Fraternities on college campuses have long been shrouded in a dense and mysterious cloud of insularity and outsize power. This was true of the Phi Beta Kappa Society (founded on Dec. 5, 1776), and it has remained the case more than 200 years down the line. Four students were killed in fraternity hazing incidents in 2017, and it has been calculated that there has been a death a year due to fraternities’ habits since 1961 (according to Hank Nuwer, a Franklin College journalism professor and the author of multiple books on hazing).
However, now the rules to the game seem to be changing, and power is being wrested — slowly but surely — away from the omnipotent, unchecked fraternity institutions and placed into the worried hands of regulators, substituting the age-old fraternity shroud for a modern fraternity window that will be much more transparent and controlled.
But why? Whyyy?
Well, the whole issue also lies at the feet of the institutionalized and abusive over-drinking, and the endemic sexual assault (as if the disturbing fatalities that have amassed over the years weren’t enough reason). College administrators have begun to construct and enact regulatory measures collectively throughout the nation. For instance, according to The New York Times, “at a meeting in Chicago this spring, representatives from 31 colleges and universities explored ways to garner more cooperation from national Greek organizations.”
Freshman Tim Piazza’s hazing-related death in 2017, a student of Pennsylvania State University, sparked massive overhauls on the campus where frat life was concerned, as well as a shutdown of more than 15 organizations. Penn State President Eric J. Barron said the incident on his campus had been a “horrible tragedy,” but, according to The New York Times, one that had spurred new interest in reform for Penn State.
Admins makin’ moves
Barron took swift and dramatic steps after the accident, such as “switching disciplinary oversight of the institutions from a greek governing council to university administrators, requiring newcomers to take a pledge about their actions inside their organizations and deferring the initiation process for freshmen until later on in the school year, so they can develop new friends and interests before being faced with hazing.”
Florida University has started an anti-hazing education initiative, too, and it also has stepped up the staff security during greek life events. Louisiana State instituted as many as 28 new reforms, including greater monitoring of greek life and a requirement for chapters to hire “house managers.”
An online database that assesses fraternity chapters nationwide by their safety levels is in the works from Barron. The fraternities that are doing exemplary things will be distinguished from those that are, as The New York Times puts it, “experiencing alarming trends.”
Many states are taking it one step further. Places like Louisiana and Pennsylvania, no doubt motivated by the high-profile nature of the misconduct cases taking place in their states, have begun the process to try to pass felony-level anti-hazing laws wherein death-by-hazing would result in a felony-level charge to those who took part. New Mexico is considering this law change as well.
Activities such as fraternity parties and initiations have been suspended or curtailed at many colleges including Ball State, Indiana University, Ohio State, the University of Michigan and many, many more. Others, who have exhibited good behavior — such as Florida State and Penn State — have been permitted, according to The New York Times, “one strictly monitored party per semester” where not just the chosen premise but the alcohol intake as well would be monitored and predetermined.
The death of Piazza from Pennsylvania State University brought about criminal charges for more than two dozen house fraternity members involved. And if this seems a stiff action, one may consider the details of the hazing ritual that Piazza was subjected to. He died in February after a hazing from Beta Theta Pi (Piazza was pledging) which ruptured his spleen and damaged his brain. Piazza had drunk — or rather been forced to drink —18 drinks in less than 90 minutes, after which point he fell down a flight of stairs. The fraternity members did not call emergency services for 12 whole hours after the fact. In the light of such gross misbehavior that seems pervasive in the fraternity world, these changes seem just.
The issue is far from blown out of proportion said Nuwer: “[Fraternities] have a respectable exterior, and then behind closed doors, they are doing whatever they want.” When the culture surrounding fraternities — including the families of attendees themselves who bring alcohol to parties for their children — is toxic and perhaps indicative of criminally negligent misbehavior, then it seems the whole mindset needs to change. But litigation and regulation are a good, and perhaps the only, thing to get the ball rolling.
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