The death of a Clemson University sophomore is the latest incident to raise alarms about safety at fraternities on U.S. campuses, with more colleges cracking down on dangerous behavior.
The South Carolina school said Sept. 23 that it suspended new-member and social activities at its 24 fraternities. This month, California State University at Northridge suspended the Pi Kappa Phi chapter, which later agreed to disband, for hazing violations after a student died on a hike. Last week, Penn State Altoona said it barred a fraternity for six years amid probes into a student suicide in March that may be hazing-related.
More than 60 people have died in fraternity-related events since 2005, many involving alcohol abuse and hazing, according to Bloomberg data. Tragic incidents seem to occur more often, spurring punitive measures from college administrators, said Gentry McCreary, associate dean of students at the University of West Florida in Pensacola.
“It seems like every year for the past four or five years, some big campus has had to shut down the fraternity new-member process,” McCreary, who is also a consultant with the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management in Malvern, Pennsylvania. “People are starting to scratch their heads and say, ‘When are things going to change?'”
The Oconee County Sheriff’s office is investigating the Sept. 22 death of Tucker Hipps, a 19-year-old political science major at Clemson. He was on an “early-morning group activity run with fraternity members,” Clemson said in a statement. The university declined to comment further. Hipps, who died in a fall from a bridge, was a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon, whose policy bans hazing.
Sigma Phi Epsilon’s national organization said in a Sept. 23 statement it was aware of reports that Hipps’ death was in some way linked to hazing.
“SigEp has a zero-tolerance policy regarding hazing and is currently investigating these claims,” the fraternity said.
While such hikes and runs may sound innocuous, sending new or aspiring members on adventures is a common hazing activity, said Hank Nuwer, a journalism professor at Franklin College in Franklin, Indiana, who studies the topic. There have been several incidents where students have been dropped off in dangerous areas or forced to navigate out of risky situations, he said.
“It’s crazy to have pledges running around in the dark,” Nuwer said in a telephone interview.
This year, punitive measures have been taken against fraternities because of alleged hazing at colleges including Marquette University in Milwaukee, and Loyola University in Chicago. Loyola imposed a three-year suspension on the Sigma Pi brotherhood.
“Sigma Pi Fraternity has resolved to hold its chapters accountable for compliance” with university and fraternity policies, the national organization said in a July 28 statement. The Loyola chapter will be eligible to return to campus no earlier than Aug. 1, 2017, according to the statement.
Earlier this month, MIT banned large parties at all Greek societies after a woman fell from the window of a fraternity house, MIT said in a Sept. 3 email to the university community. The incident during the previous weekend was alcohol-related, according to MIT’s police log.
A similar ban at MIT was imposed last year after a male student fell four stories through a fraternity-house skylight. Both people survived the accidents.
Some colleges have been hesitant to crack down on fraternities, Nuwer said. Schools may fear that exerting control over Greek societies will raise their institutions’ risk of liability when incidents occur, he said.
Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, told its two active all-male Greek houses this week to admit women and end freshman “rushing.” Fraternities at the college have been the subject of two lawsuits since 2012 alleging sexual assault.
While safety is part of many decisions at the college, legal action wasn’t the driving force behind the change in fraternity policy, Kate Carlisle, a university spokeswoman, said.
The shift to co-ed fraternities was “under consideration for a long time and the decision was reached after input from many parties,” Carlisle said in a phone interview. “It wasn’t a reactive move.”
The North-American Interfraternity Conference, an Indianapolis-based group of brotherhoods, has organized commissions to study hazing, sexual misconduct and alcohol abuse. They are working to provide final reports and recommendations by March 1, 2016, said Peter Smithhisler, the group’s president and chief executive officer. Each commission consists of about 10 to 12 experts, he said in an e-mail.
“The NIC seeks to provide leadership in addressing the environmental and behavioral challenges that affect fraternity members and to a larger degree, undergraduate students across North America,” Smithhisler said.
While pledging was once a loyalty-building process, it has become a “dominance” ritual, said McCreary at the University of West Florida. Fraternity brothers, who control the fate of younger students who want to join, feel they can do anything to reinforce the social order, he said.
“When it’s OK to do something just because you can, it may start out mild, but it quickly turns into something bad,” he said.
While suspensions of social and pledging activities may interrupt hazing, colleges need to find ways to address the position of power that fraternities hold over aspiring members, McCreary said.
Greater oversight from alumni may help, along with measures such as Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s decision in March to ban pledging. The fraternity’s national organization made the move after at least 10 deaths since 2006 were linked to hazing, alcohol or drugs at SAE events.
“If I was a university administrator, I would mandate that if you want to be in our system, there’s no pledge program,” Brad Cohen, SAE’s national president, said in a telephone interview.
At Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, where about half of undergraduates belong to fraternities and sororities, President Philip Hanlon wants to designate more housing as non- affiliated, giving students more options to Greek societies. In an April speech, Hanlon lashed out at “extreme behavior” on campus that hurts the entire college community. He created a committee to reduce and eliminate harmful behavior.
Dartmouth’s fraternities also voted this week to ban pledging, said Justin Anderson, a spokesman. The school applauds such student-led efforts that “promote a safe campus and aim to reduce high-risk, extreme behavior,” he said in an email.
Penn State Altoona’s administration suspended Phi Sigma Kappa for six years after the school investigated allegations of hazing at the fraternity brought to light as a result of Marquise Braham’s death, said Shari Routch, a university spokeswoman.
The fraternity is appealing the suspension, Routch said. Voice and email messages left with Phi Kappa Sigma’s international headquarters seeking comment weren’t returned.
Braham was an 18-year-old freshman and Phi Kappa Sigma member. In March, he jumped to his death off the Long Island Marriott in Uniondale, New York, said Mike Paul, a spokesman for Braham’s family, in a phone interview.
Braham had no history of depression or other mental-health problems, Paul said. His parents found evidence of what they believed to be hazing after looking at their son’s mobile phone following his death. They found a picture of a young man blindfolded with a gun to his head and discussions about telling pledges they had to choose between snorting a line of cocaine or penetrating themselves with a sex toy, Paul said.
“Your kids are doing much riskier things than you ever imagined,” Paul said. “If you read about it, or saw photos of it, or saw text messages about it, you would be absolutely shocked.”
– Gilblom reported from New York. Chris Staiti contributed from Boston.