What Can Campus Leaders Do About a Surge in Fraternity Hazing?

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By Gentry McCreary

In the past month, two young men died from what appears to be alcohol-related fraternity hazing. The deaths happened in eerily similar circumstances at intimate, unofficial gatherings off campus, away from fraternity houses and beyond the reach of fraternity chapter leaders to control.

It would be easy, and perhaps comforting, to explain away these deaths — Stone Foltz at Bowling Green State University and Adam Oakes at Virginia Commonwealth University — as a random string of bad luck for college fraternities. (A third case being investigated is the death of Eli Weinstock, a new fraternity member at American University.) I am concerned that they may be a harbinger of things to come.

In early February, my applied-research company released a white paper, “The Impact of Covid-19 on the Fraternity Experience: Three Disturbing Trends.” The report’s longitudinal data — gathered from three national fraternities between 2018 and 2020 — offer the first (to my knowledge) comprehensive look at fraternity social culture pre- and post-Covid. The data presented in the report paint a scary picture of the immediate future of college fraternities, and suggest that these recent deaths may become a feature, and not a bug, of the post-pandemic era.

Our research uncovered three trends, consistent across multiple national organizations.

Binge drinking is on the rise. Fraternity members are drinking more alcohol, both in terms of their overall consumption and in terms of the frequency of binge drinking. That is hardly surprising, as multiple studies have shown that alcohol consumption has increased among the U.S. adult population during the pandemic. Fraternity members have not been immune to the trend. However, the data we collected are concerning for two reasons:

  • The spike in frequency of self-reported binge drinking is the first such increase observed since we began gathering this data in 2015. Our previous studies had shown that, consistent with other college-health research, generation-Z students drank less in high school than their millennial counterparts, and engaged in less-frequent binge drinking once they came to college. After years of steady declines, binge drinking among fraternity members spiked up sharply in the last year.
  • Second, scores on the Alcohol Use Disorders Identification Test show that a majority of fraternity members are now drinking at levels deemed problematic by public-health experts, with a significant portion now showing early signs of alcohol dependency.

Too many “always joiners.” Our research shows that during academic year 2020-21, fraternity new-member rolls were increasingly filled by “always joiners” — young men who knew for certain they wanted to be in fraternities prior to coming to college — and fewer “maybe joiners” and “never joiners” — men who, respectively, were ambivalent about joining fraternities or who, at some point, thought they would never join a fraternity.

Stated more simply, students who were on the fence about joining fraternities before coming to college in the fall of 2020 were much less likely to join because of the uncertainty brought on by Covid-19. That is problematic, as our previous research showed strong relationships between the percentage of “always joiners” in a chapter and its self-reported alcohol use, number of alcohol-related incidents, and attitudes about hazing.

“Maybe” and “never” joiners tend to be more altruistic and less motivated by the social benefits associated with fraternity membership, and more likely to be seeking meaningful engagement and a place to belong. When broken down by institutional type, this spike in always joiners was most pronounced at midsize regional comprehensive universities.

An increase in hazing motivation. Finally, and perhaps most disturbingly, our research suggests an alarming spike in the social-dominance motivation that underlies fraternity hazing. This attitudinal measure examines the extent to which fraternity members believe that the pledging process should reinforce group hierarchy through mechanisms of power and control. Social-dominance motivation is strongly correlated with hazing tolerance and other problematic behaviors.

Those three trends — taken separately — would be cause enough for concern on any campus. Each of them make clear that fraternity culture has devolved during the pandemic. But when you think about them as one large, interconnected web, they become even more alarming.

The interconnected theory goes something like this: Because of the pandemic, fraternities are now made up of a higher concentration of members who view the fraternity house as their social playground and a lower concentration of more altruistic members who have historically served as a check on problematic behavior. Because of the pandemic lockdowns, fraternity members are drinking more alcohol. But instead of well-monitored big parties at fraternity houses on or near campus, or at crowded bars, they are drinking in small groups at private houses or apartments far removed from the watchful eyes of the social-distancing police.

After a year of lockdowns, and with the light at the end of the tunnel getting closer by the minute, the pent-up energy is nearing a boiling point. This energy is not merely a motivation to party, but a motivation to return to “normal” in every facet of fraternity life, including hazing. But since large lineups at the chapter house and other traditional — and, frankly, often safer — forms of hazing are still untenable because of social-distancing rules, these often-intoxicated members are taking matters into their own hands and hazing newcomers (individually or in small groups) in dangerous ways. Feeling cheated out of the last year like the rest of us, these “rogue” members are making up for lost time and doing it largely on their own terms.

Overlay all of this with a resurgent movement — sure to regain momentum in the fall — to abolish Greek life on many campuses. That movement may keep more-altruistic prospective members away from fraternities, which is a recipe for disaster.

Sadly, we know that Eli, Adam, and Stone won’t be the last young men to make headlines this year. We’ve almost become desensitized to fraternity-hazing deaths, with every college and university president knocking on wood and hoping that bad luck doesn’t land on their doorstep. But instead of just hoping and wishing, there are practical steps that every college and university can — and should — be taking to deal with this problematic amalgamation in the post-Covid months to come.

Rethink the fall “Rush Week” ritual. Formal recruitment that happens early in the fall semester is designed solely around taking socially motivated always joiners and — more or less equitably — dispersing them around the chapters on a given campus. This process must be reimagined, and in more creative ways than just deferring recruitment to the spring semester or requiring students to wait to rush until their sophomore year when, our research shows, they proceed to treat the fall semester as one big, extended rush party.

Institutions need to decrease the pressure on Greek chapters to do what is easiest and heavily recruit the always joiners, and instead give fraternities the time and flexibility they need to seek out and identify the “never” and “maybe” joiners on the campus. Higher education needs an influx of altruistic students joining fraternities. To accomplish that, campus leaders should move away from an abbreviated formal rush week and toward a less structured, more open process. Fraternity chapters should be given several weeks to identify and recruit prospective members. Coupled with a strictly enforced, extended dry-rush period — in which events designated as recruitment events are required to be alcohol-free — such a change could give chapters more time and opportunity to identify altruistic prospective members, while at the same time decreasing the danger associated with alcohol use among new freshmen during the first several weeks of the fall semester.

For campus administrators, a formal rush week at the beginning of a semester is the easiest way to manage the process by which students join the Greek system. But it is long past time that we stopped sacrificing the health and safety of the fraternity experience upon the altar of administrative expediency.

Invest in intensive interventions to reduce alcohol abuse. Campus leaders can ill-afford to turn a blind eye to the alcohol culture on their campuses. Our data show that alcohol-free fraternity housing improves chapter social culture, decreases alcohol use, increases belonging and satisfaction, and makes the experience more attractive to the altruistically motivated students.

Campus leaders also must understand and acknowledge that, post-pandemic, a significantly higher number of students may well be struggling with alcohol-dependency issues. Administrators will need to:

Confront the power differential inherent in the fraternity-pledging process. The alcohol-fueled hazing that was responsible for the recent deaths of college fraternity members resulted from power differentials inherent in the fraternity-pledging process. Fraternity members are conditioned to believe that they have the power to make the new members do as they please in order to “earn their letters.” While this can begin in seemingly innocuous ways (cleaning, errand running), it often ends in forced drinking.

The best way to counter social-dominance hazing is to undermine the power differential upon which it rests, and the best way to do that is to end the two-tiered system of pledging. In 2011, David Skorton, president of Cornell University, vowed to eliminate fraternity pledging in the wake of a student hazing death. At the time, I was hopeful that other campus leaders would follow suit, but few (if any) did.

Our research shows that fraternity members who are initiated immediately — no pledging — are less likely to tolerate hazing and less likely to be motivated to indulge in it themselves. Does hazing still exist in fraternities that immediately initiate new members? Of course. However, the incidents tend to be much less severe because the power differential between the 18-year-old first-year student being hazed and the 19-year-old sophomore doing the hazing has been significantly reduced. By eliminating that differential, the new member has much more power to say no to hazing rituals that he perceives to be potentially harmful.

There is no silver bullet to eliminate alcohol-infused hazing on our college campuses. As humans, hazing is in our nature — we have been conditioned by years of group selection to bind ourselves together into groups and to prevent the exploitation of our groups by would-be free riders. We will never eradicate hazing in student groups, but there are a number of reasonable, meaningful steps that college presidents can take to reduce the likelihood of becoming the next to make that heart-wrenching phone call to the parents of another dead fraternity pledge.

In making these changes, campus leaders must strike a fine balance. Measures that do not go far enough are unlikely to yield any meaningful change. Measures that are perceived by fraternity leaders as too draconian could result in groups walking away from campus recognition and continuing their operations underground, only making matters worse. But if no action is taken, our research suggests that the likelihood of presidents having to make that telephone call has never been higher than it is now and in the months ahead.

Gentry McCreary is the CEO of Dyad Strategies, a consulting firm engaged in applied research related to the fraternity and sorority experience. He previously served as associate dean of students and a clinical professor of educational research and administration at the University of West Florida, and as director of Greek affairs at the University of Alabama.

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