Tim Piazza, a Beta Theta Pi initiate at Penn State, was encouraged to drink large amounts of alcohol as part of a hazing ritual known as “the Gauntlet.” Some 12 hours later, after having fallen down a set of basement steps and suffering multiple head injuries while trying to get up, having been virtually ignored by other members of the fraternity, Piazza was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. His blood alcohol content was .40, five times the legal limit in Pennsylvania.
Last week, Centre County officials released a more than 200-page report on the investigation of the Feb 4 incident. At present, 26 people face criminal charges in his death. In a press conference to introduce the report, Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller said of Beta Theta Pi, “If it takes eliminating these dens of depravity that won’t reform their ways, do it.”
I’m not sure if she was referring to all fraternities, but Piazza’s story is one of many reasons our nation’s colleges might want to consider shutting down all fraternities. It’s not clear that these organizations do much good. And any good they do can’t possibly make up for the harm they cause on a regular basis.
First, it’s worth noting that fraternities boast that their members do better than the average student. It’s true that graduation rates among fraternity members are higher than the average population. It’s also true that a preponderance of prominent Americans belonged to fraternities – some 75 percent of U.S. Senators and 85 percent of Fortune 500 executives.
But it’s likely these numbers are more indicative of the privilege those fraternity members enjoyed before they joined rather than the positive influence the fraternities have on their members.
Yet, even if fraternities were a positive influence on the postgraduate college student, the effect they have on undergraduates is being one of the most reliable sources of alcohol, which is demonstrably a pestilence on college campuses everywhere.
According to a recent report by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, nearly 25 percent of undergraduate women and 5 percent of undergraduate men are sexually assaulted on campus. Roughly 50 percent of those assaults involve alcohol.
A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll in 2015 found that 50 percent of fraternity members reported drinking “more than they should” compared to a 35 percent rate for students not affiliated with a fraternity.
One might argue that universities should do a better job policing alcohol consumption on campus and inside of individual frat houses. Yet the Piazza case demonstrates how unlikely that approach might be. The Penn State Beta Theta Pi was on “probation” for an alcohol incident in 2008. It had private security guards supposedly monitoring frat house behavior. All of those things failed.
There’s simply no place on college campus for social clubs that can’t seem to help themselves from putting college students in harm’s way and often coercing them into that behavior. If they can’t reform – and it’s likely they can’t – it’s time to close them for good.