Column: Greek life promotes dangerous, elitist culture



The Miller Centre County District Attorney and Timothy Piazza’s parents stand at a podium during a press conference on May 5, 2017 after their son’s death earlier that year. (David Swanson/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

By Christian Snyder, Opinions Editor

At Penn State’s fraternity Beta Theta Pi’s Bid Night, on a cold February night in State College, Timothy Piazza fractured his skull and ruptured his spleen when he fell down a flight of stairs.

His fraternity brothers called an ambulance nearly 12 hours later after slapping him, sitting on him and repeatedly punching him in the stomach. Before help arrived, they tried to dress his stiff, unresponsive body in order to make his body appear more normal, according to reporting based on a courtroom video.

Eighteen members of the now-closed chapter of Beta Theta Pi are facing nearly 1,500 criminal charges — including eight charges of involuntary manslaughter — but it will not be enough to make up for the death of Tim Piazza. It will be not enough to change the persistent, dangerously elitist culture that enables Greek life’s perpetual success. The only thing that will be enough at this point is to put an end to Greek life’s elitist, dangerous culture.

Piazza’s story may be the most vivid, due to the fraternity house’s security cameras, but it certainly isn’t unique. Chun Deng died during hazing rituals at a Baruch College fraternity in 2015. David Bogenberger died in 2012 from alcohol poisoning at California State University during a fraternity hazing event. The list goes on and on — and doesn’t end with manslaughter.

A Georgia Tech fraternity was disbanded in 2013 after circulating an email titled “Luring your Rapebait.”

A University of Oklahoma fraternity gained national infamy after a video of its explicitly racist chant went viral in 2015.

Each of these fraternities isn’t unique. Each of these incidents isn’t unique. Even the students aren’t unique — these aren’t cases of outliers. Members of fraternities are three times as likely to commit sexual assault or rape. There has been at least one hazing-related death on a college campus every year since 1970.

And this elitist, inbred culture doesn’t just harm individuals. A fraternity in California was charged with chopping down nearly three dozen trees in a U.S. National Park. One group threw a “Clemson Cripmas” party in 2015, where fraternity brothers dressed as gang members.

Greek organizations, which purport to build brotherhoods and sisterhoods, are found at the centers of scandals so often now that their existence negates their principles. Take Beta Theta Pi, for example, the fraternity responsible for Piazza’s death. Their core values include mutual assistance, trust, responsible conduct and integrity, according to their website. Clearly these values were tossed aside the night of Piazza’s death, but it wasn’t the first time.

Every time someone blacks out at a party and is shown the curb, mutual assistance is violated.

Every time alcohol or illegal drugs are provided to underage students, responsible conduct is violated.

Every time someone is sexually assaulted, every single principle is violated.

Behavior like this all rests on a core principle of Greek culture on college campuses — elitism. And the specific type of elitism that fraternities breed is overwhelmingly white and male. Racist party themes and racist chants are all too commonplace in frats but it’s more systemic than that — a 2010 study found that only 3.8 percent of members from eight east coast fraternities identified as non-white in 2006.

When it comes to gender, regulations that prevent sororities from serving alcohol give fraternities all the power, reinforcing a patriarchal system.

When it comes to class, the cost of fraternities is often prohibitively high for students of lower-income backgrounds. The cost of living in fraternity housing can total more than $30,000 through the course of students’ fraternity years, making it inaccessible for those who can’t afford such high living costs.

And just like with race or gender, class-based segregation is more systemic than the individual — at Princeton, one of the few schools that collects demographic data on Greek life, less than 5 percent of Greek life members came from lower to middle class families, compared to the school’s 21 percent of freshman from the same income brackets.

This larger, more structural type of insular elitism is why even in the face of persistently horrifying headlines like Tim Piazza’s, fraternities are still able to succeed. About 85 percent of US Supreme Court justices, 76 percent of US congressmen, 80 percent of Fortune 500 executives and nearly every president belonged to fraternities, according to Cornell University.

Greek-letter organizations even have a political Super PAC representing them in front of our lawmakers — Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee — that pushed bills that would limit college rape investigations.

It’s not to say that providing these types of opportunities is wrong. For those that seek them and use the system to their benefit, they have a much greater chance at success. But the problem is that regardless of how much it benefits individual students or how many “good guys” there are in fraternities, the system perpetuates and normalizes class-, race- and gender-based discrimination.

In response to realizing the dangers that fraternities represent, many people — from journalists in the business world to researchers publishing peer-reviewed academic journals — are calling for serious changes to the way Greek life exists in the larger college experience.

But just like nearly 1,500 criminal charges won’t be enough, even serious change won’t work anymore. Fraternity culture is so entrenched with rape culture, binge drinking culture and racist attitudes that nothing could save it now. It’s time for colleges and their students to stand up against these prejudiced institutions to protect the well-being of the greater student body.

Fraternities respond to claims like this with defense, usually using the principles of friendship, philanthropy, leadership and integrity to justify their existence, and even necessitate it. But no amount of philanthropy and no number of friends could ever be justification for the bare facts — Greek life is where elitist culture thrives and where its evils manifest, and we shouldn’t stand by as it continues.

Christian is currently the Opinions Editor of The Pitt News, and primarily writes on social justice and campus issues for The Pitt News.

Write to Christian at [email protected].