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By John Hechinger & David Glovin
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 e-mailed 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.
The University of Central Florida this year lifted a recruitment moratorium, which had been prompted by excessive drinking at fraternities and sororities, after the Interfraternity Conference threatened to sue the school for violating students’ freedom-of-association rights. The national group’s threat didn’t influence the university, said Maribeth Ehasz, a Central Florida vice president.
Of the 24 fraternity-related freshman deaths since 2005, 15 occurred during and after recruiting events, including hazing and initiation rituals.
At Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, freshman David Bogenberger died last year of alcohol poisoning after a fraternity initiation rite known as “Mom and Dad’s Night.” With other pledges, Bogenberger moved from room to room at the chapter house answering questions from members and downing vodka before passing out, court records show.
Fraternities have taken steps to protect students, including banning alcohol at recruiting events and supporting sanctions against violators, said Peter Smithhisler, president of the Interfraternity Conference.
While drinking deaths at fraternities are “heartbreaking,” many students drink too much, not just at fraternities, he said. Keeping out freshmen merely puts a “Band-Aid” on a broader campus problem, he said. It also deprives freshmen of opportunities at fraternities for leadership, career networking and charitable work, he said.
“It would be a travesty if the fraternity experience were not available for the development of these young men,” Smithhisler said. “We believe in the fraternity experience and its ability to really transform an undergraduate into better men, better citizens, better doctors, teachers, engineers.”
If colleges are allowed to restrict recruitment for a semester or a year, they could next extend the delay through sophomore year, or even shut down fraternities, as some liberal arts institutions have done, he said.
“Recruitment is the lifeblood for every chapter,” Smithhisler said.
Carson Starkey, whose death prompted the Cal Poly ban, hadn’t planned on joining a fraternity until he arrived at the public university of 19,000 on the central California coast. One out of six undergraduates there participate in Greek life.
The clean-cut, curly-haired 18-year-old from Austin, Texas, knew no one on campus, and the opportunity to bond with fraternity brothers soon appealed to him. He chose to pledge Sigma Alpha Epsilon, one of the largest fraternities, with chapters on almost 230 campuses in the U.S. and Canada.
While it included other activities such as a scavenger hunt, much of Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s initiation revolved around alcohol. After Thanksgiving, fraternity members summoned Starkey and 16 other pledges to the garage of an off-campus house for “Brown Bag Night.” Tarps covered couches to protect them from vomit, according to court testimony. Pledges sat in a circle, with a trash can at the center.
At 10:30 p.m., each pledge was given a brown bag with cans and bottles of alcohol. “Drink up, finish by midnight,” said one upperclassman, according to court testimony.
Starkey’s bag had two 24-ounce cans of Steel Reserve beer, a 16-ounce can of Sparks alcoholic energy drink, and a fifth of rum he was to split with another pledge, one of several Sigma Alpha Epsilon brothers who bought the liquor testified. Pledges also shared a bottle of 151-proof Everclear, which is 75.5 percent alcohol. As members chanted “Puke and Rally,” Starkey emptied his bag in 20 minutes, court records show.
After Starkey passed out, fraternity brothers debated whether to drive him to a hospital less than a mile away, members testified. They placed Starkey in a car and removed his Sigma Alpha Epsilon pin, so that doctors wouldn’t know he was at a fraternity event. Then they changed their minds. Rather than go to the hospital, they brought him back in the house and left him on a dirty mattress, according to court records and Starkey’s mother, Julia.
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.
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, e-mail 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.
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.
The university didn’t bow to fraternity pressure, Humphrey said. It simply wanted fraternity and sorority recruitment on the same schedule. Deferred recruiting isn’t a “silver bullet,” Armstrong said.
“We’re going to gain a lot more control” through the agreement with fraternity members, Armstrong said. “There will be a lot more accountability.”
The Interfraternity Conference assured the university that fraternities had shown “higher alcohol awareness.” Humphrey agreed, saying that students are taking alcohol safety more seriously.
“We’re entering a different day,” he said.
Still, the number of people transported to the hospital by Cal Poly police because of alcohol doubled to 35, in 2012-2013, from 2008, the year Starkey died. The statistics don’t indicate how many belonged to fraternities. The increase shows that students are more willing to call for help, said Martin Bragg, Cal Poly’s director of health and counseling services.
Since 2011, the university has disciplined nine fraternities, in most cases for alleged alcohol-related violations. After Lambda Chi Alpha’s “Lambda Cabana” beach volleyball tournament and charity fundraiser in April, three underage partygoers went to the hospital with alcohol poisoning, according to university records.
The university suspended Lambda Chi activities. Lambda Chi Alpha said it hadn’t organized any parties after the fundraiser, records show. Graham Garland, president of its Cal Poly chapter, declined to comment. The university later lifted the suspension because an investigation didn’t support allegations against the fraternity, Humphrey said.
In an editorial this month, the student paper, the Mustang News, said fraternities haven’t changed their behavior since Starkey’s death, and the administration made a mistake in letting them recruit freshman right away.
“Cal Poly is opening the door for more trouble,” the editorial said.
Carson Starkey’s parents, while pleased with the alcohol education program, opposed ending deferred recruitment. They run a nonprofit group to raise awareness about alcohol poisoning.
“I find it troubling that they [fraternities] would be advocating against our efforts to try to save lives,” said Julia Starkey, 52.
Her son would be alive if recruitment came later, she said.
“I’m 200 percent sure he wouldn’t have joined,” she said. “His core group of friends were outside the fraternity, but that didn’t happen the first weeks of school.”
Fraternities are putting revenue ahead of safety, said his father, Scott Starkey, 54.
“If you defer the recruitment of your members, you’re deferring income, I get that,” he said. “We’re business people. But I also feel there’s a human side.”
On a crisp late summer day during freshman orientation last month at Cal Poly, posters near dormitory entrances urged students to wear black wristbands with the name of the Starkeys’ charity: “Aware Awake Alive.”
“Take care of yourself,” read the posters. “Take care of your friends.”
Freshmen were divided over the new rush policy. Adam Massini, 18, from La Quinta, California, said it would be better to delay recruitment.
“Freshmen haven’t had much experience with drinking and don’t know their limits,” said Massini, who is considering joining a fraternity to perform community service.
Waiting isn’t going to stop freshmen from drinking heavily, said Grant Caraway, a former star high school football quarterback from Granite Bay, California.
“Some guys are going to be stupid, no matter what,” Caraway said.
With formal recruiting weeks away, a banner hung outside the Lambda Chi Alpha house. In bold, block letters, it greeted freshmen: “Welcoming You the Right Way Since 1979.”
While deferred recruiting gave freshmen more time to choose a fraternity, Lambda Chi now has no choice but to pursue them right away, said Joe Hare, 21, its vice president.
“If all the fraternities do it, we can’t wait,” he said. “It’s social suicide.”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. Rush season just wrapped up at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, and for the first time in three years, freshmen were invited to shop around for fraternities and sororities. That's because three years ago Cal Poly joined 80 other universities in banning freshman recruitment during their first marking period, a decision made after freshman student Carson Starkey died during an initiation ritual in which he was told to drink beer, rum and 151-proof liquor.
David Glovin of Bloomberg News has been covering this story. We're going to hear from him. But first to Jason Colombini, Cal Poly student body president. Last year as inter-fraternity council president he led the fight to end deferred recruitment with the help of alumni from the North American Interfraternity Conference, which represents 75 national fraternities.
So Jason, why? What is wrong with delaying recruitment if it can potentially save young lives?
JASON COLOMBINI: Some people believe that it's the silver bullet, from what our findings were that it wasn't necessarily the silver bullet. The chapter at question, which - that Carson Starkey passed away, in Sigma Alpha Epsilon, had a very long history of problems here at Cal Poly. So I think most of that is what led to Carson Starkey's death, because we've had - I mean in total we have 35 houses here on campus. In the last five years we've only had 10 houses with any kinds of possible violations.
To say that this deferred recruitment policy would be the thing that solves all problems I think is a mistake.
YOUNG: So you're saying that fraternities should be judged on their individual records. SAE has had tremendous problems. In fact, I believe Cornell closed their chapter after a death there. But you mentioned something else, which is that you looked at the size of the chapters, and you thought that they were getting smaller.
COLOMBINI: What we found was before the implementation of deferred recruitment, there was a very even spread in chapter size from about 25, 30 all the way up to about 85, a very even spread. After deferred recruitment was implemented, the top five houses exploded in size, up to 130 - between 100 and 130, and the remaining chapters stayed the same size or declined slightly.
What I heard from some of the presidents of the smaller and medium-sized houses and my house as well was that during that first quarter, freshmen were coming out, seeing the social party scene of fraternities instead of seeing the values that the organizations had to give.
YOUNG: So you're saying that this deferred rush allowed freshmen to look around a little more and realize what the biggest houses were and want to join them.
COLOMBINI: Exactly, and that's not what the goal of fraternity recruitment is. That's not what the goal of fraternity is in any way.
YOUNG: David Glovin, again, a reporter at Bloomberg News who took a deep look at deferred rush. You do mention something called, I think it was social suicide, that the houses feeling that if they delay, they are going to lose out, as we just heard, on getting these young freshmen to join them.
DAVID GLOVIN: My colleague John Hechinger, who I wrote the story with, did visit some fraternities, and they spoke about the need and the urgency to recruit freshmen, but that sort of goes back to the larger issue of the fraternity world, which is that the fraternity industry sees recruitment as the way to get new members, generate revenue.
The head of the fraternity industry's trade group calls recruitment the industry's lifeblood. So you see the industry fighting efforts across the country to restrict recruitment.
YOUNG: Tell us more about the industry. What is it comprised of, and what else is at stake, you know, dollars and cents? What else is going on here?
GLOVIN: It's an industry that generates about $185 million in revenue just to the national organizations. It has lawyers who represent it, and it has a lobbying arm, as we've reported, and it fights for what it believes in. It has a number of arguments for recruitment, one of which is a legal argument that colleges don't really have a right to interfere with students' freedom of association, and students should be able to join whoever, whenever they want.
YOUNG: You looked at some research used to recommend delaying recruiting until the end of the freshman year. What was that research?
GLOVIN: There is research suggesting or indicating that students will perform better academically if they wait at least a semester, until they get their feet on the ground. A number of academics also have found that students do need that time to just adjust to this new existence of college life before they decide whether to join a fraternity.
In terms of safety measures, our data shows that freshmen are clearly the more vulnerable when you base it on the number of student deaths.
YOUNG: And Jason Colombini, and maybe you can speak to that, why these rituals, why forcing 18-year-olds to drink so much alcohol? There have been so many deaths. Why does that have to be a part of it?
COLOMBINI: You know, it's interesting you mention that. Well, I guess first I could say that Zeta Beta Tau, my fraternity, is a non-pledging fraternity as well, nationally. And that was a big concern for me was whether I was going to be forced to drink or have to drink because I abstained from drinking until I turned 21.
So I went through the whole process and joined my fraternity, spent a year and a half of it completely abstinent of alcohol. So while that does take place, I'm sure, at other universities or perhaps in other chapters, it's definitely not the standard for all fraternities out there.
YOUNG: But we know it is for so many. Why not devote efforts to, you know, OK, you wanted to overturn the deferring, but why not overturn those kinds of rituals?
COLOMBINI: Ultimately, a lot of those rituals are not allowed. There's risk management policies on campus that don't permit that. So it comes down to better enforcement from universities to make sure that these things aren't happening. I mean, I believe that there's many fraternities, if not a majority, that this doesn't happen with. However, it's obviously the few out there that are the ones that either are caught for doing this or make it onto news stories regarding it.
But from my experiences and from talking with other members, alcohol isn't a part of the process. Sometimes I think that can sometimes be turned into a myth, in a sense.
YOUNG: Well, David Glovin, what did your reporting show? We're reading about couches covered with tarps and so-called vomit rooms. Is the drinking ritual a myth?
GLOVIN: When you look at the number of fatalities, alcohol or fraternity-related fatalities in recent years, you do see quite a large number. You see 10, 11, that number of fatalities in fraternities all over the country. So it is a broader systemic issue. Individual campuses may crack down, but then the issue rears its head somewhere else.
YOUNG: Well, and what about Carson Starkey's family? You tell us that four frat members from SAE served some time and that the Starkeys sold their business managing apartment buildings and now have a nonprofit group. What do they hope to do, and how are they responding to what's happening at the school where their son died?
GLOVIN: Sure, the Starkeys, since Carson died, have established a alcohol poisoning awareness group called Aware, Awake, Alive, which is now in operation on all California State campuses, including Cal Polys. And they want students to understand the warning signs of alcohol poisoning, and they're very active on this front.
YOUNG: Well, and Jason, Carson's mother said to Bloomberg I find it troubling that fraternities are advocating against our efforts to try to save lives by pushing back on the deferment. What do you say to her?
COLOMBINI: I mean, it's a difference of opinion there. I think that more often than not, it's the safe drinking that Aware, Awake, Alive is promoting, and I'm a huge proponent of Aware, Awake, Alive, both on my campus and in the California State University system that I think is the issue at hand. I mean, that is what's going to save lives, not deferring recruitment by one quarter.
YOUNG: Jason Colombini is a senior at Cal Poly and led the effort to end deferred recruitment. He's a member of Zeta Beta Tau. David Glovin, a reporter with Bloomberg News that took a deep look at the topic. Gentlemen, thank you both.
GLOVIN: Thank you.
COLOMBINI: Thank you.
YOUNG: So your thoughts, delay rush a year, give kids a chance to mature, or will that hurt smaller houses? Let us know, hereandnow.org. Meanwhile, high schoolers are applying for college. Post your essay at Facebook.com/hereandnowradio, and we'll have an expert give you some feedback later this week. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.