Chronicle of Higher Education -August 28, 2011
As They Try to Rein In Fraternities, Colleges Stir Debate
By Sara Lipka
No sooner has another academic year begun than colleges are trying, yet again, to break down those supposed bastions of barbarity, fraternities.
The last two weeks brought three edicts: The University of South Carolina suspended fraternity rush; Princeton University barred fraternities and sororities from recruiting freshmen; and, in an op-ed piece in The New York Times, the president of Cornell University declared the end of pledging, "the performance of demeaning or dangerous acts as a condition of membership," on his campus.
The announcements reflect a perpetual but perhaps futile goal: to preserve the best and prevent the worst of the Greek system. Of course fraternities aspire to ideals of leadership and service, and often achieve them. But then, too often, initiates get hurt—or die, as a Cornell sophomore did last February after an alcohol-related fraternity hazing ritual.
A tragedy, as at Cornell, can catalyze change. And as campuses' tolerance for excesses and risk has diminished, regular reviews of Greek organizations seek to limit their influence.
Several liberal-arts colleges ban fraternities outright. Other institutions try to control them, with mixed success. They've closed houses, required live-in advisers, designed internal accreditation programs, prohibited hazing, and promoted prevention.
Many have deterred danger, they say, by deferring recruitment from fall to spring, as the University of Colorado at Boulder did after the death of a pledge in 2004. Vulnerable first-semester freshmen need time to adjust, the thinking goes. Some colleges point to comparative grade-point averages and retention rates to show the benefits of a delay; others maintain that their fall-semester pledges outperform their unaffiliated classmates.
Any attempt to check the Greek system unleashes a fury of opposition. The North-American Interfraternity Conference and campus chapters, for example, have repeatedly blocked trustees at the University of North Carolina from deferring rush there. When deans clamp down, students sue for alleged violations of their freedom of association, and alumni threaten not to donate.
No move made this month was momentous. South Carolina partially lifted its suspension, and Princeton's Greek scene, once banned and now unrecognized by the university, is scant. Observers both hailed Cornell's move as courageous and dismissed it as naïve; prior calls to end pledging haven't quite worked.
Still, Cornell's president, David J. Skorton, a cardiologist, is treating pledging as a risk factor—and committing to eradicate it. "We're not going to accept that period as currently viewed," as a humiliating span of subservience, he says. Neither will he prescribe an alternative. Any new process will be viable only if students themselves create it, he says. "I'm counting on their leadership and commitment to figure it out."
The university had prepared for pushback, but as of last week, there wasn't much. Dr. Skorton read words of encouragement from several presidents and administrators, including Gentry R. McCreary, director of Greek affairs at the University of Alabama.
"My reaction was, 'Finally, someone has caught on to this,'" Mr. McCreary says. Concerned about the power fraternity members wield over initiates, he is writing a dissertation on morality in the pledging process, which he compares to the Stanford prison experiment, in which students playing the role of guards abused their authority.
"We're not talking about bad kids; we're talking about a bad system," he says. "We can't stop hazing so long as we have a traditional pledging program." Pledging may spur hazing, but halting the process won't necessarily eradicate the practice. The National Pan-Hellenic Council, which represents eight black fraternities and sororities, declared an end to pledging in 1990. But hazing has persisted, and students have died.
"We're a walking case study that 'no pledging' does not work," says Walter M. Kimbrough, president of Philander Smith College and author of Black Greek 101. Hazing younger students can be traced to 15th-century Europe. A new rule is no match for a culturally entrenched rite of passage, which can move underground.
"The Cornell idea," Mr. Kimbrough says, "is ludicrous." For the university to succeed in ending pledging—and hazing—the president would have to monitor its Greek system and be prepared to shut every chapter down. That would be an unlikely war, Mr. Kimbrough says, against influential alumni. Even so, Dr. Skorton's announcement has raised hopes. "It has the potential to be a huge step forward," Mr. McCreary says. "It is forcing a conversation that people so far have been unwilling to have."
For that conversation to continue, other presidents will have to take stands, even at public colleges, where opposition may be stronger. The campaign will need at least the traction of the anti-bullying movement.
And despite stands and bans, the solution to hazing remains elusive, says Tracy Maxwell, executive director of HazingPrevention.Org. If we knew the solution, she says, "then we'd put me out of business, which I'd be really happy for."