Where’s a Greek Life Vaccine When You Need One?

Kaylee Oppenheimer, Editor-in-Chief

The news title is eerily similar every time. 

A college student searching for a sense of belonging expresses interest in pledging to a fraternity. To be allowed in, the student must complete a set of hazing rituals usually consisting of extreme alcohol consumption. In the morning, his body is found limp. He is dead. 

His family is heartbroken. The university may release an open letter, as was done in the aftermath of the death of Timothy Piazza, an engineering student and pledge of Penn State University’s Bi Theta Pi fraternity. Piazza was engaged in a night of hazing activities and extreme inebriation that resulted in his death; while intoxicated, he fell down a flight of basement stairs and suffered a ruptured spleen, fractured skull, and class IV hemorrhagic shock. Nobody called 911 for hours despite Piazza’s obvious unconsciousness, and those who tried to were physically punished. When at the hospital, half of his skull had to be removed to relieve the pressure from the brain swelling. Despite desperate attempts by surgeons to save his life, Piazza died. For months, news channels hyperactively followed his story. 

But then, like all of these stories of young men dying at the hands of fraternities, the coverage goes away. The misery continues to stagnate the air of the families who suffocate from it. And tragically it happens again. 

It always happens again. 

When will it stop? When will colleges stop passively allowing Greek life to continue? 

Wait. You might be wondering: Is it possible to simply reform Greek life, to mitigate the negatives without throwing in the towel of fraternities and sororities? My view on Greek life was complicated by a recent interview with Catrina Spinozzi, a sophomore at Coastal Carolina University, and a Sigma Kappa sorority member. She told me that “We’re very much focused around philanthropy and I think a lot of people, especially on the outside, forget that. We’re not just raising money for us to go buy a pack of beers and drink on a Saturday; we’re raising money for a cause. Sigma Kappa has five different philanthropies and that was one of the reasons why on preference day I was like ‘wow, ok, this has a lot to do with what I want to do.’”

“One of Sigma Kappa’s five philanthropies is the Alzheimer’s Association, and we’re the second leading donation fund in the country after the US government—we donate around 500,000 dollars a year. When people hear that they’re like, ‘Oh, what do you guys do, like pie yourself in the face and that’s like 500,000 dollars right there?’ No, it’s a long process; we do lots of things for it. We also donate to gerontology, which is the study of aging—we donate money for research. Another one is the Maine Seacoast Mission, which is a small island off of Maine it has a very deserted habitat for people, but their resources are very very limited. We donate money, we donate food, we donate clothes to them as well.” 

“We also have the Sigma Kappa foundation which is just a scholarship-based foundation for anyone in our chapter or in our organization who need help paying for school, or just financial support. We donate money to that fund so that the money is readily available if anyone needs it. I know during Corona, two of our sisters actually got grants from the Sigma Kappa foundation because their parents lost their jobs. So it kept one of my sister’s water in her house for six months.”

But does all the good that organizations like Sigma Kappa do outweigh the negatives?  Can we separate out the philanthropy and pro-social goals of Greek life from the often toxic environments created by over-drinking, violent hazing, and sexual predation? 

It seems important to note that the death of Piazza occurred under the eye of Beta Theta Pi, a fraternity of Penn State University that was in fact a “model” fraternity, one that had been reformed and had a no-alcohol policy instituted, video surveillance, and strict behavioral guidelines. If the members of a reformed fraternity can act with such a disregard for human life, how can we continue to propose that Greek life does not need to be discontinued?  

The neglect of Bi Theta Pi to follow the guidelines of its reformed policy cost Piazza his life. And across the United States, Greek life is costing so many others their lives and livelihoods as well. There is so much trauma in Greek life organizations that does not make it onto newspaper headlines. It is hidden, rarely discussed, and considered by many to be unmentionable, largely in an attempt to maintain the survival and reputation of both Greek and college institutions. 

According to research completed by Bannon et al. in 2013, women in sororities are at an increased risk of being raped, and in some cases, are 74% more likely to experience rape than other college women. This research also found that 72% of the sorority victims experienced rape while intoxicated. 

Research completed by B Softas-nall et al. found that rape is the “most fear producing of all offenses in young Greek women” and that “fear of rape is even greater than fear of murder, robbery, threat with a dangerous object, and other serious crimes.” 

According to Bleecker et al. and Boeringer et al., fraternity men endorse rape-supportive attitudes at a significantly higher rate than nonfraternity members. Also, fraternity men, Fouhert, et. al found, are significantly more likely than the general population and other college men to approve of coercing women to engage in sexual behavior. 

Additionally, fraternity culture often includes hypermasculine beliefs and behaviors, which includes a “belief in male dominance and sexual callousness,” (Murnen et al.) and a distorted and negative view of femininity. These beliefs are made possible by an utmost focus on allegiance and secrecy. What happens in the fraternity stays in the fraternity. 

Because many students turn to fraternities as a tool to achieve social acceptance and alleviate insecurities, many men may fear being seen as deviant in their attitudes toward women and may be compelled to take on beliefs that are sexist, even if those that do not mirror their own. 

For decades, what has emerged out of countless fraternities across the country is a continuance of a culture of hypermasculinity coupled to institutions that thrive off of power and wealth. 

In his book True Gentleman: The Broken Pledge of American Fraternities, John Hechinger wrote that fraternities own about three billion dollars worth of real estate across 800 US campuses. Many fraternities and sororities accumulate strong alumni networks that are often more willing to donate to their alma mater than non-Greek alumni, and Greek alumni often disproportionately make up the majority of administrative positions and trustee boards of colleges. As a senior editor at Bloomberg News, Hechinger discovered that members of Greek life only constitute 19 percent of the alumni database for the Indiana University Foundation, which handles fundraising for the university, but they account for 60 percent of donations. According to the North-American Interfraternity Conference, 41% of US presidents have held fraternity membership.  

It is time to stop this self-perpetuating cycle. When members of Greek life graduate, some give generous donations, and with this money comes immense power. Yet in each cycle, there are countless deaths, rapes, and other tragedies. It is time for change. 

Abolition is the only answer. No, abolishing fraternities will not solve the drinking culture of so many universities, but it will certainly alleviate it. No, closing down Greek life will not solve rape culture, but it will significantly lessen its devastation. 

To prevent certain tragedies we must block their origins. We must together forge a future that is brighter, healthier, and wiser.