The first college fraternities in the United States appeared in the 1770s. The organizational structure of these early fraternities was inspired in part by Greek language for its easily coded lettering and connection to classical thought. Fraternities and sororities today include organizations for women, as well as black, Latino, and Asian students, and are meant to provide students with the opportunity to develop their personal, leadership, and community-based skills. The website of Dartmouth’s Sigma Alpha Epsion fraternity, for example, proclaims that "the true gentleman is the man whose conduct proceeds from goodwill … who thinks of the rights and feelings of others rather than his own." Unfortunately, this particular chapter of S.A.E. is the subject of a recent exposé that reveals a history of brutal hazing rituals that include pledges being asked to vomit on each other and swim in pools of excrement. While most Greek organizations offer real, lifelong benefits to their members and communities, a handful, like these sampled below, most certainly do not.
- Dartmouth’s Alpha Delta Phi will, for better or for worse, be forever known as the fraternity that inspired the original college gross-out comedy National Lampoon’s Animal House. The film stars John Belushi as a hard-partying fraternity brother who, after finally being expelled from school for excessive partying and vandalism, moans the famous line, "Seven years of college down the drain!" The chapter continues to walk the thin line between touting its bad-boy reputation and promoting a more alumni-friendly veneer of civility.
- Members of not one, not two, but — count ‘em — three different fraternities at Columbia University were busted for dealing drugs, including cocaine and LSD, as a result of Operation Ivy League, a four-year undercover operation by New York’s finest. Five students were ultimately charged and Columbia to its credit put all three of the fraternities on probation and kicked them out of their university-owned brownstones.
- A group of Delta Kappa Epsilon pledges made national news for standing in Yale University’s freshman quad and chanting such knee slappers as "No means yes! Yes means anal!" while holding up a sign that read "Welcome Yale sluts!" After the incident, The Federal Department of Education and Office for Civil Rights launched investigations prompted by complaints by students who contended that Yale is a hostile sexual environment and that it has "not a zero-tolerance policy, but a tolerance policy." The fraternity was suspended by the university for five years.
- The Tulane chapter of Pi Kappa Alpha was closed and their house sold after several members were arrested for their participation in boiling their pledges. Yes, you read that correctly. The pledges endured what was called a "Crab Boil," where members of Pi Kappa Alpha poured boiling water and cayenne pepper onto their backs. Apparently, if you screamed, you were spared from more boiling water and suffering more extensive burns. The chapter’s charter was revoked by their national organization.
- Beatings are an old hazing tradition. Such physical abuse is not exclusive to, but is indeed an acknowledged and ongoing problem in black fraternity pledging. A Kappa Alpha Psi pledge named Michael Davis was beaten by members over the course of several days until he ultimately died of brain damage. His autopsy revealed a lacerated kidney, damaged liver, and broken ribs. Pledges of black fraternities are sometimes encouraged to endure such beatings because "the world" outside of the fraternity will give them one that’s much worse because of the color of their skin.
- Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s Cal Poly chapter came under fire after four of its members were arrested in connection with the alcohol-related death of pledge Carson Starkey. Starkey had been told to consume huge amounts of alcohol during a hazing, er, we mean "pledging" ritual, until he suffered a respiratory arrest. His autopsy revealed at the time of death he had a blood alcohol content equivalent to the effects of surgical anesthesia.
- Although only one specific fraternity, Pi Kappa Alpha, was named in this incident, students from several fraternities were responsible for coordinating a "Compton Cookout," a party that invited its guests to wear blackface and "experience the various elements of life in the ghetto." Participants were encouraged by way of a Facebook invite to wear "oversized clothing" and display tattoos. Women were encouraged to dress as "ghetto chicks." The president of Pi Kappa Alpha at the time condemned the party, stating that the fraternity had not planned or endorsed it. Despite public outcry and efforts by the university to educate its students about something commonly known as "racism," plans went ahead by students for a second, similarly themed event, "Compton Cookout Part Deux."
- The Cornell University chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s annual kidnapping worked in the reverse of most hazing where freshman pledges were required to kidnap older students. George Desdunes was one S.A.E. brother, a sophomore, who was unlucky enough to be kidnapped by a couple of pledges. Desdunes was duct taped, fed large amounts of vodka until he vomited, and, after he had passed out, left in the fraternity’s library where he was found dead by a cleaning staff person. The university suspended the fraternity, and Desdunes’ mother is seeking $25 million in damages from the fraternity for the wrongful death of her son.Related reading: Colleges, Facebook and Binge Drinking