Last month, in the wake of the Felicity Huffman/Lori Loughlin/et al. college admissions scandal, I wrote a column about Americans' outdated obsession with so-called "elite" colleges and universities. Space restrictions prevented me from discussing another troublesome issue: the fraternity culture at many American universities. Several years ago, I read an article in Rolling Stone magazine, "Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy." The author, Andrew Lohse, is a former Dartmouth student. Lohse blew the whistle on truly repulsive hazing practices at Dartmouth – and found himself expelled for his trouble, while his fraternity brothers escaped unscathed. His Rolling Stone interview (and the book he later wrote with the same title) describes his experience and his disillusionment with the Greek culture at the Ivy Leagues.
The story was another example of the serious problems facing higher education today. Hazing is by no means unique to the Ivy Leagues; there are more than 6,000 fraternity chapters at nearly 1,000 colleges and universities across the U.S., and every year brings at least one major news story about a hazing incident resulting in serious injury or death. Nor is this a modern phenomenon; according to author and researcher Hank Nuwer, the first recorded death attributable to hazing dates back to 1838. No list is comprehensive, because the vast majority of hazing incidents go unreported. But the number of deaths in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries is sobering (or should be). There have been over 200 hazing-related deaths – 40 between 2007 and 2017 alone – and there has been at least one death every year since 1969. The single most frequent cause of death is alcohol poisoning (with violence not far behind).
Despite the official policies of most colleges, universities and the national fraternity leadership that prohibit hazing, and despite annual anti-hazing and hazing awareness efforts, conversations with college students reveal that hazing continues. And the statistics referenced above make clear that hazing practices are just as potentially lethal as ever.
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In addition to potentially lethal initiation rituals, the ever-present alcohol abuse creates problems of its own. It cannot be a surprise that the overwhelming majority of sexual assault complaints on campuses involve one or both parties consuming alcohol (or other substances). An internet search of "sexual assault claims against fraternities" brings up dozens of stories. Researchers have published studies showing that fraternity members are dramatically more likely to commit rape or other sexual assault (although theories about why this may be vary). Andrew Lohse wrote extensively about how the "bro" culture in Dartmouth's fraternities was often expressed in terms of entitlement to sexual conduct with women – including unwilling and overly intoxicated women.
What continues to draw college students to Greek life?
In addition to the creation of a social network – particularly at larger schools – much of the appeal is tradition. Fraternities and sororities have been a part of American college life almost since the founding of the country. Secret student societies existed in the early-to-mid 1700s. The first "modern" fraternity formed in the United States was Phi Beta Kappa, founded at the College of William & Mary in 1775. (Sororities arose quite a bit later, in the mid-1800s.) Although fraternal organizations have had their share of distasteful membership policies – including racial, religious and ethnic segregation – they have also served to promote scholastic achievement, brotherhood and service to the community.
At least in theory. When one visits the websites for the National Pan-hellenic Council (governing sororities) and the North American Interfraternity Conference, the pictures convey smiling, clean-cut American youth engaging in healthy pastimes, forming fast, multicultural friendships and participating in networking activities that open doors to future success.
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No doubt some of this is true. But Greek life has a darker side as well. Although sororities do not have the history of hazing fraternities do, the practices of "rush" and pledging have often been fraught with the kind of deliberate exclusion that makes queen bees and mean girls infamous.
When asking fraternity and sorority members what they love best about their experience, many describe a sense of belonging. Andrew Lohse wrote powerfully that the hazing rituals at Dartmouth – as vile and disgusting as they were – created a "bond" that brought with it entry into the upper echelons of society – and lasted for life.
I wonder whether this sense of camaraderie could not be created in some other way. I know that fraternities and sororities often have philanthropic causes, but it strikes me that this is often an afterthought to hard partying. What if fraternities were to have initiation rituals dedicated to service of some desperately needed cause, like feeding the hungry; building homes for the homeless; driving veterans or homebound elderly people to doctors' appointments, shopping and social events? A few years ago, a video went viral about of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at UCLA. The campus chapter house is across the street from a hospital. The young men became aware of a little girl named Alexandra, whose hospital room faced their house and who was undergoing cancer treatments. They spelled her nickname – "Lexi" – on their roof in Christmas lights to lift her spirits. The popular support they received for that simple kindness shocked the SAE members and left them feeling uplifted about themselves.
Approximately 750,000 undergraduate students are members of a fraternity or sorority. Imagine the difference they could make if they were to devote their energies to helping, instead of hazing.