It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact moment when the University of Central Florida decided that the behavior of its Greek student organizations was out of control — after all, UCF fraternities and sororities have been caught breaking the rules on dozens of occasions in only the last couple of years.
A recent Sigma Chi photo posted on Facebook, however, sticks out as one of the tipping points. The picture showed a new frat member, or “pledge,” consuming alcohol as part of an alleged hazing incident, and included the caption, “Forcing a pledge to chug while two others puke in misery.” The two vomiting students were also pictured, with one holding his head above a trash can.
UCF administrators last month suspended that fraternity, and soon after made national headlines by suspending most Greek activities altogether. Under the suspension, Greek organizations’ charitable events can continue, but just about all else (socials, new member education efforts, and initiation ceremonies) is banned for now.
“We’re asking some hard questions,” said Maribeth Ehasz, vice president of student development and enrollment services. “We are very concerned about alcohol being central to many activities, especially new member activities.”
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The university’s growing footprint is one reason its action is so significant: UCF now boasts nearly 60,000 students, making it the largest state university in Florida and the second-largest in the United States. More than 6,300 of its students come from Miami-Dade or Broward counties.
Other schools across the country have also moved to rein in Greek organizations. At Cornell (where a student died of alcohol poisoning), fraternities have been ordered to have live-in advisers. Yale strengthened its alcohol misuse penalties (and overhauled school sexual assault reporting policies) after a video surfaced on YouTube of fraternity brothers jokingly chanting “No means yes!” and other crudities.
Of course, Greek student groups aren’t the only realm where hazing can occur. Florida A&M University is still recovering from the widely publicized hazing death of drum major Robert Champion in 2011. Champion’s bandmates in the prestigious Marching 100 took turns punching and striking the 26-year-old student as part of a hazing ritual.
A coroner determined that Champion died from medical complications associated with “blunt force trauma.” FAMU’s president and band director lost their jobs as a result of the tragedy, and other state institutions (including UCF) took notice.
Hazing expert Hank Nuwer, who has written four books on the issue, maintains a “Hazing Deaths” website that lists all the fatal cases occurring at U.S. colleges from year to year. Each year — for more than four decades — at least one student has died.
Hazing typically happens in Greek organizations or on college athletic teams, Nuwer said, with Greek student groups representing the majority of cases. Within Greek life, fraternities are more likely to haze than sororities.
In recent years, Nuwer said progress has been made in educating students on the risks of hazing, but there is still no easy way to stop it. Nuwer was skeptical of UCF’s strategy, which he said is vulnerable to a student lawsuit, and may simply drive Greek activities underground.
“What if you got rid of the entire athletic program because you had a number of teams that were causing problems?” Nuwer said. “I think it’s an unusual response.”
UCF’s Greek ban isn’t permanent, and Ehasz said activities could be restored as soon as next month — provided the organizations agree to beefed-up university oversight. What the specific new rules will be is still unclear (the university says that will be hashed out in negotiations), but it may include the addition of a live-in school staff member to every fraternity house.
Some UCF students are angry about the shutdown, and they accuse university leadership of overreaching.
“Almost all of the Greek organizations adhere to the rules given by UCF,” said student Elisha Rodriguez. “But of course one group messes up and ruins it for everyone else.”
Rodriguez said she was planning to join a sorority this semester, but now won’t bother.
UCF leaders say they are reacting not to just one particular incident, but rather a pattern of hazing and alcohol abuse among Greek student groups. A university “conduct summary” spreadsheet lists dozens of rules violations in the past couple of years, including repeated cases of hazing, underage drinking, and damage to property.
Thus far, no other Florida universities have announced plans to follow in UCF’s footsteps. The University of Florida — which suspended two fraternities last year for hazing — said it conducts “vigorous” enforcement of student safety rules, but that enforcement is still on a case-by-case basis.
Local universities such as the University of Miami and Florida International University said little when asked about UCF’s action. UM declined to comment, and FIU released only a short written statement on the matter.
“FIU, through Campus Life/Sorority & Fraternity Life, provides numerous workshops, programs, and retreats each year to review policy and educate all students and organizations on hazing and safe alcohol practices,” wrote Alexis Hamilton Fulks, FIU’s assistant director of Campus Life/Sorority & Fraternity Life.
Both FIU and UM have had their own instances of Greek misbehavior and/or alcohol abuse. FIU suspended the Phi Beta Sigma fraternity in 2002 for an act of hazing (paddling) that was so extreme the student was seen limping on a swollen left leg. In 2008, FIU’s Phi Gamma Delta fraternity was caught filming a pornographic video at its on-campus fraternity house.
At UM, student Chad Meredith died in 2001 while trying to swim across Lake Osceola with two officers of Kappa Sigma — a fraternity he wished to join. The group had been drinking, and Meredith drowned. The Florida Legislature responded by passing the “Chad Meredith Act,” which makes hazing a third-degree felony if it results in serious injury or death. Florida’s anti-hazing laws are still among the toughest in the country.
Defenders of Greek life are quick to note that young adults in general, regardless of what student clubs they join, are known to sometimes abuse alcohol. Some research studies, however, have found a greater prevalence of excessive drinking among members of fraternities and sororities. In addition, some of the risky behaviors exhibited by Greek groups — for example, the dangerous “alcohol enemas” performed by a frat at the University of Tennessee — are typically not found in the general population.
For schools such as UCF and FIU, which have worked to shed their old reputations as boring “commuter” schools, Greeks have a special symbolic importance. Though Greeks are only about 5 percent of all students at UCF (and less than 4 percent at FIU), their presence helps the universities pitch themselves as the complete package to prospective students. Greek students also tend to be hyper involved in school activities, which helps further breathe life into the campuses.
“Nothing would get done on campus without the Greeks,” said FIU student Stephen Nunez, who founded the school’s Theta Chi fraternity last year. “No one would go to football games, no one would care. No one would participate in student government, no one. It’s all Greek.”
This report includes comments from the Public Insight Network, an online community of people who have agreed to share their opinions with The Miami Herald. Sign up by going to MiamiHerald.com/Insight.