Fraternities face scrutiny, self-analysis after series of scandals

Fraternities find themselves at a crossroads after being shaken by a series of scandals.

In the wake of a racist, sexist email that roiled the campus this month, students at the University of Maryland, College Park spoke out at a forum Tuesday, expressing frustration with fraternity culture and unhappiness with the school's response.

Some of the more than 100 students attending the campus forum said they want university President Wallace D. Loh to punish the student who sent the message — allegedly a member of the Kappa Sigma fraternity — and want administrators to oversee fraternities more closely.

"It's the university's responsibility to address it," said Ceaira Thomas, a 20-year-old junior from Columbia who helped organize the forum as a member of the campus chapter of the NAACP. She said the student who wrote the email ought to be expelled.

"It's something that's embedded in the [fraternity] culture, and we need to take steps to address it," Thomas said. "This is an opportunity to make a concrete change, and I don't feel like steps have been taken to the degree they should be."

Loh, who called for forums in the wake of the email scandal, did not attend Tuesday's event — and was criticized by some students for not being there. He is scheduled to attend other sessions. After the email surfaced, he called its contents "reprehensible to our campus community." Campus officials have not commented further, saying the incident is under investigation.

The email, purportedly sent in January 2014, went viral on social media recently. It included racial and ethnic slurs to refer to women and disparaged sexual consent.

The College Park incident is among the recent scandals involving fraternities here and across the county. Incidents of hazing, sexual assault, drinking and racism have focused national scrutiny on fraternities and sororities, and prompted soul searching among those involved with Greek life.

A 16-year-old girl was sexually assaulted at an off-campus Johns Hopkins University fraternity house last fall; two men who were not members of the fraternity have been charged. Salisbury University was the subject of a hazing scandal in 2013. And campus and city police responded to Morgan State on March 14 to break up fights after a party sponsored by Greek and student government organizations.

This week, officials at Penn State University said a task force will review its Greek system after revelations that a fraternity shared online pictures of naked women who were asleep or passed out. This month, a Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter at the University of Oklahoma was disbanded and two fraternity brothers expelled after a video surfaced of the men singing a racist chant.

In the wake of the College Park email incident, one student posted a statement online proclaiming: "At this moment, I am ashamed to call myself a Greek Terp."

Other students expressed pride in their organizations and a desire to fix problems.

Fraternity culture is "very distinct, and a lot of times it's secretive," said Zac McGee, a Towson University student, member of the coed honor fraternity Phi Sigma Pi and president of the University System of Maryland Student Council.

"The question is, can you find a way to promote a brotherhood or a sisterhood without having physical or mental harm?" McGee said.

"We know that there has to be another way," he said. "That's what we're really struggling with."

Janice Bonsu, president of the Student Government Association at Johns Hopkins University, agreed.

"We're all very much now aware of the problems that exist, and I think the problems that have happened nationally have made us more active and ready to be role models for everyone else," Bonsu said.

Hopkins has not been immune from scandal: Even before the investigation of the attack last fall, the university came under fire for not disclosing reports of an alleged sexual assault at another frat house the year prior. In the wake of the incidents, Greek organizations at Hopkins agreed to stop hosting open parties, and student groups are now required to register any parties with the university, wherever they may occur.

Bonsu, a member of the Alpha Phi sorority and a senior neuroscience major, said there's an incentive: Those who register parties can get a security guard and snacks provided by the college. The SGA and other groups are also hosting forums to air issues, she said.

"It's a matter of owning the narrative and putting out the positive we do, and not ignoring that fact that we can do better," Bonsu said of the scrutiny on Greek life. "It's a culture shift, so it'll take awhile. But it'll happen."

Maryland attorney Jimmy Bell has seen the darker side of fraternities, representing clients in lawsuits against frats for hazing allegations. He said hazing remains an "extremely big" problem and that fraternities and sororities have not adapted to what is socially acceptable.

"People want to give this stuff a wink wink and say it's OK," said Bell. "What you did 20 years ago or 30 years ago, we don't live in that world anymore.

"Back then, [hazing] was not a crime. Now it's a crime," he said. "It's illegal at all universities in Maryland."

Yet change has been elusive. Bell took two clients to Annapolis this month to lobby the General Assembly for a bill that sought to increase fines from $500 to $5,000 for incidents of criminal hazing. The measure died in the House of Delegates. Last year, a similar measure also failed.

Bell acknowledged the positive side of fraternities. He was a member of Kappa Alpha Psi as an undergraduate at Cal State University-Sacramento. "When you join a fraternity and sorority, they open doors to you in the professional world that would not necessarily be open to you if you were not a member," he said.

Such benefits, say Greek life advocates, cannot be overlooked even amid scandal.

Fraternities began in the 1820s as places for students to socialize and assert independence from what was then more stringent university oversight, according to Nicholas Syrett, a University of Northern Colorado professor who studies fraternity and sorority history. Banning Greek life or implementing strict oversight would come with obstacles, Syrett said. Namely, Greek alumni can be powerful, vocal advocates, and donors.

"I think immediately there would be an enormous uproar from the alumni," Syrett said of any attempts to ban Greek life in the wake of scandals. "The loyal Greek alumni would ... write letters to the powers that be at the universities and threaten to cease donations. I think there would also be protests on the campus."

Even if a school banned fraternities, the Constitution protects freedom of association, and a campus ban could simply push fraternities to operate off campus and without university oversight, Syrett said.

Syrett said a few colleges have banned fraternities, including Middlebury College in Vermont, but chapters continued to operate off campus.

T.J. Sullivan, a Denver-based consultant who speaks about fraternity issues at about 100 campuses a year, said students must take responsibility for their actions and be aware that in the digital age, "it's harder to get away with stupid behavior."

He said students also must lead campuses in conversations about race.

"I'm not sure that national fraternities and sororities are comfortable having direct conversations about race," he said. "We need to let students be leaders on this. We need to be supportive of letting them have these conversations."

At Towson University, where about 15 percent of full-time undergraduates belong to Greek organizations, the university has implemented a hazing education program for student groups. Fraternities and sororities — which don't have their own houses — are encouraged to hold parties at approved off-campus restaurants and clubs to keep a lid on underage drinking.

Salisbury University's brush with fraternity scandal came in late 2013 when Bloomberg News published an account of a Sigma Alpha Epsilon pledge being hazed as part of a 2012 initiation process. The man said hazing included excessive drinking, heavy paddling, being forced to stand naked in a trash can full of ice and being subjected to German heavy metal music while locked in a basement.

After the allegations came to light, Salisbury posted information online about sanctioned fraternities and sororities, alerted the campus community to Greek hazing incidents and increased anti-hazing educational initiatives, said Tricia Garvey Smith, the university's director of student activities.

An earlier version of this story included incorrect information about Johns Hopkins' requirements for student parties.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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