Why Are Fraternities Still A Thing?

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Every few months, America reads about another fraternity hazing death. The formula is the same every time: an underage student drinks a fatal amount of alcohol. The fraternity apologizes. Sanctions are enacted, op-eds are written, and stern rebukes fly in from all corners. Yet, systemically, nothing changes. These reckless traditions, performed in the name of bonding, are still regularly carried out in basements across the United States.

On Monday, new charges were filed against 17 former Penn State fraternity brothers as a result of the hazing death of one of their pledges, a 19-year old sophomore named Tim Piazza. The discussion around these types of tragedies often boils down to, “Oh, those pesky Betas and their hijinks!” But this case is particularly disturbing. The former members of the Beta Theta Pi house have been charged not only with hazing, but also aggravated assault and involuntary manslaughter.

On a night in early February, Piazza participated in a pledging ritual called ‘The Gauntlet’ — sounds good so far, right?– during which he was forced to consume 18 drinks in just under an hour and a half. His motor skills severely impaired, Piazza fell down a flight of stairs and was found face-down at the bottom. In an act of brotherly love, members of Beta Theta Pi carried him to a couch, where they proceeded to douse him with water and slap him repeatedly in the face in an attempt to revive him (good move, by the way. One of these guys must have been pre-med). A rational soul actually tried to intervene, but he was slammed against a wall and told that the situation was “under control.” The brothers waited an astounding 12 hours to call 911. By that point, Tim Piazza had already suffered traumatic brain injuries and class IV hemorrhagic shock, as well as a ruptured spleen from his fall.

Tragedies like this could be avoided by doing away with the institution of fraternities altogether. After all, groups that promote a culture of hypermasculinity have been scientifically proven to lead to a  more aggressive posture. Couple that with the idea that individual worth can be measured in shots of jaeger and you’ve got a fertile breeding ground for reckless behavior. Defenders of fraternities will tell you these instances are rare, that fatal hazing stories are an anomaly and not the norm. Data shows that since 1838, more than 200 students have died from hazing-related issues in the United States, 40 in the past 10 years alone. There has been a hazing-related death every year since 1961. That is a level of consistency that simply can’t be ignored.

Defenders of Greek life will also tell you that fraternities promote brotherhood and cooperation, which are skills that will be valuable throughout your personal and professional life. These same skills were perverted by the brothers of Beta Theta Pi as they attempted to cover their tracks. Members initially misled investigators, claiming that the basement surveillance cameras were not operational at the time of Tim Piazza’s death. The truth is that the brothers coordinated a plan to delete the incriminating footage, and lied en masse to the police. After the incident, one member texted another: “Make sure the pledges clean the basement and get rid of any evidence of alcohol.” So many skills at play here: Working together! Delegating! Hiding evidence! Rather than owning up to a tragedy of their own making, the brothers of Beta Theta Pi chose to evade, obfuscate, and put the mythic “brotherhood” above the life of one young man.

So what can be done? A few ideas: strict behavioral policies, zero tolerance for alcohol, adult supervision, and more video surveillance. That should do it, right?

Ready for an M. Night Shyamalan-level twist? Beta Theta Pi had all of these measures in place. Yet these rules did not stop them from throwing lavish parties featuring thousands of dollars worth of booze, and engaging in dangerous and humiliating rituals. The question is, can we do more to reform fraternities? In Time magazine, author Lisa Wade argues that reforming the centuries-old fraternity culture is simply impossible. Fraternities, she writes, “have been synonymous with risk-taking and defiance from their very inception…These fraternities have drink, danger and debauchery in their blood — right alongside secrecy and self-protection.”

It may be that the only real solution is eliminating Greek life completely. There is no defending an institution that promotes dangerous attitudes about race and sex and condones drinking to fatal levels. And to those who would defend the indefensible: I’m sure you had a good time in your college fraternity, but maybe it’s time to grow up.