Feb. 15, 2016Vol. 46, Issue 4

Memorials, MOUs, and Momentum

I am writing this column on February 2, a date that connects three events in important ways.

First, February 2, 2016, marks the 11th anniversary of the death of our student Matthew Carrington. He died in the unheated basement of a fraternity house one block from the campus after being forced to do calisthenics and drink excessive amounts of water while fans blew cold air on him in a hazing ritual. His “water intoxication” caused swelling of the brain, seizures, and heart failure. His would-be fraternity “brothers” delayed calling for emergency help for over an hour. He was just 21 years old.

It was no solace to anyone that the deadly event took place in the house of a rogue fraternity, which had already been expelled from the University and stripped of its national affiliation. Matt’s death was tragic and senseless. And, as I said back then to the entire Greek community, it was “the last straw in the University’s experience in dealing with the conditions and behaviors that contributed to it.”

Second, as has been the case every year since Matt’s death, I received a letter today from Debbie Smith, Matt’s mother, telling me about her ongoing efforts to reach high school and college students on the hazards of reckless behavior associated with hazing. Her most important accomplishment to date was seeing the passage of “Matt’s Law” in California in 2006. This measure amended both the state’s Education Code and Penal Code to allow for felony prosecutions when serious injuries or deaths result from hazing rites.

The four fraternity members who presided over Matt’s hazing all pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter charges and served jail time. These were the first felony charges for hazing ever levied in the United States. Debbie has since founded a nonprofit foundation, AHA! (Anti-Hazing Awareness), to continue her efforts.

Third, exactly one week ago, I joined Chico Mayor Mark Sorenson and the chiefs of the Chico Police Department and the University Police Department to sign a Memorandum of Understanding that strengthens cooperation between the city and the University to improve community safety, especially in the downtown area and within a one-mile radius of campus, where there are high concentrations of student residents.

Our efforts have clearly transcended memorials and MOUs, as important as it is to be reminded of what we need to leave behind and what we need to do in order to move forward. —Paul J. Zingg

This MOU originated in a groundbreaking agreement signed in 2006, one year after Matt’s death, and it fulfilled my pledge back then “to align and strengthen our cooperation [with the city], to enforce ordinances to protect the health and safety of the residents and citizens of our community, to expand the jurisdiction of campus discipline authority to behavior occurring off-campus, and to improve our neighborhoods and the quality of life for those who live here.”

I also said in 2006 that I was “convinced that Chico will become a national leader in coming up with solutions [to the problems of hazing and alcohol abuse on campuses].” And there is much evidence to suggest that this is the case, as, for example, a feature article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (December 3, 2014) that highlighted the work at Chico State as a national model in turning the tide of a party school reputation and alcohol abuse. Our efforts have clearly transcended memorials and MOUs, as important as it is to be reminded of what we need to leave behind and what we need to do in order to move forward.

Perhaps the biggest factor in this new direction, though, is one that is not easily quantified, because it is largely driven by anecdote and a sense, rather than hard data, that change is in the air. This is the maturing recognition of our students that there are consequences to their actions both immediate and long-term. Yes, our faculty and staff—and their parents—have always tried to drive this point home. As have Chico State alumni and the leaders and residents of our town.

But preaching a message is one thing. Lived experience is another. And the awareness that flows from the lived experience of a University that shares avenues and aspirations, sidewalks and citizenship, history and identity with its host community focuses on helping our students become mindful of the responsibilities they have as members of both our town and our campus.

Every day, and in so many ways, I see our students embracing this challenge. They are increasingly choosing a path to enrich student life, support the mission of the University, earn the respect of the city, enhance the value of their degrees, and contribute to the integrity and appeal of our story. They are making wise choices more often and more clearly. And this is a habit that will serve them well throughout their lives and honor their alma mater.

 

Paul J. Zingg

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