In early 2017, Rollins College temporarily suspended all six fraternities on its campus. Much of the time, such news follows a heartbreaking death or terrible crime. At Rollins, however, the story has become a point of pride.
“This isn’t the narrative that people have wanted to write about—there’s no villain in this story,” said Mamta Motwani Accapadi, vice president for student affairs at Rollins. “No one wanted to hear the story of these groups coming together to become better versions of themselves. It wasn’t about ‘handling’ a problem—it was about creating an authentic relationship in which we don’t give up on each other.”
Greek-letter organizations are a big part of life on the Rollins campus, with about 43 percent of students affiliated with a fraternity or sorority. For the great majority who join, membership comes with a community of support, friendship, and generosity. More than threequarters have a GPA of 3.0 or higher, their philanthropic efforts have raised tens of thousands of dollars for charity, and they regularly talk about the meaningful relationships they’ve developed.
“The love and affinity is so strong,” Accapadi said. “It’s really moving.” In fact, she notes, the connection remains even after students graduate, with many of the college’s most enthusiastic alumni also members of sororities and fraternities.
Since Accapadi arrived at Rollins in 2013, she has made strengthening the college’s relationship with its Greek organizations a guiding priority. And those efforts became even more critical last year when Rollins temporarily suspended fraternity activities. The suspension—or “pause,” as Accapadi described it—came in response to a number of worrisome signs, including multiple alcohol-related incidents that resulted in trips to the emergency room and troubling photos of risky behaviors popping up on social media. It was a “what’s-going-on?” moment, Accapadi said, that eventually led to a campuswide summit of fraternities focused on acknowledging the problem and confronting it in partnership with the college.
“Students led [the summit] from beginning to end,” Accapadi said. “It was amazing because it wasn’t grounded in ‘you’re a problem and we need to fix you,’ but ‘we need to get better together.’”
Fortunately, the fraternity suspension at Rollins wasn’t in response to a hazing-related death. But the behaviors that Accapadi and colleagues were flagging— namely, excessive alcohol consumption— are often the direct cause of such tragedies. “We knew we weren’t immune to something like that happening,” Accapadi said. “We know there can be a power dynamic [within campus Greek organizations] that can get dangerous, and we wanted to talk about [it] before someone’s life was in danger.”
Rollins may be taking a unique approach to dealing with the conditions and factors that can normalize hazing. But it’s a problem just about every university and college faces.
“Boards need to be aware of the associated risks and rewards around our most important constituency—students and their definition of success,” said Trudi Blair, former board chair of Wilson College and a senior consultant with AGB Consulting. “They should find out if the administration has a risk management process in place. In creating the risk categories, ask, ‘What keeps your president and dean of students up at night?’”
IMPORTANCE OF STUDENT BUY-IN
Quantifying and analyzing the hazing problem at American colleges and universities is harder than one might think. The institutions currently aren’t required to include such data in their yearly crime reports to the U.S. Department of Education, and the definition of hazing varies from state to state. Last year, in the wake of the hazing death of Tim Piazza at Penn State University, U.S. Rep. Patrick Meehan introduced the Report and Educate About Campus Hazing Act, or REACH Act, which would both define hazing and include hazing incidents in annual reporting requirements. But the bill has yet to advance out of committee.
However, some good data are available. In 2008, researchers at the University of Maine released Hazing in View: College Students at Risk—Initial Findings from the National Study of Student Hazing, the most comprehensive survey of hazing to date, with responses from more than 11,000 undergraduates at 53 U.S. colleges and universities. Researchers found that more than half of college students involved in clubs, teams, and organizations experienced hazing, with the highest levels occurring in social fraternities and sororities and in varsity sports. In fact, almost 75 percent of students participating in Greek organizations and varsity sports experienced at least one type of hazing behavior, such as being deprived of sleep, being confined to a small space, enduring harsh weather without proper clothing, and drinking large amounts of alcohol to the point of becoming ill or passing out. Hank Nuwer, a journalism professor at Franklin College and author of Hazing: Destroying Young Lives, has documented at least one hazing death—and often more than one— each year for the past five decades.
In 2017, hazing deaths were confirmed at Penn State, Louisiana State University, Florida State University, and Texas State University, all within fraternities, according to Emily Pualwan, executive director at HazingPrevention.Org. Launched in 2007 to confront hazing from a “purely interventional standpoint” as Pualwan described it, the organization defines hazing as “any action taken or situation created intentionally that causes embarrassment, harassment, or ridicule and risks emotional and physical harm to members of a group or team, whether new or not, regardless of the person’s willingness to participate.”
In fact, HazingPrevention.Org recently argued in a friend-of-court brief that a “vast body of social scientific research” shows there’s essentially no such thing as informed consent for hazing. The organization filed the brief in a Florida Supreme Court case heard earlier this year on the 2011 hazing death of Florida A&M student Robert Champion, who died from injuries sustained during a hazing ritual in the school’s marching band. In 2012, more than a dozen people were charged in Champion’s death, after a ritual in which band members were beaten by fellow members.
“It goes back to the psychology of wanting to join a group, having a group of people who feel in control, and others wanting to prove why they should be part of that group,” Pualwan said. “Nobody can say this is one bad seed—we have to look at this as an embedded cycle of tradition if we really want to tackle this.”
Key to this effort are education and consistency, Pualwan added. Her organization recommends that all incoming freshmen engage in some form of hazing prevention education and universities be clear and consistent in their hazing policies. In addition, she said institutions should have strong oversight over Greek organizations, including identifying “rogue” chapters not officially sanctioned by the school.
Another key part of hazing prevention, Pualwan noted, is student engagement. “Students have to be part of the solution,” she said. “If you just forbid everything, then [behavior] goes underground and increases the risks even more so. We can’t just legislate ourselves out of this problem. …Kids need to understand that this is dangerous—they need to be the ones who say, ‘I don’t want to do this.’”
That buy-in is essential, according to Leonard Sancilio, president of HazingPrevention.Org’s board of directors and dean of students at State University of New York at Geneseo (SUNY-Geneseo).
“There are no real cookbook methods to [preventing hazing],” Sancilio said. “It’s so much more complicated and complex. It’s really about understanding the culture and community and getting all the constituents involved, from trustees to the student body. This is everybody’s job.”
Among more than 5,000 students at SUNY-Geneseo, about 30 percent are Greek-affiliated, with a combination of national chapters and local organizations going back more than 100 years. The university has experienced its share of hazing incidents, including the 2009 hazing death of a student within an off-campus social organization already banned from campus.
Among the university’s many efforts to prevent hazing, all incoming freshman receive hazing education during orientation, the university offers regular and evolving hazing prevention education to all its Greek organizations and sports teams, and it recently began surveying its Greek members and athletes on their experiences within the groups. During much of that education, Sancilio said, students are encouraged to speak up about and intervene on hazing. The school’s “Stand Up and Stop Hazing” brochure proudly proclaims: “We are NOT bystanders.”
Sancilio noted that many young people who are entering college already have experienced some form of hazing, which means waiting until college to offer prevention education may be too late.
“Taking care of our students is paramount,” he said. “You need senior-level and community buy-in to change the culture [of hazing], and trustees can be particularly helpful in that culture change—in emphasizing that this is about all of us.”
HAZING DEATHS SPARK FAR-REACHING CHANGE
At Florida A&M, Champion’s death was “devastating,” said Kelvin Lawson, chair of the university’s board of trustees. “We knew we had to act; we knew we couldn’t just go on with life as usual.”
Out of the tragedy came a clear call to action to systemically address a culture of hazing on the campus, eventually leading to an extensive anti-hazing program that’s reaching into every corner of the institution, Lawson added. Today, all incoming students receive anti-hazing education, as do faculty, staff, and administrators. In addition, all college-affiliated groups, from social organizations to athletic teams, are required to conduct anti-hazing training on a yearly basis. The university also developed an extensive repository where students can anonymously report hazing incidents, created a definitive process for investigating such reports, and instituted stricter rules to ensure student groups were abiding by all the rules of their organizing missions. Consequences became harsher too. In some cases, student organizations with more “deep-seated” hazing traditions, many of them Greek organizations, faced revocation of their university affiliations and had to remain off campus until much of their membership graduated. “There were cases in which we had to start brand new,” Lawson noted.
A key part of the response, Lawson added, was hiring a person to lead anti-hazing efforts. Bryan Smith, university ombudsmen and interim associate vice president for student affairs, works with Florida A&M’s student organizations to create clear procedures and protocols for new member intake. He often goes on the road with student groups, such as the marching band, to provide extra oversight, get to know students, and engage them as leaders in the university’s growing antihazing movement. Smith noted that it has been especially important for students to see that the university’s new anti-hazing policies are consistent across the board and don’t single out certain groups.
“We wanted to make our efforts all-encompassing,” Smith said. “There can be a strong desire for process [when it comes to initiating new members]. It’s not necessarily a desire to harm anyone—it’s the element of tradition that’s the most difficult to counteract.”
Lawson said there does seem to be a “mind shift” among students when it comes to hazing, citing “great cooperation” from students on reporting related incidents and behaviors.
“I remind my colleagues what a dark day that was and about the many dark days that followed,” said Lawson, the only current trustee who was on the board of trustees at the time of Champion’s death. “We can’t assume that everything is now good and we’re beyond this issue. We’re dealing with a transient, young, impressionable population and so we have to continue to be vigilant.”
NEW POLICIES AND PRACTICES AT PENN STATE
At Penn State University (PSU), aggressive new anti-hazing measures are in place in response to the 2017 death of 19-year-old Tim Piazza, who fell head first down a flight of stairs after being forced to drink a toxic amount of alcohol during a fraternity initiation. Piazza’s fraternity brothers waited hours to call for medical help, and he later died in the hospital. A grand jury report chastised the university for turning a “blind eye” to the fraternity chapter’s history of excessive drinking.
Piazza’s death has led to a total overhaul of Penn State’s relationship with its Greek organizations, with a complete shift away from a model of self-governance, according to Mark Dambly, chair of the board of trustees.
“Widespread problems of excessive drinking and hazing persist at universities across the country,” Dambly said. “It’s Penn State’s position that the culture within these organizations must change dramatically if they are to remain sustainable.”
Central to Penn State’s policy changes, the university has taken over the monitoring and adjudication of misconduct within Greek-letter organizations. Previously, fraternities and sororities were overseen by their autonomous student-run governing councils and their national organizations—a common model throughout the country.
Among Penn State’s new policies and practices:
- The Student Affairs Office created 14 new positions, with eight dedicated to monitoring Greek organizations through random checks.
- Every Greek organization must create a specific new-member process and education plan and submit them to the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life for approval.
- No organization can host more than 10 socials with alcohol per semester.
- Organizations must have zero tolerance for hazing.
Penn State also developed a Greek Chapter Score Card, issued at the beginning of each semester, where students and parents can access organization-specific information on cumulative GPAs, alcohol and hazing violations, and chapter suspensions.
Dambly said Penn State’s trustees were centrally involved in discussions of how to improve safety and curb dangerous behaviors in Greek life, strongly endorsing the university’s reform measures. While the policies are still very new, Dambly said early signs are positive. For example, chapters are beginning to pay more attention to safety, and many are stepping up to ask how they can work with the university and keep their good standing. Still, since last August, six fraternities have lost recognition due to misconduct. “There are no easy solutions,” Dambly said. “Binge drinking and problems with Greek organizations, like hazing, are prevalent in our national life and have been for decades. But we do believe this may be a societal moment where progress is possible.”
BREAKING THE CYCLE
Excessive alcohol consumption—especially hard liquor—is certainly the root cause of many, if not most, college hazing deaths. But there are other, more subtle, signs that a fraternity may be engaging in dangerous behaviors such as hazing.
Dave Westol, founder and CEO of Limberlost Consulting and a founding member of HazingPrevention.Org, spends much of his time working with national Greek organizations. He is often hired to investigate hazing incidents, sometimes conducting nearly a dozen investigations in a semester. Greek-letter organizations certainly have a hazing problem to confront, but they don’t “corner the market” on college hazing, he said. In his experience, hazing rituals are commonplace across campus-based groups, including sports teams, clubs, honoraries, and societies.
“Anti-hazing messages have to come from the top,” Westol said. “The message has to be ‘we are committed to the idea that hazing is wrong in any organization.’”
In his experiences with fraternities, Westol said chapters that engage in hazing often exhibit some common and telling signs. For example, if a fraternity has a low retention rate—say, it recruits 20 men and initiates just 12—that should be a red flag for administrators. Westol said fraternities that haze often become “entities unto themselves—they become very arrogant.” Such chapters might stop engaging with their interfraternity councils, exhibit behavior problems during intramural games, or ignore community service requirements. Score cards like the one Penn State developed can be effective in improving transparency and help shine a light on the “darkness and secrecy around hazing,” he said.
Westol doesn’t think eliminating Greek life is the answer to the hazing problem, citing fraternity chapters that have operated for years without official recognition. Instead, he believes the key to preventing hazing is building relationships with Greek organizations. And those relationships create a safer space for members who oppose hazing to speak up with concerns.
“We’re not going to get to a better place just by handing down edicts from above,” he said. “We’ll get there by sitting down with undergraduates and giving them a safe harbor.”
That relationship-building approach was what drove the Greek intervention at Rollins last year. In fact, the college and its Interfraternity Council came to a mutual agreement that it was time for the college’s fraternities to “pause” and take inventory, Accapadi noted.
“Of course, we caught some flak for this because people thought [what was happening] wasn’t a big deal,” she said. “But we wanted to help redirect them. I’d rather people be angry at me for intervening now than wait for something awful to happen.”
Last March, Rollins students, faculty, staff, and Greek life representatives came together for a Fraternity & Sorority Life Solutions Summit, one part of a months-long process that led to reinstatement of the college’s six fraternities. The meeting provided an opportunity for participants to voice their concerns, identify their priorities, and discuss potential solutions. Accapadi said it gave chapters a chance to reflect more deeply on whether they were representing the missions and values of the school and their fraternal organizations. As a condition of reinstatement, the fraternities agreed to continue such work with ongoing education in health, wellness, safety, and leadership.
Meghan Harte Weyant, Rollins’ dean of students and assistant vice president for student affairs, described the suspension as a “teaching moment.”
“Our reflection in the past year has been very much around the idea that in the event we have a student crisis, we can with certainty say we’ve applied a duty of care here,” she said. “We know we can’t remove the risk completely, but we can go before our board and to our parents and say we’re doing everything we can to keep students safe.”
At end of the day, Greek organizations often sit in a place of tension with the mission of colleges and universities, said Rollins President Grant Cornwell. But they also provide students with valuable social and emotional support and help build lifelong connections to one’s alma mater, he added.
At Rollins, the recent fraternity suspension offered a new opportunity to partner toward a “culture and climate where mission comes first,” Cornwell said. “It was a very positive and forward-looking strategy for us. Frankly, we’ve all just run out of patience with the standard mode of intervening—it wasn’t bringing about change. That cycle of punishment, reform, good behavior, and then the inevitable decline—it’s just an endless cycle. We wanted something different.”
Violence on Campus: The Troubling Rise of Hate Speech
Unfortunately, hazing isn’t the only form of violence threatening campus safety.
In February, the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism documented nearly 350 incidents of white supremacist propaganda—fliers, stickers, banners, and posters— on 216 college campuses since September 2016. During fall semester 2017, the center documented 147 such incidents, a 258 percent increase over the same period in 2016. Roger Worthington, chief diversity officer and interim associate provost at the University of Maryland–College Park (UMD), described the numbers as the “new normal.”
“There is a sense that colleges and universities are seen as soft targets [for these incidents],” Worthington said. “These kinds of hate activities have the potential to result in violence and because of that, we have to be urgently concerned about the safety of our students.”
Last November, UMD announced a new hate-bias incident protocol to ensure a coordinated response to such acts. In addition, the university created a new, full-time hate-bias program manager position within the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. The announcement came in response to the death of Richard Collins, a black Bowie State University student fatally stabbed on the UMD campus by a student later charged with a hate crime. The new protocol lets students report hate-bias incidents to university police or the Office of Civil Rights and Sexual Misconduct, where they’re reviewed and necessary action is taken. In addition, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion will maintain a log of campus hate-bias incidents for students to access.
The new manager will lead a campus-wide interdisciplinary team charged with developing plans for prevention, education, and training, according to Worthington. For example, he highlighted plans to keep students aware of hate groups targeting colleges and the tactics they use to engage young audiences. “We want to help inoculate our campus from this propaganda,” he said.
“Trustees are equally concerned about issues of safety, inclusion, and respect and the values that our campuses uphold to provide the best possible environments for students, faculty, and staff,” Worthington added. “I think they play a critical role in making sure those values are at the forefront of the work we do.”