Nearly a year ago, 19-year-old Timothy Piazza died of a traumatic brain injury after participating in an initiation ritual during Beta Theta Pi pledging at Penn State University. A video showed Piazza falling down a flight of stairs after he was given at least 18 drinks in 82 minutes.
In October, Maxwell Gruver, age 18, died in an alleged hazing incident at Louisiana State University's Phi Delta Theta chapter. His blood alcohol level was found to be more than six times the legal intoxication level of many states. Andrew Coffey, a Pi Kappa Phi pledge at Florida State University and Matthew Ellis, a Phi Kappa Psi pledge at Texas State University, both died following fraternity events in November. They were 20 years old.
American fraternities have long been controversial, but tragedies like these — all of which occurred in a single year — have made that discussion even more pertinent. At Penn State and LSU, the Greek chapters in question were suspended or banned. At FSU and TSU, fraternity and sorority life was suspended entirely. In many such incidents, fraternity members faced criminal charges for the roles they played.
Penn has been fortunate to avoid recent tragedies of this kind. Greek life, which counts more than a quarter of undergraduates as members, is a major aspect of campus social life — and when this year’s new fraternity members officially sign their bids on Monday, a cohort of Penn students are placing their trust in a system that will likely become an integral and positive part of their campus experience.
But in light of a renewed national focus on hazing and student safety, Penn’s Greek leaders and the Greek community at large must keep in mind, when approaching the pledging process, that traditions of forced drinking endanger the lives of pledges and the existence of institutions they hold dear.
Since the spring of 2012, three organizations at Penn — Alpha Epsilon Pi, Alpha Chi Omega, and Pi Kappa Phi — have opted to move off campus after disciplinary issues with the University. In Alpha Epsilon Pi’s case, the move came after a violation of the University’s anti-hazing policy. Alpha Chi Omega voluntarily revoked its charter after Penn’s Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life issued a list of demands to the sorority when a parent called the University to complain about an AXO drinking event. The controversy surrounding Pi Kappa Phi that ultimately led to its decision to move off campus involved a suspension in the fall of 2014 over a hazing allegation.
One must assume that Penn is doing its best to address hazing, and its previous actions suggest that future consequences for hazing will be severe. There’s great pressure today to punish fraternities for their misconduct. A single negative incident can taint a university’s reputation for years — a point that is surely not lost on Penn's top administrators.
But when it comes to activities that often occur after hours and behind closed doors, there is only so much that the administration can do. Anyone with friends in fraternities knows that neither the University’s broad anti-hazing policy nor state hazing laws have done much to improve treatment of pledges.
Of course, it must be said that hazing, as defined by the state and the University, encompasses a large category of activities. Some are clearly more dangerous than others. Branding is considered hazing, but Penn also considers scavenger hunts hazing. Anything which could "adversely affect the mental health or dignity of the individual," a vague and subjective clause, is hazing. For many involved in Greek life, it's difficult to imagine a pledging process that never enters the territory Penn considers hazing.
We can't expect Greek organizations to end hazing, as it is broadly defined. The purpose of pledging is to build bonds between 20 or so students that might not know or like one another to begin with, and hardship (arguably) builds bonds. But there are activities that pose more risk to individuals or to organizations than others, and many of these activities are soaked in alcohol.
It is an open secret that serious hazing happens at Penn, and it's by no means limited to the organizations that have been punished. Forced drinking does not happen at every Greek chapter, but it happens at far too many.
It goes without saying that pledges should not be subjected to sleep deprivation, be put in cages, or subjected to frigid temperatures. All physically or mentally abusive pledging practices are bad, but it's the gallons of alcohol forced onto pledges that put students, and Greek life as a whole, in the most immediate danger.
It’s ultimately up to Greek chapters to regulate their own actions with the awareness that forced drinking can kill, and that it could easily mean the end of individual organizations or the Greek system as a whole. A dry pledging process alone will not bridge the gap between the values many fraternities claim to uphold and the realities of their pledging processes. Still, moving away from forced drinking is a vital step toward a healthier, safer Greek environment.
Penn has suffered more than its fair share of tragedy in recent years. Greek leaders and organizations should take this opportunity to reflect on their pledging processes and curtail forced drinking before it’s too late.