Colleges Confront the Perils of Frats

Reprinted from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

By Katherine Mangan, August 30, 2017

Members of Alpha Delta Phi at Cornell U. participate in a camping trip. As the university has taken more control over fraternities’ practices, activities like this are meant to replace more-dangerous pledging traditions.

Puzzle night for new members was presented by Alpha Sigma Phi at the University of Arizona as a bonding experience, a wholesome alternative to the brutal ordeals that define this rite of passage for so many fraternity pledges.

Arizona is widely seen as a leader in combating hazing. As part of a national consortium, the university worked with StopHazing for three years on prevention, adopting strategies like encouraging team building and challenging the power dynamics that can lead to abusive behavior. Out of those discussions, Alpha Sigma Phi proposed puzzle night.

But the event, in March, took a dangerous turn when members pressured pledges to get drunk, blindfolded them, and marched them down a hallway, where one was reportedlyshoved into a pillar and seriously injured. Members threatened retaliation for telling anyone what happened, pledges said, but word got out, the university investigated, and it revoked the chapter’s status as a recognized campus group for at least a year. Meanwhile, the chapter can continue to recruit new members and hold social events because it is still recognized by the national fraternity and has its own house.

So how can colleges keep students safe? For all the efforts to rein in fraternities, problems associated with recruitment and initiation seem intractable nationally. At least one student dies from hazing every year, according to Hank Nuwer, a professor of journalism at Franklin College who has studied the issue. Hazing is by no means restricted to fraternities, but the combination of free-flowing alcohol, an unequal power dynamic between members and pledges, and decades of tradition can create breeding grounds for abuse. With each tragedy — this year the death of 19-year-old Timothy Piazza at Pennsylvania State University — comes new pressure to do more to prevent similar crises.

Change has been slow, in part because of the entrenched interests of tradition-bound alumni. But bringing problems out into the open and promoting confidential reporting have helped lift the veil of secrecy that perpetuates abusive behavior.

Success is hard to gauge, but campus officials report some progress, whether signaled by increased reporting, greater traction of alternative activities, or students’ challenging the psychology of hazing. Following are some of the latest strategies that Greek-life leaders, student-affairs officers, fraternity members, and anti-hazing activists have identified to make fraternities safer.

Change the structure of the recruitment and initiation process.

The rush period, when students and fraternities try to impress each other, often with heavy drinking, is a blur of barbecues and mixers that may start before the fall semester. Houses then offer bids, and the students who accept them become pledges. It’s during the pledging process, which lasts until the new members are formally initiated into the fraternity, that hazing is most likely to occur. It may involve seemingly harmless stunts and escalate to forced drinking, sleep deprivation, beatings, and real or simulated sex acts.

To limit opportunities for dangerous behavior, more colleges and fraternities are altering or compressing that timeline, delaying rush and eliminating pledging.

Postponing rush until late fall or even early spring, as Vanderbilt, George Washington, and Penn State Universities now do, "is the big current reform being talked about," says Mr. Nuwer. The argument for waiting is that students are more settled, have established friendships, and are less likely to feel pressured into risk taking. (On the other hand, delaying recruitment can lead to a semester of hard partying as chapters woo potential members before rush officially begins.)

Starting this fall, George Washington will require students to complete at least 12 credit hours before they join a fraternity, despite complaints from some Greek leaders that the move was made without their input.

Colleges have also set their sights on pledging. At the University of South Carolina, reports of hazing and other abuses dropped this spring after the university threatened to ban pledging and closed or placed on probation more than a dozen chapters.

Some fraternities have compressed pledging on their own. Alpha Gamma Rho and Sigma Alpha Epsilon now initiate new members within a few days of signing bids.

Assert greater control over fraternity life.

Colleges are increasingly willing to challenge fraternities’ history of self-governance by giving faculty advisers greater control over the groups and imposing strict limits on parties.

After Mr. Piazza’s death, Penn State announced that it would no longer let Greek student leaders adjudicate misconduct cases and recommend sanctions, and it would more closely monitor social events. As Penn State was considering those moves, its president, Eric J. Barron, acknowledged in an open letter that "new rules can just be ignored" and bad behavior can go underground.

American University found that out the hard way when former members of a disbanded fraternity created the problem-plagued Epsilon Iota. Eighteen students were expelled last month for their involvement with that group 16 years after it was officially kicked off campus.

But top-down mandates can sometimes breed resentment. Student fraternity leaders at Penn State expressed their frustration with a "university-mandated" approach. They apologized to Mr. Piazza’s family and recognized the problem of hazing, but said that solutions should involve students, pointing out the challenge of the university’s having gone nearly two years without a full-time director of fraternity and sorority life. Adding to the difficulties of engaging students is that on many campuses, the office of Greek life is short-staffed, with young, inexperienced employees.

Another way for colleges to crack down is on the formidable problem of excessive alcohol consumption. Administrators have tried to mandate alcohol-free fraternities; they have allowed wayward chapters back on campus under restrictions; and fraternities have tried to ban liquor from their houses — all with limited success. Even when chapters start out with good intentions, those that decide or agree to restrict alcohol often end up succumbing to peer pressure to let it flow, says Gentry R. McCreary, a consultant with the Ncherm Group, which advises colleges on risk management.

But there are some signs of change. Following the death of a pledge, Tucker Hipps, in 2014, Clemson University required that all recruitment-related activities be alcohol-free and banned fraternities from buying alcohol for social events. Students were allowed to bring their own beer to parties. A Clemson spokesman said there have been fewer serious health and safety violations since the changes took effect.

Encourage team-building activities.

Lianne Kowiak, whose son, Harrison, died in 2008 while pledging a fraternity at Lenoir-Rhyne University, wants to see hazing replaced with the example of brotherhood the groups’ advocates extol: "team-building activities where everyone is working alongside one another and giving back to the community."

Cornell University does this in part by linking Greek life to the outdoor recreation program, which helps plan ropes courses, for instance, and camping trips. The University of North Carolina at Charlotte encourages various team-building activities when it meets with fraternity leaders. The Phi Beta Sigma chapter there has brought new members to volunteer in a food bank and elementary school, says Byron Harris, a senior who’s vice president of the chapter.

For members who came through a while back, he says, "we have to convince them that times have changed, and you don’t have to break a brother down or belittle him" to gain his loyalty. While fraternities come up with some activities, staff members in Greek-life offices comb websites for team-building tips.

But as with puzzle night at Arizona, an activity that sounds safe enough can quickly devolve, especially when heavy drinking is involved. Scavenger hunts are popular, but one at Michigan State University last year veered into hazing when pledges were pressured to get a photo of a woman’s breast bearing the chapter’s Greek letters.

Improve bystander education for parents and students.

While hazing is often done at night, in secret, "many students report that they talk to their friends and families" about what they’re going through, says Elizabeth J. Allan, a professor of higher education at the University of Maine who directs the national Hazing Prevention Consortium that the University of Arizona belongs to. Colleges should provide more outreach to families, she says, so they’re aware of the warning signs of hazing and whom to contact.

In a newsletter to parents, Arizona cautioned that no one should be demeaned or put in a potentially harmful situation to join a campus group. Worrisome signs, the newsletter said, would include a student’s losing contact with friends or family, appearing dirty or unkempt, or his grades suddenly dropping.

Administrators have found that they need to reassure students that letting someone know about possible hazing is not only OK, but the right thing to do. Arizona warns students that if they suspect hazing, they must come forward: "You could be held responsible if things take a wrong turn." More campuses now have a confidential reporting process.

Students should be encouraged to share concerns with Greek-life advisers without worrying that a chapter will be shut down, says Mr. McCreary. Colleges can send that message through their response, he says: "We need to get them out of enforcement business and into advocacy and education."

Texas A&M University tries to alert students to what constitutes hazing by listing examplesonline, like making someone dress up as a homeless person or forcing two men to make out. Getting students to recognize when behavior crosses the line often requires discussions about power dynamics and group bullying.

"A lot of universities are afraid to have those honest conversations and pull back the curtain, because they’re afraid of what they’ll see," says Michelle Guobadia, director of fraternity and sorority life at UNC-Charlotte.

Not only in reporting hazing, but also preventing it, parents make natural allies, she says. But that may mean pointing out that a student who abuses his classmates or steps over someone who has passed out was inclined to do that before college. "Parents need to have a conversation with students before they come," says Ms. Guobadia, who won an "anti-hazing hero award" this year from

She is encouraged by students’ requests for alternative new-member activities and sees greater willingness to turn in those who refuse to follow the rules. She urges everyone with any connection to Greek life to keep challenging the idea that belittling or abusing someone builds bonds.

Hazing happens in secret, but the myths that perpetuate it sound pretty stupid, she says, when exposed to the light of day.

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at