Fraternities in South Carolina are finding themselves in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons this fall as their activities receive closer attention from schools and national fraternity offices – and go viral on social media.
Since college classes started in August:
• A Clemson University pledge died during an early morning run with fraternity members. Another chapter at the Upstate school suspended activities last week after holding a street gang-themed holiday party that went viral on social media.
• Two University of South Carolina fraternities have lost their charters for alcohol and hazing violations.
• Three Coastal Carolina University fraternities were suspended for hazing. One chapter has closed.
There also are signs that the bad-boy reputation of fraternities may be hurting their efforts to recruit new members. USC, Clemson and Coastal Carolina all report much heavier interest and membership in sororities than fraternities.
At USC, where overall undergraduate enrollment has increased by 13 percent from 2010 to 2013, fraternity membership has increased only by 3 percent. The school’s fraternity membership increased by just 45 members during that period.
Sorority membership, meanwhile, spiked by 35 percent. USC sorority chapters added 921 members.
“The sorority product — there’s a lot more people buying it than they are buying the fraternity product,” said Jerry Brewer, USC’s associate vice president for student affairs. “You can’t be in a situation where your customer is perceiving that the product is not in their best interest.”
Brewer said one reason might be some prospective fraternity members do not want to put up with hazing – even non-abusive activities, such as making pledges run errands for upperclassmen.
Fraternities and schools have policies banning hazing, and South Carolina has an anti-hazing law.
The spread of new media has led to more actions by national fraternity offices against local chapters that violate that ban, said Deborah Conner, Coastal Carolina’s vice president for student affairs.
“The attention they’re paying is to a new level,” said Conner, who has spent two decades overseeing Greek life at the Conway school.
The majority of S.C. fraternity members have not been cited for student conduct violations. And the Greek system offers advantages for students, advocates say.
Compared with male nonmembers, USC fraternity members have higher grade point averages, according to university data. And a higher percentage of fraternity members remain in school after their freshman year than nonmembers.
About one out of four undergraduates at USC and Clemson belongs to a fraternity or sorority.
“We know there will be occasional lapses in judgment and mistakes made,” said Pete Smithhilser, president of the North-American Interfraternity Conference, a national fraternity trade group. “Fraternity chapters should be comprised of men who are willing to hold themselves and each other to higher standards.”
No Clemson closings
The spate of negative news about S.C. fraternities is reinforcing old stereotypes that colleges and national fraternity organizations are working to change.
At Clemson, the body of Tucker Hipps, a Sigma Phi Epsilon pledge, was found in Lake Hartwell after an early morning run with fraternity members in September. The possibility that hazing played a role in Hipps’ death remains part of an ongoing Oconee County Sheriff’s Department investigation, expected to be released soon.
Last weekend, Clemson’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter held a “Cripsmas” party at an off-campus home. Afterward, photos of fraternity members dressed like and mimicking the primarily African-American crime gang appeared on social media.
The incident led the chapter to suspend activities last week and Clemson president Jim Clements to speak with students on campus to quell racial concerns.
Clemson halted fraternity activity for two weeks after Hipps’ death. The ban was lifted in exchange for restrictions on how chapters serve alcohol.
Now, Clemson is taking a closer look at fraternity and sorority conduct, putting together a task force of students, faculty, Greek advisers, student government representatives, alumni and staff, said George Smith, Clemson’s dean of student life. The task force is charged with finding ways to reduce trouble from alcohol and hazing, bolster education programs and boost accountability among students.
The Cripsmas party has sparked discussions about ending themed parties that might be offensive, Smith said.
While USC and Coastal combined have seen seven fraternity chapters depart since 2011, no chapters have been closed at Clemson despite 12 violations over the past three years, according to records supplied by the school.
Five Clemson chapters entered the year on disciplinary probation. Two more went under temporary suspension this fall, including Sigma Alpha Epsilon for the gang party.
The other was Hipps’ fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon, which suspended operations while the investigation into his death continues.
‘Age it out’
USC’s student affairs chief, Brewer, said some fraternity chapters reach a point of no return.
“It gets to a certain point where a culture among a group of individuals is so strong in a negative fashion that … you have to age it out,” he said
That means shutting down a chapter for four to five years and starting over.
After having three chapters close in the past two years for hazing, Coastal Carolina administrators are visiting each chapter to go over rules and expectations.
While Coastal officials met with all fraternity leaders in a single meeting, they want to make sure all members are getting the message, Conner said.
“I’m a huge supporter of what Greek life can do for a student’s experience,” Conner said. “But I am not going to hesitate to close chapters if they are not offering good experiences for students.”
While improvements have been made at some chapters, USC’s Brewer suggests perhaps the time has come for some fraternities to change how they pitch themselves.
“If you’re marketing the social end of it, that’s shallow,” he said. “You can always find someone to party with.”
Compared to its sororities, USC’s fraternities clearly are less successful at attracting new members.
Nearly 60 percent more women went through USC’s sorority recruitment in the fall than men who rushed fraternities – 1,655 versus 975. And nearly three times more women joined sororities than men joined fraternities – 1,383 to 481.
“They ask, ‘Is it worth the value? Is it worth the effort?’ ” Brewer said.
USC made several changes after the school shut down fraternity recruitment temporarily in 2011 in the wake of alcohol violations at seven chapters.
For example, the Greek Conduct Board, made up of fraternity and sorority members, stepped up enforcement and sanctioning of their peers, Brewer said.
This year, the board cited Delta Tau Delta for alcohol and dangerous behavior violations before classes started, leading the fraternity’s national office to withdraw the chapter’s charter until 2018. Delta Tau Delta was among the chapters punished after the 2011 busts, only ending a probation a year ago.
The university also started focusing on some minor examples of hazing, such as asking pledges to complete tasks and run errands, Brewer said.
“I need a pack of cigarettes. I need a six pack of beer. I need an umbrella; it’s raining,” he said. “Over and over again.”
After the 2011 crackdown, new recruitment rules also were put in place.
Prospective USC fraternity members must have a minimum grade point average of 2.75 in high school or college, participate in a community service project and attend an educational program.
No conduct problems were reported during fraternity recruitment this year, Brewer said.
“At one point, it might have been, ‘Let’s just get bodies – we need 40 pledges,’ ” he said. “Now, it’s like a selective process, where they want to know the quality of the person.”
Going off campus
That doesn’t mean all problems have disappeared.
Three USC fraternities started the fall semester on probation for hazing, drugs, disorderly conduct and alcohol, according to student conduct reports.
One of them, Kappa Alpha, removed 75 percent of its members in 2013 but ran into trouble again last spring and is on indefinite suspension.
Meanwhile, Kappa Sigma lost its USC charter last month after a raid of a pledge event at an off-campus house where drugs and underage drinking were discovered, according to police reports. Two people were arrested.
A further investigation also found hazing, including forced drinking, according to an email from Kappa Sigma’s national office. Chapter members dispute the accounts.
The Kappa Sigma chapter just had come off three years of probation in August, stemming from 2011 violations, including a recruitment event involving strippers.
Kappa Sigma is fighting back and won a temporary halt in court to USC’s move to evict chapter members from their on-campus fraternity house, scheduled to take place this weekend. A hearing is scheduled for Tuesday in Columbia.
Off-campus activities, like those at USC and Clemson, are landing chapters in trouble. However, the fraternity chapter extends beyond the chapter house when members gather elsewhere, Brewer said.
“There is no reason fraternity men should behave one way when they are on campus and another way when they are not,” said Smithhilser, head of the national fraternity trade group. “We encourage fraternity men to hold each other accountable for their actions and behaviors at all times.”
To rein in off-campus incidents, Coastal Carolina is requiring all new-member events be held on its Conway campus, even though chapters don’t have on-campus houses.
“It gives us a little more oversight of what’s happening,” Coastal’s Conner said.
‘You see this?’
School also are using online tools to publicize fraternity conduct violations — and, maybe, catch a few new ones.
USC started posting conduct actions against fraternities online after the 2011 incidents.
Clemson plans to start doing the same thing next year, Smith said.
Hank Nuwer, a professor in Indiana who is an expert on hazing issues, likes the increased transparency.
“Then, parents can get involved and look at the lists on the websites to see what kind of places these are,” he said.
As students use social media more frequently, the schools have ways to follow them and see what they are doing.
USC has an employee who monitors social media – including Twitter, Facebook and Instagram – along with staffers in its student affairs office who are not much older than the students they are watching, Brewer said.
At Clemson, photos posted from the fraternity “gang” party were tweeted at school administration accounts.
“They were saying, ‘Hey did you see this?’ ” said Smith, the university’s student life dean. “We did.”
The head of the national trade group for fraternities said he appreciates the role of social media.
“Social media has helped shine a brighter light on these and other issues, and that’s a positive,” Smithhilser said. “We can’t address these issues effectively if they are not part of the public discourse.”