John Drescher

Why colleges won’t ban fraternities

John Hechinger
John Hechinger

Fraternities are under intense scrutiny across the country, and some members even have been charged in connection with hazing deaths. Yet fraternities are more popular than ever.

That dichotomy is at the core of the timely new book, “True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities,” by John Hechinger, a senior editor at Bloomberg News and former reporter for the Charlotte Observer.

Hechinger will speak about fraternities Tuesday at noon at Duke University’s Rubenstein Library 349 (email to register) and at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Quail Ridge Books at Raleigh’s North Hills.

The book grew out of Hechinger’s reporting for Bloomberg about deaths at fraternities. “I kept asking: Why are they still around, if they have this dark side?” Hechinger told me. “They have a split personality. They have this dark side of drinking and hazing and misogyny and sexual assault but they have a really laudable side of philanthropy, leadership and scholarship.”

Criminal charges

The laudable side was overshadowed last year by deaths at Penn State, Louisiana State, Texas State and Florida State. At those universities, administrators suspended all Greek Life activity. Hechinger said suspensions often last three to six months, and then the fraternities return to operating as they did previously.

At LSU, the 18-year-old victim had a blood-alcohol level of .496 percent, more than six times the legal limit for driving. Ten current or former LSU students have been charged.

At Penn State, two dozen people face criminal charges in the death of pledge Timothy Piazza, who reportedly had 18 drinks in less than 90 minutes and fell down a flight of stairs. Prosecutors say fraternity members waited hours before seeking medical help. A grand jury report said hazing at Penn State was “rampant and pervasive” and that the university had ignored problems with fraternities.

A few weeks ago, two fraternities at East Carolina University were shut down by their national organizations following investigations into members’ conduct, including alcohol violations and hazing. One of those fraternities will be closed for four years; the other closure is indefinite.

Hechinger’s book recounts problems at various fraternities in North Carolina, including a hazing death at Lenoir-Rhyne University and an incident at an Elon University fraternity party that left a student a quadriplegic.

Last year’s deaths weren’t unusual in number; at least six young men died in connection with hazing in 2014 and seven in 2012.

Hechinger says there’s an unholy trinity of problems at fraternities: racism, deadly drinking and misogyny.

Citing those problems, some people, including New York Times columnist (and UNC-Chapel Hill grad) Frank Bruni, have called for fraternities to be shuttered. Only a few colleges and universities have banned fraternities; that happened mostly in the 1960s and ‘70s. “I just don’t see any of the big public universities eliminating fraternities,” Hechinger said.

Sexual Assault Expected

Hechinger focuses much of his book on Sigma Alpha Epsilon, which has 15,000 brothers in 230 chapters. It is sometimes known by the nickname “Sexual Assault Expected.”

Ten SAE deaths were reported from 2005 to 2013, mostly from drinking and hazing. More than 30 chapters have been shut down since 2013. A legal settlement requires SAE to disclose all campus infractions, giving Hechinger unusual access into misconduct among SAE members.

Overall, fraternities have more than 380,000 undergraduate members, a 50 percent increase in the last decade. Fraternity alums tend to be well-connected in business and politics.

“They are the most loyal alums,” said Hechinger, a Yale graduate who was not a member of a fraternity. “Colleges might complain about fraternities but they rely on them to attract a whole new group of donors to give to the football stadium, the hospital or the art museum. They really are stronger than ever, even as these headlines keep coming.”

John Drescher: 919-829-4515, @john_drescher