Hazing, as practiced in most places, is wrong. It is unethical, it is dangerous, and it is a crime in 44 states and Washington, DC. Yet 73 percent of Greeks are hazed, according to the most recent large-scale hazing study, which, granted, was published in 2008. Binghamton University was so plagued by hazing complaints in 2012, including allegations that fraternity brothers were waterboarding pledges, that the school’s former assistant director of Greek life told the New York Times, “My entire tenure from start to finish, I was scared to death that someone was going to die.” Sure enough, in 2017, freshman pledge Conor Donnelly fell to his death while trying to climb a balcony at an Alpha Sigma Phi party. (Investigators ruled that while hazing was not involved, alcohol was a factor in his death.)
Between 2010 and 2017, at least 17 pledges died from hazing by university-recognized fraternities and at least two more in underground or local fraternities, according to hazing expert Hank Nuwer’s extensive research. The most frequently reported hazing behaviors among college students involve alcohol consumption, humiliation, isolation, sleep deprivation, and sex acts, a recent Association for the Study of Higher Education report revealed. Jake, a pledge whose story I closely followed for a year, experienced many of these.
College hazing began in the early 1800s as a way for sophomores to needle freshmen. Fraternity hazing increased in the late 1860s with the return of students who learned hazing practices when they fought in the Civil War. Post–World War II, hazing grew more extreme and dangerous, and more likely to involve alcohol.
Twenty-first-century fraternity hazing is “even more brutal than before,” said Susan Lipkins, a psychologist who runs InsideHazing.com. The media shows us only what Lipkins called “the tip of the iceberg” of fraternity hazing traditions—the more sensational incidents: Wilmington College Gamma Phi Betas either watched or participated as members blindfolded pledges, told them to strip, stuffed their mouths with Limburger cheese, and whipped them so violently that doctors had to remove a 19-year-old’s injured testicle. At the University of Tennessee, a Pi Kappa Alpha nearly died of alcohol poisoning because brothers were butt-chugging (funneling alcohol through a rubber tube inserted in their rectums). Washington and Lee University’s Phi Kappa Psi used a stun gun on a pledge.
There’s a little-known reason that hazing continues, despite laws criminalizing the behavior, more public fraternity crackdowns, and social media tools that make hazing easier to catch and prove. It’s a reason that members of several fraternities confirmed to me. It’s also why Sam (a pseudonym), an adult who was formerly one of the highest-ranking national officers of a fraternity whose hazing killed a member, continues to defend the practice.
Even as a few fraternity-affiliated adults loudly condemn hazing in public, in private they tell students to do it anyway.
In 2018, four members of the Baruch College chapter of Pi Delta Psi, all from Queens, New York, were convicted on felony charges of voluntary manslaughter in the death of freshman Michael Deng. The Pi Delta Psi fraternity, found guilty on a felony count of involuntary manslaughter, was fined and banned from Pennsylvania, where the incident took place, for 10 years. During a retreat in the Poconos, fraternity brothers blindfolded Deng, forced him to walk across an icy path carrying a 30-pound backpack filled with sand, and repeatedly “speared” him, plowing headfirst into him and slamming him to the ground. Deng died from a resulting brain injury.
The national office of Deng’s fraternity was quick to distance itself from the chapter with a statement claiming the brothers “violated the values and rules of our organization, including our strict no-hazing policy.” But it turned out the ritual that killed the freshman was a common fraternity tradition that was very much intertwined with the “values and rules” the national office publicly accused the chapter of violating. The problem, Sam claimed, was in the execution, not the concept.
All chapters of Pi Delta Psi, an Asian-American fraternity, had a “standardized education,” or pledge program, during which brothers learn Asian-American cultural history, Sam said. The ritual called the Gauntlet, or Bamboo Ceiling, was intended to reflect the discrimination experienced by past generations of Asian-Americans. Sam said the ritual was supposed to go like this: To symbolize the immigrant’s difficult attempt to reunite with his family in the United States, the pledge was blindfolded outside at night with only the voice of his Big Brother to guide him. As he tried to walk toward his Big, other brothers pushed him to the ground and held him down while shouting racial slurs at him and yelling at him to go back to his country. “The point is that you struggle to get back up to get to your Big Brother, like previous [Asian-American] generations faced a lot of adversity, and to see if you have the resilience to overcome the adversity. Then, at the very end, when it looks like the pledge is completely physically and emotionally depleted, the other brothers help him up and carry him to his Big Brother to show that you can overcome, but you have to ask for help.”
At Baruch, Sam said, the chapter took the ritual too far. They did it on icy ground rather than grass, and they battered Deng instead of pushing him down. “The point is to get them tired, not to physically assault them,” he said. One of the defendants told police that Deng was singled out for harsher treatment because he “wasn’t going with the flow, which pissed off the brothers.”
The Gauntlet was hazing, Sam admitted. And even though the ritual killed a member, Sam, who, as an adult national fraternity officer, had power and authority over more than 1,000 undergraduates, defended hazing. “Hazing works,” he told me. “Hazing creates an unusually strong bond between people who weather tough times together, and the toughness also creates the illusion of reaching a worthwhile goal. It increases the value of the letters, because you’ve undergone such a hard process of obtaining them.”
Thus, one of the major reasons fraternity hazing persists: It appears that some of the involved adults and alumni want it to. And it didn’t help optics when the Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee (FSPAC) — which raises money for federal office candidates who “champion Greek issues,” according to its website — reportedly tried to stall legislation intended to curb hazing. In 2013, media outlets reported that FSPAC had played a part in persuading U.S. representative Frederica Wilson, a Florida Democrat who called herself the “Haze Buster,” not to introduce her federal anti-hazing bill.
With this kind of pressure, it’s no surprise that 95 percent of hazed students don’t report the hazing. According to the Novak Institute on Hazing at the University of Kentucky, 37 percent of surveyed students said they did not report it because they didn’t want to get the group in trouble, while 42 percent were afraid other group members might retaliate or ostracize them. The real surprise is that 25 percent of hazed students believed that coaches and advisers knew the hazing was happening and, worse, reported that alumni were physically present in at least a quarter of hazing incidents.
Some brothers told me that even as a few fraternity-affiliated adults loudly condemn hazing in public, in private they tell students to do it anyway. A recent Maryland fraternity brother told me that alumni and chapter advisers are anti-hazing “on paper.” But “even they secretly want hazing to continue. A lot of alumni say, ‘You should haze.’ They come back, tell us their ridiculous stories, and flex and sound cool. Then they get hammered with all the college kids and drive away.”
Some take comfort in the tradition. If the fraternity remains the same, the experience of being a member remains an unbroken line.
Brothers described how some older members’ attitudes help convince young pledges that they want to be hazed or that the activities aren’t technically hazing. Pledges might not know the difference; research shows that nine out of 10 college students who are hazed don’t actually believe they were hazed. A freshman in New York City told me his chapter didn’t haze, and then he described forced-drinking events that clearly constituted hazing.
Why might alumni and older members want hazing to continue? Many of them harbor a genuine belief that it is their responsibility to make their pledges into “better” men. They might see hazing as necessary tough love, “designed to knock you down to build you up as a man,” a Southern sophomore explained. Others take comfort in the tradition; if the fraternity remains the same, the experience of being a member remains an unbroken line that continued under their watch and will continue, unchanging, into the future. They see themselves as stewards of the institution. Still others are convinced their lifelong friendships with pledge brothers formed precisely because they faced adverse conditions together. They sincerely want new members to have these close relationships too.
A Virginia fraternity alum said his chapter’s older members were “pro-hazing, pro-drinking, anti-change. This is understandable. What they went through with their elders was objectively worse than what we went through, and yet they came through and were very good friends. The conclusion they drew from it, and the conclusion nearly all such groups draw, is that ‘it worked, we came together, we’re close now, and there’s nothing wrong with it.’”
When he and other members of his class tried to reform their chapter’s hazing practices, older members constantly pushed back. “It wears you down. It indoctrinates you. And some of us, myself included, were turning into what we’d tried to avoid becoming. When I was 19, I knew the emotional abuse was harmful, immoral, and should be abolished. When I was 21, I didn’t have it in me to care anymore because I’d been called a whiny bitch for years.”
Fortunately, many fraternity chapters don’t haze, and brothers in nonhazing chapters believe their bonds are as strong as or stronger than the bonds within chapters that do. Some of the nonhazing pledge activities brothers described include organizing a community service project, completing assignments related to setting goals for themselves in college and beyond, taking classes on how to write a résumé, and learning etiquette.
A New York chapter has its pledges cook and serve a three-course dinner for brothers’ girlfriends. A Virginia chapter puts pledges in charge of a major annual philanthropy event. And when a junior refounded a South Carolina chapter of a national fraternity, he regularly sent pledges to study hall together, told them to attend a weekly “pledge breakfast,” and put them in charge of organizing tailgates.
“I found I didn’t have to get them into line, put 10 bottles of liquor in front of them, and say, ‘You have to drink this’ because we don’t know what else to do,” he said. “We focused on having shared experiences. There’s not a super formula to it. It doesn’t take a lot for people to become friends. That was the premise I began with when thinking of ways to bring 50 fraternity brothers and 20 pledges together, and it worked.”