Four hazing-related deaths and other misconduct by fraternity members at colleges across the country this year has resulted in increased public scrutiny of Greek organizations and has caused many institutions of higher education to reassess the role that fraternities and sororities play on their campuses.
The first tragedy of the year occurred on Feb. 4, when Beta Theta Pi pledge Timothy Piazza died of alcohol poisoning at The Pennsylvania State University after falling down a flight of stairs. The administration responded by transferring the oversight of Greek life from student-led councils to the university and creating stricter regulations on alcohol at fraternity and sorority events. Penn State also permanently banned Beta Theta Pi from campus. Currently, 26 Beta Theta Pi members face charges related to the incident.
On Sept. 14, 18-year-old Maxwell Guver died of alcohol poisoning at Louisiana State University, as part of a hazing ritual by Phi Delta Theta. Ten fraternity members were charged in association with his death. After temporarily suspending all Greek activities following the tragedy, the university established a Task Force on Greek Life to review fraternities’ and sororities’ effect on the campus culture.
Then on Nov. 3, Andrew Coffey of Florida State University’s (FSU) Pi Kappa Phi died after partying at an off-campus house. FSU responded by suspending all Greek activities on campus. A few days later, the University of Michigan’s (UM) student-run Interfraternity Council voted to halt all fraternity activities under its jurisdiction following allegations of sexual misconduct, hazing, and alcohol and drug abuse by members. UM’s move to discipline fraternities was largely student-led.
On Nov. 13, Matthew McKinley Ellis was found dead at Texas State University (TSU) after partying with members of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity, where he was a pledge. The case is still under investigation, but police suspect that his death was alcohol-related. Like many other institutions, TSU reacted by suspending all Greek activities on its campus.
Finally, on Nov. 16, The Ohio State University suspended all of its fraternities following allegations of hazing and alcohol offenses.
Anti-hazing advocates believe the recent broad crackdown on Greek life by colleges and universities has been accompanied by an uptick in public scrutiny and increased fear by university officials of lawsuits filed by grieving families. Greek life consultant and founder of HazingPrevention.org Tracy Maxwell told The New York Times that “people are at a breaking point, where they’re not willing to accept behavior that has been acceptable in some circles for decades or centuries.” Franklin College journalism professor Hank Nuwer also told The New York Times that hazing deaths — which have been consistent for decades — have become major headlines as of late, with grieving parents becoming “activists for change.”
While Greek organizations have traditionally played a large role in many areas of university life, including campus housing, social events, and alumni relationships, some question whether they deserve a place on campuses at all. In his book True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of American Fraternities, John Hechinger argues that beyond alcohol and drug abuse, fraternities “divide people by race, class, and gender at institutions that are supposed to be encouraging diversity.” Others argue that fraternities and sororities have a positive effect on institutions, reporting that fraternity members generally maintain higher grades and report more career and life satisfaction after graduating from college.
According to FSU President John Thrasher, what is clear is that “there will need to be a new normal for Greek life.”
“There must be a new culture, and … students must be full participants in creating it,” he told CNN.