COLUMBIA — A billboard near Clemson University still begs passersby for information on what happened to Tucker Hipps on Sept. 22, 2014.
The details surrounding the Clemson student’s death during a Sigma Phi Epsilon pledge run remain cloudy. But for parents worried about the future of their children at South Carolina public colleges and universities, there’s soon to be more disclosure of any unruly campus conduct that occurs.
A new law bearing the name of Cindy Hipps’ only child requires schools to compile and disclose reports on fraternity and sorority misconduct. The types of violations that must be posted include those having to do with alcohol, drugs, hazing and sexual assault. Soon they will be a click away on Clemson’s and other schools’ websites.
“We want parents and students to have access to information that will aid their decision on whether to join one organization versus another or to join at all,” Hipps said. “This would be information that may have saved our son’s life had we known what we know today.”
Tucker Hipps was found dead in Lake Hartwell below a bridge he’s believed to have fallen from. The family has filed wrongful death lawsuits against the local and national chapter of the fraternity, three of its members and Clemson alleging Hipps was forced to walk along a bridge railing. The Oconee County Sheriff’s Office investigation remains open with no charges filed.
Eight public universities across the state say they’ll be in compliance with Hipps law this fall, as required, and will be able to absorb the roughly $330,000 annual cost. Many universities reduced their estimated costs since the law only requires reporting on Greek organizations, not all student groups.
Some schools are slowly making the transition. Winthrop University lists and tracks conduct cases, but officials say the school expects to take an allowed one-year extension to ensure full compliance with the new law.
The University of South Carolina began compiling and posting Greek organizations’ offenses online as far back as 2011. Clemson started doing the same in the fall of 2014. The new law has additional requirements, including the link be in a “prominent location” on the school’s website and the initial misconduct report must include incidents since 2012.
Even with USC’s years of reporting, nearly 75 percent of the school’s chapters, 18 in all, have been closed or placed on probation over the past three years for hazing, alcohol and drug violations, according to the Free Times of Columbia. Currently, eight of 24 Clemson chapters, including Sigma Phi Epsilon, are under suspension, one indefinitely.
“In the first five weeks of the 2014 school year, it was reported that there were at least 15 complaints made against fraternities at Clemson, half of which were serious enough that the university had to bring in law enforcement,” Cindy Hipps’ husband, Gary, said in a statement to lawmakers this year. “None of this was ready information before Tucker died.”
For Rep. Joshua Putnam, R-Piedmont, author of the law, the move is an example of what shining light on problematic groups can generate. Pressure from Putnam up until the last few minutes of the legislative session on June 2 helped send the bill to Haley’s desk.
“It’s going to help students and their parents have better information to make better choices with information you might not know as a freshman,” Putnam said. “As a result, we’ll put a stop to some of this questionable, dangerous activity that shouldn’t be going on.”
USC officials said part of a recently approved $50 fee for Greek life members will go toward covering the $91,500 it estimates it will need for a new full-time student affairs staffer and a new law enforcement officer. USC may even go further in its reform. Fed up with the violations and the death of a USC pledge from alcohol poisoning last year, officials have proposed ending the controversial pledge process.
College of Charleston President Glenn McConnell announced in a March op/ed in The Post and Courier that his school will report on all student organizations in its initial annual report and subsequent required semester reports for the next three years. The college plans to hire an additional staffer to handle reporting for $75,000 a year.
Cindy Hipps had a simple message: “Those groups with many violations will either clean up their act or disappear.”