Hazing News

Washington Post commentary on hazing

Here is the link and excerpt


The headlines keep on coming these days: one school after another taking action to curb the activities of fraternities because of hazing gone wrong. Florida State University recently suspended all Greek life after the death of a fraternity pledge, as did Texas State University after an alcohol-related death of a fraternity pledge. At Penn State University, 17 members of a fraternity were recently charged in the alcohol-related death of a pledge earlier this year.

While there is no official list of hazing-related deaths nationwide, the Los Angeles Times recently quoted Hank Nuwer, a journalism professor at Franklin College in Indiana who has been studying hazing for decades, as saying he has counted at least one death each year from hazing since 1959 in the United States and Canada, most of them involving fraternities and alcohol.

Are hazing-related deaths inevitable? Are colleges and universities doing enough to stem the activities of Greek organizations where these deaths have occurred? These and related questions are discussed in this post by Liz Willen, a veteran journalist and editor of the Hechinger Report, an independent news outlet focused on innovation and inequality. This appeared on the Hechinger Report, and Willen gave me permission to publish it.


By Liz Willen

A few days after headlines exploded about yet another university president suspending Greek life activities after yet another hazing death, a group of college presidents sat around a dinner table expressing concern about bad behavior at fraternities.

But somehow, they couldn’t help singing their praises as well.

Fraternities foster a sense of belonging. Their members do community service and care about social welfare. They boost retention and graduation rates. They raise money for charity and provide vast alumni job networks. They add value to the college experience. It’s wrong to generalize from a few bad actors.

These rationalizations for Greek life on campus came up during last week’s annual gathering of presidents of mostly large public universities and journalists at the Penn Club, organized by Arizona State University. Guests included Louisiana State President F. King Alexander, who presides over a campus reeling from the death last month of 18-year-old freshman Maxwell Gruver.

Over dinner, LSU President Alexander noted that he’d immediately suspended Greek life after Gruver’s death and set up a task force to study it, but at the time, he’d made sure to add a supportive statement: “Many of our Greek organizations represent all that is good about our university.” At the dinner, he acknowledged that “there are bad actors … but I know what good they [fraternities] do and I value what they do. You can’t generalize and say Greeks aren’t doing good things.”

It’s getting harder to appreciate the good. Reports of the events leading to Gruver’s death at LSU are sickening: During a night of drinking at the Phi Delta Theta house, which has since been shuttered by the national chapter, Gruver was reportedly ordered to recite the Greek alphabet, pelted with hot sauce and mustard and forced to chug hard liquor if he messed up.

Gruver died at a nearby hospital with a blood alcohol level of .495, more than six times the legal intoxication level in most states. Ten students have since been charged with hazing at LSU, and one with negligent homicide. Two more fraternities have since been suspended for infractions, six have been removed from campus and seven are on some form of probation.

Hazing horrors and their accompanying headlines are becoming relentless. Just one week after the college presidents’ dinner, sophomore Matthew Ellis, who was pledging the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity at Texas State, died after attending an initiation event; the fraternity had already been under investigation by the university. That same day, I watched the parents of 19-year-old Beta Theta Pi pledge Timothy Piazza, a sophomore engineering major at Penn State, sob in front of television cameras at a news conference. Authorities had just released a previously deleted video revealing that their son had been given 18 drinks in 82 minutes, before falling down a set of stairs and fracturing his skull.

“They left him to die alone,” James Piazza said. Seventeen former Beta Theta Pi members face numerous charges, including involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault, and as of Monday, five other Beta Theta Pi members now face legal consequences. James Piazza and his wife Evelyn have repeatedly spoken out and — unlike some college presidents — they aren’t equivocating.

“We need parents talking to their kids about this,’’ Piazza said during a news conference this week. “We need parents to put their foot down and say, ‘You must not do this.’ We need parents to stop encouraging their children to get involved in fraternity antics like hazing.”

I went back to look at remarks Penn State University President Eric Barron made after the first grand jury indictments last May. He condemned the incident, but included praise, noting that “all indicators suggested Beta Theta Phi was a model fraternity — the house, privately-owned and situated like all other fraternity houses on private property, was beautiful, the subject of a multi-million dollar renovation; both the Beta alumni and the national organization provided strict rules of behavior; and, the brothers had a no-alcohol policy which stated that anyone caught drinking would be expelled.”

All benefit of the doubt was gone by Monday, when additional charges were announced; a university statement noted that disciplinary process was underway for “32 individuals related to the tragic death of Timothy Piazza.”

At Texas State, President Denise Trauth immediately suspended activitiesof all Greek fraternity and sorority chapters, but also announced a review process “for reinstating fraternity and sorority chapters that demonstrate a commitment to the core values of Texas State and the ideals established by their respective national organizations.”

As the mother of two college students whose schools don’t have fraternities, I’ve had no need to warn my sons about their dangers but I hope other parents will hear the Piazzas. I’d also suggest reading Bloomberg News reporter John Hechinger’s scathing new book “True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities.” Had I not read it, it might have surprised me to hear a group of college presidents taking such a cautious defense of fraternities after so many recent hazing tragedies.

Hechinger’s book helps explain how college presidents struggle to beat back the “unholy trinity,” of drinking, misogyny and racism at fraternities, where one of six men who attend a four-year college in America belong. Fraternity alumni are often big donors who offer job and networking pipelines to former members.

Hechinger — whose late father Fred Hechinger was an education editor at the New York Times and is the namesake of The Hechinger Report — points out that “Greek organizations own $3 billion in real estate on 800 U.S. campuses,” while their leaders “raise more than $20 million a year.”

College presidents “have reason to fear for their jobs” when they take on fraternities, Hechinger writes; they may find themselves “confronting a determined adversary that is well-financed, politically connected, and capable of frustrating the most dogged investigators.”

Case in point: In 2013, former Trinity College president James F. Jones announced he would step down a year earlier than expected, under fire from alumni who withheld donations and threatened a lawsuit after Jones banned pledging, cracked down on alcohol and pushed for co-educational pledge classes at the Hartford, Conn., campus.

Meanwhile, the list of recent hazing horrors seemingly grows. (Professor Hank Nuwer at Franklin College in Indiana keeps a database that goes back to the 1960s.) Last spring, four young men pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the death of 18-year-old Baruch College freshman Chun Hsien Deng, who was blindfolded, forced to wear a backpack weighted with sand, pushed to the ground and knocked out. Earlier this fall, a University of Oklahoma student suffered a brain injury during hazing.

And just last week, Florida State announced it would suspend Greek life, after the death of 20-year-old Pi Kappa Phi pledge Andrew Coffey, a junior engineering student from Georgia who was found unresponsive at an off-campus residence after a night of drinking at the Phi Delta Theta house.

The national chapter has since revoked the frat’s charter, and Florida State President John Thrasher shut down Greek activities indefinitely at 55 fraternities and sororities. Coffey’s family supports Thrasher’s efforts and thanked him, but his strong stand has led to a backlash from parents: Thrasher recently told the Chronicle of Higher Education that some parents had accused him of ruining their children’s cultural life by shutting down Greek life. Thrasher added in an interview that he was “flabbergasted” during Parents Weekend when he saw parents drinking shots with students — some of whom appeared underage — at a local bar.

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. 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 new book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press. He is married to Malgorzata Wroblewska Nuwer of Warsaw, Poland and Fairbanks, Alaska. Nuwer, former columnist for the Greenville (Ohio)Early Bird, finished a stint as managing editor of the Celina Daily Standard to accept a new position as 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--

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