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The Syllabus: Dark days for fraternities

The Syllabus: Dark days for fraternities


(I've updated this post below.)

Fraternities have shown up a few times recently in the higher ed news cycle, and not in a good way.

Over in Winston-Salem, Wake Forest University busted one of its fraternities for throwing a party it hadn’t cleared with the school. Right before Wake Forest announced the suspension of Delta Kappa Epsilon — which had been on probation the semester before for unrelated rules violations — the university got two separate reports of possible sexual assaults at the fraternity house. (Delta Kappa Epsilon, known as DKE or simply "Deke," is the same fraternity that the newest U.S. Supreme Court justice belonged to during his Yale days; the Yale chapter of that fraternity also is in trouble.)

At Elon University, which has suspended at least two fraternities since I've been on the higher ed beat, the parents of Tim Piazza visited campus recently to talk to students about the danger of hazing. Their son died in 2017 after he fell down the stairs twice at a Penn State fraternity house. Piazza, who was pledging Beta Theta Pi, got horribly drunk during a hazing ritual. Fraternity brothers didn’t call for help until 12 hours after the 19-year-old sophomore fell the first time.

Just up the road in Virginia, the parents of a student who died of acute alcohol poisoning after a fraternity party in 2017 sued Hampden-Sydney College, a fraternity and several fraternity members this summer. Their son, Harrison Carter Cole, was a freshman and a member of Alpha Chi Sigma, a fraternity for chemistry majors.

I bring up all of this to lead into this: a long piece that Bloomberg published in late September about the 2012 death of High Point University student Robert Tipton.

Tipton was a junior at HPU when he died of a suspected accidental drug overdose. His mother says bruises on her son’s neck and a gash on his head suggest something more sinister. A criminal investigator hired by Tipton’s mother found what the Bloomberg story called “curious oversights” in the police investigation. The courts, meanwhile, have twice ruled against Tipton’s family, and High Point police and prosecutors told Bloomberg that they see no reason to reopen the six-year-old case.

Some of the details might seem familiar to close readers of the N&R and other local media, as we wrote about a lot of the court filings in 2014. But the Bloomberg story lays out the entire complicated narrative, a story that includes the curious behavior of Michael Qubein, the youngest child of HPU President Nido Qubein. The youngest Qubein was the pledge master of Delta Sigma Phi, the fraternity that Tipton hoped to join. In depositions, Michael Qubein admitted that he deleted text message from Tipton’s phone and files from Tipton’s laptop.

The writer, Bloomberg senior editor John Hechinger, once worked as a reporter at the Charlotte Observer. (The NPR affiliate in Charlotte talks to him about his HPU story here.) He also wrote a book in 2017 about the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, which appears to be in more trouble than DKE.

By now, I hope, the point here is clear: fraternities are bad news and — I can’t stress this enough — have been this way for a long time. 

College professor and author Hank Nuwer has documented more than 200 hazing-related deaths over the past two centuries. Since 1959, according to his Hazing Deaths database, there has been at least one — and usually more than one — hazing-related death at a U.S. college campus each year. This Time magazine piece profiles four young men who died as the result of hazing in 2017 alone.

Colleges and universities traditionally have responded with a lot of hand-wringing and a few half-hearted measures, and hazing continues and fraternity pledges and members keep dying. But maybe, just maybe, things are starting to change.

Last month, West Virginia University banned five fraternities from campus for at least 10 years, and Monmouth University in New Jersey indefinitely suspended its entire Greek system because of chronic alcohol, drug and hazing issues. Earlier this year, a Pennsylvania judge fined a fraternity for the death of a pledge and banned it from the state for a decade. And in September the North-American Interfraternity Conference — which represents most of the nation's white and black fraternities and sororities — announced that it would ban hard liquor from chapter houses and chapter events

Now, parents are starting to organize. Deborah Tipton and Jim and Evelyn Piazza and other parents who lost their sons in college hazing incidents formed a group called Parents United to Stop Hazing. (PUSH members met for the first time earlier this year in South Carolina; The State newspaper has an account of the gathering.) And this Chronicle of Higher Ed piece noted that the fraternity alcohol ban resulted from conversations between parents and the interfraternity council.*

The chairwoman of the national group that represents sororities, meanwhile, told The Washington Post that things might be different this time because "we've never had parents involved before. Fraternities and sororities have never partnered with parents who have lived this devastation."

The Greek groups and the parents remain skeptical of each other, as they should be: Fraternities and sororities value loyalty and secrecy above all else — every single one of those links above documents the clumsy efforts of young college men trying to cover their tracks — and fraternities and sororities for decades have resisted efforts to do better. Best of luck to these parents who are trying to shine some much-needed light into some very dark places.

* Update, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday: I recast the parents-are-organizing paragraph after getting an email from Debbie Smith, whose son, Matt Carrington, was a California college student who died in 2005 after a horrifying fraternity hazing ordeal. (California’s law that allows for felony prosecutions in certain hazing instances is named for Matt.) Smith is a co-founder of PUSH and CEO of the AHA! Movement, an anti-hazing awareness group, and she wanted to make clear (among other things) that PUSH isn't associated with the North-American Interfraternity Conference and as a group had nothing to do with NAIC's announced alcohol ban. PUSH, Smith added, is planning its second event.

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