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Seton Hall and Purdue watching Rider

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Tragedy sparks Greek debate
Fraternities’ future questioned by some
Wednesday, August 15, 2007

College officials nationwide are shuddering over the indictments of two Rider University administrators in the alleged hazing death of a fraternity pledge, but experts say Greek life will survive amid growing caution.

“This is unprecedented,” said Kyle Pendleton, president of the Association of Fraternity Advisors and dean of students at Purdue University in Indiana, about the indictments. “There is no protocol for anything like this.”

Five people, including the dean of students and the director of Greek life, have been indicted by a Mercer County grand jury on a charge of fourth-degree aggravated hazing in the death of freshman Gary DeVercelly Jr. in March. DeVercelly died of alcohol poisoning after allegedly drinking three-quarters of a bottle of vodka during a pledging ritual.

Three of the five, including Anthony Campbell, the dean of students, appeared in Superior Court last week and entered pleas of innocent. Two are due in court tomorrow, including Ada Badgley, the director of Greek life.

While the case will be followed by university administrators nationwide, Pendleton said he does not think it will endanger fraternities and sororities or their traditional role in college life.

Pendleton said any campus organization where such an incident occurred would come under scrutiny.

“It could be a sports team, a residence hall or a student organization,” he said. “Any time there is an incident on campus, the campus is going to take a look at that culture.

“I don’t think the reaction is close fraternities and sororities,” he said.

Indeed, many hazing deaths and injuries have been reported on campuses throughout the country over the years, even though schools often respond by cracking down on underage drinking. Not to mention the incidents that result from the combustible mix of youth and alcohol.

At Rider, a fraternity pledge died in a car crash in 1988 while on the way to buy more liquor for a frat party. The driver was charged with aggravated manslaughter.

Ironically, Purdue was the site of one of the earliest reported hazing deaths in 1913. A freshman died there in a ritual fight with upperclassmen under a water tower, according to Hank Nuwer, a journalism professor at Franklin College in Indiana who has studied the issue.

Purdue suspended three student organizations in 2005 and two fraternities in 2006 as a result of hazing incidents, according to published reports.

In the aftermath of DeVercelly’s death, Rider has dissolved the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity where the party occurred, banned Greek organizations from hosting alcohol-related events and decided to put a staff chaperone in each fraternity and sorority house.

While some court house observers believe the case against the Rider University administrators will be dismissed before it reaches a jury, Rutgers University-Newarklaw professor George Thomas does not.

“If they can show the dean of students knew this kind of hazing was going on and didn’t stop it, you can go to the jury with it,” Thomas said.

However, proving the aggravated hazing charge to a jury is more problematic, he added.

“As long as there isn’t some evidence the dean of students knew that substantial alcohol use was going on, the jury might then acquit him,” Thomas said. “The defense is going to argue that everybody knows that fraternities drink.”

Nuwer, who has written three books on hazing and edited a fourth, called the Rider case “historic” and important in stopping the practice.

“Administrators are very busy people, but hazing prevention isn’t as high or so pressing on many of their ‘Most Pressing Needs’ lists until a death or serious injury occurs,” Nuwer said. “This certainly will change that.

“This absolutely will send a deep chill at those colleges which know they have a hazing problem with Greeks or athletes, but it hasn’t been perceived as a major ‘drop-everything-and-change-the-culture’ matter,'” he said.

“What I do predict is that there will be much debate in board of trustee meetings at many colleges about the need only to have non-hazing Greeks and non-hazing athletic teams and clubs operating on campus. Those talks are long overdue,” he said.

At the same time, Nuwer said the issue is complicated.

“On one hand, the DeVercelly family’s agony is certainly not to be ignored. On the other, the kind of people who become Greek advisers or deans of students are hardly the sort to ever get a criminal charge in their lives,” he said. “It isn’t much of a reach to imagine how devastating charges must be to such people.”

And legal costs for educational institutions can be enormous.

A jury awarded the parents of a University of Miami freshman $14 million after he died from fraternity hazing in 2002. And the Massachusetts Institute of Technology paid $6 million in 1997 for the alcohol-related death of an 18-year-old fraternity pledge, Nuwer said.

Susan Lipkins, a psychologist who wrote “Preventing Hazing,” believes the grand jury was right to charge the two Rider administrators because they are ultimately responsible for students’ safety.

In hazing there is a tradition to repeat the same type of behaviors year after year, she said. “Hazing is planned four or five months in advance and students look forward to it,” Lipkins said. “I am quite sure the university knew, and if they did not, they should have, that underage drinking was taking place.”

Pledges are often put in a position where they have little choice but to take part in drinking rituals, Lipkins said.

When a prospective fraternity member refuses to do what they are told and withdraws, it’s called “a dead pledge,” Lipkins said. “They go after that person. They don’t want you to leave. It’s like the army. You’re in it, once you sign up. They say people can leave but basically they make your life miserable if you leave. They don’t want you to leave and say this is a bad group.”

Despite the indictments and other incidents of student deaths during hazing, Lipkins believes that university officials will not chase Greek organizations from their campuses.

“It’s a symbiotic relationship,” she said.

Universities depend on Greek organizations for their social scene. They “create an ambience that will attract students,” she said. Also, graduates who were in fraternities or sororities “tend to be alumni who come back and are larger contributors and donors.”

Universities are also often short of dormitory space so they depend on Greek organizations to provide housing, she said. And, many administrators were members of sororities or fraternities themselves and have fond memories of that time in their lives.

Karen Van Norman, the dean of students at Seton Hall University, confirmed that she and her colleagues are watching the Rider case closely.

“When the incident happened at Rider, we used that as a teachable moment with our own Greek organizations,” Van Horn said. “Frankly, we were already doing a lot of proactive things with our Greek organizations. We don’t have special housing just for Greeks. We do require all our Greek organizations to have insurance and they must provide proof of insurance.”

Despite the university’s rule against hazing, in 2005 two members of a rogue fraternity at Seton Hall allegedly kidnapped and beat up a pledge.

Cass Cliatt, a spokeswoman for Princeton University, said Princeton does not have administrative oversight of organizations that might traditionally promote hazing behavior.

“But we take alcohol abuse very seriously,” Cliatt said. “We’re constantly in communication with the leaders of our student organizations to encourage responsible behavior and make them aware of the prohibition on hazing,” she said.

Princeton, where binge drinking has been an issue at time, has had ongoing programs to prevent high-risk student drinking, Cliatt said. “We use a multi-pronged approach that calls on students, departments, resource providers and administrators to take an active part in confronting issues of high-risk drinking.”

© 2007  The Times of Trenton
© 2007 All Rights Reserved.

By Hank Nuwer

Journalist Hank Nuwer is the Alaska author of Hazing: Destroying Young Lives; Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. In April of 2024, the Alaska Press Club awarded him first place in the Best Columnist division and Best Humorist, second place.

He has written articles or columns on hazing for the Sunday Times of India, Toronto Globe & Mail, Harper's Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His current book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press. He is married to Malgorzata Wroblewska Nuwer of Warsaw, Poland and Fairbanks, Alaska. Nuwer is a former columnist for the Greenville (Ohio)Early Bird and former managing editor of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in Alaska.
Nuwer was named the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists columnist of the year in 2021 for his “After Darke” column in the Early Bird. He also won third place for the column in 2022 from the Indiana chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He and his wife Gosia, recently of Union City, Ind., have owned 20 acres in Alaska for many years. “The move is a sort-of coming home for us,” said Nuwer. As a journalist, he’s written about the Alaskan Iditarod sled-dog race and other Alaska topics. Read his musings in his blog at Real Alaska Daily-- and in his weekly column "Far from Randolph" in the Winchester Star-Gazette of Randolph County, Indiana.

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