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

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Starkey died on Dec. 2, 2008, 71 days after starting college. He had a blood-alcohol content of 0.44, or about five times the legal limit, according to court testimony.

SUIT SETTLED FOR $2.45 MILLION

Four fraternity brothers pleaded no contest to misdemeanor charges related to hazing. They were sentenced to jail terms ranging from 30 to 120 days.

The Starkeys sued Sigma Alpha Epsilon and several members for negligence, settling for at least $2.45 million, court records show.

Sigma Alpha Epsilon is committed to “providing a meaningful, beneficial and safe experience” for all members, the national fraternity said in a statement.

Cal Poly barred Sigma Alpha Epsilon from campus until 2033 and considered eliminating fraternities. Instead, it stepped up oversight and decided in 2010 to delay freshman recruiting until January, the school’s second quarter.

Soon after the policy was announced, “there was a huge pushback” from the fraternity industry, said Stephan Lamb, then the university’s associate director of student life.

Smithhisler and other Interfraternity Conference executives visited the school in 2010 to ask administrators to rescind deferred recruitment.

“The hand-wringing has started” among fraternity leaders about Cal Poly’s limits on recruitment, Smithhisler wrote in a Jan. 12, 2011, email to Lamb obtained through a request to the university under California’s open-records law.

The next month, the trade group sent industry experts to Cal Poly to conduct an in-depth assessment of the school’s Greek system, according to university records. Typically, universities request such an evaluation and pay an $8,000 fee. In this instance, the conference covered the cost.

The report was hardly flattering. The assessment, prepared by fraternity executives, college administrators and a social worker, called Cal Poly’s recruitment “dehumanizing and superficial” and said alcohol was “a, and perhaps THE, defining factor” of Greek life.

“Hazing occurs in the men’s chapters, particularly physical/strength endurance, stealing and drinking,” it said. “Alcohol plays a major role in the Cal Poly fraternity/sorority experience, especially within fraternity life.”

Still, the report called for an end to deferred recruitment because it runs “counter to a student’s right to choose.” The policy unfairly required fraternities, but not sororities, to postpone rush, according to the assessment.

DEFERRED RECRUITING ABOLISHED

The national group worked through students, too. Andy Farrell, who headed Cal Poly’s student fraternity group in 2010, said Smithhisler took him aside and “made it clear that the (Interfraternity Conference) stand is that deferred recruitment should not exist.”

National fraternities urged their Cal Poly chapters to fight the new rule, said Michael Franceschi, another student leader at the time. When students organized, the conference supplied them with research and helped edit a paper arguing against deferred recruitment.

“We’d send them drafts of each section,” said Jason Colombini, then a campus fraternity leader and now student body president. “They would tell us things to look into.” Colombini said he acted on his own initiative, not the Interfraternity Conference’s.

Turnover at the top of Cal Poly aided the fraternity cause. Jeffrey Armstrong, who became Cal Poly’s president in 2011, and Keith Humphrey, vice president for student affairs, sympathized with students’ pleas, Colombini said. Unlike their predecessors, Armstrong and Humphrey had been in fraternities, and Armstrong met his wife through his membership in Alpha Gamma Rho.

In June, Cal Poly announced it would abolish deferred recruiting at its 17 fraternities. In return, fraternity members agreed to register their parties, undergo alcohol education and submit to periodic reviews. About $100,000 in higher fees from fraternity members will fund a new university position monitoring Greek life.

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