Despite pointed warnings about bad behavior, University of South Carolina fraternities are setting records for misconduct this fall.
However, fraternities are not alone in acting out.
Compared with last year, twice as many USC students campus wide have been hospitalized this fall for drinking too much. The school attributes that increase, in part, to changes in policy to emphasize student health and also the easy availability of alcohol, including in the nearby Five Points entertainment district.
An analysis by The State newspaper found USC fraternities were charged with more misconduct this fall than in any semester since the school began keeping track of violations online five years ago.
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Fraternities racked up 22 misconduct violations this fall, eight more than the 14 incidents in fall 2011 and a dozen more than the 10 in fall 2014, according to USC’s online conduct report.
USC Fraternity Council president Joe Stuhrenberg says the infractions were committed by just a few of the the school’s roughly 2,000 fraternity members.
USC says the increase in charges shows more students are reporting bad behavior, not that infractions are on the rise.
The school’s listing of fraternity violations dates only to fall 2011 and offers few, if any details, about the charges.
Almost all of the violations relate to drinking or hazing. Three USC fraternities were charged with hazing this fall, the most in any semester listed on USC’s website.
The increase in charges comes as USC officials grapple with whether and how to change Greek life to curb negative and abusive behavior, and amid an ongoing national debate about the role Greek organizations play in higher education.
In a recent interview, USC president Harris Pastides said he is “very upset” with “some of the data this year and some of the things you wake up reading about or some of the calls I get.”
But, he added, the school is not close to a decision on what large-scale steps, if any, are necessary to address the problems.
Fraternities on thin ice
After years of problems, USC officials were upfront about expecting better from fraternities this semester.
Earlier this year, USC floated the idea of fundamentally changing how fraternities meet, recruit and induct potential new members, activities that recently have landed the groups in trouble for alcohol and hazing.
On the table were changes to rush, the weekslong period in which fraternities recruit potential new members, and pledging, the monthslong, sometimes abusive induction period that follows.
USC officials have suggested rush could be shortened to curb fraternities’ opportunities to get into trouble or pushed back to the spring, giving new students a chance to adjust to college before joining a Greek organization.
USC officials also this summer discussed the possibility of ending pledging altogether.
But the state’s flagship university maintained its talks with fraternity leaders were preliminary only, barring more problems. Pastides publicly offered fraternities the chance to clean up their acts to avoid a pledging ban but said “more significant action” could follow bad behavior.
‘On paper, it’s not sharp’
USC suggested the changes after the 2015-16 school year in which eight fraternities were sanctioned, the most since nine were penalized during the 2011-12 school year.
Seven fraternities have been charged this fall with 22 infractions, some of them repeat offenders.
In August, an alleged party at the Chi Psi house in USC’s Greek Village resulted in two alcohol charges. The chapter was hit with another alcohol violation in September for drinking at its on-campus house before an off-campus event, and then another charge in October after failing to complete its educational sanctions before a deadline.
In August, Kappa Alpha Order was charged with an alcohol violation after an off-campus party that resulted in a hospitalization.
Three fraternities – Kappa Sigma, Pi Kappa Alpha and Pi Kappa Phi – each racked up three alcohol charges for a joint, off-campus social function on Sept. 8 after which some guests were hospitalized. Pi Kappa Phi later was charged with hazing after further investigation revealed new members were forced to drink alcohol before the Sept. 8 event.
Two other fraternities also were charged with hazing. Tau Kappa Epsilon was charged with interviewing new members with “inappropriate questions that were not in line with the organization’s educational practices.” Phi Sigma Kappa was charged after new members were forced to perform “physical calisthenic exercises” at an off-campus facility.
The 22 charges this fall are more than a fourth of the 84 charges brought against fraternities since the fall of 2011.
Three more fraternities remain closed after serious or repeated infractions. Just one of the school’s 13 largest remaining fraternities – Beta Theta Pi – has not been charged with a violation in the past five years.
Outgoing Fraternity Council president Stuhrenberg said hazing is unacceptable but cautioned against a sky-is-falling reaction to the misconduct numbers.
“On paper, it’s not sharp,” the USC senior said. “It’s a small number of members in a select few groups that are, quite honestly, ruining it for everyone.”
‘Those kids ... are going to behave’
The uptick in fraternities charged with hazing, in particular, makes some USC trustees cringe.
“I was so mad, I couldn’t stand it,” trustee Eddie Floyd, who was in Kappa Alpha Order at USC, said of his reaction to the numbers. “We’ve got to get through to those kids that they are going to behave.
“It’s a great thing for the university to have fraternities like this, but it also has to be managed correctly.”
In an emailed statement, USC said the increase in sanctions does not mean behavior is worse – just that more students are reporting it.
“The good news is that more Greek members than ever before feel comfortable coming forward to report misdeeds and are becoming vigilant about holding fellow students accountable for negative actions,” USC spokesman Jeff Stensland said.
“Of course, more work needs to be done, but we are optimistic that our efforts are paying off and many students are exhibiting a renewed sense of responsibility to do the right thing.”
USC trustee Mark Buyck Jr., who was in Kappa Alpha at USC, said Greek organizations should be punished for misbehavior but that fraternities have “no more bad eggs than in the greater university population.”
“The Greek community members, we have found throughout the years, are some of our most enthusiastic alumni,” Buyck said. “I think Greek Village members are more scrutinized than others on campus.”
Fraternities are not alone in acting out.
Through November, 164 USC students – about two-thirds of them freshmen – have been transported to the hospital after drinking too much, according to the school’s records. That is more than double the 80 hospitalizations during the same period last year.
In a statement, a USC spokesman attributed the increase partly to the school’s efforts to communicate that students will not be charged with a conduct violation for seeking medical help.
“This practice reflects our belief that human life should never be jeopardized simply because a student fears punishment,” USC spokesman Wes Hickman said.
USC is far from the only school in the country confronting alcohol issues, Hickman added.
But the availability of alcohol in nearby areas, including Five Points, does not help, he said.
“Too often, bars turn a blind eye to high-risk behaviors and have helped create an environment where drinking beyond one’s limit is celebrated rather than discouraged,” Hickman said, adding USC is putting together a group to monitor the Five Points area and work with responsible bar owners on changes.
Sororities make changes
In September, USC sororities took steps to address a “significant increase in high-risk behaviors.”
Sororities unanimously approved banning liquor at social events, hiring more security guards for larger events in Five Points, requiring a 30-minute “sober period” before social events, and providing free food and water during events.
“This year, I think that our sororities have really started actually discussing problems that we have in our community and how we can work together to fix them,” USC Sorority Council president M.C. Lombardo said.
“Before, it was more of something that everyone knew about, but no one actually discussed what we can do to change things so that our community is safer and we, as members, are acting in a more positive light.”
President Pastides praised those changes and said he would like to see fraternities take a similar approach.
‘A decision to be made’
After warning its fraternities to straighten up their acts earlier this year, a decision about whether USC will impose sweeping changes still is up in the air.
A USC spokesman said there is “no doubt” the incidents “impact our discussions with students, alumni and national (fraternity) offices about these long-term issues of recruitment and pledging.”
But the school still is in wait-and-see mode, Pastides said, repeating this is a “telling year” for Greek organizations.
“We want to wait until deeper into the year until we know for sure. I think it’s still a decision to be made.”
USC’s talks with fraternity leaders about possible changes have not heated up since the warnings early this fall, and the issue has not been discussed heavily in trustee meetings this fall, officials have said.
USC alums and trustees say the Greek system remains an important part of the school. USC’s Greek students make higher grades than nonstudents. This fall, fraternities also raised tens of thousands of dollars for charity.
And they offer unrivaled social and professional networking opportunities, trustee Floyd said. “My fraternity brothers have been the best friends of my life.”
Still, the system could use tweaking, he said, adding he would support cutting pledging.
“I think that when a person is inducted into a fraternity, they’re in the fraternity,” Floyd said. “There should be absolutely no excuse at all for hazing. We need to change that.”
Stuhrenberg, whose tenure as Fraternity Council president ends this semester, said fraternities and individual members must be accountable. He said fraternity leaders have worked to change the Greek culture, including stepping up how chapters police their own members.
“That culture, the hazing issue, is slowly changing for the better,” Stuhrenberg said. “We can’t dictate change from the top. It has to happen from the ground floor. The current freshmen and sophomores have to be the agent for that.”
Pastides said USC has not set a number of infractions after which it intends to make changes.
“Even though we have zero tolerance, I think it’s unrealistic to think that zero events, you know, zero arrests, zero (medical) transports is a realistic goal,” Pastides said. “But I think we want to see that we’re heading in the right direction.”
USC fraternities on thin ice?
After USC’s fraternities were told to clean up their acts earlier this year, misconduct violations have increased
Misconduct violation charges this fall
Incidents this fall that led to those charges
Fraternity misconduct charges since 2011
Greeks at USC
Fraternity members among 26 chapters
Sorority members among 18 chapters
3.1 vs. 3.02
Fraternity members’ grade-point average vs. non-Greek male students
3.48 vs. 3.28
Sorority members’ grade-point average vs. non-Greek female students
67.2% vs. 57%
Four-year graduation rate among Greek students vs. non-Greeks