We had a great time, but a new guy died. What do we do now?
Between 2000 and 2015, at least 57 fraternity members have died, usually while being hazed — a secret night of torture that makes you belong, leading, they say, to a career in a bank or law firm and perhaps marriage into a wealthy family. The “brothers” will take care of you.
But the frat system is doing more harm than good. Defenders suggest that, compared with other death tolls, 57 is not a big number. They overlook that every human life is precious and some die because universities responsible for the intellectual and moral development of every student have failed.
The Atlantic, Time and The New York Times Magazine have published stories of cases at Penn State and Baruch College, and Texas State, Florida State, Louisiana State and Michigan. Their fraternities are out of control.
In 2015, five members of Pi Delta Psi were charged with assault, conspiracy and third-degree murder of Michael Deng, a student at Baruch College. In December 2013, “brotherhood” candidates had been pushed through “hell week” — deprived of sleep, made to do push-ups, forced to carry loads of bricks or bowling balls.
Finally, at a rented house in the Poconos, their masculinity was tested by an outdoor battle in which the blindfolded pledge was bombarded with racial slurs and forced to run through two lines, be beaten and knocked down. One frat member hit Deng, 18, so hard he could not get up. Unconscious, his body was carried inside, stripped and placed near the fireplace. None of the three dozen brothers would call 911. At 6:42 a.m., he was driven to the hospital. Deng died the next day. In May, four frat members pleaded guilty to lesser charges, and last month, the fraternity was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter.
In the case of Tim Piazza of Penn State, he arrived at Hershey Medical Center with a lacerated spleen and traumatic brain injuries. Piazza, 19, had fallen down the stairs during hazing, but the members waited nearly 12 hours before calling 911. Security cameras had recorded the evening. The evidence helped a grand jury compile the report that said the fraternity brothers “delayed seeking medical treatment and cleaned up traces of a wild party.” Last month, prosecutors announced new charges, bringing the number of fraternity members charged to 26.
According to The Atlantic, universities will claim that hazing is forbidden. But 80 percent of fraternity members report being hazed.
Universities regularly declare that they will reform the frats. They suspend some for a few years, but in the long run that solves nothing. Why won’t institutions take responsibility for so many deaths? Probably because the presidents do not want to offend alumni and board members blinded by nostalgic affection for their undergraduate social lives. They fail to see that the basic elements of frat life work against the ideals of the university.
Elitism blocks relationships with would-be friends from different races and nationalities. Unlike service clubs committed to social justice, frat members end up with a short list of “brothers” just like themselves; they resort to hazing to create an artificial bond based on pain. Finally, their secrecy, they think, protects them from the consequences of misbehavior.
What to do? Redesign fraternities for public service, to have goals bigger than themselves. Each club should have a faculty mentor responsible for guidance and discipline. Members must say no to hazing; a violator should be expelled from the school. At large parties, the mentor and a security officer would be present. The president should visit the houses regularly and take responsibility when a student dies. Then perhaps he or she should resign.
The Rev. Raymond A. Schroth, a former Fordham University professor, is editor emeritus at America magazine.