Shotgunning beer at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity in 1996 . (Gerald Martineau/The Washington Post)
March 14

Journalist Caitlin Flanagan spent a year investigating college Greek life for an Atlantic magazine cover story, “The Dark Power of Fraternities.”

My attic office still bears witness to my year-long dive into the role of college fraternities in America. On two tidy shelves, neatly organized and carefully annotated, are books, essays and interview notes that attest to the rich history and enduring strengths of the fraternal experience. They describe its matchless programs in leadership and service, as well as its legacy of lifelong friendships and professional advancement.

Yet filling three crammed crates, spilling out of folders piled on the floor and documented on endless index cards are accounts of the suffering that fraternities have wrought over the past decade and a half, including death, torture, sexual crimesand catastrophic falls. In its current state of order and chaos, my office is suggestive of the fraternity system itself. At its core is a good and worthwhile enterprise, but it is under siege from lurid events that seem to multiply according to some wild algorithm. How much longer can the system go on this way?

Survival seems to be on the mind of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, one of the nation’s largest fraternities — also dubbed America’s “deadliest” fraternity by Bloomberg News because nine young people have died in SAE-related incidents since 2006. In a surprising announcement this past week, Brad Cohen, SAE’s “eminent supreme archon” — its chief executive — declared that the fraternity’s weeks-long pledge period will be no more. From now on, only a couple of days will pass between receiving an offer to join the society and attaining the full rank and privilege of membership.

To the extent that the intention is to put an end to hazing, it’s an impulse to be congratulated. The fraternity industry has long known that the three deadliest nights of the year occur during pledging. Bid Night, Big Brother Night and the pre-initiation night that culminates “hell week” are all opportunities for the sometimes deadly torment of new recruits. Eliminate pledging, the new policy suggests, and you also eliminate hazing.

But let’s be honest about how effective this edict is likely to be. Policies handed down by eminent archons in remote headquarters often have little influence on local chapters, each with an ever-renewing supply of young men who think they’re immortal.

Remember, hazing has been strictly prohibited by all of the major social fraternities for decades.Yet the ritualized savagery continues.

Moreover, hazing represents only a small fraction of the deaths and injuries associated with fraternities, and these other forms of trauma will not be stanched by the pledge ban.

Willis, the nation’s largest broker of fraternity insurance, which includes SAE among its clients, reports that the most common type of claim is for assault and battery unrelated to hazing. After that comes sexual assault (which accounts for an astonishing 15 percent of claims), next is slip and fall, and after that falling from heights. Hazing is tied for last place, along with auto accidents. Financially, it may be a relatively urgent problem for fraternities — you can settle a sexual assault claim for pennies on the dollar compared with most hazing claims — but it is by no means the only problem nor the largest one. We can be forgiven for wondering if SAE cares more for its bottom line than for protecting life and limb at its chapter events.

The true culprit in fraternity malfeasance is alcohol abuse. Every one of the incidents described in my files — every single one — involves as its principal player titanic quantities of booze. Collegiate binge drinking is not confined to the fraternity house, obviously, but the two entities have a synergistic effect on one another. The result is the devastation that threatens the future of the storied system.

But it is impossible to remove alcohol from fraternity life, for it is at the very center of the experience. Or is it?

In 2000, another of the nation’s major fraternities, Phi Delta Theta, made a dramatic change: Housing at its 165 chapters became alcohol-free. The change involved more than a grand pronouncement from on high, expected to be carried out mere weeks after it was delivered. Rather, the fraternity had given itself three years to fully implement the new policy.

Who would possibly want to join a frat without beer? Huge numbers of young men, as it turns out. In the years since the policy was introduced, Phi Delt’s membership has increased by 25 percent. The number of men willing to join its alumni boards — to lead and advise undergraduate members — has increased more than 300 percent. “You’ve seen the movie ‘Home Alone’?” Phi Delt’s longtime executive vice president, Bob Biggs, said of the role of the alumni boards. “We don’t believe in leaving very young men home alone.”

Most dramatically, the number of insurance claims against the fraternity has dropped by 64 percent, and the financial severity of those claims has declined an astounding 94 percent. In addition to being one of the safest frats in the country, its reduced insurance liability has made Phi Delt the most affordable.

I asked Biggs what inspired the alcohol ban. “Every college president will tell you that the single biggest problem on campuses today is the misuse of alcohol,” he said. “We asked ourselves: ‘If we are an organization of leaders, why aren’t we addressing this problem?’ ”

There is no word in fraternity life accorded more reverence than “leadership.” Phi Delta Theta has exemplified it. The organization took a wildly unpopular position, risked its very existence to uphold it and led thousands of young men to better conduct. Its record isn’t perfect, but it’s far better than that of any other social fraternity, and it reveals the essential truth of fraternity reform: Saving lives — and reducing the incidences of rape and serious injury — depends on taking alcohol out of the equation.

On Twitter: @CaitlinAtlantic

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