Do fraternities make men behave badly?

Posted at 8:19 PM, Mar 19, 2015
and last updated 2015-03-19 20:19:14-04

(CNN) — Allegations of hazing, racist chanting and sexual assault have become the unattractive face of college fraternities over the past few weeks.

From Sigma Chi’s chapters at the University of Houston and Westminster College in Missouri, to Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s chapters at Furman University in South Carolina and the University of Oklahoma, universities are closing Greek doors and suspending their members at almost record numbers.

Allegations of criminal activity and indecent behavior happening within these fraternities, as well as among chapters of Phi Kappa Psi, Kappa Delta Rho and Pi Kappa Alpha, have left many questioning whether the Greek system itself is the problem.

While it may be unfair to paint fraternities with a broad brush, “We can take note of what they are,” said Frank Bruni, author of “Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania.”

“And what they are is they are exclusive societies — many of them, not all of them — that let in like-minded individuals who can then exist in a very homogenous environment,” Bruni said. “That strikes me as something that’s at odds with what we really want colleges to be.”

Westminster’s Sigma Chi and Furman’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapters were suspended last week over alleged hazing incidents, as was the Phi Kappa Psi chapter at Washington and Lee University in Virginia. (The Washington and Lee incident allegedly involved the use of a Taser on a new member).

And Pi Kappa Alpha’s chapter at the University of South Carolina was suspended after a freshman member was found dead in a home off-campus on Wednesday. No trauma was found in an autopsy conducted Thursday, but a ruling on cause of death awaits results of toxicology tests, according to CNN affiliate WLTX in Columbia. The national leadership of the fraternity put the chapter on administrative suspension after the death, and says the chapter is cooperating with the investigation, WLTX said.

Here’s a more in-depth take on the incidents that have been happening nationwide:

Nude photos

Kappa Delta Rho, Penn State University

Photos of nude and partially clothed women, some apparently unconscious, allegedly were posted on a private Facebook page by members of the university’s Kappa Delta Rho chapter.

A former member of Kappa Delta Rho alerted police to the page, telling them in January that it had been used by members to share photos of “unsuspecting victims, drug sales and hazing,” according to a copy of a police affidavit.

“No arrests are being made at this time,” State College Police Lt. Keith Robb said. “Unfortunately, we aren’t able to identify any suspects right now because the accounts on Facebook were sanitized, wiped clean.”

In the meantime, the chapter has been suspended for one year.

Calling the evidence gathered so far “appalling, offensive, and inconsistent with our community values,” University President Eric J. Barron said in a statement Wednesday that “we must ask if a re-evaluation of the fraternity system is required. Some members of the university senior leadership believe it is, and we are considering our options.”


Sigma Chi at the University of Houston

The Sigma Chi chapter, as well as five students, have been suspended after alleged hazing. The university hasn’t released details, but said Houston police have turned over their findings to the Harris County District Attorney’s Office. The district attorney will determine whether charges will be filed.

If the allegations are true, the five students could be expelled, university President Renu Khator said.

“I am shocked, dismayed and deeply disappointed that allegations of this nature have arisen on our campus,” Khator said. “I expect all of our students, regardless of whether they belong to a Greek organization, to understand the obligations they have as members of our community.”

Chi Phi at the University of Wisconsin

According to CNN affiliate WMSN, Chi Phi’s chapter at the University of Wisconsin has been terminated after an investigation prompted by allegations of hazing. The university’s assistant dean and director of the Division of Student Life said all chapter members were interviewed, and the university found that many were coerced into “acts that seriously threatened the health and safety of new members.”

Racist behavior

Sigma Alpha Epsilon at the University of Oklahoma

The university’s SAE chapter was shut down after video surfaced of members singing a racist chant on a bus:

“There will never be a ni**** in SAE. You can hang him from a tree, but he’ll never sign with me. There will never be a ni**** in SAE.”

The fallout was fast and intense: The university expelled at least two students, the fraternity’s national office closed the chapter, and some members have received death threats. Stephen Jones, an attorney hired by a board that represents the disbanded SAE chapter, said he hopes university officials will grant the students due process in the case.

The fraternity’s national office has said it was also investigating other chapters.

“Several other incidents with chapters or members have been brought to the attention of the headquarters … and each of those instances will be investigated,” the national Sigma Alpha Epsilon office said in a statement.

Sigma Alpha Epsilon at the University of Washington

University of Washington students accused fraternity members of offensive comments during a protest last month to raise awareness about racism.

“People were called monkeys and apes by members of SAE,” said Maggie Negussie, president of the university’s Black Student Union.

The SAE chapter at Washington denied the allegations, saying an investigation determined the culprits were not members of the fraternity. But the university said its own investigation is underway.

Fraternities nationwide

“The Hunting Ground,” a CNN Films-produced documentary in theaters now, is an exposé of sexual assault on college campuses. The filmmakers found that fraternities, particularly SAE, often came up in interviews with students.

“When we traveled around the country looking into researching the epidemic of assaults on our campuses, time and again we’d ask students, what have you heard on your campus, where is it dangerous? And they would say SAE,” filmmaker Amy Ziering told CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield.

“It wouldn’t surprise me that if that’s happening at one fraternity, it would happen at others,” she added. “What we found in our research is whenever we uncovered something happening somewhere, it wasn’t a one-off, it wasn’t a unique situation.

Some similarities

Clearly, these acts aren’t representative of all fraternities. But Bruni sees some common threads in alleged bad acts.

“You have to note that we have sexist behavior from organizations that are all-male,” he said. “We have racist behavior from organizations that are virtually all-white. Those are not accidents.”

Several studies in the 1990s found that certain aspects of fraternities — an emphasis on hierarchy, superiority and high alcohol consumption — lend themselves to racism and sexual assault.

But some researchers have studied the positive stories about fraternities to learn what strategies those members use to be successful. Focusing solely on the negative doesn’t solve any problems, said study author Shaun R. Harper.

“What it takes for guys to be good is to be constantly reminded of the principles and values of the fraternities to which they pledge themselves,” Harper said.

A common strategy to disrupt improper behavior — without breaking the shared brotherhood — is to use the frat’s stated values as a mirror. These men ask questions like “Is this what we are really all about?”

CNN’s Mariano Castillo, Chandler Friedman, Sara Ganim, Ray Sanchez and Eliott McLaughlin contributed to this report.

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