, but sympathy is a heartfelt sentiment that avoids any legal implications (i.e. accepting responsibility).
  • It lets the public know the Fraternity has policies against hazing and underage drinking. We still don’t know if Philip chose to drink too much or was forced to drink too much, but we know he wasn’t old enough to drink legally. That means that if Philip consumed alcohol at the fraternity house under any circumstances, this Theta Chi chapter did not abide by Fraternity policy .
  • It explains what the Fraternity has done. Senior Fraternity representatives have been sent to Fresno to assess the situation and the chapter involved has been suspended. This lets people know that the Fraternity is actively looking into and reacting to the situation.
  • It makes clear that the Fraternity intends to cooperate with authorities. This lets the public know that the Fraternity wants to be part of making sure events like this aren’t repeated.

What is the statement missing?

  • Details. Theta Chi needs to establish itself as an information source on this event. ┬áThe statement doesn’t mention anything about what happened and that information needs to be available through the Fraternity. The Fraternity leadership needs to communicate proactively and become an information source to build credibility — something fraternities often lack in these situations.
  • History. What has the Fraternity done in the past to prevent hazing/underage drinking? What has the chapter done to prevent foul play? Policies are great, but how is the Fraternity proactively enforcing them? I know for a fact that the Fraternity headquarters sends out representatives throughout the year to consult with leaders at every chapter across the country, but there’s no mention of that here. That information needs to be out there and it needs to be prominent.

What does the Fraternity need to do?

  • Be honest. There can’t be any cover-ups here. Every bit of information Fraternity leaders and members have needs to be out there. If the chapter was involved, it needs to be held responsible and all actions taken need to be made public.
  • Be human. Let’s be real here — a young man is dead. No spin, no BS, no dodging responsibility.
  • Be visible. The local chapter can’t simply hide in the fraternity house. Fraternity leaders and chapter members need to be involved in communicating about what happened. Not communicating simply creates a vacuum of information and if the Fraternity isn’t providing the information, someone else will.
  • Be patient. No one can jump to conclusions yet. It’s tragic that a young man is dead, but let’s not punish other young men until we’re certain how and to what extent they were involved.
  • Change up its website. The Fraternity was right to add a link to the statement on its home page, but it may want to edit the scrolling photos on the top of the page. Yes, it’s good to publicize the accomplishments of other Theta Chi chapters, but maybe the last thing a friend or member of the Dhanens family wants to see is a photo of a bunch of smiling Brothers from another chapter front and center on the Fraternity’s website.

Personally, I’ll say that the experiences I’ve had as a Theta Chi Brother have been wonderful and have positively affected the relationships I’ve had throughout my adult life. I continue to believe in my Fraternity’s traditions and ideals. I express my sincerest sympathies to the family and friends of Philip Dhanens and I hope that, through the actions taken in responding to his tragic death, events like this will be prevented from happening again.