Why You Probably Should Never Join A Fraternity

March 24th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

Within the past month or so, several fraternities across at least three universities have been in the national spotlight for various wrongdoings––just the latest cases in a decades-long legacy of dangerous and abusive behavior within the Greek system. Most recently, officials at North Carolina State University announced the suspension of a fraternity for keeping a book of sexually and racially offensive materials, an announcement which came as officials at two other universities scrambled to atone for similar cases at their schools: at Penn State, it was a secret Facebook page with pictures of naked and unconscious women; at Oklahoma University, members of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity were filmed singing a racist chant song on a bus, including a line about lynching. And those are just the reported cases. 

In the fallout, officials at all three universities have taken what seem like promising steps, coming down hard and fast against offending members and chapters. In response to the racist chants at Oklahoma, for example, SAE's national headquarters moved to close the chapter, and the university's president declared its actions "disgraceful," subsequently expelling two students.

But some suggest that reparations, while promising, are only requisite, and do little to address the deep-seeded issues which give rise to abuses in the first place. "Well, this is fraternity crisis management 101," Atlantic writer Caitlin Flanagan, who conducted a year-long investigation of the Greek system last year, told NPR recently. "It's - you know, I could've predicted the playbook on this, which is that you have a blue-ribbon commission or a new initiative or something that comes with consultants from the outside." 

What's more, according to Flanagan, the ineffectiveness of short-term fixes have been measured over decades of dubious Greek activity. "I went to college over three decades ago. And my friends and I were talking about rape in those fraternity houses three decades ago, so I don't think we're at a turning point. There have been so many points in the last 30 years that felt as though we were at a turning point, and nothing has changed," Flanagan continued. 

But now, more than ever, reports detailing a variety of problems within Greek systems are popping up with greater frequency. 2014 was a year with startlingly regular stories detailing misconduct that reaches far beyond loud parties or obnoxious pranks. Along with the offensive book found at North Carolina last week, which included lines like, "That tree is so perfect for lynching," and "It will be short and painful, just like when I rape you," a separate fraternity on the campus was accused of dealing drugs out of its house, and also throwing dangerously raucous parties that included an alleged defenestration. Just last week, Pi Kappa Alta's University of South Carolina chapter was placed on leave after 18-year-old freshman Charles Terreni was found dead the morning after a St. Patrick's day party. 

And yet, as flagrant as some of the recent cases have been, Flanagan notes that aside from the difficulties of reprimanding a rotating, high-turnover cast of college students, there are systemic blocks to meaningful reform within the Greek system. 

"By design, fraternities are franchise operations with terrible quality control. The national organizations really don't want to have a lot of day-to-day input on what goes on in the individual chapters," she said. "So how much is the national [chapter] responsible? We don't really know." 

Proponents paint fraternities and sororities as breeding grounds for self-governance, independence, and strength among students. And to their credit, it's important not to gloss over some of the good that many Greek chapters seek to do. Two fraternities partnered with the White House to launch the "It's On Us" campaign advocating against sexual assault, for example, and there is even an indication that more fraternities are getting on board with similar initiatives. 

But despite efforts (and even results) from some chapters to promote a genuine concern for social responsibility,problems persist that many see as too deeply ingrained.

Hazing rituals, which can include any number of trying activities for pledging students, are largely banned in Greek life organizations––but that doesn't stop them from happening, clandestinely or otherwise. 

Over the course of about three months in the Fall of 2013, 20-year-old Kevin Hayes was repeatedly punched and slapped by masked men on his sides, back, and chest, sometimes with hands, sometimes with a wooden paddle. After seeing pictures Hayes had taken on his phone documenting the results of his abuse, the perpetrators, older, established brothers of the Alpha Phi Alpha branch at Bowie State University in Maryland, threatened him, told him to delete the pictures and not to tell anyone. In response, Hayes filed a $3 million lawsuit, claiming harassment from traumatic hazing practices. 

"Anecdotally, we know that hazing is something that occurs regularly in America," David Kerschner, a researcher at StopHazing, an advocacy group which tracks hazing,told ATTN:.According to StopHazing statistics, the practice is widespread. "Our research found that 55 percent of college students who participated in campus organizations (and 73 percent of those involved in Greek life) experienced behaviors that met [the definition] of hazing in order to join their group or team." More troubling, since 1970, there has been at least one hazing-related death each year across campuses, according to Sacred Heart University numbers.

Existing punishments for crimes like hazing––like other quick fixes to Greek culture problems––don't always go far enough to strike at the heart of the issue. That's why Jimmy Bell, Hayes' lawyer, is pushing for higher fines––$5,000 up from $500––and a mandatory weekend jail sentence.

"The solution [needs to go] across the board. If these fraternities and sororities are saying that they don't believe in hazing, then not many of them that I've contacted have testified to support the legislature to change the law. Because if that's what you really want to do, when people know that these things are crimes and they'll go to jail, people change their behavior," Bell told ATTN: in a phone call. 

But as much as current efforts to reform Greek culture don't go far enough, the uptick in abuse and misconduct reports recently seems to have struck a nerve among some high-profile public figures. In a Q&A for the New York Times at SXSW recently, comedian and actor Will Ferrell was asked his views on the merits of fraternities, given his own experience. But he didn't necessarily sing the praises of pledging. 

"The incident in Oklahoma, that is a real argument for getting rid of the system altogether, in my opinion, even having been through a fraternity. Because when you break it down, it really is about creating cliques and clubs and being exclusionary. Fraternities were started as academic societies that were supposed to have a philanthropic arm to them. And when it's governed by those kind of rules, then they're still beneficial. But you gotta be careful," Ferrell warned. 

And in a segment on his late-night HBO show, Bill Maher was more direct: "That's right fellas, gather up your beer funnels, and your ass paddles, and your lacrosse sticks, and your big, red plastic drinking cups, and get the fuck out," Maher said. 

"Sorry, brah," he added. 

The full video is here: