As Maxwell Gruver, a first-year at Louisiana State University, was wheeled into the hospital last month, his blood alcohol concentration was eight times the legal limit — nearly 0.5.
Gruver, who was a pledge for Phi Delta Theta, died in the aftermath of a hazing incident at his fraternity. Brothers allegedly quizzed pledges like Gruver on facts about the fraternity and asked them to perform chores. If they failed, they had to take a drink.
The death at LSU bears an obvious resemblance to events closer to home. A pledge named Timothy Piazza’s lifeless body was abused and later redressed to cover it up from the authorities last February at Beta Theta Pi at Penn State.
Obviously, there was a lack of accountability and safety during these incidents. And these recent events aren’t the first times a fraternity’s recklessness has led to a death. In fact, there has been at least one death from hazing each year since 1961. Anyone would find the trend of violence in Greek life disturbing, but as a member of Greek life at Pitt myself, stories like these are really impactful.
Big schools like LSU and Penn State seem to attract the most attention for their uncontrollable Greeks. It’s often hard for me to notice similarities between the reprehensible culture at fraternities and sororities at schools with large Greek populations and what I’m familiar with here at Pitt.
As it turns out, there’s a science to this disparity. The psychology of in-group favoritism — the tendency to prefer members of one’s own group over others — is emphasized at schools with larger Greek populations, but down-played at Pitt, making a huge difference in how the culture plays out. If Greek-lifers want to fix the problems that come along with this mindset, they need to work to be more like Pitt.
Greek life at some schools introduces a great deal of favoritism toward the fraternity “in-group” as early on as the pledging process. As new members grow closer to their chapter, in-group favoritism theorizes, they come to identify themselves with that social group. They favor its members and traditions and reject any plot against the group, especially those that come from “out-groups” such as other fraternities or sororities — or even the general school population.
The implications of the groupthink that comes along with this in-group favoritism can be severe. Members who only think about how to please their chapter are willing to partake in risky activities, including hazing. Members of Gruver’s fraternity could have done something to help save his life, but they had already put up the roadblocks in their mind that made them insistent on adhering to the practices of their social group.
But there may still be hope for my fellow Greek-lifers. In-group favoritism mainly happens at schools where Greeks make up a major part of the student population. A larger Greek presence on campus leads to students valuing membership in a sorority or fraternity more, which leads to stronger in-group associations for those who get in.
LSU’s Greek life, for example, includes about a quarter of all students, and about 17 percent of the student population at Penn State is involved in fraternities or sororities. Many southern states have even higher levels of participation in Greek life. In those schools, the common mentality is that if you aren’t in Greek life, you don’t have much of a life in general.
Meanwhile, only 9 percent of Pitt’s student population is in Greek life. Greek life is extensively regulated here — the University put all major sororities and fraternities on campus on probation for a bottle of alcohol at an off-campus retreat in 2011, and instituted a policy in 2013 that fines organizations for any low GPAs among its members. You hear about Greeks on campus, you see them, but you don’t have to associate with them. You don’t have to be involved in their politics, and you certainly do not have to acknowledge them.
The elitism surrounding Greek life at institutions where it has a greater presence simply doesn’t exist at Pitt. Here, Greek-lifers generally realize that rushing was our choice, but it certainly doesn’t need to be everyone’s. Here, we respect our fellow students not involved in Greek life, and maintain a slim distinction between those in Greek life and those who aren’t.
At some schools, fraternities and sororities will routinely force potential members to show up to bid day only to be rejected. Many are given a blank paper — signifying a lack of bids from any frat or sorority — and are devastated by the results, forced to compare their “failure” to everyone else’s “success.” Those who get in feel like they owe their chapter something.
Here at Pitt, recruitment is much lighter. On bid day, nearly everyone receives a bid and are generally happy with their placement. On the slim chance that you don’t get a bid, you are called by the Greek office before bid day so you don’t show up eager, only to have your hopes crushed by an empty card. Students aren’t psychologically trained to put the in-group before all else.
This is the way things should be — enforcing safety and accountability. At schools with larger Greek life populations, it’s difficult to foster such an open and inclusive environment.
With the challenges of secrecy surrounding each chapter’s practices and members’ reluctance to step out of their in-group social bias, how can Greek life organizations prevent deaths similar to Gruver’s?
Schools should either keep their Greek life organizations small or adopt more regulations for a larger Greek population. Rumors of hazing should be thoroughly investigated and disciplined — a policy administrators practice here at Pitt.
Greek life is an institution in the United States with a long history that’s not likely to go away anytime soon. We shouldn’t be trying to ban fraternities and sororities — they add a lot to campus life — but that doesn’t mean that students involved in Greek organizations and university administrators can’t work together to fight abuses in fraternities and sororities.
Institutions need to step up and take responsibility for the safety and security of their members. Universities exercising more control, as well as fellow Greek-lifers enforcing safe and positive new member recruitment, can keep tragedies such as those at LSU and Penn State from happening again.
Write to Vaibhavi at email@example.com.