Out-of-control behavior — sometimes leading to death — has led universities across the country to take dramatic action against fraternities.
Four deaths and several cases of misconduct this year have prompted the suspension of Greek life programs at seven U.S. colleges, including Ohio State University.
The lewd or dangerous behavior by students is not new, but universities are quicker today to take sweeping action against fraternities. Some experts say the broader penalties are being driven by the national movement against sexual misconduct or violence.
In September 1995, two Wittenberg University students were drunk when they smashed into a tree at 67 miles per hour in a 25-mile-per-hour zone, killing them both. The students had been drinking at a fraternity gathering and though their story is 22 years old, it’s strikingly similar to recent incidents that have reignited a national debate over fraternities.
Ohio State University in November became the one of the latest schools to indefinitely suspend all of its 37 fraternities governed by the interfraternity council. OSU was investigating 11 chapters this fall, an “unacceptably high number,” Ryan Lovell, the school’s director of Greek life said in a letter to fraternities.
Greek life is considered a staple of several area institutions, including the University of Dayton and Miami University, which has been nicknamed the “Mother of Fraternities.” Like Wittenberg, each is familiar with the tragedies connected to fraternities this year.
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In 2014, the University of Dayton permanently expelled the Sigma Chi fraternity after a member’s death revealed the chapter had not been abiding by the parameters of its suspension. A Miami student was found dead of a drug overdose in his room at a fraternity house in 2007.
Miami is also home to the national headquarters of Beta Theta Pi, the fraternity at Penn State University where a student was killed during a chapter event.
“I think it’s always in the back of our minds that it can happen,” said Stephen Golonka, a Miami University student and incoming president of the school’s interfraternity council.
Though no area colleges have plans to implement the sweeping measures taken by OSU, the nation’s winnowing tolerance for misconduct may soon force them to, said Hank Nuwer, an expert on fraternity hazing and journalism professor at Franklin College in Indiana.
“It’s clearly a paradigm shift” Nuwer said. “I think the bigger schools are paying attention.”
Nuwer has studied hazing for decades and said that there has been at least one fraternity death per year at American colleges since 1959. Although there have been more deadly years for fraternities than 2017, he said this year’s deaths are creating a “domino effect” of responses.
Leaders at Miami, Wittenberg and UD say their proactive approaches will prevent them from becoming the next Ohio State or worse. Those proactive approaches need to be implemented on all campuses, said Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center for campus safety in Washington, D.C.
“I think we’re seeing bad behaviors escalate but we’re seeing a lot more attention around the culture of hazing on university campuses,” Kiss said.
‘We’re not always innocent’
Joining a fraternity has long been seen as a key to power and success and despite recent headlines, Miami’s Golonka said Greeks do more overall good than harm.
“We’re not always innocent,” Golonka said. “We play a role in this community positively and negatively, just like every other organization.”
Around the U.S., more than 6,100 fraternity chapters raise around $20 million for chairty every year, according to the North-American Interfraternity Conference. They also wield immense influence.
During the 2016 election, more than $600,000 was donated to the Fraternity and Sorority PAC, with more than 2 percent of donations coming from Ohioans, an analysis of data from the Center for Responsive Politics’ OpenSecrets website shows.
Around 44 percent of U.S. presidents were fraternity members, according to the national conference. The North-American Interfraternity Conference did not return repeated calls for comment.
The powerful are being held more accountable now though, Nuwer said, mostly thanks to the success of social campaigns, such as the #MeToo movement against sexual harassment.
“Clearly powerful men are being brought down and on a college campus the powerful men are in fraternities or athletics,” Nuwer said.
Legislation is already in the works that could better hold fraternities accountable.
Every year, colleges release a federally-mandated campus crime report detailing the types of crimes that occurred each year. A new bill would require colleges to disclose hazing incidents on their annual report and would also force any school receiving federal funds to provide anti-hazing education.
U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge, D-Akron is sponsoring the bill with Pennsylvania Republican Patrick Meehan.
A history of bad behavior
In the last five years, 11 Greek groups at Miami have been suspended, according to a list of “unrecognized organizations” on the university’s website. At least five of the organizations are no longer recognized by Miami for violations of the student code of conduct, while others failed to meet requirements, were deactivated or had their charters revoked by their national chapters.
UD suspended its Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity in 2016 for disorderly behavior and violation of the university’s alcohol policy. Between 2014 and 2015 the school permanently expelled Sigma Chi and Delta Tau Delta for violations of the student code of conduct.
In 2012, UD’s Sigma Chi made national news when members damaged a gas station in Madison County by urinating on the floor and breaking items, among other things.
“The University does not tolerate inappropriate behavior and violations of the student code of conduct, investigates all allegations of such behavior swiftly and thoroughly and holds organizations and their members accountable,” UD officials said in a prepared statement.
UD declined to allow any administrators to be interviewed for this story.
Wittenberg suspended Chi Omega sorority and Delta Sigma Phi fraternity in 2009, said Jon Duraj Wittenberg associate dean for student success and retention. The fraternity returned to campus in 2012.
The two Wittenberg students killed in 1995 had been drinking at a Phi Gamma Delta party and the chapter remains on campus. The decades-old tragedy is rarely talked about anymore, Duraj said.
“Definitely the institutions and organizations need to constantly and consistently evaluate members and hold them and their decisions accountable,” Duraj said.
Wright State University is the only area school with no chapters on suspension or probation.
The problems with fraternities don’t always stop when they’re suspended though and experts fear recent campus-wide suspensions aimed at cracking down on misconduct could have the opposite effect.
Suspensions sometimes lead fraternities to begin operating in secrecy. That means they are not held to the same standards and requirements of recognized organizations.
A campus the size of UD or larger would likely have as many as three or four “underground fraternities,” Nuwer said.
“You need to make sure that you’re being proactive and not just removing the opportunity to have Greek life on campus,” Kiss said. “Often it’s almost counter-intuitive because we see some go underground.”
Though difficult, Miami tries to keep tabs on Greek groups that are suspended but continue to operate, said Susan Vaughn, the school’s director of the Office of Ethics and student Conflict Resolution. Often, experts said, rogue fraternities are not caught until something bad happens.
Tracking the underground groups is a common practice among universities, both Vaughn and Nuwer said. The information Miami collects on underground groups is saved for later use in case a suspended organization tries to get reinstated.
“It can be really challenging,” Vaughn said. “But, if it’s brought to our attention it could and would most likely jeopardize their return.”