Fraternities and sororities are back in the spotlight again after the death of Timothy Piazza, a sophomore at Penn State University, this past February. To date, 18 fraternity members have been charged with a crime (10 with involuntary manslaughter, 8 with lesser chargers). Apparently Mr. Piazza and other pledges were forced to consume massive quantities of alcohol (his BAC was .43). The young man fell several times, including down a flight of stairs. The fraternity members put him on a couch, where he remained for 12 hours before medical services were contacted (he died two days later). Because of the in-house security system, there are videos of fraternity members jumping on his prone body, slapping him in the face, and punching him in the stomach (I expect that the video will eventually be leaked to the press and public).
Penn State officials shut down the fraternity where Mr. Piazza died. They have expressed sadness over this tragedy and vowed to make further reforms. Because this is a national story, other college presidents have weighed in, though many of them have said that because fraternities are private organizations whose property is off-campus, that they have little power to do much.
I wrote about the deaths of three Rutgers students in three different decades back in the fall of 2014. Each time, Rutgers officials stated that this was a terrible event and that their would be changes. Each death happened under a different college presidential administration, yet the words uttered and the lack of action were all eerily similar. Earlier this year, a student died at a fraternity at Miami University. The college president uttered lines from the same ineffectual playbook. This story played out at the University of Florida in 2006 (two students died). Two Greek Houses were permanently suspended at the University of Connecticut in the fall of 2016 after two students died. Six fraternity members were charged with crimes in relation to those deaths.
These are woeful stories. I have long argued that sad stories should not be the central basis of policy formation and changes in American institutions. Data is more important. That earlier mentioned piece on the deaths at Rutgers is one of the top five most read articles on my site. I received a large number of comments and emails after it (many from angry Greeks), and I wrote a follow up piece two months later after several more college deaths. In that article, I included a number of studies about the various problems that Greek life cause on college campuses. There is a large and fantastic (but incomplete) list on wikipedia that details hazing deaths (most of them are caused by college fraternities and sororities, and as you can see, they are increasing). We’ve known about the high rates of rape that are associated with fraternities for decades (here is a 1989 study). In June of 2015, Bloomberg put a brilliant article together about every allegation against (not incident, those are often unreported and sometimes covered up) fraternities and sororities during the first half of that year.
The Greeks and their supporters (this is made up of alumni and people that they pay) argue that Greek life is an essential part of college life and that they do service work. Cheating, excessive drinking, drug abuse, hazing, raping, and death all occur at higher rates with the Greeks than with the non-Greeks on campus. This is demonstrable and irrefutable. Their occasional service work and fundraising for worthy causes do not excuse their behavior.
It is time for College Presidents and the Boards of Trustees to shut down Greek Life. Here is how you do it:
- Do not let them use any university facilities for their Greek purposes. They cannot hold meetings or events on campus.
- Do not let them advertise any events on campus billboards and encourage the student newspapers to reject advertisements from the Greeks.
- Engage in a constant, blistering, fact filled education campaign where students and their parents are told about the problems of Greek life and the high rates of cheating, drunkenness, drug abuse, hazing, rape and death. This should be conducted by college officials and students. Social norming ads should be aired on college TV and radio. Put up warning billboards that are similar to anti-smoking ads.
Membership will plummet, and then continue with a slow but long decline. Fraternities and sororities will be squeezed for money due to the lack of new members. The vast numbers of alumni will die off and not be replaced. The culture will change. Greek Life will continue to survive to some degree, but it will be a vestigial part of college (like men who wear ties to class, dorm mothers, and low tuition costs). The question is this: how many more times will we have to read about tragedies and hear how College Presidents are saddened and outraged before meaningful and permanent changes are enacted?