South Carolina’s two largest colleges — and now state lawmakers — plan to examine stricter oversight of fraternities after a series of recent incidents and the deaths of two pledges this school year.
Three University of South Carolina fraternity chapters have closed this school year, including one after the death of a pledge. That compares to only two chapters shut down in the previous three years combined.
Last fall, Clemson University shut down its first fraternity in at least four years after a pledge died during a run with fellow chapter members.
Other problems persist at fraternities.
At USC, few large chapters have unblemished conduct records.
Of the university’s 17 largest fraternity chapters last fall, all but three have been cited for alcohol, drug or hazing violations since 2011, according to school records.
“They take everything pretty far,” said Austin Irish, a former president at USC’s Kappa Alpha chapter, of the university’s ratcheted-up enforcement. “I could turn on the heat when I invited people over to watch TV and, because it makes someone uncomfortable, that’s hazing.”
But backed by a recent USC board of trustees’ resolution condemning hazing, administrators at the state’s largest college are looking to increase enforcement.
USC also plans to look at other instances of inappropriate behavior by students, a move Clemson started as well this year.
A USC focus group will look at student conduct issues – including alcohol use, sexual assault, cyber bullying and racism. USC suspended a student Friday after a racial slur was written on a study room whiteboard.
“This group will look at high-risk and abusive behaviors across the entire student population – not just Greek organizations,” university spokesman Wes Hickman said. “The issues we are talking about here are not USC-specific problems. These types of incidents are occurring all over the country. This is a societal issue, and there is no easy fix.
“Our goal is for the USC campus to be the safest place for our students.”
The fraternity debate has jumped across Sumter Street from the USC campus to the State House.
Last week, more than half of the state Senate backed a proposal to form a statewide task force to examine student conduct on college campuses after the pledge deaths in South Carolina and recent controversies elsewhere in the country.
“The alarm bells are going off for me with these tragedies,” said state Sen. Joel Lourie, a Richland Democrat who is the bill’s main sponsor. “Parents should not have to send their kids to college fearful of something bad happening, but yet it has the feel that things are getting worse.”
‘A few rotten eggs’
As USC has boosted its alcohol-awareness and anti-hazing efforts in recent years, enforcement issues involving fraternities have become more frequent.
Three fraternity chapters are no longer recognized on campus this school year.
By comparison, Clemson has kicked out only one fraternity chapter over the past four years. That was Sigma Phi Epsilon, punished after a pledge, Tucker Hipps, died during a run with other new chapter members last fall.
The USC chapters that have left since August are:
▪ Delta Tau Delta, which left campus last fall after its third alcohol-related offense since 2011. The chapter can return to campus in 2018.
▪ Kappa Sigma, which was kicked off campus last year after hazing, alcohol and drug violations. The chapter was cited for a 2011 alcohol violation. The chapter can return in 2019.
▪ Pi Kappa Alpha, which has closed temporarily pending an investigation into the death of Charlie Terreni Jr. The pledge’s body was found last month in an off-campus Columbia home that was used by fraternity members. The chapter also was cited for a 2011 recruitment violation.
Two other fraternities that USC placed on probation this school year, Chi Psi and Pi Kappa Phi, also had been cited for previous alcohol violations since 2011, according to school records.
Alcohol has been the source of most violations at USC fraternities over the past four years.
Of 27 reports against fraternity chapters since the fall of 2011, 21 cited alcohol-related charges. Seven reports cited hazing and three mentioned drugs. In some cases, reports cited multiple violations.
“If this is not corrected, this will ruin the Greek Village that has been one of the pinnacles at USC,” said university trustee Mark Buyck, who has a street named after him in the area populated by fraternity and sorority houses. “The board of trustees is determined to have a tight rein on the situation.
“We’ve got a few rotten eggs, and they shouldn’t spoil the whole thing. We’re not going to let that happen.”
In February after Kappa Sigma was sanctioned, USC’s board passed a resolution reaffirming the school’s anti-hazing stance.
“(B)e it further resolved that the board of trustees fully supports the university’s continuing efforts to protect its students by eliminating hazing and holding accountable those individuals that engage in such deplorable behavior,” the resolution said.
Administrators have taken the board stance as a call for tougher, but undetermined, enforcement, Hickman said. The topic is expected to come up at the trustees’ April meeting.
Hickman did not provide specific reasons why citations against fraternities, including chapter suspensions, have risen this year, except to say: “Over the last several years, the university has enhanced efforts around education and enforcement.”
Tim Bryson, president of the USC fraternity council, referred questions to the university last week.
Irish, the former recent fraternity president, said USC’s fraternity chapters know the university has become more strict in recent years, especially concerning hazing.
On its website, the school includes “wearing odd clothing” and “having to memorize trivial bits of information” as examples of hazing.
The school also has changed its rules overseeing recruitment of new fraternity members to make events more regimented, Irish said. More university paperwork now is needed ahead of parties and social events.
Enforcement also has become stricter, including more frequent checks of fraternity houses and citations for lesser offenses, student fraternity officials said.
Kappa Alpha, Irish’s house, was close to being ejected from USC’s campus in 2013 after a series of violations, including for hazing. But the chapter was able to stay on campus after kicking out more than 100 members and accepting two years of probation.
The fraternity got in trouble again a year ago after an event at a Columbia-area hotel, Irish said.
A hotel guest complained about members being loud. The chapter was cited for hazing because the guest heard members yelling at each other, Irish said. That charge was overturned, but Kappa Alpha was cited for an alcohol violation and its probation was extended a year until February 2016.
“There’s a lot of he said, she said,” Irish said.
Still, Irish said he understands the university’s cautious approach to fraternity conduct.
“It’s all about lawsuits, insurance and covering their tails,” the junior from Columbia said. “If something happens, who’s going to catch the blame? Everything we say and do will be blown up 1,000 times.”
Allow underage drinking?
Suggestions have started to flow about how to deal with fraternities.
Trustee Buyck, who was a member of Kappa Alpha at USC, said he has recommended to some fellow board members that they allow students who are 18 and older to drink alcohol in controlled areas.
That would end the temptation of underage drinking at parties where most fraternity members are not old enough to consume alcohol, he said. The legal drinking age in South Carolina is 21; it was increased from 18 in 1986.
Buyck also has considered recommending allowing fraternity chapters to register off-campus housing used for parties with the university. Now, chapters hold events outside their Greek Village houses because they are subject to fewer restrictions.
State Sen. Lourie, a one-time Sigma Nu member at USC who has two children who joined a fraternity and sorority, wonders if it is time to change student culture on campuses.
Lourie suggests requiring that new-member recruitment be held in the spring, instead of the fall. That would give students more time to acclimate to campus life before deciding whether to go through fraternity or sorority rush, he said.
He also is considering a requirement that students live on campus for their first two years in college and reviewing the state’s anti-hazing law to see if it needs a broader definition of activities that could trigger a violation.
Lourie said the statewide task force he proposed last week is a way to start a conversation about needed changes on college campuses.
The task force would examine alcohol and drug abuse, hazing, sexual assault and discrimination on college campuses. Made up of college, law enforcement, and drug and mental health officials, the task force also would look at how many problems have ties to fraternities and sororities.
If approved, the task force would be charged with recommending the best policies for colleges and bills for lawmakers by Jan. 1.
“It’s a blank check to come back with the best proactive actions we can take,” Lourie said. “Let’s see what can we do to prevent what happened at Clemson and what we can do to prevent what happened at South Carolina.”
Meanwhile, USC and Clemson say they are at work – or soon will be – on the issue of fraternity behavior.
While USC is about to start a study group, Clemson already has a task force of students, advisers, alumni and administrators working on recommendations to send university leaders by the fall, school spokeswoman Cathy Sams said.
Clemson’s task force was started after Hipps’ death and a “Cripmas” street gang-themed holiday party at another fraternity last year.
The party led to Sigma Alpha Epsilon receiving disciplinary probation until February 2017. Its members must undergo education on alcohol use, social justice and gangs.
Hipps’ fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon, has been suspended until December 2019, the first of shutdown of chapter at Clemson since 2011, according to the school records.
‘Not all about parties’
While USC has cracked down on more fraternities in recent years, student leaders say the chapters still offer benefits to their members.
USC’s fraternity members posted an average grade-point average of 3.10 in the fall versus 2.99 for male students campuswide, according to university data.
Chapters also hold a number of charity events. USC fraternities and sororities raised nearly $390,000 in the fall semester – nearly double from four years earlier.
Irish, the former Kappa Alpha president, called joining a fraternity the great decision of his life.
“It’s like learning how to run a business,” Irish said. “It’s not all about parties, hazing and being wild.”
Other fraternities operate successfully within the rules.
Sigma Chi is one of the three large USC chapters to avoid citations since 2011.
The fraternity has stayed out of trouble by holding its members accountable, chapter president Hunter Nichols said.
The chapter holds judicial-style hearings – usually three or four a semester – if members violate rules. Violators can lose social event privileges, be fined or have their memberships revoked.
“We try and make examples out of guys,” said Nichols, a senior from Lexington. “We’re not completely innocent. We’ve had our troubles. We’ve handled them the best way we could, and that’s what has allowed us to stay on campus.
“It’s about being honest and open with (school and national fraternity administrators). It’s all about mutual respect,” he said. “We all live in fear of being kicked off campus. So we try to stay away from those activities.”
To stay out of trouble, chapters must recognize new rules and realities on campus, Nichols said.
“You have to be vulnerable to change.”
Fraternities, sororities at USC
A by-the-numbers look at violations and growth
Chapters on the hot spot
3: University of South Carolina fraternity chapters closed during the 2014-15 school year
2: USC fraternity chapters closed in the three previous years combined
14: Chapters among USC’s 17 largest fraternities at the start of this school year that had been cited for violations since 2011
27: Conduct violation reports against USC fraternities since the fall of 2011
1: Conduct violation report against a USC sorority since the fall of 2011
Meanwhile, USC membership shifts
7%: Growth in fraternity membership since 2010
68%: Growth in sorority membership since 2010
7.4%: Percentage of undergraduates in fraternities in 2010
7%: Percentage of undergraduates in fraternities in 2014
12.2%: Percentage of undergraduates in sororities in 2010
18.1%: Percentage of undergraduates in sororities in 2014
SOURCE: Research of USC data