After drinking from a keg of beer stashed in the basement of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity house at the University of Michigan last December, a group of pledges stripped to their boxer shorts and lined up, ready to endure their next torturous test of brotherhood. As two other fraternity members watched, a pledge educator pointed what he thought was an unloaded BB gun at the pledges various body parts. He was simply trying to scare them. When he approached the seventh student in line, the educator pointed the gun downward, two inches away from the pledges penis, and fired. Unexpectedly, a pellet shot out (Reisberg A59).
Fraternities have been in existence for over a century. They were established to nurture pride, leadership, unity, and commitment (Nate 18). Although some fraternities still embrace these values, this does not make up for the dangerous behavior that most fraternities engage in. Alcohol abuse has become far too large of the college social scene and fraternities are its most publicized defendants. Rowdy keg parties have replaced the values and ideals that were once the basis of fraternities, as binge drinking becomes the core of their brotherhood. Each year on campuses throughout this country, binge drinking causes students to suffer academically while risking their health and safety, as well as that of the rest of the campus community. Contrary to the many members firmly entrenched in the fraternity culture, several national fraternities are trying to dispel this image. They have devised programs which emphasize academic development, leadership, and community service, while at the same time taking the focus off alcohol and hazing.
The first of the Greek-letter societies, Phi Beta Kappa, was founded on December 5, 1776, with the aims of creating a scholastic, inspirational, and fraternal society. The founders of Phi Beta Kappa named friendship, morality, and literature as essential characteristics. Laws provided for a reverent opening and conduct of meetings, encouraged sobriety, and demanded ethical ideals superior to those manifested by a rival society (Voorhes 8-12). The growth of the system was gradual, for it was not until 1825 that Kappa Alpha, Sigma Phi, and Delta Phi were established. The decade of the thirties produced another trio of fraternities: Alpha Delta Phi, Psi Upsilon, and Beta Theta Pi. The period preceding the Civil War witnessed the establishment of most of the remaining general fraternities of present larger extension (Nate 18-38). Oliver Wendell Holmes, a student at Harvard in 1859, captures the immortality of loyal friendships and high ideals in a message to his classmates:
Then heres to our boyhood, its gold and its gray!
The stars of its winter, the dew of May!
And when we have done with our life-lasting toys,
Dear Father, take care of Thy children, thy boys.
The founding of the fraternities was at the hands of men who set up high life-ideals for themselves and those who would come after them. The more recent years have strengthened the chapters through the development of their national organizations and a more direct alumni co-operation (Nate 60).
As fraternity chapters grow stronger, they are slowly losing sight of their fundamental purpose. The values and ideals that once served as the basis of fraternities have been replaced in some chapter houses by excessive drinking and brutal hazing practices. Through the new fraternity culture, binge drinking becomes interwoven into college life. The Federal Substance Abuse Prevention reports that undergraduate students currently spend $4.2 billion a year on booze far more than they spend on their textbooks. An advertisement being run in college newspapers by VivaSmart, an online textbook seller, actually features the headline, More on Beer, Less on Books, accompanied by an explanatory text that begins, We know you have better things to do than blow your money textbooks (Miller 1). This message promotes and legitimizes a college drinking culture that according to the Surgeon General Antonia Novella is spinning out of control (Elson 64). In a survey of students at 140 colleges by researchers at the Harvard University School of Public Health, forty-four percent of students reported binge drinking, which the study defined for men as consuming five or more drinks in a row within the previous two weeks, and for women as consuming four or more drinks in a row (Wechsler 2).According to the survey, eighty-six percent of fraternity house residents engage in binge drinking and fraternity members were also more likely to state that drinking and partying are more important activities (Wechsler 1674). Ryan Fellman, a junior at Emory University and the treasurer of Kappa Alpha, says, being in a fraternity is all about having a house to have parties and the social funds to do it right (Reisberg A59). Fewer students now seem inclined to pay hundreds of dollars in dues to be part of a system that has a reputation for physically abusing its pledges and in some cases, endangering members lives with excessive drinking. After hitting a record of about 400,000 undergraduates in 1990, fraternity membership has plunged as much as thirty percent in the past decade (A59).
The secondhand effects of binge drinking jeopardize the scholarly and collegial environment that administrators and faculty attempt to create for their students. Forty-one percent of academic problems stem from alcohol abuse, ranging from missed courses, poor grades, failed classes or dropping out altogether. Twenty-eight percent of the students who drop out of school do so because of the influence of alcohol (Last Call 3). According to another survey performed at the Foundation for Academic Standards and Tradition, fifty-six percent of all students say that the pressure to drink adversely affects their schoolwork (Zogby 1).
When students drink heavily, their health and safety is put at risk. Many college students are not aware that the effects of their drinking may have long-lasting consequences. According to researchers at Duke University, teenagers who drink heavily are often susceptible to serious brain damage and increased memory loss later in adulthood (Binge Drinking 3). Even more detrimental are the fatal accidents that occur as a result of alcohol abuse. In 1998, a student at the University of Michigan died when she fell out of her dormitory window after drinking too much alcohol (Reisberg 5). There have been a number of alcohol related deaths associated with fraternity hazing. Many believe that hazing in fraternities is nothing more than silly antics and harmless pranks like those remembered from the 1980s hit comedy Animal House. The realities of hazing are dramatically different than the humorous images many people associate with the term. Since 1971, fifty-four fraternity members have died from hazing on U.S. college campuses (Schubert 1). Twenty-year-old Chuck Stenzel was an athlete and honors student at Alfred University in New York when he pledged Klan Alpine fraternity in 1978. One evening, the older fraternity brothers came to the dorms and shoved Chuck and two other pledges into the trunk of a car, with a pint of Jack Daniels, a 6-pack of beer and a quart of wine. They were told to consume all the booze by the time the car stopped. Later, the pledges were coerced to drink even more at the fraternity house until they passed out. Chuck was carried upstairs and left on a mattress, where he stopped breathing soon afterward. The circumstances were compounded by the fact that it was a planned, premeditated act that could have been prevented, said his devastated mother, Eileen Stevens (Nuwer 109).
Far too many parents have been awakened in the night to receive the devastating news of the loss of their child to hazing. For example, MIT, one of the finest science schools in the world, recently agreed to pay almost $6 million to the family of a student who died of acute alcohol poisoning, while pledging a fraternity in the Fall of 1997. Freshman Scott Krueger was found unconscious and lying in a pool of vomit at the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity house, and died in a hospital three days later. Doctors said his blood-alcohol level was as high as .41 five times the legal limit in Massachusetts. Almost one year after Krueger drank himself to death, Massachusetts prosecutors charged the fraternity he was pledging with manslaughter and hazing (Henry 1). The death of a twenty-year-old Louisiana State University fraternity pledge also recently drew the nations attention to the growing problem of binge drinking. Benjamin Wynne was another victim of acute alcohol poisoning, caused by consuming a large amount of alcohol in a short period of time (College Drinking 1). That kid drank the equivalent of 24 shots in the space of an hour, said National Director of Phi Kappa Sigma, Robert Miller. If he had done that alone in his dorm room, we could have called it suicide. But what do you call it when hes out with his frat brothers who are all watching him? asks Miller (Fink 1).
There are many second-hand consequences of the alcohol abuse that occurs in fraternity houses. Such consequences include: having to babysit an intoxicated student, having sleep or study interrupted, being insulted or humiliated, experiencing unwanted sexual advances, being pushed, hit, or assaulted, and being the victim of sexual assault or date rape (Last Call 5). According to one study ninety percent of all reported campus rapes occurred when alcohol was used by the assailant or the victim. While date rape drugs have gained widespread publicity, experts say that alcohol is still the most common substance used in such crimes (OBrian 2). According to Mary Rouse, Dean of students at the University of Wisconsin, the trouble never starts until drinking begins (Elson 2).
In an attempt to reduce underage alcohol consumption, several national fraternities have adopted an alcohol-free policy which prohibits alcohol at all chapter houses. Phi Delta Theta Spokesperson Rob Pasquincucci says that the fraternitys alcohol-free policy, passed in March 1997, is essentially a return to our roots. The resolution isnt anything new, but focuses on what we were founded on friendship, camaraderie, higher learning and support networks, says Pasquinucci (Fink 1). Fraternities across America will bid farewell to their Animal House image by 2005 if the National Interfraternity Conferences plans are carried out. A resolution to address alcohol abuse was announced at the organizations annual meeting in December 1998 (Maloney 1). Miami University President Jim Garland believes the move toward alcohol-free fraternities is a major step in the right direction (Sant 1). Despite Garlands confidence in this move, another possible consequence of dry fraternities could be a surge in off-campus drinking. Banning alcohol in fraternities gives students the excuse to seek even less supervised and less accountable venues: bars, apartments, and private houses become host to the same bad decisions and irresponsible behavior, with no organization whatever to hold responsible for it. David Hanson, a sociologist at the State University of Potsdam New York, cautioned in a 1995 New York Times report, Moving the Greeks off campus could be the worst solution of all. As long as the drinking is on campus, the school has some control over it. It would lose that control if students had to go to bars and other places which are not so desirable (Maloney 2).
In contrast with the many fraternities that serve as social clubs, several national fraternities have devised programs aimed at restoring the core values of brotherhood, scholarship and leadership. Of the 261 chapters of Sigma Phi Epsilon, 149 have signed on to the Balanced Man Project. The program tracks each members personal development toward becoming a balanced man throughout his college career, rather than focusing on the initial few weeks in a pledge-based fraternity. At the University of Georgia, each member is required to develop three goals and tape them to his bathroom mirror, to join at least two other campus organizations, to attend plays and a city-council meeting, and to perform a minimum of 50 hours of community service and explain to the group what he learned from it (A59). Pi Kappa Phi has begun a project called Push America, which aims to control public awareness on behalf of people with disabilities. Another positive, innovative program fraternities are actively involved with is Gear Up Florida. Gear Up Florida involves cycling 65 miles a day, from the shores of Miami Beach to the Florida capital steps in Tallahassee, to draw public attention and spread understanding to the things that people with disabilities can do (Payne A62). Through these types of programs, many fraternities hope to get back to what they once were a group of men brought together by positive values and ideals.
Alcohol abuse has become far too large a part of the college social scene and fraternities are the worst offender. The values and ideals that once served as the basis of fraternities have been replaced in some chapter houses by excessive drinking and brutal hazing practices. This kind of binge drinking has adverse consequences, which affect a students academic ability, safety and health. It is also a problem that extends to the rest of the campus community, as a result of the large number of second-hand effects. However, while negative and dangerous behavior does occur in fraternity houses, this does not reflect all chapter houses. There are many fraternities nationwide who have demonstrated positive behavior and are involved in several community service activities, working diligently to uphold a positive image for future fraternities. Is it a new fraternity culture, or is society simply less tolerant?