A University of Southern Mississippi sophomore faces grand larceny charges after a fraternity scavenger hunt resulted in the death of two Chilean flamingos at the Hattiesburg Zoo. The Texas Tech chapter of Phi Delta Theta lost its charter after displaying a banner at a September party that is unfit for print. Clemson University last month suspended all social activities for some two dozen fraternities following the August death of a student and what officials say are a “high number” of incidents “ranging from alcohol-related medical emergencies to sexual misconduct.”
The incidents range from the weird to the crude to the fatal, but they’re fueling a growing debate about the role of fraternities in college life and sparking a backlash on at least some campuses against Greek life.
More than 60 people have died since 2005 in fraternity-related incidents, according to Bloomberg Data, and more than 70 colleges and universities are under investigation after accusations that the institutions improperly handled sexual assault cases.
Citing cases of alcohol abuse, sexual and racial harassment and hazing, some small liberal arts schools have already banned fraternities altogether, including Middlebury College and Colby College. Connecticut’s Wesleyan College sparked headlines last month when it announced it was forcing the school’s three residential fraternities to go co-ed. Dartmouth College, whose fraternities helped inspire the movie “Animal House,” recently mandated the end of pledge season, the source for many hazing incidents.
“To improve their situation, [fraternities need to] eliminate, or at least reduce as much as possible, these violent and sexist images and any behavior that goes along with them,” said Alan Reifman, a professor of human development and family studies at Texas Tech. “That would be a major step to improve the situation.”
The offensive banner was not the only serious incident involving fraternities at the Lubbock, Texas, school.
Police responding to noise complaints at a house near Texas Tech the weekend before classes began early last month found a party full of college students celebrating before their first day of classes, many of whom were underage. The police left, but they returned a few hours later. This time, the call was more serious.
Dalton Debrick, an 18-year-old freshman rushing the Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity, was found dead at the off-campus party. The cause of death was later determined to be acute alcohol intoxication. The fraternity was closed on the Texas Tech campus for a minimum of four years.
A Penn State student committed suicide after being hazed by members of Phi Sigma Kappa. His parents found pictures on his phone of a man blindfolded with a gun to his head, and they also found messages explaining that pledges had to choose between penetrating themselves with a sex toy or snorting cocaine, according to Bloomberg. The chapter was suspended for six years.
“I see not only our campus but all campuses struggling with the question around the direction the fraternities need to take, and how that will fit in with the overall institution of the school,” said Michael Laliberte, vice chancellor for student affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
Fraternity defenders say anecdotal evidence tends to overstate the role the all-male societies play in the problems that face all colleges and universities. Most fraternity brothers do not get caught in disciplinary problems, must answer to campus overseers and their national chartering organization and tend to be more loyal — and generous — to their school once they graduate.
Banning organized on-campus fraternities, they argue, and the drinking, socializing and other mischief that college students engage in will simply move to off-campus, unregulated sites, making the problem even worse.
Bans “don’t accomplish anything,” Thomas Fox, national executive director of Psi Upsilon, told the publication Inside Higher Ed recently.
“The problems that fraternities and sororities [entail] exist outside of the Greek system as well. We offer educational opportunities to help combat these issues and have alumni volunteers to help mentor our members. When done right, we are complementing the academic mission of the institutions where we exist,” he said.
Peter Smithhisler, president and chief executive officer of the umbrella North American Interfraternity Conference, said it has become “increasingly fashionable to denigrate the college fraternity experience as little more than an organized excuse to misbehave.”
In a blog post this spring, Mr. Smithhisler argued that fraternities must do a better job of policing themselves — and highlight the charitable and social work they do — if they want to counter a rising anti-fraternity tide. Among his recommendations: Eliminate hazing, enforce drinking restrictions and regularly self-assess the health of each house.
“If we intend to preserve all that is right with today’s fraternity movement, we must improve our efforts to address that which is wrong,” he wrote.
But some independent research points to troubling signs related to Greek life and culture. Two studies in 2007 and 2009 by NASPA, the professional group for student affairs administrators in higher education, found that fraternity members were three times as likely to commit rape as the average college student and twice as likely to engage in binge drinking and other problem activities.
Most see eliminating Greek organizations at big public schools, where there may be dozens of sororities and fraternities with thousands of members, as unrealistic. But how to temper the abuses while saving the system remains a major challenge.
While there are certainly fraternities involved in inappropriate and extreme behavior, there are unmistakable benefits that fraternities bring to campuses. The question is whether the bad is starting to outweigh the good.
“Overall, I would say that [fraternities] are very positive,” the University of Wisconsin’s Mr. Laliberte said.
Mr. Reifman said that the fraternity question must be examined on a “house-by-house” basis, but he added that there are certainly houses and chapters making a major positive impact on their community and institution.
Fraternities such as Alpha Sigma Phi are giving presentations on sexual assault prevention as well as how to behave during social events. At Indiana University, Alpha Sigma Phi and 20 other fraternities released statements condemning sexual assault.
Zeta Beta Tau brothers at George Washington University raised $17,000 for the Children’s Miracle Network last year, and they are also educating members about inappropriate behavior.
“We worked together to provide programming for our members, which included teaching them about safe dating practices and what to look for among friends when they’re facing situations that may be uncomfortable for them,” Daniel Egel-Weiss, president of Zeta Beta Tau, said.
Mr. Egel-Weiss said his chapter has never had an instance of inappropriate behavior since it was established on the George Washington campus in 2007. He also said most fraternities don’t have instances of such actions, but the instances that do happen point “to mismanagement of the individual fraternity chapter rather than fraternity culture.”