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Trouble on frat row

Do fraternities and sororities belong on today’s campus?

Created date

August 21st, 2012

These days, a traditional four-year college education can cost well over $200,000 money many Americans happily pay to help prepare their children (and grandchildren) for the rigors of the modern workplace. On top of all that money spent on tuition, books, and meal plans, many students pay thousands of dollars more to join a sorority or fraternity. A recent expos published in the April 2012 edition of Rolling Stone magazine detailed many of the dangerous rituals practiced at Dartmouth College s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon. In addition, a number of tragic deaths involving fraternity hazings have lead some to wonder if traditional Greek organizations belong on modern American campuses.

Philanthropy

Greek organizations do a lot of good through community service and philanthropic endeavors. They provide members with a tight-knit group of friends and numerous social activities. Upon graduation, Greek organizations provide members with a lifelong network of contacts. For all their good, however, it should come as no surprise that 18-year-olds are not paying thousands of dollars to do charity work. What most attracts students to join fraternities and sororities are the raucous parties and the free-flowing alcohol. This is especially true for students who are younger than the national legal drinking age of 21.

Binge drinking

While college students are famous for their wild behavior, a number of national studies show that binge drinking is far more prevalent among Greek members. The Harvard School of Public Health found that almost half (45%) of male college students and more than a third (36%) of female college students engage in binge drinking. Among Greek members, the numbers are significantly higher. Eighty-six percent of fraternity members and 80% of sorority members living in chapter houses are likely to engage in binge drinking. The study concluded that the single strongest predictor of binge drinking is fraternity or sorority residence or membership. Four of five students who live in fraternities or sororities are binge drinkers.

Hazing

Before joining Greek organizations, prospective members or pledges must go through a period of initiation. Although it is illegal, initiation frequently includes hazing, which could be anything from requiring pledges to where silly costumes in public to forcing them to eat or drink something to excess. (Of course, hazing is not unique to the Greek system. Athletic teams, pre-professional organizations, and the military have all been known to haze. Even marching bands haze, as the horrible 2011 death of drum major Robert Champion at Florida A&M University illustrates.) A 2008 study by the University of Maine found that 55% of students who join fraternities, sororities, sports teams, or other student groups experience some form of hazing. There has been at least one death per year as a result of hazing since 1970. With the Greek culture so saturated in alcohol and power, it is not surprising that a National Institute of Justice study linked a higher prevalence of sexual assault and rape to college Greek communities, perhaps because it has become an accepted part of Greek culture. For example, in 2010, the members of Yale s Delta Kappa Epsilon saw nothing wrong with commanding a group of pledges to march through campus chanting what amounts to a cheer for rape. The first line of their chant was No means yes! The second line is too vulgar to print vulgar enough to get the entire fraternity banned from the Yale campus for five years.

Tragedy at Cornell

In 2011, George Desdunes, a sophomore at Cornell University, died after a tragic hazing incident that involved kidnapping and consuming odd food combinations and excessive amounts of alcohol. In the aftermath of Desdunes death, the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter at Cornell and four students were charged with hazing. Ultimately, the students were acquitted but the fraternity was found guilty. Desdunes death and its aftermath prompted David J. Skorton, the president of Cornell, to pen an editorial forThe New York Timesin which he said that the Desdunes tragedy convinced me that it was time long past time to remedy practices of the fraternity system that continue to foster hazing. As part of that remedy, Cornell created a website dedicated to disseminating information about hazing at the school. While that is a great first step, it is questionable whether it will make much of a dent in a culture that has existed for over a hundred years. When Jim Wright was president of Dartmouth back in 1999, he proposed reforming the school s Greek system by making organizations co-ed. Wright was met with a barrage of protest from students and alumni who did not want to see the system that inspired the movie Animal House abolish its time-honored traditions. In light of recent tragedies, some colleges are pulling the plug on Greek life. Binghamton University in New York recently suspended all recruitment and pledge activities, while other schools like Williams College, Bowdoin, and Colby have phased out their Greek systems altogether. michele.harris@erickson.com

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