Riven by booze, hazing and sex

June 15, 2007

US fraternities and sororities have a dark side that is increasingly under the spotlight. Jon Marcus reports.

The Delta Zeta sorority, created nearly 100 years ago at DePauw University in the American Midwest, is among the US's oldest campus social clubs for women and part of one of the largest national university fraternities, with 165 campus chapters.

Inside its red-brick plantation-style house with four white columns in the front, it practised the largely harmless rituals of America's so-called Greek system. It had an official emblem - the Roman lamp - and its official jewel was the diamond.

But like other fraternities at American universities, which have seen their memberships level off or decline, Delta Zeta was suffering from a drop in popularity. Its national leadership began to believe there were flaws in the diamond.

After a review, 23 of the 35 Delta Zeta sisters at DePauw were thrown out.

The sorority says they were removed because of what it calls a lack of commitment to recruiting new members.

But among the women who were told to leave were the only African-American, Korean and Vietnamese members as well as every member who was overweight.

Those who remained were slim, popular and attractive. Six of them also quit in protest.

The university protested, too. It threw the sorority off campus, in effect shutting it down. Enough was enough, said DePauw president Robert Bottoms, noting that the school was already in the midst of a crackdown on its fraternities because of excessive drinking, recruiting irregularities and other problems. The sorority, in turn, has sued the university.

Stereotypes or not, fraternities and sororities have come to be synonymous with elitism, sexual assault, high-risk hazing (initiation ceremonies) and other bad behaviour on American university campuses.

So strong are the associations between fraternities and unacceptable behaviour that when members of the lacrosse team at Duke University were accused of gang-raping a woman, they were widely assumed to be part of a fraternity. In fact, the players, who were cleared of any crime, were not in a fraternity but lived together in a house off campus.

"They might as well have been a fraternity," says Diane Roberts, a professor at Florida State University who writes about fraternity culture.

What the Duke men were accused of "is the kind of group behaviour that commonly happens in fraternities".

University presidents and fraternity leaders met in Washington in 2003 and collectively acknowledged that "illegal and abusive alcohol consumption and its second-hand effects - sexual assault, vandalism, violence, negative community relations, anti-intellectual environment and lack of civility - continue to plague Greek systems". They drafted new guidelines requiring, among other things, that fraternities understand "that alcohol is not the central focus of their organisations".

Fraternities "have spent a great deal of time really doing a lot of education around things like hazing and alcohol", says Debbie Heida, vice-president for student affairs at Berry College in Georgia and president of the Center for the Study of the College Fraternity. "Our systems have gotten better about calling people on their behaviour," she said.

In fact, since the Washington conference there seem to have been fewer incidents related to fraternities, which normally occupy their own houses on or near American campuses.

There have also been crackdowns by university administrators and government officials. Forty-four of the 50 states have passed anti-hazing laws meant to stop alcohol-fuelled membership ceremonies that include beatings.

National fraternities have also struggled to reverse the years of bad public relations, which culminated nearly three decades ago in the still-influential movie Animal House , inspired by a fraternity at Dartmouth College. They point out, for example, that fraternity members collectively contribute some 10 million hours a year to community service.

But although only 3 per cent of Americans were members of fraternities, nearly half of all US presidents were fraternity members; so were more than 40 per cent of senators and 30 per cent of Fortune 500 executives. It is this clubbiness that may explain the antipathy of growing numbers of Americans to fraternities.

"What it's really about is class solidarity," Dr Roberts said. "It is called the class system, that thing we are not supposed to have in America.

Being in a fraternity is how you make connections, and it costs money to be in one."

Dr Roberts is convinced that a fraternity culture of secrecy has made its way into the halls of American power. She said George W. Bush, an alumnus of the influential Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, known as "Deke" - its Yale chapter graduated not only him but five other US presidents - was the most secretive president since Richard Nixon.

The point of fraternities is not just their social function, Dr Roberts has written.

"It's that there are insiders and outsiders, those who are allowed to know the mysteries and rituals, and those who aren't. It's a powerful thing, being privy to the secrets of the brotherhood."

Dr Roberts, the product of the Sigma Kappa sorority at Florida State University, said: "I used to make the claim that I thought sororities were very different from fraternities. But in sororities there was a kind of social pressure to look a certain way and go out with certain kinds of men.

After this Delta Zeta thing, I think they are more similar than not."

She says that the situation at DePauw is not unknown, "it's just that Delta Zeta got caught".

Nor have other fraternities managed completely to do away with their reputations for drinking and other misbehaviour with the attendant bad publicity. A Harvard University study found that 86 percent of men and 80 per cent of women who live in fraternities are binge drinkers, meaning they have four or more drinks in a row at least once every two weeks.

Hazing of new members also remains a problem, no matter how many laws are passed against it.

A chapter of Phi Gamma Delta at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology faced criminal charges when a member died of alcohol poisoning during an initiation ritual. The university ultimately paid the student's parents $6 million (Pounds 3 million), including $1.25 million for a scholarship in his name.

Even after that, at the Fresno State chapter of the same fraternity another student was found dead, also of alcohol poisoning. Other fraternity members had "induced or forced" the student to drink "massive quantities of alcohol", according to a lawsuit filed by the victim's parents.

A new recruit at Tau Kappa Epsilon at Texas State University in San Marcos died from an alcohol-induced bludgeoning by other fraternity members.

A student being hazed by older members of a fraternity he wanted to join at the University of Miami drowned while swimming across a lake on campus in the middle of the night.

Another so-called pledge at a fraternity at the University of Maryland died after drinking whiskey until his blood alcohol level was five times the legal limit for drink-driving.

Fraternity hazing often involves physical abuse - typically beatings with paddles. A student trying to join the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity had his kidneys damaged when he was hazed by being beaten.

A recruit at a fraternity at Texas A&M University had his testicle ruptured by being lifted off his feet by the waistband of his underwear. The testicle had to be surgically removed. In October, a student at the University of South Carolina was hospitalised after being beaten and choked with a T-shirt in a hazing ceremony.

Still, says Ms Heida, "to have the actions of a few shape the perception of what the value is of the fraternity and sorority experience is not fair to these organisations".

Whether or not it is because of such incidents, the number of fraternity chapters and members has levelled off and even dropped in some categories.

Dr Roberts thinks it is cyclical. "When I was in the sorority in the late Seventies it was so uncool. Then it got cool again under Reagan. Maybe it's going through a not-cool phase. It swings back and forth," she said.

Ms Heida agrees. "They're like any organisation," she said. "There are times when there is growth, and there are times when there is a plateau."

These days, Dr Roberts says, her students tell her they join fraternities for entirely pragmatic reasons. "They are really almost business-like about it now," she said. "They want someplace to hang out and think it will be good for networking. For some people it's like joining the Kiwanis Club (a voluntary organisation in local communities), with better rituals and a lot more booze."


* From their beginnings in America as student literary and debating societies, fraternities evolved into men's social clubs with secret handshakes,loyalty oaths and other rituals.

* At the College of William and Mary in 1776, Phi Beta Kappa started a tradition by giving itself a motto in Greek to deepen its mystique. Others followed suit, and the names were later shortened to Greek-letter acronyms.

Today, the groups are collectively referred to as the "Greek system".

* The first of the nation's all-women fraternities, today commonly called sororities, was founded in 1851 at Wesleyan College in Georgia.

* The first fraternity for African-Americans was established in 1906.

Students of various religions have also formed fraternities. Now, fraternities are cropping up, for instance, for gay students.

* In addition to their social role, fraternities provide important professional networks for ambitious students. Their prestige varies widely.

* Six members of Yale's Delta Kappa Epsilon, which was founded in 1844, went on to become presidents of the US, including Theodore Roosevelt, Gerald Ford and both presidents Bush. Celebrities who were fraternity members include the actors Harrison Ford, Brad Pitt, Matthew McConaughey and Ashton Kutcher.

* The University of Illinois has 46 fraternities and 23 sororities, with nearly 7,000 members out of 30,000 undergraduates - the largest proportion in America.

* Nationwide, only about 5 per cent of all university students join fraternities. In all, there are 12,000 fraternity chapters on about 800 campuses in the US, with 750,000 members.

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