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Q&A: Greek Life, Hazing & How Times Have Changed

Fraternity letters affixed to the brick exterior of a frat house.

Photo: Steve Burns

The temporary activity suspension applies to all fraternities at Indiana University Bloomington.

Earlier this week, the Indiana University Interfraternity Council voted unanimously to suspend certain social events and new member activities until next spring.

It’s a move more and more universities are taking as stories circulate of hazing and alcohol-related deaths.

Hank Nuwer is a professor of journalism at Franklin College and the author of the book Hazing: Destroying Young Lives, set for publication in February.

After studying hazing and Greek life in general for the past few decades, Nuwer says recent media attention could be pushing fraternity and sorority organizations to crack down.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and conciseness.

Q: Have fraternities always had problems with hazing and alcohol abuse?

The first fraternity death was in 1873 at Cornell. But the first alcohol-related hazing death didn’t occur until 1945.

Recently, between 70 and 80 percent of all hazing deaths have alcohol involved in one way or another.

Q: Are alcohol-related hazing deaths increasing?

I see it more as stable type of instability. Let me explain that: We’ve had a hazing death every year from 1961 to 2017, as incredible as that sounds. The alcohol ones are in the majority of all of these.

It’s hard even to wrap your head around that fact. There’s been up to nine deaths in one year, in the 1980s.

Q: Why are more and more colleges suspending Greek life activities now instead of before?

For me, it’s the impact of Timothy Piazza’s death at Penn State. One time previously we’ve had some video footage of a young man who died in a hazing incident, that was at Ferris State. But we’ve never had security footage where we’re able to take, from womb to tomb, the entire hazing process and to be able to see just how callous the fraternity members were who didn’t give aid to this young man and might have been able to save his life.

The fraternities have been getting a lot of attention, but there was an alcohol-related death of a lacrosse player at Lafayette College at Easton, Pennsylvania, and you don’t hear very much at all about it. You don’t hear any cries to shut down athletics.

Q: So it’s not just a problem within the Greek life system?

No, but it’s the image of Greeks right now because there have been a lot of sexual assaults reported, grade point averages, the hazing issues, alcohol incidents.

And so there’s been a lot of attempts at reform. There’s recommendations that members cut their guest list to just three people.

Right now, two things are kind of absurd: One, a lot of the hazing incidents there are young women present or friends, almost as if it’s a kind of entertainment.

Two, the parties themselves are unmanageable with so many people there, and that makes an atmosphere ripe for date rape, people passing out and no one keeping track of them, all these problems.

I think the attempt here is to stop fraternities from being underground drinking clubs.

Q: Is it significant that the interfraternity council took this action as opposed to university officials?

That’s happened perhaps once or twice that I’ve heard of. It’s very, very rare. And I would commend the fraternity council for doing this so that they can take a step back and evaluate the issues.

“When you’ve got these dangerous characters in your chapter, you shouldn’t be thinking ‘a brother for life,’ you should think ‘a life saved.’

—Hank Nuwer, Hazing Researcher

What I recommend is that the undergrads would meet with their responsible alumni, and I stress that word ‘responsible,’ and kind of look at the governance of the group. Go from the beginning of pledging until members are inducted. And treat this as a safety issue and see what dangerous practices are occurring.

Next, have the courage to drum out members who are like the members at Penn State who could have saved a life. When you’ve got these dangerous characters in your chapter, you shouldn’t be thinking ‘a brother for life,’ you should think ‘a life saved.’

Q: Will these high-profile cases impact the future of Greek life?

There are a lot of examples of reforms in various places. Someone at Cornell started a hazing task force. A legal expert has talked about why fraternities have to change their ways or be sued out of business.

But I’ve never seen such an outcry in the media for banning Greek groups. So this may be part of why the IFC was willing to shut down temporarily. A lot of people have called for an end to the Greek system in certain places.

For me, I believe in the reforms, I deal all the time with undergraduates. I believe that the dangerous chapters should be shut down entirely, but not all of them are. Also, at some universities they’ve shut down sororities as well as fraternities, but sorority deaths are very, very rare while fraternity deaths are common.

And a lot of the young women, what you would blame them for would be not to castigate the fraternity members, not to ask them to shape up.

But the hazing practices that they do are more like asking a young woman, a pledge, to wear certain clothes, to lose weight. I’m not saying these are good things, they’re demeaning, but the really dangerous behaviors are the province of the fraternities.

Q: Can Greek life as it exists now continue or will it have to go away or face significant reforms? And which option is ideal?

Over the years I had concluded that schools had kind of turned their heads to the practice of hazing. It was in the yearbooks, it was in the newspapers, and it was treated as “boys will be boys” type of thing.

No more. Now we’re seeing the schools crack down. Why? Because of civil suits, because the deaths have finally reached a level that is impressive, in a bad way. And then the next part, there’s more activists now than ever before. And a lot of these are the parents of hazing victims.

Q: How else has Greek life evolved over the past few decades?

In a positive way, Phi Delta Theta, since bout 1990, introduced dry houses as many of the sororities have. I find that to be really positive development. I am seeing some fraternities cracking down on chapters with no second chances.

“If we can get pledges to take some responsibility also and say, ‘enough, stop,’ it might save some lives.”

—Hank Nuwer, Hazing Researcher

Hazing really is something that has to hit the pledges, as well. When they go in, they know hazing is wrong. New Hampshire is even trying to arrest pledges who are caught because they should have stopped the activity. So that’s evolving over time, how we look at pledges: from victims in 1975 to, ‘well they should have said no themselves.’ That’s a whole different ballpark.

The hazing advocates who’ve lost their kids won’t like that, but if we can get the pledges to take some responsibility also and say, ‘enough, stop’ it might save some lives.

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

  • lastcamp2

    The so-called “Greek life” is by its very nature classist, elitist, and exclusionary. As such these organizations are undemocratic and arguably un-American. One has to wonder: why then do they even exist in what purports to be a free society?
    And indeed, what purpose can there be in the “hazing” phenomenon besides exercising many of the worst traits of human beings, including sadism, diminution of others, and admiration of what a sane person would call anti-social behavior?
    Now it has become compounded by institutionalized criminality, e.g. drunkenness and illegal use of alcohol, explicitly or implicitly sanctioned by the organization.
    It is hard to see how these organizations should have a place in civilized society.

  • ohhhh

    Still upset you didn’t get in?

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