For most parents with children away at college, Thanksgiving is an eagerly anticipated holiday - the first visit home since the start of classes. Tragically, though, there was no return home for Andrew Coffey, 20, Matthew Ellis, 20, and Maxwell Gruver, 18, who were pledges at fraternities and died this semester after parties or initiation events.
These needless deaths at three different university campuses - along with the horrific death earlier this year of 19-year-old Timothy Piazza at Pennsylvania State University - have again focused attention on the heavy drinking and brainless hazing rituals too often associated with Greek campus life.
“We’ve got a serious problem,” said Florida State University President John Thrasher in suspending all activities at the school’s fraternities and sororities following the Nov. 3 death of Coffey in which alcohol may have been a factor. Texas State University followed suit after Ellis died Nov. 13 in an incident also believed to be alcohol-related. Ohio State University (thankfully) didn’t have anyone die but, citing allegations of widespread hazing and alcohol abuse, took aggressive action in banning its fraternities from social and recruitment activities.
In addition to the deaths, there have been a string of reports of other troubling incidents, including suspected cocaine trafficking, racist hazing of sorority women and anti-Semitic jokes. That has fueled the debate about whether the organizations should even be allowed to exist. There are positive sides to the organizations: community service, charitable work, the social support for students and the lifelong friendships that result. But at what cost? Not only does there continue to be a troubling emphasis on partying and heavy drinking with its harmful outcomes (including sexual assault), but also the ability of these groups to discriminate is - or should be - antithetical to the mission of universities.
“If we could create higher education from scratch, would we have organizations that divide people by race, class and gender at institutions that are supposed to be encouraging diversity?” John Hechinger, author of a book about fraternities, asked in the New York Times. The answer is no, but banning these organizations is unlikely. Not only would there be constitutional freedom-of-assembly concerns, but also the Greek system is central at many institutions to campus housing, social life and alumni. That leaves universities searching for what Thrasher called a “new normal.” That would mean students committing to changes in behavior and university officials not looking away until someone dies.