In 2011, a fraternity-sponsored team of experts alerted Arizona State University to “widespread” hazing and “high-risk” drinking at its Greek houses. The warning didn’t save Jack Culolias.
The 19-year-old freshman disappeared in November 2012 after a fraternity party. Culolias had told friends that Sigma Alpha Epsilon members forced him to shave his head and eat cat food as part of his initiation and that he expected to be tied to a flagpole and locked in a garage during “Hell Week.” Sixteen days later, searchers found him drowned accidentally in a river, with his blood alcohol three times the legal limit.
“He was scared,” said Vince Silva, a high school classmate. “He left a voice message for his step mom. ‘Hey, I’m not going to be able to use the phone a while. I love you.’ That was the last thing we heard from him.”
Culolias’s death illustrates the failure of a 2005 initiative by presidents of the University of Virginia and nine other colleges to clean up Greek life. The heart of their plan: in-depth reviews of chapter houses that would protect students by shutting down the worst fraternities.
Instead, fraternities watered down the new program so that it lacked the enforcement power that the presidents envisioned. Almost a decade later, the findings of widespread hazing and dangerous drinking have had little impact nationwide. Some universities and Greek organizations still aren’t doing enough to protect students, according to several college presidents and even the head of a major fraternity.
Educators and fraternity officials conducting the reviews have uncovered hazing at almost two-thirds of the 61 colleges whose reports were obtained by Bloomberg News. They include well-regarded private institutions such as Elon University in North Carolina and premier public schools such as the College of William & Mary in Virginia and Binghamton University in New York. Students suffered such abuses as sleep deprivation and the forced eating of raw chicken.
Reviewers found excessive drinking at half of the colleges, such as prestigious Duke University. At one-third, including Arizona State, they found both hazing and drinking. They urged schools to create anti-hazing hotlines, cooperate with police and bar owners to provide safe rides for students and assign faculty advisers to fraternity chapters.
The reports lacked teeth because they didn’t name offending chapters or call for penalties. Rejecting the college presidents’ proposal to scrutinize all chapters, fraternities made the program voluntary, so that reviewers have evaluated fewer than one out of 10 campuses with Greek organizations.
While the voluntary reviews have sparked changes at some colleges, other schools have ignored findings or taken half-measures that failed to prevent recurring violations. Arizona State closed Culolias’s fraternity, which had a history of alcohol violations, only after he died and another member who downed 20 shots of tequila was hospitalized.
Bloomberg News obtained copies of reports at some public universities through open-records requests and reviewed reports on other public and private colleges on the website of the North-American Interfraternity Conference, the main industry trade group. After being asked about them, the conference blocked public access to the reports.
Since the universities own the reports, “when we realized they were publicly accessible through our website, we corrected the issue,” said Peter Smithhisler, conference president.
As fraternities boost membership on college campuses, the reports undercut the frequent public comments by national Greek groups that hazing is an aberration. Fraternities are reluctant to discipline chapters, while universities are afraid to alienate alumni, according to several college presidents and some Greek leaders.
“If we don’t act on them, it’s a waste of time,” Brian Warren, chief executive officer of Richmond, Virginia-based Sigma Phi Epsilon, said of the reports. “I’m not seeing any follow-up.”
Sigma Phi Epsilon, one of the largest fraternities, with more than 15,000 undergraduates and 200 houses, is considering breaking away from the North-American Interfraternity Conference, Warren said. Among other concerns, Sigma Phi Epsilon is upset that the trade group isn’t holding fraternities accountable for ignoring the reports, he said. His fraternity has fought hazing by banning initiation rites.
“Fraternities were just suspicious that what we were really about was getting rid of fraternities,” said Robert Bottoms, former president of DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana, who was part of the original group of college leaders. “Frankly, I didn’t think we had good cooperation from the nationals [parent Greek organizations].”
Without disciplinary powers, the investigators’ reports have failed to uproot hazing traditions at some campuses, including William & Mary, the second-oldest U.S. university after Harvard and the birthplace of the nation’s fraternities.
Investigators visiting the Williamsburg, Virginia, campus in 2009 found a “culture of hazing” that included forced drinking and public humiliation of new fraternity and sorority members.
Returning this year, examiners found that hazing remained a “a long-standing practice” at the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, which had forced pledges to run for six hours at night, according to a William & Mary report.
Such behavior has put lives at risk. Since 2005, when the presidents issued their call, there have been at least 60 fraternity-related deaths, most involving alcohol and hazing, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Fraternity membership increased to 327,260 in 2011 from 253,148 in 2005. Almost three-fourths of U.S. fraternity and sorority members have been hazed, according to a 2008 study by University of Maine professors. The Interfraternity Conference helped pay for the study.
Smithhisler, head of the Indianapolis-based conference, which represents 75 national fraternities, said the reports have helped dozens of colleges and universities improve Greek life. The reports also found that members of Greek organizations are campus leaders, often have above-average grades and organize charitable drives.
“The reports identify a whole lot of good stuff,” Smithhisler said.
Calling hazing an “abomination” that the conference wants to eradicate, Smithhisler said it’s the “exception” and “not the rule” at fraternities. All fraternities have anti-hazing and responsible-drinking programs, and they do a better job combating hazing than other student groups, such as athletic teams, he said. Even when the reports find hazing at a campus, it may be happening at only a few houses, he said.
The conference has no authority over fraternity chapters or universities, Smithhisler said. Most national fraternities that belong to the conference require chapters to meet minimum standards through annual accreditation and sometimes close them when there are “no other options,” he said.
The reports paint a disturbing picture of hazing practices across the U.S. At Elon University, with more than 6,000 students, initiation included “sleep deprivation, wearing uniforms, not being allowed to eat, personal servitude, sleeping in strange/potentially dangerous locations and eating strange or inappropriate items,” according to a 2010 report.
At 18,000-student University of Nevada at Reno, at least 10 pledges were treated for food poisoning in 2007 after being forced to eat raw chicken -- an incident cited in a 2010 report. Initiates also had the Greek letter Omega etched on their buttocks with dry ice. The university identified the fraternity as Alpha Tau Omega.
At Auburn University in Alabama, a public institution of 25,000, new members stumbled through campus, apparently because they’d been awake for days, according to a 2008 report.
“Freshmen expect to be hazed,” investigators said they were told. “Hazing is part of the Auburn tradition.”
At Binghamton University, a 15,000-student campus of the State University of New York, investigators last year identified “a culture of fear, confusion and silence” about hazing at “most, if not all” programs for pledges.
In an e-mail to Binghamton, obtained under a public-records request, an unnamed former pledge of Zeta Beta Tau complained of “waterboarding, physical exercise in nothing but my boxers, cold showers, crawling around on concrete and more.”
At Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, one of the nation’s most selective colleges, the “abuse of alcohol is central to the fraternity/sorority experience,” according to a 2010 report. Fraternities routinely served alcohol to underage students at Saturday morning tailgates before football games, reviewers found.
Some “fraternity men target freshman women through high-risk drinking events that can result in potential sexual intercourse,” the Duke report said.
The reports also examined sororities, where they found fewer problems. The National Panhellenic Conference, which represents most of the large women’s groups, bans alcohol from chapter houses and almost all have live-in advisers. Since 2005, there have been three sorority-related drinking and hazing deaths, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
Seven fraternity and sorority organizations, including the Interfraternity Conference, produce the reports as part of the “Fraternity & Sorority Coalition Assessment Project.”
Based at the Interfraternity Conference’s offices in Indianapolis, the project dispatches teams of educators and industry officials to campuses to scrutinize Greek life, typically in response to school requests. Schools pay $4,000 to $8,000 for the reports. The investigators examine university data and interview students, faculty and administrators.
Presidents of 10 colleges -- including the University of Virginia, Bucknell University and DePauw University -- initiated the reviews in 2005. Warning of a “widening gap between the rhetoric of Greek chapters and the reality of their practices,” they aimed to “transform” Greek culture by fighting alcohol abuse and encouraging more emphasis on academics.
Their plan -- endorsed by representatives of higher education associations and the liquor and fraternity industries -- called for outside evaluations of all fraternity chapters, as well as minimum grade-point averages for members. Negative reviews would be used to place on probation or shut down chapters.
That didn’t happen. Meeting periodically for more than a year, Greek groups rejected making the reviews mandatory, according to Ronald Binder, former president of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors in Fort Collins, Colorado, which represents college administrators and others who work with Greek organizations. They also chose not to review all 8,000 chapters, saying it would have been too costly and cumbersome, Binder said.
Instead, the reports assessed campus Greek culture broadly without naming offending chapters -- an approach Binder said would foster campuswide change. Investigators have visited only about 70 of 800 colleges with fraternities and sororities.
Colleges have also balked at reining in fraternities, said David Warren, head of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities in Washington, and a member of the original presidents’ group that proposed the reviews. Some presidents fear for their jobs because of the power of fraternity alumni.
In Hartford, Connecticut, Trinity College’s president, who had angered some alumni donors when he and the board mandated that fraternities and sororities go co-ed, announced this year that he would step down early. The president resigned after 10 years because “he had completed the work he set out,” said Jenny Holland, a Trinity College spokeswoman.
“It’s just a very large task to take on an entire fraternity system,” said Warren, a former president of Ohio Wesleyan University.
Administrators at universities where hazing was uncovered said that the reports had spurred them to action.
In April, William & Mary closed Lambda Chi Alpha, the chapter with the six-hour run. The fraternity said it was working to return “as soon as possible.” Virginia Ambler, a vice president at the school, said the reviews helped unearth “some of this very hidden and dangerous behavior” and change William & Mary’s culture.
Elon convened a summit of Greek leaders and sent teams to an institute dedicated to fighting hazing, said Smith Jackson, vice president for student life. The school found no evidence of “life-threatening or degrading sorts of behavior,” said Jackson, who called hazing “the exception, rather than the norm.”
After the raw-chicken episode, the University of Nevada kicked Alpha Tau Omega off campus for five years, said Marcelo Vazquez, associate dean of students.
Since returning, the fraternity has worked with its national organization to root out hazing, said Daniel Coffey, an Alpha Tau Omega member.
“It was clear the chapter had lost its way,” said Coffey, a 21-year-old junior.
The industry report helped Auburn crack down on hazing, said Jon Waggoner, interim vice president for student affairs, who called “students’ health and safety our top priority.”
Binghamton briefly shut down its more than 50 Greek chapters last year after receiving reports of hazing, which L.C. Coghill, the university’s director of fraternity and sorority life, blamed on “a very small percentage” of students.
Duke instituted a hazing hotline and stepped-up enforcement to create a “very different” culture from what was described in the “antiquated” report, said Larry Moneta, vice president for student affairs.
Still, problems have persisted at many schools, even after the reports flagged dangers -- nowhere more so than at Arizona State University, one of the largest public institutions in the U.S., with more than 70,000 students on its Tempe campus.
In 2010, fraternity brothers at one chapter shot pledges with BB guns, according to documents released under an open-records request. At another, a drunken 17-year-old freshman left an off-campus fraternity party and slammed her Ford Expedition into an oncoming car, killing two people, according to police and court records.
Culolias, the Arizona State freshman who drowned in 2012, had chosen to pledge Sigma Alpha Epsilon, one of the largest fraternities with chapters on almost 230 campuses in the U.S. and Canada. Its Arizona State chapter had a history of alcohol violations.
In 2006, members forced pledges to drink, sending one to the hospital, records show. In September 2011, brothers meeting inside a university classroom passed around vodka bottles with the words “Down on your knees” scribbled across them. The chapter was placed on probation for two months.
In October 2011, six fraternity industry investigators, led by Kyle Pendleton, a former assistant dean of students at Purdue University, visited the campus and documented “widespread” hazing.
Fraternities at Arizona State open and close “fairly frequently” for bad behavior, even as their national fraternities have taken a “hands-off approach,” the examiners found.
“Alcohol and drugs seem to be prevalent in many social aspects of the fraternity and sorority experience at ASU,” they wrote. “High-risk and high-visibility drinking, including a heavy concentration of off-campus activities, contributes to this perception.”
The report was prescient, especially about the dangers of off-campus parties. Culolias, from Orange County, California, attended an off-campus party at a restaurant hosted by sororities and fraternities before he went missing in November 2012.
Searching for her son, his mother found one of his red Vans skateboarding shoes near a river. The coroner determined that his drowning was an accident caused by heavy drinking and hypothermia.
After Culolias’s death, Arizona State placed Sigma Alpha Epsilon on suspension. Then, this past May, a Sigma Alpha Epsilon member was hospitalized after he downed about 20 tequila shots in an off-campus drinking game, according to police and university records. The 20-year-old student had turned blue from a blood-alcohol level about six times the legal limit, police said. In June, Arizona State revoked Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s charter.
“The university has zero tolerance for actions that put students at risk,” spokeswoman Sharon Keeler said in an e-mail.
Robert Valenza, a chapter president before Arizona State shut the fraternity, said it shouldn’t be blamed for drinking.
“People will find alcohol, people will be underage,” he said. “It’s just part of the college experience.”
Sigma Alpha Epsilon has had nine deaths, including Culolias’s, related to drinking, drugs and hazing since 2006, more than any other fraternity.
“Some of our members or former members have acted in ways that are inconsistent with our mission and creed,” Brandon Weghorst, a national Sigma Alpha Epsilon spokesman, said in an e-mailed statement. “The overwhelming majority of our members act as true gentlemen.”
Arizona State “values the numerous contributions of the Greek community,” Keeler said. Most members follow campus rules while maintaining above-average grade-point averages, holding student leadership positions and raising more than $250,000 in charitable donations over the past year, she said.
Responding to the report, Arizona State began registering social events, trained chapter leaders about alcohol and hazing, and set up a new disciplinary board, Keeler said. The school is also expanding housing options to encourage more fraternity and sorority members to live on campus.
While Ira Fulton, who belonged to Delta Sigma Phi as an Arizona State undergraduate, supports the new housing plan, it will be a hard sell to other fraternity alumni, he said.
Greek alumni give the university “all kinds of hell” because they “all want their houses,” said Fulton, founder of Tempe, Arizona-based Fulton Homes and a member of the Arizona State University Foundation’s board of directors.
“They’ll say, ‘This is America. Kids want to drink. That’s their privilege. This is a free society. They did what we did when we went to college.’”
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Dan Golden at email@example.com