It isn’t all drinking till you die.
Trinity University recently suspended the charter of local sorority Chi Beta Epsilon after pledges were forced to wear blacked-out goggles while traveling to retreats and ugly “pledge boots” passed down from older members.
The girls allegedly retaliated against the whistleblower by flipping her the bird and posting pictures of it on the social networking site Facebook, Dean of Students David Tuttle said.
The sorority members have disputed the university’s version of events, and the sorority has declined comment.
Like many other universities, Trinity is taking a broader view of what constitutes hazing by cracking down on groups that won’t let go of initiation rites that may seem funny and harmless, but still are humiliating.
Across the nation, national Greek organizations have suspended chapters for stunts such as abandoning pledges in a state park or making them wear a diaper at a party. Suspensions aren’t a popular tactic with students or some alumni, who argue that hazing rituals are fun and build loyalty, but administrators and experts who study hazing say zero tolerance is the only way to ensure it doesn’t get out of hand.
“There is no such thing as a little bit of good hazing,” said Peter Smithhisler, vice president of the North-American Interfraternity Conference, which has 350,000 undergraduate members in the U.S. and Canada.
At the University of Texas at San Antonio, 2 percent of the students go Greek, compared with 25 percent at Trinity and 17 percent at St. Mary’s University. At Trinity, fraternities and sororities are local, but at UTSA and St. Mary’s they mostly are connected to national chapters that impose strict hazing guidelines.
UTSA has suspended the charters of at least two fraternities in the past few years for forcing pledges to do calisthenics, screaming at them and providing alcohol to minors, and St. Mary’s last year suspended its one local fraternity for calisthenics. University of the Incarnate Word also has Greek organizations but reports no recent charter suspensions.
Earlier this month, police charged three students at Texas State University with public intoxication or driving while intoxicated after their pickup was swept into the Blanco River following a toga party at the Kappa Sigma fraternity house. No one was hurt, but the chapter was suspended pending an investigation by the university and alumni board.
Norman Pollard, dean of students at Alfred University in New York, co-authored a 2000 study that showed nearly half of all high school students had been hazed before setting foot on a college campus, mostly to join sports teams or other clubs.
Once in college, about 20 percent of students are hazed, mostly in varsity sports and social fraternities and sororities, according to a 2006 study from the University of Maine.
So what’s wrong with even the minor humiliation an otherwise fashionable Chi Beta Epsilon pledge might feel walking around in ugly old boots?
“Readers look at this behavior and say, ‘What’s the big deal?”‘ Pollard said. “But think about young people. If they are taught this lesson about power and control, it doesn’t end when they gain membership. They take that into relationships, into marriage. It is really worth our attention and effort to try and change this.”
More worrisome, he said, is that what starts as teasing often escalates.
“We found that those organizations that require the silly stuff, especially in public, they are doing much more dangerous activities in private,” Pollard said.
The Texas law bans beating, branding, forced calisthenics, sleep deprivation, forced consumption of food, water, or alcohol and any activity that causes extreme mental stress or humiliation.
Both incidents involved alcohol poisoning, and at UT, the 2005 death of freshman pledge Phanta “Jack” Phoummarath.
Where’s the line?
Earlier this month, Phi Gamma Delta fraternity suspended a chapter at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, after pledges were abandoned at a state park in cold weather, the Columbus Dispatch reported.
In the past two years, the university also has suspended a sorority for making the girls stand against a wall in a chair position for hours, and a fraternity whose pledges were forced to eat gross food and wake up in the middle of the night to do chores, the newspaper reported.
At North Carolina State University, a fraternity was suspended for making pledges run naked through Greek houses, and at Tulane University in New Orleans, a fraternity was punished for parading a pledge around at a party wearing only a diaper.
Last year, Trinity expanded its hazing policy to ban “any activity that places new members in a subservient position to experienced members.” That means no more playing servant to older members or making new members wear silly attire.
In other words, nothing fun, in students’ views.
“I would go as far as to say the university policy is ridiculous,” said Brian Fitzpatrick, a Trinity student from San Antonio. “It takes away from university life and it takes power away from the students.”
“Putting a bandana around someone’s eyes and forcing them into the woods is kind of fun, not hazing,” said David McFarlane, a freshman. “When you are forcing them to drink alcohol and, like, take 20 shots, that’s crossing the line.”
But trying to draw that line is too hard, university officials say, hence the zero tolerance policy.
“I sat and listened to a student say to me that his membership in his fraternity would not mean as much as his father’s did because he would not have to go through as tough a hazing program, and it was all my fault,” said Gage Paine, vice president for student affairs at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Before coming to UTSA earlier this year, Paine worked in student affairs at Trinity and at the University of Texas at Austin.
Alex Massad, a junior at Trinity, said he was forced to eat a box of Twinkies and drink a large bottle of grape soda to join an athletic organization, but thought it was harmless.
“Hazing always has the connotation of something bad,” Massad said. “There is hazing and there are traditional rituals. When you put people through something together, it builds a brotherhood or a bond.”
In place of hazing, universities and national chapters expect fraternities and sororities to put some thought into creating positive bonding experiences for new pledges. Smithhisler’s organization also has spent a lot of time and money getting Greeks to replace Fear Factor-inspired bonding rites with positive, team-building challenges such as volunteering or raising money for charity.
But many students and alumni complain that harsh rules are destroying tradition.
“I think that they are limiting these groups so much so now they are breaking the spirit of the sorority,” said Carey Wilkerson, a 1986 Trinity graduate and pledge mistress for the school’s Spurs sorority. “The way they do it now, it is so watered down the girls don’t build those relationships.”
“The courts and most institutions don’t buy that anymore because the draw of membership is so strong for some people,” Tuttle said. “People have hazed themselves to death.”
In 2005, Alpha Delta Epsilon got the boot for stuffing beer-drinking pledges in the back of a moving van. Details of an incident last year that got the Triniteers — a social fraternity at Trinity — kicked off campus were so embarrassing the university never released them.
The Triniteers also were involved in the university’s only pledging-related death, in 1991. A Triniteer pledge was struck by a car and killed while climbing back into a van en route to a pledge retreat. The van’s occupants were drinking and had stopped on the side of the road to get sick. The same fraternity also got in trouble several years later for dressing a Jewish pledge in a Nazi uniform.
Given the seriousness of those incidents, last month’s suspension of the Chi Beta Epsilon sorority for, in effect, being silly and maybe a little mean, seems a bit over the top to some alumni.
“The Chi Betas have a long history at Trinity,” said Wilkerson, who is now vice president of the H&R Block Foundation in Kansas City, Mo. “You know how many of those alumni donate to the university?”
In Wilkerson’s day, the Spurs forced pledges to elephant walk through the men’s dorm chanting: “We must, we must, we must increase our bust.”
“We did crazy stuff, but for me, I don’t think it was negative,” she said. “We never forced anyone to drink alcohol or do things to physically hurt your body. It was all in good fun and it was a way of building trust and camaraderie.”
Like her fellow Spurs, Wilkerson can still remember the last names of the girls in her pledge class 20 years later. She keeps in touch with many of them.
Despite the criticism from students and alumni, administrators say some fraternities and sororities have got the message and are embracing new initiation rites.
Lizz Glomb, a Trinity student who is a member of the Gamma Chi Delta sorority, said her organization no longer makes the girls wear 50 braids in their hair and burlap sacks, or do anything they don’t willingly do themselves.
“I like to think they are good changes,” Glomb said. “Everyone is starting to see that orientation isn’t the same for every pledge class. It’s going to change every year, but always for the better.”