Last year, when my younger son told me he was joining a fraternity, I was pleased, but also had a concern.
“Good, I said. “I’m proud of you. Just don’t let them kill you during the hazing,” I said.
“Dad,” he replied. “Frats don’t haze anymore. It’s banned.”
“Of course it is,” I said. “So when they’re not hazing you, don’t let them kill you. Just say, ‘I’m sorry, but my father forbids my doing this.’ You can blame me.”
That conversation came back this week, as charges were filed over a horrific incident at Penn State. Eighteen members of Beta Theta Pi were charged with manslaughter and other crimes for letting pledge Timothy J. Piazza, 19, die after drinking excessively, falling down stairs, and then being neglected for 12 hours.
When I was his age, fraternities were a mystery to me. “You spend 18 years under the thumb of your parents,” I’d say. “You finally get a taste of freedom and what’s the first thing you do? Run to join an organization that demands you crawl across the quad at midnight, blindfolded, rolling an egg with your nose.”
Belonging to a frat wasn’t a point of pride, it was an indictment. I felt this so strongly, I put a frat paddle in my freshman dorm window, bearing a decal showing a coat of arms — a knight holding his thumb to his nose and waggling his fingers, blowing a raspberry — and the letters GDI, meaning “God Damn Independent.”
As the years ground on, however, I’ve reconsidered that stance, and wondered whether I wouldn’t have done better pledging, assuming I could find a frat that would take me. Fraternities were — and are — the apex of social life at many colleges. At Northwestern they occupy the best real estate; the frat quad has elegant ivied buildings. Other dorms look like concrete bee hives by comparison.
It’s easy to condemn frats and hazing, especially at times like now. But, solitary as I am, I understand the value of groups and the role of initiations. I remember going on an assignment with photographer Bob Ringham, who is a Marine. (I almost said, “was a Marine,” but you are always a Marine, in part because of the hell you go through to become one.) Bob ran into a fellow Marine and they embraced, and it surprised me to hear them happily trade boot camp horror stories with warm nostalgia.
Groups since the dawn of time impose harsh initiation rituals and tests of endurance. It’s not something you can easily mandate away.
All activities carry risk. My boys are finishing up their sophomore and junior years at swank private colleges. Both have lost classmates this year, neither due to the neglect of sodden frat buddies. One drowned during crew practice; the other was killed in Copenhagen in a boating accident. Yet few would argue this means that students shouldn’t row crew or boat in Denmark.
The Illinois Hazing Act bans hazing if it is a) not sanctioned by the school and b) results in bodily harm. So the obvious solution is for schools to supervise initiations that challenge new members without getting anybody killed. Have them chase greased pigs, parade around campus in dunce caps, make the thing fun again. Do it in public. Otherwise, colleges are merely shucking responsibility and hiding behind bans against hazing — look, we have rules! —without solving the problem.
Those 18 Penn State frat brothers are not evil or even necessarily stupid — when sober. Rather, they screwed up big time while drunk and their judgment was impaired. Colleges should require every frat to pledge a few Sober Brothers — dry members who attend events clear-headed and can exert adult-calibre judgment when, oh, for instance, a pledge needs immediate medical care.
Waive their dues.
It’s that important.
My son quit his frat this year — for the record, they never hazed him, never pressured him to drink. He just realized he wasn’t hanging around the frat house much. My response was succinct.
“Good,” I said. “I’m proud of you.”