• December 17, 2014

To End Fraternity Hazing, End Boozing First

To End Fraternity Hazing, End Boozing First 1

Joyce Hesselberth for The Chronicle

Enlarge Image
close To End Fraternity Hazing, End Boozing First 1

Joyce Hesselberth for The Chronicle

Universities have spent years trying to solve the problem of hazing—putting into effect numerous regulations, training seminars, and programs to create a Maginot line. Standing alone, those practices have no real chance of achieving meaningful success. Instead, campuses should be concentrating on changes that will actually prevent hazing and other activities that result in injury and death, particularly the vast majority of incidents in which alcohol is a factor.

Here are steps colleges should take to protect their students from harm and themselves from liability:

  • Require open disclosure.
  • The risks from hazing, sexual assault, and misuse of alcohol in fraternities are unprecedented, although not well known by the public or fully disclosed by the institutions themselves. Henry Wechsler, principal investigator in the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study, concluded that "the single strongest predictor of binge drinking is fraternity or sorority residence or membership."

    At least one student has died from hazing every year since 1970. The Arizona Supreme Court has held: "We are hard pressed to find a setting where the risk of an alcohol-related injury is more likely than from underage drinking at a university fraternity party the first week of the new college year." By the late 1980s, "fraternities and sororities were ranked by the National Association of Insurance Commissioners as the sixth-worst risk for insurance companies—just behind hazardous-waste-disposal companies and asbestos contractors," according to the Fraternal Information and Programming Group, a risk-management organization. James R. Favor & Co., a fraternity insurance broker founded in 1979, says it has handled more than 6,000 fraternity claims involving more than $60-million in payouts.

    Universities rarely disclose these truths. Instead, their Web sites and student-life publications offer "Go Greek" promotional materials, often hiding, or dissuading parents and students from considering, the truth. For example, Cornell University advises parents that its Greek community does not reflect the stereotypical "negative images portrayed in popular media." While this was posted on the university Web site, however, complaints about hazing incidents were increasing, from 15 during the 2006-7 academic year to 31 in 2009-10. (I represent the family of George Desdunes, a Cornell student who died after a hazing incident in 2011.) The university has now begun openly disclosing the risk-management violations and the penalties it has issued against fraternities on its campus.

    But the failure by universities to disclose incidents of hazing applies to other forms of dangerous—even criminal—fraternity misconduct, as well. For example, in the fall of 2010, at the University of Minnesota, there were as many as 10 allegations of sexual assault involving fraternities, yet the university did not disclose that information. Instead, its Web site reported that an involved chapter had been disciplined for failure to "provide a safe environment during parties where alcohol is present."

    Women are entitled to know if the fraternity house they are visiting has been the scene of reported sexual assaults, and students and their parents are entitled to know if the organization the student seeks to join has been penalized for misconduct. Just as society requires disclosure about certain dangers so that individuals can protect themselves and institutions can be made safer, universities must openly, even prominently, disclose all sanctions imposed on Greek chapters for violations of university policies governing alcohol and drug use, hazing, and physical and sexual assaults. They should also make public the identity of the chapter penalized as well as the penalty imposed. Failure to make such disclosures, truthfully and fully, exposes universities to claims of fraud.

    Similarly, as a condition of gaining university recognition, national fraternities must disclose to the administration the same information about all of their chapters. Sigma Alpha Epsilon, to settle litigation against it, revealed that from 2007 to 2011, approximately 80 of its 223 chapters had been sanctioned by universities for risk-management violations, some of which resulted in death. Clearly, some fraternities' risk-management practices are seriously flawed, and that should be known by universities, students, parents, and the public to increase safety and encourage reform.

  • Require alcohol-free housing.
  • Alcohol-free housing substantially reduces the risk of harmful behavior. Most often, it takes time, alcohol, and a lack of supervision to kill and hurt students by hazing. Millions of women in the sororities of the National Panhellenic Council thrive in alcohol-free housing and become active, contributing alumni. Their record of risk shines in comparison with fraternities'. The material difference is alcohol. Favor & Co., the insurance brokerage, studied the impact on Phi Delta Theta fraternity after it required alcohol-free housing for its chapters. The fraternity experienced close to a 75-percent reduction in claims, and the average total annual cost for those dropped by 98 percent.

    Edward G. Whipple, former vice president for student affairs at Bowling Green State University, studied this issue in 2005 and concluded that alcohol-free housing resulted in a 64-percent reduction in the number of claims related to student injury or death and a 94-percent drop in the amount of insurance paid. The reduction of risk is extraordinary, so it's not surprising that Favor offers a reduction in insurance premiums to fraternities that do not allow alcohol in their houses. Universities have no rational basis for ignoring the fact that risk will be substantially reduced if they make that a requirement for all fraternities.

  • Reject chapter self-management.
  • Universities and fraternities must discard the myth that self-management by chapters is effective. Underage, inexperienced, and often intoxicated fraternity officers are responsible for carrying out alcohol and risk-management policies in student housing. In most states, no bar or restaurant is permitted to have 19-year-olds manage and serve alcohol unsupervised. Yet universities and fraternities regularly allow and rely on underage students for such jobs, often removing fraternity housing from the supervisory structure of the campus-housing department and placing it with Greek affairs or volunteers.

    The danger of this management model was illustrated in 2011 by Sigma Alpha Epsilon. A number of public incidents and lawsuits involving hazing, death, and injury prompted Sigma Alpha Epsilon's senior risk-management officer to propose and strongly recommend adoption of an alcohol-free housing policy at the fraternity's governing convention. His rationale was that "two-thirds of our members are under the age of 21 and that most of our risk-management incidents involve the abuse of alcohol." The proposal failed to pass because the fraternity's constitution guarantees that undergraduate members have controlling voting authority.

    That's not unusual; management power over fraternities generally rests with underage undergraduates who cannot legally consume alcohol and should not be permitted to manage housing and control policies involving life-or-death matters. Responsible organizations do not manage risk "upside down," ceding control over health and safety issues to the youngest, least-experienced, and often impaired persons. Universities must require that Greek housing be managed within the department of housing, placing university-trained advisers within the chapter, or requiring fraternities to have a live-in adult house manager unaffiliated with the fraternity.

    To be sure, fraternities have long known that self-management is dangerous. One of the fraternities insured by Favor, Phi Sigma Kappa, appointed a committee in 1998 to analyze the risk- and crisis-management programs put in place by Greek organizations following a number of incidents of hazing and death. The committee concluded that Phi Sigma Kappa's risk-management policy is "not unilaterally working. There are still far too many incidents and violations, some of which involve chapters that are repeat offenders, sometimes occurring each semester." Nothing much has changed in the almost 15 years since. The same risk-management policy remains the fraternity-industry standard.

Hazing will not end until universities and fraternities accept responsibility for resolving the problem by taking these recommended steps—and taking them immediately to prevent further senseless injury and death.

Douglas E. Fierberg is a lawyer who specializes in representing victims of school violence and misconduct.

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.