I was a member of a large, 125-year old fraternity at UNC-Chapel Hill and served as president. There was nothing like it: I had a group of more than 80 friends in a campus of more than 18,000 undergraduates, from my first few weeks on campus until the day I left last year. I made memories and friends there that I will keep for the rest of my life.
During my time as president, I helped lead my fraternity out of a period of turbulence that taught me about many of the issues that fraternities are dealing with across the country. I encountered and dealt with the institutional bodies who have tried to regulate and reform fraternity culture over the past few decades. In my opinion, they have failed. We all have.
Fraternity culture across the United States has reached its reckoning moment—a deserved and self-imposed moment. Anyone who denies the issues plaguing many campus fraternity systems across the United States would be lying to you. A simple Google search can reveal the names of the young men whose deaths are attributable to the hazing and alcohol abuse that is prevalent in Greek life across the United States: Timothy Piazza, Tucker Hipps, Maxwell Gruver, Andrew Coffey, and others.
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I left UNC worried about the future of its fraternity system. Based on my experience, I believe UNC-Chapel Hill, and nearly every other school across the state of North Carolina, is no different than Penn State, or any other school that has been beleaguered by a hazing crisis in the past few years. Our only difference is that student organizations at UNC have not been publicly exposed or caught, and the unimaginable—a tragedy—has not yet occurred in Chapel Hill.
From what I have seen, hazing is extremely prevalent every fall and spring in male Greek communities as new members join fraternities at UNC and at universities, private and public, across the state. Members consistently display extreme risk, ignorance, and obliviousness in their treatment of new members, just like they did at Penn State, Clemson, LSU, Florida State and the other schools that have experienced tragedies at the hands of a fraternity.
Organic culture change within these organizations is difficult without an external prod or pressure. Changing fraternity culture is not something that happens seamlessly or overnight. Organizations, even when dealing with strong external pressure like a university’s justified iron fist, still struggle to change. I fear that the only Greek students who truly understand the risk that comes with hazing are the chapter presidents and a few members who do not have the clout or courage to speak out and change things.
The culture within the male Greek community with regards to being caught or something going wrong is that “it won’t be us,” “that could never happen here,” or “our alumni will save us.”
I believe there are solutions to the issues facing fraternity culture in the United States. But university administrators, alumni, and politicians shouldn't expect these solutions and the culture change to come from within.
Solutions should revolve around transparency, accountability, and responsibility. Universities should make public any violations of student conduct policy (by all student organizations) and consider deferring recruitment until second semester. State and national hazing laws should be strengthened.
Fraternities and other student organizations provide lessons in leadership, responsibility, and personal character. They add value to their campus communities through friendships, social activities, and philanthropy. But, if campuses across the United States cannot confront and change problematic fraternity culture, it will be near impossible to convince others that fraternities deserve to stay. Action should not be taken on this issue because universities fear a scandal. Action should be taken because we care about the health of students.
They say young people should learn from their mistakes, especially while in college. But when these mistakes result in death, injury, hazing, sexual assault, and the abuse of drugs and alcohol, should we really be letting these mistakes be made in the first place?
David Vitek, a 2017 graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, was president of Sigma Nu Fraternity. He lives in Washington, D.C, and can be reached at email@example.com