October 20, 2013

Commentary: Fraternities and drinking deaths

While postponing freshmen recruitment can save lives, the Intrafraternity Conference remains adamantly opposed.

By John Hechinger and David Glovin
Bloomberg News

After a freshman died from downing beer, rum and 151-proof liquor in an initiation ritual, California Polytechnic State University in 2010 banned fraternities from recruiting newly arrived students.

Right away, the North-American Interfraternity Conference, which represents 75 national fraternities, jumped in. The Indianapolis-based trade group emailed and met with Cal Poly administrators, paid for a study that opposed the ban and spurred a three-year campaign by student leaders. It won, and the school lifted the restriction this year. One freshman, Charlie Ross, couldn’t be happier about the opportunity to join a fraternity right away instead of waiting three months.

“You’ve got a group of guys who watch out for you when you’re drinking,” Ross, 18, said after unpacking his bags at freshman orientation on the San Luis Obispo campus.

The university’s turnabout shows how the Interfraternity Conference is blocking an approach that some higher education leaders say can save lives: postponing recruitment of freshmen, who account for a disproportionate number of fraternity-related deaths. The conference has opposed proposals at dozens of colleges to delay recruiting by a semester or a year.

“These organizations were putting our freshmen at risk,” said Shirley Tilghman, former president of Princeton University, which prohibited fraternity recruiting of freshmen, starting in the fall of 2012. “There is so much vulnerability in that first week, that first month as a freshman on a college campus – of feeling lost. It leads to all kinds of decisions that you would not make if you had a little more time to find your way.”

Princeton students who belonged to fraternities, especially freshmen, were more likely to be hospitalized because of drinking, said Tilghman, who stepped down as president in June. Of 60 fraternity-related deaths nationwide since 2005, 24, or 40 percent, were of freshmen, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

Universities often are susceptible to the Interfraternity Conference’s pressure to recruit freshmen because Greek life appeals to applicants and many alumni donors remain loyal to their fraternities. Only 80 of about 800 U.S. campuses with fraternities defer recruiting, according to the conference.

Fraternity membership surged to 327,260 in 2011 from 253,148 in 2005. National fraternities and affiliated foundations generated $185 million in student dues and other revenue in 2010-2011, up 24 percent from 2005-2006, tax records show.

White male fraternity members drink more heavily than any other group on campus, and published research suggests that the youngest students are most likely to engage in binge drinking, according to Aaron White, program director for college and underage drinking prevention research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

“The first couple of months of school are a particularly vulnerable time for students with regard to heavy drinking,” White said. “Delaying rush makes a lot of sense.”

Founded in 1909, the Interfraternity Conference joined the industry’s political arm, known as FratPAC, in fighting against a federal anti-hazing bill last year.

The group has stepped up advocacy on campuses, especially against recruiting restrictions. With its encouragement, fraternity leaders at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland rejected a 2011 plan to defer recruiting freshmen. At the University of Colorado at Boulder, the conference backed fraternities’ decision to operate without university recognition, reducing their access to campus facilities, rather than accept deferred recruitment and live-in advisers.

“The NIC was not supportive” of university rules, said Deb Coffin, Colorado vice chancellor for student affairs.

(Continued on page 2)

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors




Further Discussion

Here at PressHerald.com we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)