Are fraternities committed to raising men or raising hell?

A signpost outside the international headquarters of Sigma Alpha Epsilon in Evanston, Illinois. AP Photo/Teresa Crawford)

Louisiana State University considers the alcohol-related death this month of a freshman from Roswell  “a potential hazing incident,” highlighting a grim reality of Greek Life: Frats can be fatal.

A new book that came out today examines the most deadly U.S. fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon.

In “True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities,” journalist John Hechinger chronicles how SAE, alarmed to have more deaths related to alcohol and hazing than any other fraternity, sought to reform itself. Part of that reform led the national fraternity to cooperate with Hechinger to expose the good and the bad within the organization of 13,500 members and 215 chapters.

The journalist found both in his two years of research and campus visits, from chapters where women felt so threatened they said SAE stood for “Sexual Assault Expected” to the brothers at Ohio State University who embraced a gay adviser and his challenge to become a national role model of service, illustrative of the original SAE creed to be “True Gentlemen…who thinks of the rights and feelings of others…a man with whom honor is sacred and virtue is safe.”

Calling SAE the nation’s most notorious fraternity, Hechinger reports from 2005 to 2013, 10 people died in incidents related to SAE. Sixty people in all died at fraternities during that period. Max Gruver, a graduate of  Blessed Trinity High School, died on Sept.  14 after an event at Phi Delta Theta, which has been shut down at LSU.

More than 130 SAE chapters were disciplined over the last five years, and 30 closed. In 2015, the University of Oklahoma disbanded SAE after a video emerged of two members on a fraternity bus singing, “There will never be a n***** at SAE. You can hang him from a tree, but he’ll never sign with me.”

SAE’s liability costs became the highest of any frat because of its troubling record, and change was a necessity, said Hechinger.

“The leaders of SAE know they are a legal judgment away from oblivion,” he writes. In 2014, SAE banned pledging, which seems to be working; there have been no recent SAE pledging or hazing deaths and insurance claims fell from 13 a year to two, he reports. But there is resistance to changing fraternities, which remain largely white and deeply attached to their rituals, even the dangerous ones.

In a telephone interview, Hechinger said the alcohol-soaked cultures have to end for fraternities to endure. “Fraternities have to decide that they can be about more than drinking. And, as the book indicates, they often are. They can be incredibly valuable. But, if every year someone is going to die, they may not be able to survive.”

Frats must stop fostering conditions where underage 16-year-old girls can come to their parties and end up brutally raped in a dingy bathroom, as occurred in 2014 at a Halloween party at the SAE chapter at Johns Hopkins University, he said. Rapes were reported at two other SAE houses that same weekend, including Emory.

Often, fraternities argue the assaults are not committed by members — as was the case at Hopkins — or the young women are too drunk to recount what happened. “But it was their party. If their values are integrity and honor, they should be asking what they can do to create an environment where these assaults don’t happen,” said Hechinger.

Consider the conditions at many frat parties, he said. “You have freshmen women who have never had alcohol or that much alcohol before and they have all these men around them, and they’re in dark basements.”

He pointed out sororities have avoided this moral and legal minefield because most forbid alcohol in the chapters, saying, “That means they don’t have those parties. You don’t see any deaths or serious injuries.”

But what of all the parents who believe frats help their sons find lifelong friends and networks, especially at sprawling schools like the University of Georgia where tour guides often reference the helpfulness of Greek organizations in “shrinking the campus.”

In many public colleges, only 20 percent of students are Greek, but Hechinger said the Greek influence is vast. “What other group on a campus has 20 percent membership? They have a dominant influence on student government because they are a huge voting bloc. They have the spaces that are private where you can have alcohol and serve underage people,” he said.

While Hechinger understands the social appeal, he cautioned, “Parents need to know there are real risks. It is important to understand there is more heavy drinking at fraternities. Parents should talk honestly with their sons about any kinds of risk they might take.”

The most highly regarded survey of campus drinking found 86 percent of men who lived in fraternities report binge drinking, nearly twice the rate of other male students.

Hechinger said parents now also face risks if someone dies or is hurt at a frat event where rules were broken, including underage drinking. Fraternity insurance policies in these instances leave parents vulnerable to personal lawsuits. “Plaintiff’s attorneys now go after family homeowner polices,” said Hechinger, who details lawsuits facing SAE and members in his book.

“If you have a son and he wants to join, I would say he should really look at the culture of the particular chapter and understand what it is all about,” he said. “I would also suggest not joining right away. Students ought to make broad groups of friends, so they don’t feel desperate that they have to join to have friends. I would also get a very large liability policy.”

Reader Comments 0

26 comments
Marty_Sik
Marty_Sik

As a long time advisor/national officer to a sorority, over the years I have observed that when there are no adults around, the members get in trouble.  In the 70s, groups were required to have house directors but few universities and fraternities now require these.  These young people need advisors to guide them in the adult world.

channum
channum

We called SAE at Ohio Wesleyan University, "Sigma Animal Epsilon."

Babycat
Babycat

Let's also examine sororities, they are not the pure, pious young ladies they want you to think they are.  I know because I was in one.  There were a lot that would go out and get so drunk that they did things they regretted in the morning.  Of course then the blame game began and it was everyone's fault but their own.  No one held them down and poured alcohol down their throats.  It all comes back to personal responsibility.  The young man that died at LSU also had drugs in his system.  Was it found that he was forced to do drugs and drink an excessive amount of alcohol?

gapeach101
gapeach101

@Babycat  Okay, so in your world, if someone drinks too much, she deserves what she gets?  When you pledged your sorority could you opt out of whatever hazing was going on?


Babycat
Babycat

Did he just look at the white Fraternities?  Did he also examine the black Fraternities and their activities?

Tcope
Tcope

The answer to the question posed by the author is that they are both sources of college party mayhem and a way to develop relationships at a massive college where things are rather impersonal.

redweather
redweather

@Tcope Pretty much the same thing can be said for dormitories where an excess of alcohol tends to accelerate bad choices and bad behaviors.

I think the problem is that so many young people who go off to college have fairly weak, or untested, identities. Add alcohol and peer pressure and many will act out in ways they never thought possible.

Techmate
Techmate

The initiation rites for most fraternities (maybe all) are not based on anything of substance. It's boys initiating boys. What could possibly go wrong? 


As a culture we don't initiate our young men well at all. Those rites, whether done by sports, the military or corporations, seem to mainly consider the "warrior" archetype and, therefore, leave boys no greater understanding of what true masculinity means. (It will be fun to read what the yahoos say about this).


I was in a fraternity in college, played on sports teams (some undefeated that had true "brotherhood"), was in the military, and, finally, worked with corporations. I've seen first hand how many of our organizations, not just fraternities, fail to really understand the difference between what it really means to be a man and what will pass as the veneer of manhood.



Gunluvr
Gunluvr

There is no way to realistically do anything nor should there be since they are private civilian organizations outside of the regulatory purview of the university they are situated at. I personally have never cared for them as my "fraternity" was an elite military unit whose pledge policy was harsh and very selective, there was just as much heavy drinking and some irresponsible members were allowed in but they knew if they stepped out of line, couldn't continue to meet the standards of the unit or dishonor the unit, they were gone. 

alt2AJC
alt2AJC

Not so long ago this blog helped spread a false, libelous story smearing a University of Virginia fraternity.

(Google "A Rape on Campus.")

Readers have yet to see any apology.

bu22
bu22

@Starik @alt2AJC  "...what of all the parents who believe frats help their sons find lifelong friends and networks..."  This is very real and can be a lifelong help in finding jobs.  The frats also do a lot of good charitable work.  They are the small groups that can help a student in a huge university find a community and support group.   Maureen, in her continuing obsessive attacks on fraternities, glosses over or ignores these things.  Now I wasn't in one, had no interest even if I had been able to afford it and haven't changed my mind.  But there are big benefits for some people.  Of course, any female student should know to never be alone in one of those houses. 

redweather
redweather

@bu22 @Starik @alt2AJC "Of course, any female student should know to never be alone in one of those houses."

Didn't you just sink your own ship? 

Starik
Starik

@redweather @bu22 @Starik @alt2AJC I was in a frat, and made some good friends, had a place to stay, a place to eat, gamble and drink like a fish. That's all. A full point off my GPA.

Covfefe22
Covfefe22

I'd be curious to see the stats on alcohol poisoning/sex assault among the general populace on campus, compared to the fraternities.  These statistics don't really mean anything, in a vacuum.

JHornyak
JHornyak

I'm a Delta Chi. I pledged in 1987. I was a 21 year old second year. Every fall we saw those freshmen that thought they had to drink a lot to 'fit in'. No parents were around to stop them. We had some close calls every fall. We had to watch those kids, and then coach them how to act after they came to. Drinking did not get you in. Yes, most of us did drink, but it was not the goal. I learned a lot from my Fraternity. How to be responsible. How to manage a business. How to make life long friends. I would do it again.

Starik
Starik

@JHornyak  Every campus has a variety of frat cultures. The buttoned down frat(s). The drunk frat(s), the animal houses; the Jewish houses. The Confederates, unreconstructed...  

TaxiSmith
TaxiSmith

I'm not a fan of banning things, but if fraternities and other collegiate groups (remember the Band hazing at the Florida college) insist on drunken revelries then I may change my position. This is just nonsense.

Starik
Starik

Mostly, they're a safe place to drink, and make friends.