Greek life popular but many worried about hazing

American college students are engaging in severely dangerous Greek Life rituals and traditions that are threatening the well-being of members, leaving students and adults alike questioning the practices of these social organizations and unsure of the future.

 Many students and alumni interviewed this week about their understanding or experience in Greek Life said that the culture often gets a bad reputation, especially in the wake of high-profile deaths like that of Timothy Piazza at Pennsylvania State University in February.  

When asked if he would consider taking part in Greek Life if he were to go to college in the future, 16-year-old Alex Sanchez from Guatemala said, “No, I wouldn’t. The traditions put my life at risk.”

According to a study conducted by Harvard University, Greek house residents are twice as likely to engage in reckless or irresponsible behavior such as driving under the influence, neglecting schoolwork, becoming involved in fights, or having unprotected sex. Additionally, The Addiction Center has reported that there have been approximately 24 Greek-related deaths in freshmen pledge classes nationwide since 2005, and at least 15 of these deaths were a direct result of hazing rituals or initiation traditions.

The Harvard study also compared the likelihood of alcohol-related dangers and problems of fraternity and sorority members. In every category, ranging from attending class with a hangover to damaging property, the numbers reported by sorority members were significantly lower than their male counterparts. The more severe issues seem to be rooted in fraternities.

Lamar Smith, a 20-year-old student at the University of Kentucky, discussed the differences between fraternity and sorority culture at his school.

Information for prospective students on Greek Life at an American University session in June. By Lauren Coppins.

He said that while sororities are often tight-knit communities that engage in philanthropic work, fraternities tend to be known for extreme parties and initiation rituals that “prey on the weaker minded individuals.” Smith told a story about a fraternity at UK that was banned from the campus because of harmful hazing practices.

Two sorority members interviewed this week from Virginia Tech and Penn State qualified Smith’s assertion that sororities build strong bonds of sisterhood and strive to benefit their surrounding communities.

Abigail Ryan, from Great Falls, Virginia, said that she’s extremely proud of her sorority for donating over $110,000 to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. Ryan, 23, served as the philanthropy chairwoman for her Virginia Tech sorority.

Likewise, Cathryn Kessler, 19, from North Caldwell, New Jersey, said her sorority helped shape her.

“Being welcomed among a group of strong, young women helped shape my course to be the type of person that I’ve always strived to be,” Kessler said.

While both Kessler and Ryan hold their experiences in high regard, often fraternities face the public’s scrutiny and can cast a shadow on Greek life overall.

A controversy has emerged as to whether or not colleges should be able to harshly penalize students and ban fraternities or sororities as consequences for engaging in behavior that doesn’t exemplify school values or respect the law.

The North-American Interfraternity Conference says in its  position statement that fraternities help students meet lifelong friends, develop leadership skills, gain exposure to career opportunities, and give back to the community. The NIC has also announced its support for strict anti-hazing legislation and vows to hold students accountable.

Jennifer Chapman, 51, from Washington, D.C., doesn’t think that harsher rules or eliminating Greek Life is sufficient for a long term solution.

“I think the need for people to be so aggressively exclusive and kind of doing these sort of rituals is probably the bigger problem,” Chapman said. “I don’t think eliminating is going to work because people are going to find ways to make exclusive groups.”

Others, like Smith, understand the importance of maintaining a positive image on campus and feel that it’s fair for schools to start cracking down on fraternities.

“I have people that go to my school from different countries, people from all different types of states, and you want to make the campus feel as safe and inclusive as possible,” Smith said.

“So with fraternities, especially at a big Division 1 campus like mine, that’s such a big deal. You can’t have that type of negative publicity or attention on the campus. It hurts.”