How College Fraternities Perpetuate Abuse and Inequality
Their horrific past and present misbehaviors should lead to a call for their abolition
One day in March 2021, Stone Foltz, a 20-year-old business student at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, decided to join his school’s Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity. As a new member, Foltz needed to withstand certain endurance tests, also known as hazing, to pass their standards and be accepted as a pledged member. As with many other fraternities, the most common requirement for the endurance test is tolerance for excessive alcohol. Before he decided to join, the fraternity was repeatedly punished for using racist costumes at Halloween and for forcing recruits to drink to excess. In the hazing process, recruits are paired with a “Big Brother” who is an older member of the fraternity and is designed to guide the recruits through the challenges.
Although Foltz was not yet old enough to legally drink in the United States, he imbibed countless amounts of hard liquor at the behest of his “Big Brother” Jacob Krinn and drank himself into a complete coma. Faced with an unconscious Foltz, none of the fraternity members thought he needed help at this point; they picked Foltz up, at this time completely unable to stand on his own, and dragged him to his car, where they took him back to his apartment, telling his roommate that “he was drunk.”
Foltz never woke up and died three days later at a hospital. According to the coroner’s autopsy report, his blood alcohol level at the time of death was 0.394% (394mg/100ml), five times the standard for DUI. Branch leaders cooperated with the police investigation, and Bowling Green State University quickly banned the fraternity from operating at the school. Local prosecutors charged the eight members who were present with felony manslaughter ranging from first to third degree.
In court, Krinn, who was most responsible for Foltz’s death, showed no sign of remorse, while his defense attorney placed all the blame on Foltz, blaming his own excessive drinking tendency for the death. The five men who committed lesser crimes received 28 days of home confinement, hundreds of hours of community service, and several years of probation, much to the dismay of Foltz’s parents. The third-degree manslaughter charge carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison under the most severe sentence. For them, this sickening hazing ritual will kill more boys as long as it doesn’t get the most severe repercussions.
Fraternities have a tradition of bad behavior
Foltz’s death is not an isolated example of the misdeeds of college fraternities in the United States; after Foltz’s death, Ohio became the eleventh state to pass a law making it a felony for any fraternity to engage in hazing. In every state that has introduced this law, there have been students who have died as a result of hazing. According to statistics, since 2000, 50 students have died as a result of drinking too much alcohol or being physically punished during endurance tests.
Hazing is far from the only way these fraternities do their misdeeds, from Penn State’s Kappa Delta Rho fraternity circulating explicit photos of women taken without permission in chat groups to the University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity proudly singing an incredibly racist chant, negative perceptions of fraternities have become one of the biggest criticisms of American education in general.
In the United States and Canada, universities and fraternities emerged almost simultaneously in history. As early as 1776, student organizations such as Yale University, the College of William and Mary, and the College of New Jersey (later renamed Princeton University, not the current TCNJ) emerged to interconnect schools, most notably Phi Beta Kappa, which was born at William and Mary with the motto “Wisdom is the guide for life.” According to statistics, 17 U.S. presidents and 136 Nobel Prize winners have come from this fraternal honor society, which requires a minimum GPA of 3.8 to join.
Fraternities that attempted to emulate the aristocratic life of ancient Greece were born in 1825 at Union College, located at Schenectady, New York. Fraternities of all kinds became more common in the mid-to-late-19th century when they began to form their own groups for debate and discussion. Early fraternal organizations focused on current events and literary debates as a rebellion against the rigorous curriculum developed by schools, as these students wanted to learn about richer topics than those offered in the classroom and to explore other academic venues in greater detail.
Despite their disapproval of the fraternity’s tenets, university administrators understood as early as the late 19th century that these secret societies would not disappear as a result of suppression. Not only that, but they also realized that these fraternities were actually helping these schools create a system that could both accommodate and monitor their students; therefore, these administrators chose to embrace and even encourage the growth of fraternities. Today, there are about 1,500 fraternities in the United States that begin with the Greek alphabet, 800 universities have fraternities and sororities, and about 1 in 8 students studying in the United States is a member of a fraternity or sorority.
Why do schools tolerate fraternities?
The ability to provide housing to students is not the only reason universities tolerate the existence of fraternities. University administrators know in their hearts that the four years of a college career are often the first four years in which a person begins to live independently from his or her family and the four years in which the need for socialization is greatest. Socialization is not limited to recreational activities but includes experiences that involve students in all kinds of public things, such as student government. At schools with a strong fraternity tradition, many fraternities — especially those with a predominantly white membership — receive extra attention from the university administration, and their members are more likely to be involved in student councils for the earliest stages of political activism and to pave the way for their own futures.
However, as with other aspects of American society, as long as there is a group of wealthy white men with prominent influence within a field, there is a high potential for that group to act recklessly and without oversight. Allegations of fraternity misconduct often involve three areas: sexual assault, racial discrimination, and hazing of recruits, and while these behaviors were heavily exposed in the media, few universities dared to make the decision to ban all fraternities because of such incidents. And those that chose to make such decisions became the target of many students who were tired of the presence of fraternities and chose to go to nothing but there seems to be no alternative to going to a school without fraternities.
The hazing ritual that has brought the greatest criticism to fraternities has a long history in Western society; the history of this activity dates back to the founding of Plato’s Academy in 387 BCE. At the time, hazing, which Plato himself disliked, was also known as “pennalism”, which means “a system of minor oppression and torture of first-year students.” Over time, the concept solidified as an ideological indoctrination for new students to realize that they were inferior to their seniors.
In the United States, the term first appeared in 1684 because a student at Harvard University was expelled for beating underclassmen and forcing them to perform acts of hard labor, and the university chose to use this Greek-era term to describe his actions. in the 19th century, the continuation of white male dominance over all sectors of American society undoubtedly permeated the university; at the time, the monopoly on education and knowledge was the best weapons they could use to continue their dominance.
Since fraternities could be a vehicle for perpetuating and maintaining privilege outside of the school system of education, they were necessarily subject to less oversight and were more likely to be abusive. In 1873, an 18-year-old Cornell University freshman tragically became the first student in American history to be documented as having died in a hazing ritual. When his body was found, it was covered in the wounds from other fraternity members who had beaten him during the initiation.
Rather than calling it “hazing,” the physical and psychological abuse of new recruits in the fraternity is more akin to a form of public humiliation. We can characterize this behavior as a punitive evaluation ritual passed down from generation to generation before someone can be recognized as a full member, and the higher the standard they set, the better the conditions they can offer their members, who are usually rarely governed by the school. Apart from fraternities, the only other organization that regularly uses this form of abuse as a requirement during the initiation ceremony is criminal gangs.
In its simplest form, hazing as an institutionalized behavior involves the total indoctrination and the total obedience of pledges as a socialization practice. Members justified their poor treatment of pledges and the often squalid conditions they were forced to endure for weeks on the grounds that everything demanded of pledges was for some important connected purpose. After these students are surrounded by self-denial and confusion under the effects of alcohol and abuse, they are likely to fall into a trauma-bound attachment episode, believing that they are enduring these hardships in order to gain something that no one else can get. The perpetuation of this psychological emotion leaves the former recruits who become full members with the consequent conviction that the suffering they endured is instantly meaningless if they do not perpetuate this punishment on the next incoming members.
The push to end fraternities as a normal mentality
Although hazing, racial discrimination, and sexual assault are explicitly banned on all campuses and officially banned by the associations responsible for fraternity administrations, their widespread popularity means that rehabilitation and seeking justice remains a traumatizing struggle for victims and their families.
The perpetuation of a psychological pattern in the fraternity known as “suffering is the best way to be” has led some victims to transform their identity and instead feel that the suffering they have endured is necessary and that refusing to suffer brings a great sense of shame. This torment comes not only from physical punishment, such as verbal abuse or forced drinking but also from the mockery, degradation, and embarrassment of character that is commonplace for pledges. This shame tends to distort the values and worldview of all involved, not only for the victim but also for the perpetrator. It may be that they were just normal young boys themselves before they chose to abuse their recruits; but as soon as they commit such acts, then their mindset and life philosophy will increasingly rationalize their violent and oppressive actions to relieve the shame they feel within themselves.
Social media has become a major platform for exposing bad behaviors from campus fraternities. When such incidents occur, widely used platforms such as TikTok or Instagram, which can provide anonymity, enable more students to learn about them earlier than ever before, and allow them to oppose fraternities and express their discontent more vigorously than ever before. These people see the energy and momentum that comes from mass protests like the #MeToo and BLM movements, for example, and they have had some effective political and social outcomes in American society. Many students have their anger against fraternities at the boiling point: why would anyone want to study in a place where abuse, racism, and sexual assault are constantly tolerated and even encouraged? Not only that, but it is also a place that has been institutionally exclusive of dissent since its design, and a place that is closely associated with the schools but often has missions contrary to any educational purposes.
Students deeply resentful of fraternities, in an effort to end the schools’ tolerance of fraternity misbehavior, are using their anger to change the conventional mentality that sees fraternity presence as part of the university’s culture. Whether it is a girl who is sexually assaulted at a fraternity party or a Black American with a police officer, both groups are targets of violence in different ways and are also deeply violated by America’s institutional inequality. Schools are not insulated from the rest of American society and naturally encounter the same dilemmas, but for that very reason cannot choose to avoid the criticism and blame they legitimately face. As more and more students generally lose confidence in school authorities and their ability to deal with fraternity misconduct, subverting the existence of fraternities may be just the first step in their campaign to radically change the current form of American higher education.