Last year, the University of Kentucky chapter of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity got kicked off campus for five years for hazing practices that included forcing pledges to drink until they threw up, then doing calisthenics in the pools of vomit on the floor. Fraternity members admitted that they sometimes made pledges watch gay porn and wouldn’t let them sit on furniture or take showers.
Hazing and alcohol abuse are a constant worry for all universities, particularly this year. Nationwide, four students have died in alleged hazing incidents, leading to the suspension of numerous fraternity and sorority chapters, and in some cases, eliminating Greek life completely.
“It’s a vicious cycle,” said UK senior Noah Lewis, president of the UK Interfraternity Council. “I think a lot of people want to make these young guys earn it, they’re obligated to make them go through what they went through. That’s why people still do it all around the country. … Once you start, it’s hard to get out of.”
Lewis is a member of Alpha Tau Omega, which he says doesn’t haze.
The issue is so much discussed in higher education circles that the UK Board of Trustees recently asked for an update of UK’s policies from dean of students Nick Kehrwald, who says, “There is a lot of discussion and concern with the sort of environment that fraternities and the Greek system are creating.”
Florida State University and Texas State University, for example, recently suspended all Greek life after a fraternity pledge died at each of those schools. At Penn State University, 17 members of Beta Theta Pi were charged after a pledge was given 18 drinks in 82 minutes, before he fell down a set of stairs and fractured his skull. The Phi Delta Theta chapter at Louisiana State University was closed by its national chapter after a freshman pledge died at a hospital with a blood alcohol level of .495, more than six times the legal limit for driving in most states.
At UK, nine of 51 Greek organizations are judged to be in “bad standing” with the university. About 6,300 students, or 28 percent of undergraduates, are in fraternities and sororities, although 45 percent of those students drop their Greek organizations by graduation. Students who join, and their parents, get training on hazing and alcohol, along with the mandatory alcohol education that all freshmen attend during K week, the week before classes start. (UK is one of the first schools to implement a “college recovery” living community in one of the dorms for students in sobriety.)
New pledges also take a Greek 101 course, which defines hazing and shows students how to report any incidents. UK has amnesty for those who report hazing, even if they were involved in the past.
At UK, fraternities are allowed to have alcohol at two events a year, but they must be registered with the school and must obey all state alcohol regulations.
Kehrwald was quick to say that there are many benefits to Greek life, including a sense of belonging as soon as students get to campus. In general, students in Greek organizations have higher retention and graduation rates than the rest of campus.
“It’s a great opportunity to get involved, and to make a close group of friends and networks,” Lewis said. “I personally believe it’s more good than bad. Nearly all of our student leaders are involved in Greek life.”
One of those leaders is Student Government Association president Ben Childress, a student member of the UK Board of Trustees and a member of Beta Theta Pi.
“I really do believe that the culture of institutional hazing has reduced dramatically since the time I was a freshman,” Childress said.
Still, more schools have looked at eliminating Greek life altogether based on concerns over alcohol, hazing and campus sexual assaults. Harvard University, for example, announced last year that it would phase out single-sex organizations because of concerns over exclusivity. Bowdoin College in Maine ended its fraternity system in 1997.
But it is a difficult move for most university presidents, because Greek systems represent large and powerful networks of alumni and donors. That particular conversation hasn’t come up at UK, which deals with Greek problems on a case-by-case basis, with zero tolerance for hazing, officials said.
“There is just a lot of concern around heath and well being of students,” said Kehrwald, the dean of students.