Eliminating the scourge of fraternity hazing in Michigan

Once again the despicable act of hazing has claimed the lives of more young, promising college students. A pledge at Texas State University and Florida State both died recently in drunken hazing episodes which should never have happened.

A pledge at Louisiana State University died in a similar circumstance. Last Spring another pledge’s life was brutally snuffed out at Penn State University where criminal charges are still being prosecuted. These incidents are sickening, totally unacceptable, and absolutely indefensible. They should never have happened.

Both Ohio State University and the University of Michigan recently suspended all Greek social activity following alleged acts of hazing and other acts of violence against individuals, including sexual assaults. Several other schools are following suit almost daily. Something is terribly wrong with the Greek system which allows all this to happen. I’m especially concerned with hazing.

Hazing is defined as subjecting a subordinate to mental, physical and emotional abuse with acts of humiliation and violence which may lead to injury or death. Alcohol is often involved.

According to MLive.com and the Michigan Daily, UM suspended ALL Greek social activities on campus following the Michigan-Michigan State football weekend, with a reported six acts of hazing; 30 transports to University Hospital for various alcohol incidents, and several physical injuries.  

Comments on those news threads, and a recent discussion on WUOM public radio, convey a huge disparity of opinions on the value of fraternities and Greek life on campus. While Greeks are visible symbols, the behavior problem is not limited to just the 2,500 or so Greek students at UM. Alcohol abuse is a serious problem for all college students.

Full disclosure, I’m a Sigma Chi alumni and active with my chapter at Central Michigan University. I serve on our House Corporation and Alumni Association Board, and help mentor the active chapter. These tragic incidents at major universities hit close to home for me.

I can honestly admit I never experienced hazing in my undergraduate fraternity experience. I’m proud Sigma Chi has had a longstanding policy against hazing and proactively prohibits it. It is discussed ad nauseum at our Leadership Training Workshops. My fraternity, and I likely speak for many others, takes a strong and unwavering stand against hazing, as it should be. Hazing violates our core principles of Friendship, Justice, and Learning.

In college, we did the crazy things fraternities do, and there was certainly potential for situations which could be considered hazing. But, we believed such acts do not create brotherhood, camaraderie or esprit de corps. We never crossed that line. We knew hazing was the quickest way to lose our charter and everything we hold dear.

During the time I was pledging, in 1979, the Interfraternity Council at CMU hosted a lecture by Eileen Stevens, the mother of a college student who died in 1978 in a hazing incident. Her son, Chuck Stenzel, a freshman at Alfred University in New York, died in the trunk of a car from hypothermia and acute alcohol poisoning at the hands of a fraternity gone wild.  It was clearly a barbaric act of hazing.  

Her crusade and organization, CHUCK (Committee to Halt Useless College Killings), was powerful and well received. It was her personal crusade, and she shared her anti-hazing message at more than 700 colleges. Stevens has frequently testified before state legislatures to pass laws banning hazing. We heard her message and anguish loud and clear. All of us at CMU in those days were onboard with the fact that hazing was totally useless and unnecessary.

Since those days all fraternities have gone through periods of decline and rebuilding. Our chapter at CMU nearly ended in the 90’s but made a strong comeback in the new millennium.  From what I’ve witnessed, I’m confident the message against hazing has endured.

Hazing isn’t limited to college fraternities. I served in the U.S. Navy and saw a few incidents and traditions which may be considered hazing. Chief’s initiations, crossing the Equator, and earning your warfare badges all had subtle acts of hazing in the name of good natured fun. Many in the military argue it’s part of the warrior culture. Likewise, many sports teams, at all levels, have rites of passage which few seem to notice or care about.

So why is hazing still happening in fraternities? I believe many fraternities lack strong and responsible alumni and adult oversight. Frankly, it’s difficult to find good alumni willing to devote the time, energy and responsibility for ensuring the active chapter isn’t violating civil and fraternal laws. It takes a special person to be a chapter advisor or alumni leader. With the challenges of professional life and family, it’s a task many are unwilling to take on.

We can’t deny the prevalence of alcohol, and to a lesser extent drug abuse, in fraternities. The median age of most fraternity members is 19 and the drinking age in Michigan is 21. The pressure to fit in can be overwhelming to many young students; many cannot handle it.  Violating the law goes against the principles most fraternities profess and stand for, which is often forgotten in the heat of the moment.

Alcohol seems to be the undercurrent in all of this. In 2015 three Michigan fraternities and three sororities descended on Treetops Resort near Gaylord where binge drinking lead to more than $75,000 in damages. Those organizations are no longer associated with the university and criminal charges were pursued against many of them. That should have been the wake up call to everyone in Ann Arbor, but sadly it wasn’t.

The fight to make fraternity houses “dry” is still vigorously opposed in most circumstances which is unfortunate. Alcohol and binge drinking are destroying many young lives and creating future problems.

Lately, with many fraternities, the individual school has taken stronger disciplinary action than the national organization when things go wrong. This has been the case at Michigan, Penn State, Florida State and now Ohio State.  

Following the recent death at LSU, and now Texas State and Florida State, the schools shut down ALL Greek organizations. In many instances, if the national won’t take swift action, the school will. We’re seeing this more often. This is not what most national fraternities want. Most want a strong relationship with schools and work toward that goal.  

I don’t know what the correct answer to all of this is. Nobody wants to see more of this, nor the media attention it brings. Above all, nobody wants to see young people die tragically in foolish deaths. I do know that all Greek letter organizations are on the hot seat at most institutions.  There is a movement to abolish them altogether, which would be unfortunate. I can say with a great deal of perspective, most fraternities and sororities are great institutions which produce people of character, teach positive life values, build leaders, and contribute immensely to the college experience.

Bottom line, hazing in all forms needs to be abolished by any organization which professes to build character, including fraternities, the military, sports teams, and any other organization dealing with young people.

Hazing does nothing but divide and destroy organizations and individuals, as is obviously alcohol abuse by minors.

When we truly respect each other, hazing will disappear. I applaud all those who take a strong stand against this barbaric practice and hope it becomes a thing of the past.

No parent should ever have to fear for their child’s life when they go off to college.

T. R. Shaw Jr. is CEO of Shaw Communication in Battle Creek, Michigan.  You can read his blog, The Reluctant R(L)eader at www.read-mor.blogspot.com  

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Le Roy G. Barnett
Thu, 11/30/2017 - 10:19am

This article notes that at some colleges where a fraternity has misbehaved, all Greek activities are suspended even though just one organization has strayed. This response reminds me of the time I was in the Army stationed in Germany. Two soldiers in our company, while on leave in Paris, got drunk and were caught urinating on the eternal flame at the Arc de Triomphe. This was a serious offense, and severe discipline was called for. The guilty parties were appropriately punished, but in addition to their fate all members of our company were confined to base for one week during personal time. Thus, nearly a hundred innocent men suffered for the sins of two individuals. I have never found anyone who thought this was a fair administration of justice, but from this article I understand something similar is happening to some fraternities on a few university campuses.

William C. Plumpe
Sun, 12/03/2017 - 2:58pm

Maybe the Army was trying to send a real clear and definite message that such behavior was not acceptable. Such severe punishment also encourages the innocent not to engage in such behavior and creates a strong group taboo against such behavior. Like I said in another post on this subject maybe a few big civil damage suits against the Greek organizations and colleges involved would send an equally strong message. Sometimes if somebody does something really stupid you need a strong response and fairness doesn't count.

Thu, 11/30/2017 - 2:27pm

The current issue of the Atlantic magazine has an indepth look at the recent Penn State frat hazing which caused a student death. The universities go through a similar reaction format but ultimately try to avoid responsibility every way they can and end up restoring the frats to good standing after a period of time. It is an eye opening article, well worth reading.

John Nash
Fri, 12/01/2017 - 7:48am

I pledged Sigma Chi in the spring of 1962. We had a very large and good pledge class. We did go through some hazing. We determined after we were initiated we would end hazing and we did. I hope that is still the policy of my chapter. Hazing demonstrates immaturity, lack of self confidence and lack of individual respect. It is not cool and never was cool.

Sat, 12/02/2017 - 10:51am

What should anyone expect when putting several dozen 19+or- year olds together in an unsupervised living arrangement? The blame is shared significantly by the colleges and the communities in which they are located who do nothing to stop the use of alcohol by underage students. The unrestrained availability of alcohol leads not only to extreme hazing but also to more than 50% of the sexual assault claims at colleges. What would be wrong with requiring adult (age 35+) supervision as a live in requirement for all student housing arrangements? What about implied consent laws which the legislature could enact that would allow police and college administrators to access student housing to determine alcohol use? What would happen if the police regularly inspected a fraternity house on Friday night after 11 PM? Significantly reduce the availability and use of alcohol on college campuses and hazing and sexual assault will nearly disappear.

William C. Plumpe
Sun, 12/03/2017 - 2:51pm

I agree 100%.
I was not involved in the Greek system when I went to University of Michigan
in the early 70's but I did my share of partying. And while we did do some wild things
we never did anything that intentionally harmed or humiliated someone. You can definitely have fun at college and even get a little wild but any kind of hazing crosses the line to
abusive behavior and is improper, inappropriate and dangerous. If there are no Greek alumni who will serve as guides then the Greek organization itself, the Greek community on campus and the college or University itself or all of the above must police Greek activity to make sure it doesn't cross the line. Maybe a few expensive damage lawsuits would wake up the Greek and college community to the problem. Things are way beyond
normal and acceptable "wild behavior". This must stop.
But don't forget another core problem and a major cause of hazing deaths and sexual harassment and rape on campus---severe alcohol abuse. Alcohol abuse is rampant and epidemic on college campuses across America. In my time I partied hearty and
did my share of drinking but never to such extent that I did serious harm to myself or caused someone else's death. It seems my generation partied but knew how far to go. Today's college kids seem to know no limits when it comes to drinking and don't seem to have any kind of an "emergency shut off valve" so they won't go too far. If we want to begin to stop hazing deaths and campus rape the Greek community, colleges and universities must to work together to discourage alcohol abuse by setting some hard and fast rules that are strictly enforced.

Ted Fines
Wed, 01/17/2018 - 11:17am

When I pledged Pi Kappa Alpha at Wayne State University in Detroit in 1968, the hazing was brutal and demeaning (especially during 'Hell Weekend'). My pledge brothers and I swore that we would be the last pledge class to endure the ritual hazing. So it's disappointing that this system of debauchery has not been eliminated.