The Times of Trenton
August 15, 2007
Tragedy sparks Greek debate
Fraternities’ future questioned by some
BY LINDA STEIN
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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.”
Â© 2007 The Times of Trenton