I briefly considered joining a fraternity when I first entered college, mainly because I thought they had a cool song.
It quickly became apparent, however, that they didn’t like my clothes, the girl I was dating, and the reason I had come to college. Since I had come to study to become what I always wanted to be, a science professor, thought the girl was pretty nice, and didn’t have any other clothes, I decided the song wasn’t that cool.
So my knowledge of fraternities is not first hand. But having spent a good fraction of my life around universities, I’ve seen a lot of the nonsense they do and have come to believe that most of them aren’t worth the powder to blow them up. Perhaps that colors my reaction to the tragic 2012 hazing death of David Bogenberger, something about which I’ve been asked but upon which I’ve never commented.
David, a freshman at Northern Illinois University, died from alcohol poisoning in an initiation ritual in which he was told to drink as much as two-thirds of a quart of vodka in an hour and a half, something everyone knows is extremely dangerous A wrongful death lawsuit brought by his parents against members of the off campus Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity alleges that members were told not to call 911 to aid the unconscious pledges.
Illinois has a hazing statute which defines it as knowingly requiring the “performance of any act” for the purpose of induction or admission, if that act is not sanctioned or authorized by the institution and it results in bodily harm.
Lawyers for the five fraternity members who are charged with class 4 felonies, however, argued last week that the statute is unconstitutionally vague. Because the acts are not explicitly spelled out, said one of them, it would lead to “unbridled discretion of interpretation” by the authorities. The lawyers, who I realize are only doing what they’re being paid to do, want all charges dropped.
Boy, if it were only that easy. Sure, the judge next month could indeed let the fraternity members off the hook. The trouble is he can’t let David’s parents off the hook. For the rest of their lives they will have to live in unthinkable despair. Nor can the judge let David off the hook to pursue his dreams again. He’s on the hook for eternity. No, the fraternity members must be made to understand that they used their position of authority and trust to do something that simply cannot be undone, even if they pray that it could be. It doesn’t matter what they meant to do, only what they did.
The acts in the statute can’t be spelled out because there is no end to the dangerous and irresponsible things fraternities force their pledges to do, from drinking caustic solutions to dodging trains. I can’t count the number of young men I’ve seen squander their futures seeking the approval of imperious frat jerks who had contemptuous disrespect for their pledges’ ambitions and hopes for the future.
Perhaps I take things like college too seriously. As some of you know, I learned to speak Latin because I thought professors spoke it to each other. Yes, the joke was on me. But I have to believe that parents trying to come up with those ridiculous tuition fees would prefer to pay for something more like the Halls of Ivy than like Animal House.
Fraternity hazing is at best a distraction from the serious work students need to do and at worst an untimely exit from a lifetime of promise and accomplishment. It persists because we’ve always treated it like a humorous rite of passage. It’s not. It’s nothing more than sadistic humiliation and we need to do whatever it takes to stop it.