COLUMBUS, Ohio – The deaths of at least four fraternity pledges this year have helped fuel a re-examination of Greek life at U.S. colleges, which have long struggled with how to crack down on hazing, alcohol abuse and other unwelcome aspects without disbanding organizations that have loyal members and alumni.
Changing attitudes, increased public scrutiny and fears of facing lawsuits also have caused schools to take action, anti-hazing advocates say. Tracy Maxwell, founder of HazingPrevention.org and a longtime Greek life consultant, sees parallels with the national discussion about sexual harassment.
“People are at a breaking point, where they’re not willing to accept behavior that has been acceptable in some circles for decades or centuries,” she said.
Four universities have suspended fraternity activities on their campuses within the past two weeks.
Florida State suspended 55 fraternities and sororities following a pledge’s suspected alcohol-related death. Texas State did the same when a student died following an initiation ritual. Events also were temporarily halted for many fraternities at Ohio State University and the University of Michigan, which emphasize student safety as a priority as they investigate allegations of misconduct. They join a growing list of schools hitting pause on the organizations over concerns about misbehavior.
Twenty-six people are charged in the Penn State case over the February death of Tim Piazza, a 19-year-old student from New Jersey. Investigators said security camera footage from a fraternity house showed he was given 18 drinks within 90 minutes.
At Louisiana State, 10 people were arrested on misdemeanor hazing charges in the alcohol-related death of 18-year-old Maxwell Gruver, and one suspect also was charged with felony negligent homicide.
The U.S. has had at least one college hazing death each year since 1961, but the publicity of those cases has changed dramatically, said Hank Nuwer, a journalism professor at Indiana’s Franklin College who has researched the history of hazing. Cases that were sometimes swept under the rug decades ago now become major headlines as parents speak out and threaten lawsuits, becoming activists for change, Nuwer said.
Researchers have limited data about hazing and what strategies could best stop it – which prompted a pending federal proposal to require that colleges report data on hazing incidents – but they can learn from studies on related topics, such as bullying and public health, said Elizabeth Allan, a University of Maine professor who leads the Hazing Prevention Consortium .
Fraternities say that they’ve long worked to tackle issues such as hazing and alcohol abuse in policy and practice, and that efforts made to hold individuals and chapters accountable are a sign of that.
“Students are saying enough is enough, and we want to lead ourselves out of this, and we want to work with the university and our organizations and our stakeholders to enhance health and safety,” said Heather Kirk, spokeswoman at the North-American Interfraternity Conference.
Broad suspensions also can sideline those who play by the rules or are just trying to get involved.
Sophomore Jake Chobany planned to rush a fraternity at Ohio State this spring and was disappointed that it has halted recruitment and new member activities.
“You look at all these people that want to do it, and now they can’t because of the actions of another fraternity in a whole different state,” said Chobany.