Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Hazing's Perfect Storm - The American College Fraternity

We are all familiar with the meteorological term known as the “perfect storm.”  It is that rarest of phenomena in which multiple weather abnormalities converge in just the right place at just the right time to create a weather event of terrific magnitude.  The term “perfect storm” has been generalized in modern culture as a catch-all phrase used to describe any situation in which circumstances align themselves to produce rare, and often dramatic, events. 

The title of this article may lead you to believe that my intention is to suggest that hazing is uniquely a problem with fraternities.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.  The National Study of Student Hazing demonstrated that hazing exists in a large number of organizations on the college campus.  The study showed that hazing is more prevalent in varsity athletics than it is in fraternities, and demonstrated that nearly half of all students involved in clubs and organizations in college have experienced hazing in high school.  Aldo Cimino (http://www.aldocimino.com/) has documented the evolutionary psychology of hazing, arguing that the hazing of newcomers in groups is ingrained in human behavior, and that virtually all groups engage in some form of newcomer hazing.  Hazing is certainly not a fraternity, or even a college, problem.

The NSSH findings, while exonerating fraternities from the title of “most likely to haze,” belie an inescapable truth – the most egregious cases of hazing, particularly those resulting in serious injury or death, belong almost exclusively to fraternities.  The obvious exception to this rule is the 2011 death of Florida A&M drum major Robert Champion, who died after being beaten in a hazing ritual known as “Crossing Bus C.”  In scanning the list of hazing deaths in the United States (http://www.hanknuwer.com/hazingdeaths.html), one must go back another ten years to find the next non-Greek casualty on the list – the 2001 death of University of Minnesota-Duluth rugby player Ken Christiansen.  During the ten years between Christiansen and Champion, there were 31 fraternity-related hazing deaths in America.  Sororities are certainly not exempt from scrutiny, as there were three hazing deaths in sororities during that same time period, but that number pales in comparison to fraternities.  The American college fraternity stands head and shoulders above any other organization on or off the college campus when it comes to hazing resulting in death.  No other group even comes close.

When confronted with these brutal facts, one must conclude that the American college fraternity brings together a perfect storm for hazing.  The rare combination of environmental factors present in the college fraternity converge to make it an environment that produces hazing of a terrific magnitude.  But what are those variables?  What about the college fraternity creates an environment so conducive to dangerous, deadly hazing?  Examining these questions and truly understanding the unique factors that contribute to the fraternity hazing culture is the first step in moving towards an effective fraternity hazing prevention strategy.  It is critically essential to understand what makes fraternity hazing so unique in order to properly address it.  This article offers an examination of two factors, unique to the fraternity culture, that contribute to hazing’s perfect storm.

The Interplay of Social Status and Conformity

Studies of bullying among adolescents (Bandura et al., 1999) and among prisoners (South & Wood, 2006) have found that bullying behaviors have a strong correlation with an individual’s desire for social status.  Another study of adolescent bullying found that conformity motives were the highest predictor of bullying among adolescent males (Kuntsche, Knibbe, Engels & Gmel, 2007).  In examining these studies together, it would seem logical that both conformity (the need to fit in) and social status (the need to obtain a place of status in the social hierarchy of a given environment) are both contributing factors in fraternity hazing.  Emerging research suggests that this is very much the case.

Research by McCreary and Schutts (2013) measured fraternal conformity, social status, and hazing tolerance and found strong, significant correlations among all three variables.  A diagram of these relationships would look like the following:

Any fraternity/sorority professional can readily recount a wide variety of anecdotes describing the ways that fraternity members jockey for social status (both individually and as groups), as well as the ways in which fraternity members conform to the “frat” stereotype (changing the way they dress, the music they listen to, the places they go, etc.). Research would suggest that the need to be accepted, taken in combination with the strong desire for social status, provide an environment in which hazing thrives.  Hazing is often carried out in a way that promotes conformity and solidarity among new members.  It is also done to achieve social status on campus (i.e. the prestige associated with a “hard pledge program”).  Cimino (2011) would argue that the social status of many groups on their campus would be an “automatic group benefit,” and that hazing in those groups is designed to prevent new members from exploiting those benefits.  It is likely that these two factors are stronger among college fraternity members than among any other group, although further research is needed to be certain.  The confluence of social status and conformity, unique to the college fraternity, is a significant risk factor in the perpetration of deadly hazing.  The desire to achieve social status is so strong that new members are willing to do almost anything to belong - a situation ripe for disaster, and one unique to college fraternities.

The Problem of Absolute Power

I regularly talk to groups about hazing and hazing prevention.  In the last year, I have taken to asking a question every time I speak.  The question is this:

“Can you name another social institution, besides the college fraternity, in which 19, 20 and 21 year-old young men have absolute power and authority over the lives of 17 and 18 year-old young men?”

I have asked this question dozens of times to hundreds of people.  I have yet to receive an answer.

With a sports team, you have a coach who ultimately makes the major decisions affecting the team.  With an ROTC unit, you have a chain of command.  With a marching band, there is a crew of adult band directors.  At the end of the day, with every other type of college group associated with hazing, you have responsible adults who are a key component of the power structure and decision-making within the group.  The same cannot be said for the college fraternity.  While there is a national structure and chapter advisors, these entities play no formal role in the day-to-day decision-making of the chapter.  Most importantly, they have no voice in two important decisions – who gets a bid, and who gets initiated.  Chapter members alone decide who gets a bid, they carry out the new member program, and they alone decide the fate of new members, often in anonymous and antiquated voting procedures. 

The absolute power that fraternity members have over their pledges, and the antiquated membership models that support these practices, is the number one risk factor associated with fraternity hazing.  It is the reason that there were 31 fraternity-related hazing deaths between the last two non-fraternity hazing deaths. Much like the guards in the Stanford Prison Experiment, fraternity actives have absolute power over the lives of their new members. As the old adage goes, "power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely." If you buy that argument, then you have to buy the suggestion that the most important thing we can do to prevent hazing is to infuse responsible adults into positions of power within fraternal organizations. But how can we do that?  

Here’s an idea:

The best way to prevent dangerous hazing is to lower the level of hazing that new members would tolerate.  If you think of hazing along a continuum, with lower levels (i.e. errand running) and high levels (i.e. physical abuse) of hazing, then we can think about prevention as moving the line of acceptable behavior within an organization from higher levels to lower levels.  By curbing the absolute power that actives have over pledges, we may be able to do just that.

Imagine – a fraternity new member process where, at the end of that process, new members go before a chapter “Board of Directors” consisting evenly of undergraduate and alumni members.  The BOD questions the new member to ensure that he has learned all of the information needed to become initiated.  Any chapter member who feels this new member should not be initiated has an opportunity to address the BOD regarding his reasoning.  The BOD takes all of this information in, and determines whether or not the new member should be initiated.  How might such a system prevent hazing?  If a fraternity new member knows that, at the end of his new member period, the guy who is hazing him does not have the authority to anonymously remove him from the chapter, might he be willing to tolerate less from that member?  If a new member knew that responsible adults would be part of the decision regarding his initiation, might he be less willing to subject himself to degrading and dangerous activities?  I argue that he would. Such a model would not end hazing in a chapter, but I think it has the potential to drastically lower the level of severity of hazing within a chapter.

Some will be critical of this idea, asserting that the NPHC has already attempted to involve responsible adults in the pledging process, without success.  I would argue that the critical mistake made by the NPHC was in attempting to circumvent the undergraduate chapters altogether.  Instead of partnering, these groups have replaced undergraduate decision-making with alumni-decision making.  In the meantime, chapters have continued their pledging/hazing activities underground.  Accountability can only come through alumni working in conjunction with undergraduate members – a model that has not, to my knowledge, been fully implemented.


This post is not meant to beat up on fraternities. I am a proud fraternity member, and believe strongly in the power of the college fraternity to be a force for good.  But I can no longer look at the brutal facts of fraternity hazing and continue to insist that hazing is a student problem that can be fixed by better educating fraternity members about hazing.  We have to start by acknowledging that hazing is worse in fraternities than in any other organization.  Then, we must ask ourselves “Why?”  I have engaged in that thought experiment, and this blog represents my first attempt at answering that question. The unique combination of conformity, social status and absolute power are a recipe for disaster, and that confluence of factors is unique to the college fraternity. Once we acknowledge this and begin actively addressing it, we may begin to see progress in our fight to prevent hazing. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Sorority Recruitment and Discrimination at Alabama

Part of me wishes I had spoken out sooner.  Lord knows I had the opportunity.  But please do not confuse my silence with acquiescence. Whatever you do, don't call me a bystander. There is more than one way to skin a cat.

I have watched with more than just a passing interest at the events unfolding at the University of Alabama in the days since the Crimson White published its story on the latest round of racial discrimination in Panhellenic Sorority Recruitment. To the casual observer, this story was nothing new under the sun. African American women have been trying, unsuccessfully, to join Panhellenic sororities for years. The result was always the same - systematic discrimination. Many brave young women tried to break through that barrier, but all met the same fate.  Almost every year, the Crimson White (the campus newspaper) would devote some ink to the story.  It would be all the buzz on campus for a few days, as students and faculty would wrestle with the nature of the problem.  But then the Crimson Tide football team would take the field for the first time and stories from sorority recruitment would fade into the background.

But the story this year was different.

Not everyone has picked up on the difference in this year's story.  It was subtle. In a world where we like to receive our news in 140 characters or less, details often get lost in the headlines.  But those who read beyond the headlines and who understand the issues on that campus noticed the difference in this year's story - for the first time, the undergraduate sorority members were calling out their alumnae members.  By name.

I had known for a few months about one of the young African American women participating in recruitment this year.  I knew she had impeccable credentials: 4.3 GPA, 28 ACT score, involved in high school, beautiful, grand-daughter of a member of the UA Board of Trustees, etc.  I knew that several undergraduate members of various sororities knew her and had her on the top of their list - an "RTP" as we called them at Alabama (Rush to Pledge).  Perhaps she would be the one to break through.

It was not to be.

The story that the Crimson White reported this year was not just a story of discrimination. It was a story of subversion. A story of threats and fear-mongering. A story of the abuse of power. This year, at least three of the chapters were ready to take the plunge.  But the alumnae advisors were having none of it.  In at least one chapter, the alumnae threatened the chapter with promises of withdrawn financial support.  In at least two others, the alumnae advisors overrode the chapter's voting process and removed the African American women from the pool, completely circumventing the recruitment process and subverting the will of the chapter.  And in the Crimson White article, the undergraduates told their stories of what had happened.  This represents, to my knowledge, the first time that undergraduate members have publicly called out their alumnae members on this issue.

Now, fast forward one week.  After a week of humiliating headlines, the University President called a private meeting with sorority advisors. The decision was made to increase campus total to 5 more than the largest chapter on campus, allowing any chapter to add additional new members through the continuous open bidding (COB) process. I have been told by those present at the meeting that the President did not beat around the bush regarding the reason for increasing total - the sororities should take the opportunity to do the right thing and pledge the women they want to pledge.

Some have called this action a band-aid - a temporary fix aimed only at stopping the negative publicity. To some extent, this may be true, but those who make that argument demonstrate very little understanding of the underlying fear that is at the heart of this issue.  If a sorority uses this opportunity to pledge an African American member, then everything will change forever.

At the heart of this issue is fear: fear of being the first, fear of how other Greek organizations on campus will respond, fear of the alumnae, fear of being different, fear of the unknown. The fear extends from the undergraduate chapters to the alumnae to the national organizations.  There is also fear within the University administration. The University has been afraid of taking a stand on this issue for years - afraid of offending alumni donors who might withdraw their support of the University, afraid of letting their Director of Greek Affairs get too involved in the issue. Fear is a very powerful motivator. As it turns out, the only thing more powerful than fear is public humiliation.

It looks like at least one sorority will extend a bid to at least one African American woman this week.  They will do so proudly, but with trepidation - with fear of the unknown. But here is the important part - when they take this historic step forward, the sky will not fall. The world will keep turning. Their alumnae will still support them. The fraternities on campus will still swap with them.  Other than having one dark face among hundreds of white ones in chapter photos, nothing will change. And everyone else will notice this.  The alumnae members who still think it is 1975 will see that times have changed. Recalcitrant undergraduates, those who wanted to do the right thing but were afraid of how others on campus would respond, will see that the group with a black member did not become a social pariah.  The fear will dissipate.  The issue of skin color will become a non-issue.  I will not go so far as to say that the floodgates will open, but I do think that the issue of race in sorority recruitment will become a thing of the past. Simply, chapters who want to pledge a woman of color will be able to do so with no fear.  And that will be a huge step forward for the University of Alabama.

When this happens, I will not give any credit to the University of Alabama administration or to the national organization who happens to be the first to do it.  The University has dodged responsibility on this issue for years.  The national organizations have been made aware of problematic advisors on numerous occasions and have done nothing about it. The credit will go solely to the young women who have had the courage to speak out, to challenge the status quo, and to go public with their stories - women like Anna Foley, Hallie Paul, Alex Clark, Melanie Gotz, Kirkland Back, Yardena Wolf, and so many others. It is not easy to challenge the status quo, especially on a campus like the University of Alabama with a "machine" that has maintained its power on campus through coercion, violence and intimidation.  These women deserve all of the credit for making this change possible.  Their story is a story of courage.

I could tell a lot of stories in this post - stories that would embarrass the University and several of the national organizations on campus.  But what's the point?  I have no desire to embarrass anyone.  I want to see this issue become a thing of the past.  I want to see the fear and discrimination end.  I want to see the students at the University of Alabama, the great majority of whom have been unfairly characterized as racist, take ownership of their chapters and do the right thing.  As long as that happens, and I have every reason to believe that it will, then my stories would serve no purpose other than to ruin professional relationships and create even more humiliation.  I have no desire to see either of those things happen.  I love the University of Alabama.  It is an amazing place.  I am a proud former employee and a proud alumnus.  I want to see my Alma Mater do the right thing, and I have never been more hopeful that it will.