Fraternity and Sorority Misconduct, Chico State, and the Nuclear Option
When I speak with a member of a fraternity or sorority in trouble, I know how serious the next few weeks will be depending on whether or not their hazing accusations included forced drinking or physical abuse. If the accusations against them are in these areas, it is likely that the school is going to pull out all the stops to punish them, and that their national is going to be involved as part of that punishment. While we have successfully helped fraternities accused of drinking hazing and those accused of “abusing” pledges, the absolute worst thing a fraternity or sorority can do if they want to protect their organization is mix alcohol or violence into their pledge program. If they use alcohol or violence as part of their pledge program, not only do they risk getting expelled, but none of the usual people will get an organization’s back or help them at all-not their alumni, not their national, not their Greek life administrator, and most certainly not their school. I know there are fraternities that will keep doing it, and I know that there are differences in degrees of each of these categories, but ANY time an organization involves alcohol or violence into its pledge education process it risks everything. In fact, when you say “hazing” to most people (especially non-Greeks) they will almost certainly mention “forced drinking” and/or “beating” as the very definition of hazing. (Which is why I go bananas when papers print that an organization is “under investigation” for “hazing” without defining what they mean.)
It used to be that if a fraternity or sorority got caught doing something wrong, that organization would be punished. Their school and/or their national organization would hold them accountable, and they might have members cut from the organization, be suspended on campus, be expelled, or have their charter revoked. While (and I speak from experience as a Delt at Tulane) that sucks when it is happening to you, it is understood to be the price of doing business. If you haze knowing the risks and you get caught, you can lose your fraternity or sorority. Those chapters that considered themselves “hazers” knew that, but that isn’t the case anymore.
Across the country we are seeing examples of organizations and entire Greek systems paying for the actions of other individual Greek organizations. At SUNY Binghamton they suspended pledging this fall before the year began, and at Alabama just after. At Cornell the University President has adopted essentially a “zero tolerance” stance for any sort of pledging because he sees pledging itself as not just having a hazing component, but a “high risk” component like the one that he believes lead to the tragic death last year. Trinity College in Connecticut is mandating that all fraternities and sororities go co-ed. Hundreds of other schools have already banned Greek life. And, most recently, the President of Chico State banned fraternities and sororities after the death of a 21-year old “pledge” who died on his birthday because it MIGHT have been hazing. (Message being: if you’re Greek and something tragic happens, it was hazing.)
Fraternities and sororities may have a greater prevalence of certain behaviors than other groups (that’s a different argument,) but once again we see these organizations being scapegoated for larger problems on campus. According to the same op-ed piece written by Cornell’s President there are 2000 alcohol-related deaths on college campuses each year. (For the sake of discussion I’ll assume that every one of them results from excessive consumption and alcohol poisoning, and not things like drunk driving deaths, exacerbation of medical conditions, or the other things I know actually contribute to that number.) He used these numbers intentionally, because when he mentioned “hazing” and used “alcohol related deaths” in the same piece the intended implication was that fraternities and sororities “cause” these deaths, and that they are caused because of hazing. That’s simply not true. (There’s a good list of hazing deaths throughout time by someone with an axe to grind here.) The fact is that on any given year there are almost no hazing deaths that happen in fraternities and sororities, statistically speaking. I am in no way saying that ANY hazing deaths are acceptable, but if you eliminated Greek life completely ALMOST EVERY ONE OF THOSE 2000 DEATHS WOULD STILL OCCUR.
Campus administration and “anti-hazing” groups also act like the men and women in the Greek Organization can’t decide for themselves what is acceptable behavior. People like to say that 9 in 10 people who are hazed do not consider themselves hazed, with the implication being that they are so brainwashed or beaten that they don’t even realize the reality of their situation. More likely (from my experience being Greek and from actually talking to Greek men and women) the activities that are considered hazing are either not hazing to the people going through them, or are seen as the same as what is being done in regular social situations. The very definition of hazing creates a “when did you stop beating your wife” type of logical trap. A common definition of hazing is that hazing is any action “that causes embarrassment, harassment or ridicule that risks emotional and/or physical harm to members of an (SIC) group or team, whether new or not, regardless of the person’s willingness to participate.” (from http://www.hazingprevention.org/hazing-information/hazing-definitions.html) So whether or not you’re willing to put up with is, being teased or embarrassed by other people in your drop that “risks” emotional harm (e.g. hurts your feelings) is hazing just because you’re in that particular group.
I challenge anyone to find 5 people in different social circles that have not sat around with their friends and been teased about something to the point where they got uncomfortable or their feelings got hurt. Take a group of friends that drink and find one of them that hasn’t played a drinking game or had more alcohol than they planned on having at some point. Find anyone who has been involved with a prank on someone and the target of the prank was not embarrassed intentionally by the prank. Austin Kutcher made a name for himself with a TV show based on this very thing. I was a comic for a few years here in Boston, and we are merciless when we tease one another because we expect other comics to be able to handle it. Most of us would not talk that way to strangers or share those conversations with our parents. The fact is that what is acceptable when you’re with your friends does not become hazing just because you and those friends are on the same athletic team, chess club, or fraternity. You do not lose the ability to decide if the actions done to you are “okay” simply because you become part of something larger than yourself. As long as “hazing” is used to cover everything from nicknames and scavenger hunts to forced sodomy and beatings we will not have a reasonable discussion on hazing AND student members will not take these dialogues seriously.
If we want to change student behavior to the point where we lesson or eliminate the groups willing to hurt or SERIOUSLY risk the lives of their new members, then we have to draw some hard lines when it comes to defining risky behavior. We must acknowledge that there is a difference between beating someone into unconsciousness and having the newest people in an organization do the worst jobs in that organization. (One man’s terrible bartending shift is another’s having to clean up at 8am after a party.) We have to admit that there is a difference between “kidnapping” a pledge class and taking them to a party on a different campus on a Friday night, and locking them in a dungeon and lowering lotion to them in a basket.
It is impossible to get member buy-in to an “anti-hazing” program when we treat pledge pins the same way (or at least with the same language and seriousness) with which we treat forced branding. Let’s have some real honesty and let organizations define the non-lethal/harmful actions that they do during the initiation period while prohibiting the ones we KNOW are recklessly indifferent to health and safety. Have an organization’s standards be clear during recruitment so that when someone joins he or she know what he or she is getting into. Ban forced consumption of alcohol and physical assault, but if someone knowingly and willingly joins an organization where they are going to get an embarrassing nickname and be yelled at if they don’t know the founding mothers, then let them. If we draw actual lines of intolerable behavior, but make those lines reasonable and logical then you will find many more students willing to take up the anti-hazing banner.
Instead you have anonymous hazing hotlines where organizations are held to the standards of acceptability as defined by the most sensitive of us, or by that person’s boyfriend, girlfriend, or parent (or even occasionally by a rival organization.) This makes organizations that want to improve their programs unable or unwilling to be honest about what they do and find acceptable, in order to eliminate those aspects that they don’t. If you are a student and don’t believe me try saying “we want to get rid of forced consumption and calisthenics, but we want to make sure we’re yelling enough to have them take our history and values seriously” to your Greek Life office or if you’re an administrator ask yourself what you’d do if a group admitted that the pledges had to clean the house every Saturday, but that they wanted to make the pledges understand that they never have to drink. Are there other ways? Sure. It is just insane to me that the same people (administrators) who will admit that abstinence is not a useful means of controlling sexually transmitted disease and unwanted pregnancy will preach a “hazing” abstinence to fraternities and sororities. What’s worse is that this ineffective approach is just increasing the walls of silence between them and the administration. If you have any doubt that many Greeks feel like they are at war, just ask the students at Alabama, Union, Binghamton, and, most recently, Chico State.
Singling out fraternities and, worse, punishing all of them for what happens at one when those actions happen as or more frequently outside of the chapter house walls does not address the larger issues. It does not end “21 at 21” (drinking 21 drinks on your 21st birthday), does not eliminate beer pong or other drinking games, or pre-gaming. It is an easy way to look like you’re “fixing” a very serious problem (alcohol-related deaths) by nuking those organizations that are, at worst, just one reason for that problem. We would not eliminate all student clubs because the chess team hazes, we don’t end athletics because the swim team hazes, and we don’t shut down a residence hall when a suite throws an illegal party. However, once again Greeks treated like they are all the same people so when a message needs to be sent to an entire campus they are thrust upon the sword. This is not only unfair, it hurts every student on that campus. I applaud those alumni and actives who are standing up against this discriminatory act, and hope a real dialogue can begin soon on the affected campuses.