The deaths of at least four fraternity pledges this year have helped fuel a re-examination of Greek life at U.S. colleges, which have long struggled with how to crack down on hazing, alcohol abuse and other unwelcome aspects without disbanding organizations that have loyal members and alumni.
Changing attitudes, increased public scrutiny and fears of facing lawsuits also have caused schools to take action, anti-hazing advocates say. Tracy Maxwell, founder of HazingPrevention.org and a longtime Greek life consultant, sees parallels with the national discussion about sexual harassment.
“People are at a breaking point, where they’re not willing to accept behavior that has been acceptable in some circles for decades or centuries,” she said.
Numerous universities have suspended fraternity activities on their campuses this fall, including in the Midwest. Grand Valley State University banned fraternity Sigma Phi Epsilon for at least five years after a 21-year-old Sigma Phi Epsilon member was treated after consuming too much alcohol revealed student code violations for hazing and consumption of alcohol. Last spring, GVSU’s chapter of Delta Upsilon was shut down after multiple violations.
“The message we are trying to send all our organizations is to live the values you’ve set that match those of the university,? GVSU’s acting vice provost for student affairs and dean of students Stephen Glass told the Grand Rapids Press. “Respect for others, integrity and positive development of individuals are aspects of our community values. We have got a lot of really good students and high standards.?
The University of Michigan and Ohio State University suspended all fraternity social activities amid allegations of hazing and sexual misconduct.
Florida State suspended 55 fraternities and sororities following a pledge’s suspected alcohol-related death. Texas State did the same when a student died following an initiation ritual.
Twenty-six people are charged in the Penn State case over the February death of Tim Piazza, a 19-year-old student from New Jersey. Investigators said security camera footage from a fraternity house showed he was given 18 drinks within 90 minutes.
At Louisiana State, 10 people were arrested on misdemeanor hazing charges in the alcohol-related death of 18-year-old Maxwell Gruver, and one suspect also was charged with felony negligent homicide.
Even colleges that haven’t had practicing caution. Indiana University’s student-led Interfraternity Council voluntarily suspended fraternity social events at which alcohol is served, as well as barring unsupervised new member activities until the spring to assess the college’s Greek life culture. The university’s Sigma Nu chapter is currently serving a three-year suspension for violations of the school’s alcohol and hazing policies.
At Hope College, there have been no fraternity sanctions or suspensions since 2002, and there haven’t been any policy infraction investigations for the past couple of years. However, they have a process in place just in case.
“Fraternities and sororities are subject to the same conduct policies as every other student and student organization on campus,” said Jennifer Fellinger, Hope’s vice president of public affairs and marketing. “When there is an alleged policy infraction, the college has a judicial process for the individuals or group involved.”
Researchers have limited data about hazing and what strategies could best stop it — which prompted a pending federal proposal to require that colleges report data on hazing incidents — but they can learn from studies on related topics, such as bullying and public health, said Elizabeth Allan, a University of Maine professor who leads the Hazing Prevention Consortium.
Fraternities say they’ve long worked to tackle issues such as hazing and alcohol abuse in policy and practice, and that efforts made to hold individuals and chapters accountable are a sign of that.
“Students are saying enough is enough, and we want to lead ourselves out of this, and we want to work with the university and our organizations and our stakeholders to enhance health and safety,” said Heather Kirk, spokeswoman at the North-American Interfraternity Conference.