Power of belonging ‘has its limits,’ KU fraternity pledges learn at freshman orientation

Executive Vice Chancellor Neeli Bendapudi speaks to University of Kansas fraternity men at the Building

Upwards of 380 University of Kansas freshmen fraternity members received a lesson on true brotherhood Thursday evening at the Kansas Union on the University of Kansas campus.

The overarching message from the mandatory orientation, which warned students about the dangers of alcohol abuse and recent hazing tragedies at Penn State University, was that of taking care of each other when it’s needed most.

That time, Neeli Bendapudi told the crowd gathered in the union ballroom, might be right now. A freshman’s first six weeks on campus, she said, are commonly referred to as the “red zone,” when students are most vulnerable to alcohol abuse and sexual assault.

“Those first six weeks when you’re a freshman on campus, that’s when you’re the most likely to get in trouble, the most likely to do something you will truly regret for the rest of your life,” said Bendapudi, KU’s provost and executive vice chancellor.

Bendapudi, who also gave her personal cell number to the hundreds of students, was one of several speakers — including Chancellor Douglas Girod — at that evening’s event, hosted by the Kansas Fraternity Landlords’ League. The nonprofit business organization represents landlords of 10 KU fraternity houses, and part of its mission is to promote best practices among the 1,000 students living in those houses.

The tragedies that can occur all too often within the “red zone” aren’t just limited to students’ first six weeks on campus, however. Jeff Rundle, executive director of Beta Theta Pi Fraternity International, spoke of the ongoing “ripple effect” of the February death of Penn State student Timothy Piazza.

The Beta Theta Pi pledge died that month of complications from severe injuries suffered at a bid acceptance party, caused, police and prosecutors have said, by his participation in an extreme drinking ritual called “the gauntlet.”

A preliminary hearing for 16 of the 18 Penn State students — who prosecutors say waited 12 hours after the incident to call for help — charged with his death took place earlier this month.

The incident left Beta Theta Pi alumni like Rundle “heartbroken,” he said, and contemplating the criticism that pointed to the Penn State incident as “the exact reason that we (the Greek system) shouldn’t exist.”

“I would argue that this generation — your generation and the men that will come after you — need this experience more than ever,” Rundle said. “That you all can benefit from this experience and produce incredible results, if given the opportunities to lead, to govern, at times to struggle, but to correct that and be accountable for your actions.”

Rundle, a Kansas State University alumnus, said one of the many benefits of fraternity life is the “power of belonging” to a well-established brotherhood.

“But guys, it has its limits,” Rundle reminded the pledges. “And I hope that you would always put your own dignity, your own self-worth and your own common sense ahead of that power of belonging, and that you’d do the same for the men that would come after you.”

C.J. Rieg, a senior assistant district attorney for Douglas County, expressed similar sentiments in her remarks to the young men. She hoped, she said that evening, that she would never have to face any of them in the courtroom, reminding the pledges of the legal consequences of underage drinking and other risky behaviors.

While discouraging illegal activity, Rieg also pointed out to students that Kansas law offers immunity for those who call 911 if they see a friend suffering from possible alcohol poisoning.

Police and medical professionals, she said, are here to help.

“My thoughts for you are to be a good person, treat others as you want to be treated and be able to sleep at night knowing that you were a good man today, that you’re the one who has to live with yourself for the rest of your life,” Rieg said. “Act responsibly, be respectful, be smart and be leaders — the leaders that you are.”

Thursday’s orientation was the first of its kind hosted at KU, Chancellor Girod said. The event was mandatory for all freshmen pledges belonging to KFLL fraternities.