f all the details in the story of the death of Tim Piazza—a Penn State sophomore who fell down a flight of stairs during a 2017 hazing incident at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house and whose “brothers” waited 12 hours and then called 911 only when they determined he “looked f—ing dead”—none is more telling than the fact that the whole episode was caught on video. As Caitlin Flanagan documented in her article on the incident in the Atlantic, there were surveillance cameras in the house to protect the property from damage. The brothers knew about them. So up until the point when they realized Piazza was dead, they were perfectly happy to have a video recording of their actions that night. From this, one might reasonably conclude that their actions that night were not particularly out of the ordinary.
According to text messages entered into evidence during the trial of 16 of the fraternity members, they were administering something called the “Shep Test” that night. Flanagan writes:
The Shep Test itself is little more than a quiz about Beta Theta Pi history, but it’s one part of a night of mind games and physical punishments. A former Beta told me that pledges were held down on a table as a red-hot poker was brought close to their bare feet and they were told they were going to be branded. With pillowcases over their heads, they were paddled, leaving bruises and, on at least one occasion, breaking the skin. They were forced to eat and drink disgusting things, denied sleep, and terrorized in a variety of other ways.
Like so many fraternity rituals these days, the “Shep Test” doesn’t officially exist. But it doesn’t take a lot of digging to realize how widespread, revolting, and dangerous these rituals are. John Hechinger’s new book, True Gentlemen: The Broken Promise of America’s Fraternities, offers as good an introduction as any to the history of these institutions and how our campuses continue to be burdened with such powerful and abusive clubs.
The first social fraternity was formed in 1825 by students at Union College in Schenectady. They “were tired of studying theology and the dusty Latin and Greek Manuscripts of early nineteenth-century universities,” Hechinger writes. “They wanted to become movers and shakers, not preachers and monks.” So the Kappa Alpha Society was born.
As the purpose of America’s colleges changed in the 19th century, from training religious leaders to creating politicians, scientists, and experts in a variety of fields, fraternities helped shape the new institutions. “Colleges promoted the social skills and knowledge necessary for entrée into the upper middle class,” Hechinger writes. “In that way, fraternities helped create the American-style college experience.”
There was never an Edenic time of innocence. From its earliest days, “drinking [was] central to the identity of the fraternity man.” And that was true of no fraternity more than Sigma Alpha Epsilon, the primary subject of Hechinger’s reporting. He calls SAE the “deadliest” fraternity in America. Between 2005 and 2013, there were 10 deaths associated with the fraternity, involving drinking and/or hazing. Perhaps more telling, the liability insurance rates for SAE fraternity houses are the highest in the country.
Founded in 1856 at the University of Alabama, SAE has had 336,000 members, two-thirds of whom are alive today. There are chapters on 230 campuses and, while Hechinger emphasizes that they each have their own character, there are some things common to all of them.
The first is that SAE brothers must all learn a pledge called “The True Gentleman,” which reads in part: “The True Gentleman is the man whose conduct proceeds from good will and an acute sense of propriety, and whose self-control is equal to all emergencies.” One young man, Justin Stuart, a freshman at Salisbury University in Maryland, was required to recite those words on a cold night in March 2012 while standing waste-deep in a trash can filled with ice, wearing only his underwear, while the other members of the fraternity sprayed him with a hose and poured buckets of ice over his head.
Stuart’s pledge class was forced to listen to deafening music for as many as eight or nine hours at a time. He and his fellow pledges were forced to drink eight or nine cups of “jungle juice” after having not eaten for 10 hours. They were blindfolded and pushed into a car that careened around, jostling the seatbelt-free pledges, and then they were paddled until they could no longer sit.
Stuart ultimately decided not to go through with his plan to join SAE and anonymously reported this hazing to the school’s authorities. But his name leaked out. He was ostracized and forced to transfer to the University of Maryland. Authorities at Salisbury and the local police both found Stuart’s story “credible.” (Stuart’s mother requested that police drop the case because she feared for her son’s safety.) As one of the disciplinary board members said of the fraternity members’ defense: “What you said sounds like Disney Channel, when what I’m thinking [is more like] Quentin Tarantino.”
While it is drinking that is generally the common activity holding these clubs together, Hechinger points out that it is only one of a group of uniting forces. He calls them “the unholy trinity of fraternity life: racial insensitivity, dangerous drinking, and misogyny.” The misogyny is pretty easy to spot. The fraternity’s unofficial creeds include: “SAE. Work Hard. Play Hard. Stay Hard.” And: “SAE: We do bitches!! Pulling hoes since 1856.” SAE, it’s said, stands for “Sexual Assault Expected.”
Even if you take as your premise that rape is not the problem on campus that some make it out to be, whatever problem there is seems concentrated in fraternities. Take Indiana University, where “12 percent of undergraduate men belong to fraternities [but] their chapter houses were the locations of 23 percent of sexual-assault reports.” Investigating reports from the period between 2011 and 2016, Hechinger found 15 reports at the 230 SAE chapters.
Some chapters had bigger problems than others. In 2000, a freshman at the University of New Mexico said she unwittingly attended a gathering referred to as a “cherry-bust” party. Two men spiked her drink and then drove her to a parking lot where they raped her, according to police. There were two more arrests for rape in 2003 and 2006. In 2007, a pledge was charged with having sex with underage girls, including a 15-year-old. These are all cases that were investigated by police, not a campus kangaroo court. Clearly, you could give your daughter worse advice upon going off to college than simply to steer clear of fraternities.
And then there is the race problem. It was SAE students from the University of Oklahoma who were caught on video in 2015 singing the song “There will never be a nigger in SAE. You can hang him from a tree. But he can never sign with me.”
Again, Hechinger makes the case that it is not just this chapter and not just SAE where such chants (and the attitudes behind them) seem to flourish. Until 2009, the Kappa Alpha chapter at Washington and Lee University held an “Old South” party during which the men dressed in Confederate uniforms. They didn’t attract any attention for this ritual until they decided to parade past a black fraternity in their garb.
Many fraternities have their roots in the South. And, as Hechinger notes, “their recruiting practices, opaque and favoring insiders and legacies, all but guarantee a candidate pool dominated by white students.” But the fact that students of other ethnicities have gravitated toward their own fraternities may have made the problem worse. It’s not only that there are fraternities for African Americans. Pi Delta Psi, an Asian-American fraternity, came to national attention in 2013 when one of its pledges died after suffering multiple blows to his body and head in a hazing ritual called “Glass Ceiling” that is deeply rooted in racial identity. According to an article in the New York Times Magazine:
First, a pledge is blindfolded and separated from his assigned “Big,” an older fraternity brother, by a line of brothers whose arms are linked together. For the most part, this line signifies the barrier between glumly accepting America’s vision of emasculated, toadying Asian men and the great promise of success and masculine fulfillment.
As his Big calls out his name, a pledge, or ‘‘Little,’’ crosses his arms across his chest and walks toward his Big’s voice. He soon runs into the line of brothers, who call him “chink,” “gook” and whatever other racial slurs they can muster. [Then] the pledge is still wandering blindfolded toward his Big’s calls, but instead of being pushed, he is knocked to the ground or, in some chapters, even tackled.
What is it about fraternity life that encourages this kind of racial solidarity or bigotry toward other racial groups? Hechinger quotes a number of fraternity brothers—even those who were caught singing the offensive song in question—saying they are not racists at all. Not only do they count among their friends black members of Oklahoma’s football team, but they were genuinely surprised when these athletes didn’t stand up and defend them.
Hechinger suggests that it is the fraternity’s history and its racial uniformity that make students blind to their racist attitudes. He praises solutions that attempt to bring more diversity to these institutions. SAE hired Ashlee Cantee to be the first director of diversity and inclusion for the fraternity. But Hechinger seems disappointed that she won’t be encouraging the organization “to institute the kind of admissions policies that universities rely on to increase diversity, namely, racial preferences.” She doesn’t even seem interested in minority outreach. “I don’t want to get to the point of counting brown faces,” she tells Hechinger.
The real question, though, is why you would want to encourage more kids (of whatever race) to join these institutions at all. Maybe having more black students will make them less racist. But will it help their misogyny problems? Hechinger suggests that fraternities should consider admitting women. Will that make sexual assault less likely? Perhaps, but a lot of drunken men and women living together in a private home on campus with alcohol flowing freely doesn’t sound like a recipe for better relations between the sexes.
Which brings us back to alcohol. Hechinger offers a long list of alternatives. Colleges could require fraternities to be dry or to assess fees to fraternities that host parties with alcohol. They could advise or even require individual students to hold liability insurance when they join. (Fraternities often claim that they are not liable for damage or injuries because the fraternity members weren’t following the organization’s official rules.) This would have the added benefit of ensuring that parents understand there is a real cost to joining these institutions. But if you read enough of these accounts, you will wonder whether it makes sense to provide drunken and irresponsible young men with this degree of self-governance at campus expense.
Williams College abolished fraternities in 1970 after slowly shrinking them over the two decades beforehand. John Chandler, who served as president of the school after this process, told Hechinger that eliminating fraternities “would be a lot more difficult to pull off today.” The money, clout, and political power that fraternity alumni hold over schools have only grown in the past few decades. But whether the goal is reducing racial segregation, lessening the likelihood of sexual assault, encouraging students to focus more on academics, or simply reducing the chances that your children and their friends will be injured or worse on campus, shuttering fraternities and reestablishing the necessity for college officials to serve in loco parentis would only help.