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The Broken Pledges of Greek Life

Videoconference searches for ways to end fraternity and sorority hazing

Washington — Why are Black students continuing to hurt — and even
kill — each other in the name of fraternity/sorority brotherhood and
sisterhood? What are the dynamics that keep this outlawed tradition
alive among Black Greeks? Is it just a Black problem? Why is it that
such incidents elude the supposedly vigilant eyes of fraternal
organizations and college administrators? These were but a few of the
questions explored by a panel of experts in a live videoconference
entitled, Broken Pledges: Fraternities and Sororities at the Crossroads.

The videoconference, the first of a series sponsored by Black
Issues In Higher Education for the 1998-99 academic year, was moderated
by James Adams, a news anchor with NBC-TV-4 in Washington, D.C.
Panelists included: Hank Nuwer, author of the book Broken Pledges; Dr.
Earl Richardson, president of Morgan State University; Dr. Gloria R.
Scott, president of Bennett College; Michael W. Gordon, executive
director of the National Pan-Hellenic Council, Inc., the umbrella
organization for predominantly Black fraternities and sororities;
Maureen Syring, assistant director of Delta Gamma Foundation; Douglas
E. Fierberg, attorney-at-law who has prosecuted many hazing incidents;
and Dr. Walter Kimbrough, director of student activities and leadership
at Old Dominion University.

According to Black Issues correspondent Paul Ruffins, who has done
extensive research on the subject, one reason hazing persists is that
many fraternity and sorority members don’t consider new members to be
true members unless they have been properly inducted. And to many,
“induction” includes hazing.

To get around the pan-Hellenic council restrictions placed on the
hazing of pledges — students seeking admission to Greek-life
organizations — students are now being hazed after they have become
members of the fraternity, as was the case in a recent incident at the
University of Maryland Eastern Shore (UMES). Despite the National
Pan-Hellenic Council’s 1990 ban on hazing, last spring six (UMES)
students who were already inducted into the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity
were hospitalized for injuries to their buttocks — the results of a
paddling ritual. One of the students had to undergo surgery to remove
gangrenous flesh. (See Black Issues, June 25)

The practice was defended by a student who said that, for the most
part, students who he knew didn’t see anything wrong with hazing.

“They know what to expect before they pledge,” the student said. “I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

Gordon said that the desire to be in a brotherhood or a sisterhood
and involved with something positive is so strong in young people that
they are willing to submit to hazing in order to become members.

Members of the panel pointed out that hazing often continues
despite the ban because college administrations are not monitoring the
activities of the these groups closely enough. Also, many of them said,
the National Pan-Hellenic Council has been negligent in its oversight
of the undergraduate chapters.

“We don’t give our top people training on how to view and value
young people,” said Dr. Ted Blakeney, a member of the Kappa Alpha Psi
fraternity. “We view them as a problem and mostly want to stamp them
out. We need constant training on how to work with young people and
their values.”

But some students complained that the pan-Hellenic council and
college administrators don’t recognize that not all pledging is hazing.

“[Pledging] teaches you accountability, manhood, scholarship,
uplift, and to endure throughout all types of situations,” said one

The discussion then turned to definitions. Nuwer defined hazing as
“an action … causing danger [or] some sort of discomfort [that is]
demeaning [and is] required to get into a group.”

Fierberg, who prosecuted another hazing incident at the University
of Maryland College Park involving the Omega Psi Phi fraternity, said
the definition varies from state to state. Some states don’t even
criminalize the activity, while others define it broadly as “any act
causing harm.”

However, the panelists agreed that hazing is so ingrained in
fraternity and sorority culture that it is not likely to go away. It
was pointed out that many of the older members give tacit approval to
the undergraduates who continue to engage in hazing.

The question of whether administrators need to modify their views to allow some types of “harmless” hazing also was discussed.

“I think the thing that scares and makes us want to stop hazing is
the violence and physical abuse,” said Richardson, who then asked, “Is
there some middle ground that preserves the ritual but does not allow
mental and physical abuse?”

The videoconference noted that dangerous hazing is not just limited
to the predominantly Black Greek-life organizations. At the
Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently, five students in the
Gamma Delta fraternity were indicted on manslaughter in the death of a
prospective member who went into a coma after drinking several times
the legal alcohol limit.

According to Dr. Tom Goodale, his research found that pledging
abuses occur at about the same rate in White fraternities as in Black
fraternities. In White fraternities, the abuse tends to involve
alcohol; in Black fraternities, it’s more physical abuse. But there is
overlapping of both types of abuse by all fraternities and both are
serious problems for colleges, Goodale said.

Calling hazing a power problem, Syring said, “It is a learned skill
by having it happen to us and by doing it to other people.”

She noted that for the first time, the Black and White pan-Hellenic
councils are beginning to collaborate to address hazing issues.

The panelists agreed that since hazing is pervasive and insidious,
it is the responsibility of colleges to protect their students and
monitor the activity of any organization allowed on campus. It is also
the responsibility of colleges to make sure that students are aware
that they could be committing crimes by participating in hazing.

Bennett College’s Scott said that when students first enroll on her
campus, they are advised that they should not submit to hazing and that
it is a felony in the state of North Carolina, where the historically
Black institution is located.

“We spend a lot of time in our institution trying to find out what
is going on psychologically,” she said. “We are prepared to dismiss,
educate, enforce, [and] prosecute.”

The panel came up with three recommendations for dealing with
hazing: educate prospective members; have knowledge of university
policy and state law; and enlist the help of graduate chapters.

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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