This year could go down as one of the deadliest in modern history for college campus deaths related to fraternities, with highly publicized deaths prompting a nationwide evaluation of Greek life, hazing expert Walter Kimbrough said Monday.
Including the loss of LSU's freshman Maxwell Gruver, who died a month into his first year away at college, there have been three other reported campus deaths this year related to allegations of fraternity hazing or alcohol consumption during parties. Those deaths happened at Penn State, Florida State and Texas State universities.
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Another student, Daniel Michaels, who attended the State University College of New York at Oneonta, died as recently as Saturday from a combination of drugs and alcohol at the home of a member of the unrecognized fraternity Alpha Pi. Unrecognized fraternities are not officially affiliated with the university or the national organization, despite using their Greek letters. Police said while Michaels was thought to be at a pledge party, hazing is not considered a factor.
Kimbrough, who is also the president of Dillard University, said the number of fraternity-related deaths this year is noteworthy and has sparked a national conversation about hazing and Greek culture on campuses. But he stopped short of calling it a watershed moment for higher education, noting the incredible challenges schools face in trying to change a deeply entrenched cultural tradition.
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"I think this is the worst year we've had in at least the last 20 years," Kimbrough said while speaking at the Baton Rouge Press Club on Monday. "But the honest answer is that we don't know what to do."
Kimbrough said that one recommendation he'd make is to treat hazing more like the crime that it is. Rather than disciplining students for hazing at the university level, he said, schools should turn their reports over to law enforcement and charge students for the criminal actions.
"Don't call it hazing, say, 'You committed a crime,'" Kimbrough said. "Call it what it is, you committed murder."
He also said schools need to start talking about the dangers of hazing in grade school, so students are not complacent by the time they get to college. He noted that studies show that almost half of students reported some sort of hazing before college while participating in sports, band, ROTC or other social clubs.
Kimbrough said this year in higher education is reminiscent of 1997 — the year Benjamin Wynne died at LSU after a night of heavy drinking with his fraternity. Only a few weeks later another fraternity pledge died at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, setting off a national debate about drinking and fraternity culture on college campuses.
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Kimbrough said LSU is facing a challenging uphill battle with its plans to reform Greek life on campus because it's difficult to get students, parents and alumni to take the issue seriously.
"You've got to get everyone to understand," he said. "Two high-profile deaths in 20 years? That's a problem. One is bad enough, and now two. How do you get people to understand what's driving that culture?"
He said parents often are complicit in the hazing because they don't want to get their children in trouble or kicked out. He said alumni can also contribute, such as by threatening to withhold donations when universities make efforts to crack down on negative aspects of Greek life.
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The actual penalties have also proven fruitless in many cases. He noted when national organizations like Lambda Chi opted to eliminate the pledge process in favor of calling new members "associates," chapters continued to get in trouble for hazing. At LSU, Lambda Chi's national organization closed the chapter in October, saying it was determined to be "unsafe." The chapter was already under university probation after hazing accusations.
When schools try to eliminate Greek life entirely, fraternities have gone underground. He noted that the recent death at SUNY's campus came from an unrecognized fraternity.
And if a school were to purge a fraternity for years, until the problem members all cycle out, a new crop of students would eventually find their way back to the traditions.
"You're not completely insulated," he said. "Even if you get rid of everybody and bring everyone in new and fresh they can still be infected by other schools and people."
As an example that students refuse to take hazing seriously, he pointed to the death of University of Miami student Chad Meredith in 2001. Meredith drowned in a campus lake while pledging a fraternity, and in 2005, the state passed a law making hazing that results in injury or death a felony punishable by law. But within six months of the passage of one of the nation's toughest hazing laws, Kimbrough said, other fraternities in Florida were still getting in trouble for hazing.
One new outcome of the recent attention to hazing deaths is that there could be more serious consequences for students who end up getting prosecuted.
At Penn State, 26 people have been charged in connection to the hazing death of 19-year-old Tim Piazza. At least four were charged with involuntary manslaughter.
At LSU, 10 men were arrested and accused of hazing Gruver. Police say members of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity forced Gruver to chug liquor in an initiation game at the frat house. An autopsy found he died of alcohol poisoning and choking on his vomit and that he had a blood alcohol limit of 0.495. One of the men arrested was booked on an additional felony count of negligent homicide. The East Baton Rouge Parish District Attorney's office has indicated prosecutors plan to bring the cases to a grand jury.
No one has yet been arrested or charged at Texas State or Florida State universities or SUNY Oneonta.
And even on campuses where there was not a death, some universities have taken a strict stance on allegations of hazing and alcohol abuse. At Ohio State University and the University of Michigan, both schools this semester have imposed suspensions of all Greek activities.
At LSU, Greek life has been scaled back and fraternity and sorority parties are still banned from serving alcohol. The school has assembled a task force expected to deliver recommendations about how to root out dangerous behaviors at the end of January. LSU President F. King Alexander has said he expects LSU can serve as a model to other schools reviewing their own Greek policies in light of the increased scrutiny.
But as calls to eradicate fraternities and sororities grow louder, Kimbrough said he's not betting against the Greeks, especially in the South.
"It all ties in together, this culture of the South. Football on Saturday and fraternities," Kimbrough said. "Are you going to get rid of fraternities at an SEC school? I don't see it."