On a May 2017 episode of ABC’s Good Morning America (GMA), TV personalities Norah O’Donnell, Charlie Rose, and Gayle King took turns
roasting interviewing Jud Horras – CEO of the North American Inter-Fraternity Conference (NIC). The NIC is a trade association which represented 66 inter/national, men’s college fraternities. (Two have since parted ways.)
The appearance took place shortly after the death of Timothy Piazza due to hazing activities while pledging Beta Theta Pi Fraternity at Penn State.
Here is an interesting back and forth:
That exchange – approximately half of the five-minute segment – represents the current predicament faced by “Greek Life.” (more specifically historically-white, inter/national, men’s fraternities)
Students are heathens. Who can stop them?
Despite its context, the segment was not about hazing or Timothy Piazza; it was about college fraternities. Do they bring out the criminal nature of their members? Who will step in to control those men? Should fraternities even exist?
Horras, by keeping to the topic of hazing, appeared to evade or offer inconclusive answers to these greater, more consequential questions. This is not a critique of Horras by any means. He knows what he is talking about, and it was quite honest and honorable of him to try to stick with the topic. But gotcha journalism, well, “got us.” That is a cause for concern.
If the leader of the NIC, whose tagline is “Guiding Fraternity,” cannot make a case to keep fraternities around and self-governing, then maybe fraternities should be shut down. The fact that fraternity leaders are turning to Congress to take on issues like (but not limited to) hazing only supports that idea.
News media is a business created around the topic of news. It must, like all media programs, attract viewers to profit. An easy way to attract a crowd is a public flogging. Fraternity leaders call it unfair, then willingly play the part of the fool in such segments.
Damage Control / Crisis Response
Piazza’s death was one of four due to fraternity hazing in 2017. The response from inter/national fraternity leaders was … predictable. Whether the problem is a racist letter, a case of sexual misconduct, or a death due to hazing, our leaders respond with the following action plan:
- Condemn the behavior and distance the perpetrators from the inter/national fraternity corporation
- Sanction the students by requiring they take part in some sort of “training,” suspending or expelling them from the organization, and/or revoking their chapter’s charter
- Enact new prohibitive policies, require new anti-[bad behavior] training, or invest in some other initiative to quell public discontent and protect the students (Read this post about desegregation & how the responsibility to “protect” is often a means to “control”)
I should note that this plan is not exclusive to fraternities. Any corporation, college, or organization utilizes a similar “Damage Control” strategy – in my observation.
Trust the process:
Leaders condemned the behavior of the students involved in Piazza’s death. For example, Horras assertively stated that the hazers be prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
Finally, a slew of initiatives were announced in the following years to “end hazing” once and for all. The NIC, along with other fraternity/sorority umbrella associations, organized a coalition with parents of several hazing victims. The coalition assists in efforts to lobby legislators to criminalize hazing and require that schools provide anti-hazing education. (among other things)
READ: A Fraternity Man post explaining the details of two federal anti-hazing bills to accomplish some of the coalition’s priorities.
Inter/national fraternities agreed to new “health and safety guidelines.” These guidelines include alcohol-free housing policies and ban hard alcohol at parties. Some organizations have eliminated “pledging” altogether.
But the effects of such initiatives are as predictable as the initiatives themselves.
That’s because fraternity leaders have used the same formula for decades with little to show for it. The number of deaths due to fraternity hazing has increased despite the time and money dedicated to preventing them. Maybe the GMA team was on to something; maybe we do need a change in leadership. . .
… or not. Maybe behavioral problems like hazing are merely symptoms of an even greater, more comprehensive issue. Maybe delegating accountability to some higher authority – an inter/national fraternity leader, a college administrator, or the United States Congress – will only exacerbate the issue.
True & New Reform
The GMA segment perfectly highlights an impossible task we place upon fraternity leaders. Five minutes to discuss a hazing tragedy. Five minutes to explain hazing, fraternity policies, the failure of prohibition, self-government, and the existence of college fraternities. Immediate action is required, because “people” demand it.
This crisis-driven mentality cannot go on. It drives everyone crazy – whether they are a student, an adviser, or a fraternity “headquarters” professional. No one makes their best decisions when they are constantly held to the fire.
But our leaders do not even have the power to change behavior in the first place. Horras admits that we’ve “banned it” again and again to no avail. He advocates for a “grassroots” approach. College fraternities need reform. Understanding the limitations of our inter/national, inter-fraternal organizations is key to getting it done.
Luckily, there is a proven framework for democratic, grassroots reform, and I have experience applying it to fraternities at all levels of operation.
Here’s a tease (my favorite nickname) for FRATERNITY MANifesto: A Framework for the Next Generation of College Fraternities. Please stay tuned.
Update – June 13, 2020: This post was updated to note that there were four deaths due to hazing in 2017, not three as previously stated.