In February 2002, a 21-year-old junior at Alfred University in upstate New York was found dead in a creek after taking a beating from his fraternity brothers at Zeta Beta Tau.
Although authorities couldn't prove the blows caused the young man's death, the circumstances prompted school officials to conclude, after years of trying to reform Greek culture on campus, that frats weren't worth saving. "The Greek system is beyond repair," the chairman of the school's board said at the time.
The decision to ban fraternities came during a period of heightened scrutiny on university campuses across the country, in which a number of colleges eliminated school-sanctioned Greek life in response to allegations of binge drinking, hazing and sex assault. Alfred was on the vanguard of a movement that has been gaining momentum ever since, leading to a new wave of crackdowns that have grabbed the nation's attention, driven by growing sensitivity to campus violence and discrimination, pressure from authorities on sexual assault, liability issues and the power of social media.
The latest example occurred last weekend at the University of Oklahoma, where officials shut down the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity after members were caught on video chanting a racial slur. The school joins Johns Hopkins University, MIT, Duke and Texas Tech among many universities that took action in recent months against individual fraternities in response to allegations of rape or hazing.
But even those were minor disciplinary matters in comparison to what happened last year at University of Virginia, West Virginia University, Clemson University, Emory University and Amherst College — all of which curtailed or completely suspended Greek activities. And those moves followed attempts by Wesleyan University, Trinity College and several other small schools in the Northeast to force fraternities to accept women in an effort to water down testosterone-fueled problems.
"If students are showing dangerous behavior or taking different types of risks, it's up to us to step in to try to grab their attention and say, 'This is unacceptable,'" said Corey Farris, dean of students at West Virginia University, which lifted its suspension in January after working with the fraternities to improve their codes of conduct. "I also think there's a cultural shift where society and parents are less tolerant of it. And people are more willing to step up and speak out."
"I truly believe that prevention of hazing and other problematic behavior is possible ... But it takes a concentrated effort, a strategic plan, resources and institutional will for that to occur."
A 2007 study in the NASPA Journal published by a national association representing student affairs administrators, found that fraternity members are three times more likely to commit rape than non-members. A 2009 study in the same journal found that 86 percent of fraternity house residents binge-drank, as opposed to 45 percent of non-fraternity men. A recent analysis by Bloomberg News revealed more than 60 deaths related to fraternity activities since 2005, and many more injuries and sex assaults.
Last spring, the Obama Administration released the names of 55 colleges and universities that were under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education for their handling of sexual abuse complaints, a way to pressure schools to implement reforms.
The fraternities, whose membership continues to grow — there are now an estimated 350,000 campus members nationwide — have also spoken out. Its lobbying group, the North-American Intrafraternity Conference, has challenged efforts to end Greek life on many campuses. In many instances, the group has helped roll back proposed bans. Among its arguments is that bans inhibit freedoms of expression and association. Another is that bans do nothing to encourage cooperative efforts to improve campus life.
"NIC is against the unilateral suspension of fraternal organizations because it's not the right way to address the issues the community is facing," Pete Smithhisler, the group's president, said. "Suspensions of groups is just putting band-aids on the situation."
The small liberal arts schools that were among the earliest to ban fraternities from their campuses — Williams College, Alfred University, Bowdoin College, Middlebury College, Colby College, Santa Clara College — express little regret about their decisions. In some cases, underground off-campus fraternities sprouted up, but many of them say that they see less misconduct and more tolerant and inclusive attitudes.
Norm Pollard, dean of students at Alfred University, said the school recognized a lot of the positive guidance fraternities provided young men. But it found that co-education clubs, activities, leadership development opportunities and social outlets more than made up for the loss of Greek life.
Pollard acknowledged that it was difficult to measure whether the 2002 ban had a direct effect on students' behavior. But he sees many positive signs. The local police say they don't respond to as many raging parties. And there's been a decrease in substance abuse violations.
"I truly believe that prevention of hazing and other problematic behavior is possible," Pollard said. "But it takes a concentrated effort, a strategic plan, resources and institutional will for that to occur."