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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.”