The Dark Power Of Fraternities
one warm spring night in 2011, a young man named Travis Hughes stood on the back deck of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house at Marshall University, in West Virginia, and was struck by what seemed to him—under the influence of powerful inebriants, not least among them the clear ether of youth itself—to be an excellent idea: he would shove a bottle rocket up his ass and blast it into the sweet night air. And perhaps it was an excellent idea. What was not an excellent idea, however, was to misjudge the relative tightness of a 20-year-old sphincter and the propulsive reliability of a 20-cent bottle rocket. What followed ignition was not the bright report of a successful blastoff, but the muffled thud of fire in the hole.
Also on the deck, and also in the thrall of the night’s pleasures, was one Louis Helmburg III, an education major and ace benchwarmer for the Thundering Herd baseball team. His response to the proposed launch was the obvious one: he reportedly whipped out his cellphone to record it on video, which would turn out to be yet another of the night’s seemingly excellent but ultimately misguided ideas. When the bottle rocket exploded in Hughes’s rectum, Helmburg was seized by the kind of battlefield panic that has claimed brave men from outfits far more illustrious than even the Thundering Herd. Terrified, he staggered away from the human bomb and fell off the deck. Fortunately for him, and adding to the Chaplinesque aspect of the night’s miseries, the deck was no more than four feet off the ground, but such was the urgency of his escape that he managed to get himself wedged between the structure and an air-conditioning unit, sustaining injuries that would require medical attention, cut short his baseball season, and—in the fullness of time—pit him against the mighty forces of the Alpha Tau Omega national organization, which had been waiting for him.
It takes a certain kind of personal-injury lawyer to look at the facts of this glittering night and wrest from them a plausible plaintiff and defendant, unless it were possible for Travis Hughes to be sued by his own anus. But the fraternity lawsuit is a lucrative mini-segment of the personal-injury business, and if ever there was a deck that ought to have had a railing, it was the one that served as a nighttime think tank and party-idea testing ground for the brain trust of the Theta Omicron Chapter of Alpha Tau Omega and its honored guests—including these two knuckleheads, who didn’t even belong to the fraternity. Moreover, the building codes of Huntington, West Virginia, are unambiguous on the necessity of railings on elevated decks. Whether Helmburg stumbled in reaction to an exploding party guest or to the Second Coming of Jesus Christ is immaterial; there should have been a railing to catch him.
And so it was that Louis Helmburg III joined forces with Timothy P. Rosinsky, Esq., a slip-and-fall lawyer from Huntington who had experience also with dog-bite, DUI, car-repossession, and drug cases. The events of that night, laid out in Helmburg’s complaint, suggested a relatively straightforward lawsuit. But the suit would turn out to have its own repeated failures to launch and unintended collateral damage, and it would include an ever-widening and desperate search for potential defendants willing to foot the modest bill for Helmburg’s documented injuries. Sending a lawyer without special expertise in wrangling with fraternities to sue one of them is like sending a Boy Scout to sort out the unpleasantness in Afghanistan. Who knows? The kid could get lucky. But it never hurts—preparedness and all that—to send him off with a body bag.
College fraternities—by which term of art I refer to the formerly all-white, now nominally integrated men’s “general” or “social” fraternities, and not the several other types of fraternities on American campuses (religious, ethnic, academic)—are as old, almost, as the republic. In a sense, they are older: they emanated in part from the Freemasons, of which George Washington himself was a member. When arguments are made in their favor, they are arguments in defense of a foundational experience for millions of American young men, and of a system that helped build American higher education as we know it. Fraternities also provide their members with matchless leadership training. While the system has produced its share of poets, aesthetes, and Henry James scholars, it is far more famous for its success in the powerhouse fraternity fields of business, law, and politics. An astonishing number of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, congressmen and male senators, and American presidents have belonged to fraternities. Many more thousands of American men count their fraternal experience—and the friendships made within it—as among the most valuable in their lives. The organizations raise millions of dollars for worthy causes, contribute millions of hours in community service, and seek to steer young men toward lives of service and honorable action. They also have a long, dark history of violence against their own members and visitors to their houses, which makes them in many respects at odds with the core mission of college itself.
Lawsuits against fraternities are becoming a growing matter of public interest, in part because they record such lurid events, some of them ludicrous, many more of them horrendous. For every butt bomb, there’s a complaint of manslaughter, rape, sexual torture, psychological trauma. A recent series of articles on fraternities by Bloomberg News’s David Glovin and John Hechinger notes that since 2005, more than 60 people—the majority of them students—have died in incidents linked to fraternities, a sobering number in itself, but one that is dwarfed by the numbers of serious injuries, assaults, and sexual crimes that regularly take place in these houses. Many people believe that violent hazing is the most dangerous event associated with fraternity life, but hazing causes a relatively small percentage of these injuries. Because of a variety of forces, all this harm—and the behaviors that lead to it—has lately been moving out of the shadows of private disciplinary hearings and silent suffering, and into the bright light of civil lawsuits, giving us a clear picture of some of the more forbidding truths about fraternity life. While many of these suits never make it to trial, disappearing into confidential settlements (as did that of Louis Helmburg III, nearly two years after he filed his lawsuit) or melting away once plaintiffs recognize the powerful and monolithic forces they are up against, the narratives they leave behind in their complaints—all of them matters of public record—comprise a rich and potent testimony to the kinds of experiences regularly taking place on college campuses. Tellingly, the material facts of these complaints are rarely in dispute; what is contested, most often, is only liability.
I have spent most of the past year looking deeply into the questions posed by these lawsuits, and more generally into the particular nature of fraternity life on the modern American campus. Much of what I found challenged my beliefs about the system, assumptions that I came to see as grossly outdated, not because the nature of fraternity life has changed so much, but rather because life at the contemporary university has gone through such a profound transformation in the past quarter century. I found that the ways in which the system exerts its power—and maintains its longevity—in the face of the many potentially antagonistic priorities in contemporary higher education commanded my grudging respect. Fraternity tradition at its most essential is rooted in a set of old, deeply American, morally unassailable convictions, some of which—such as a young man’s right to the freedom of association—emanate from the Constitution itself. In contrast, much of the policy governing college campuses today is rooted in the loose soil of a set of political and social fashions that change with the season, and that tend not to hold up to any kind of penetrating challenge. And this is why—to answer the vexing question “why don’t colleges just get rid of their bad fraternities?”—the system, and its individual frats, have only grown in power and influence. Indeed, in many substantive ways, fraternities are now mightier than the colleges and universities that host them.
The entire multibillion-dollar, 2,000-campus American college system—with its armies of salaried professors, administrators, librarians, bursars, secretaries, admissions officers, alumni liaisons, development-office workers, coaches, groundskeepers, janitors, maintenance workers, psychologists, nurses, trainers, technology-support staffers, residence-life personnel, cafeteria workers, diversity-compliance officers, the whole shebang—depends overwhelmingly for its very existence on one resource: an ever-renewing supply of fee-paying undergraduates. It could never attract hundreds of thousands of them each year—many of them woefully unprepared for the experience, a staggering number (some 40 percent) destined never to get a degree, more than 60 percent of them saddled with student loans that they very well may carry with them to their deathbeds—if the experience were not accurately marketed as a blast. They show up on campus lugging enormous Bed Bath & Beyond bags crammed with “essentials,” and with new laptop computers, on which they will surf Facebook and Tumblr while some coot down at the lectern bangs on about Maslow’s hierarchy and tries to make his PowerPoint slides appear right side up. Many of these consumer goods have been purchased with money from the very student loans that will haunt them for so long, but no matter: it’s college; any cost can be justified. The kids arrive eager to hurl themselves upon the pasta bars and the climbing walls, to splash into the 12-person Jacuzzis and lounge around the outdoor fire pits, all of which have been constructed in a blatant effort to woo them away from competitors. They swipe prepaid cards in dormitory vending machines to acquire whatever tanning wipes or earbuds or condoms or lube or energy drinks the occasion seems to require. And every moment of the experience is sweetened by the general understanding that with each kegger and rager, each lazy afternoon spent snoozing on the quad (a forgotten highlighter slowly drying out on the open pages of Introduction to Economics, a Coke Zero sweating beside it), they are actively engaged in the most significant act of self-improvement available to an American young person: college!
That all of this fun is somehow as essential as the education itself—is somehow part of a benevolent and ultimately edifying process of “growing up”—is one of the main reasons so many parents who are themselves in rocky financial shape will make economically ruinous decisions to support a four-year-residential-college experience for their children. There are many thousands of American undergraduates whose economic futures (and those of their parents) would be far brighter if they knocked off some of their general-education requirements online, or at the local community college—for pennies on the dollar—before entering the Weimar Republic of traditional-college pricing. But college education, like weddings and funerals, tends to prompt irrational financial decision making, and so here we are. Add another pesto flavor to the pasta bar, Dean Roland! We just lost another kid to online ed!
That pursuing a bachelor’s degree might be something other than a deeply ascetic and generally miserable experience was once a preposterous idea. American colleges came into being with the express purpose of training young men for the ministry, a preparation that was marked by a chilly round of early risings, Greek and Latin recitations, religious study, and strict discipline meted out by a dour faculty—along with expectations of both temperance and chastity. Hardly conditions that would auger the current trillion-dollar student-loan balloon that hovers over us like a pre-ignition Hindenburg. But sexual frustration and homiletics would not last forever as the hallmarks of American college life.
In 1825, at Union College, in upstate New York (hardly a garden of earthly delights in the best of circumstances, but surely a gulag experience for those stuck at Union; imagine studying Thessalonians in the ass-cracking cold of a Schenectady February), a small group of young men came up with a creative act of rebellion against the fun-busters who had them down: the formation of a secret club, which they grandly named the Kappa Alpha Society. Word of the group spread, and a new kind of college institution was founded, and with it a brand-new notion: that going to college could include some pleasure. It was the American age of societies, and this new type fit right in. As Nicholas Syrett observes in his excellent history of white men’s college fraternities, The Company He Keeps, these early fraternities were in every way a measure of their time. They combined the secret handshakes and passwords of small boys’ clubs; the symbols and rituals of Freemasonry; the new national interest in Greek, as opposed to Roman, culture as a model for an emerging citizenry; and the popularity of literary societies, elements of which–—oratory, recitation, and the presentation of essays—the early fraternities included. Fraternities also gave young college men a way of behaving and of thinking about themselves that quickly took on surprisingly modern dimensions. An 1857 letter that a Sigma Phi member named Jenkins Holland sent to one of his fraternity brothers suggests the new system was already hitting full stride: “I did get one of the nicest pieces of ass some day or two ago.”
From the very beginning, fraternities were loathed by the grown-ups running colleges, who tried to banish them. But independence from overbearing faculties—existing on a plane beyond the reach of discipline—was, in large measure, the point of fraternity membership; far from fearing the opprobrium of their knock-kneed overlords, the young men relished and even courted it. When colleges tried to shut them down, fraternities asserted that any threat to men’s membership in the clubs constituted an infringement of their right to freedom of association. It was, at best, a legally delicate argument, but it was a symbolically potent one, and it has withstood through the years. The powerful and well-funded political-action committee that represents fraternities in Washington has fought successfully to ensure that freedom-of-association language is included in all higher-education reauthorization legislation, thus “disallowing public Universities the ability to ban fraternities.”
An 1857 letter that a Sigma Phi sent to one of his fraternity brothers suggests the new system was already hitting full stride: “I did get one of the nicest pieces of ass some day or two ago.”
Perhaps the best testament to the deep power of fraternities is how quickly and widely they spread. Soon after Gold Rush money began flowing into the newly established state of California—giving rise to the improbable idea of building a great American university on the shores of the Pacific Ocean—fraternity men staked their own claim: a campus in Berkeley had existed barely a year before the brothers of Phi Delta Theta arrived to initiate new members. The thing to remember about fraternities is that when Kappa Alpha was founded at Union, in all of the United States there were only 4,600 college students; fraternities exist as deeply in the groundwater of American higher education as religious study—and have retained a far greater presence in the lives of modern students.
In fairly short order, a paradox began to emerge, one that exists to this day. While the fraternities continued to exert their independence from the colleges with which they were affiliated, these same colleges started to develop an increasingly bedeviling kind of interdependence with the accursed societies. To begin with, the fraternities involved themselves very deeply in the business of student housing, which provided tremendous financial savings to their host institutions, and allowed them to expand the number of students they could admit. Today, one in eight American students at four-year colleges lives in a Greek house, and a conservative estimate of the collective value of these houses across the country is $3 billion. Greek housing constitutes a troubling fact for college administrators (the majority of fraternity-related deaths occur in and around fraternity houses, over which the schools have limited and widely varying levels of operational oversight) and also a great boon to them (saving them untold millions of dollars in the construction and maintenance of campus-owned and -controlled dormitories).
Moreover, fraternities tie alumni to their colleges in a powerful and lucrative way. At least one study has affirmed what had long been assumed: that fraternity men tend to be generous to their alma maters. Furthermore, fraternities provide colleges with unlimited social programming of a kind that is highly attractive to legions of potential students, most of whom are not applying to ivy-covered rejection factories, but rather to vast public institutions and obscure private colleges that are desperate for students. When Mom is trying—against all better judgment—to persuade lackluster Joe Jr. to go to college, she gets a huge assist when she drives him over to State and he gets an eyeful of frat row. Joe Jr. may be slow to grasp even the most elemental concepts of math and English (his first two years of expensive college study will largely be spent in remediation of the subjects he should have learned, for free, in high school), but one look at the Fiji house and he gets the message: kids are getting laid here; kids are having fun. Maybe he ought to snuff out the joint and take a second look at that application Mom keeps pushing across the kitchen table.
Will he be in increased physical jeopardy if he joins one of these clubs? The fraternity industry says no. When confronted with evidence of student injury and death in their houses, fraternities claim they are no worse than any other campus group; that they have become “target defendants,” prey to the avarice of tort lawyers excited by their many assets and extensive liability coverage. It is true that fraternity lawsuits tend to involve at least one, and often more, of the four horsemen of the student-life apocalypse, a set of factors that exist far beyond frat row and that are currently bringing college presidents to their knees. First and foremost of these is the binge-drinking epidemic, which anyone outside the problem has a hard time grasping as serious (everyone drinks in college!) and which anyone with knowledge of the current situation understands as a lurid and complicated disaster. The second is the issue of sexual assault of female undergraduates by their male peers, a subject of urgent importance but one that remains stubbornly difficult even to quantify, let alone rectify, although it absorbs huge amounts of student interest, outrage, institutional funding, and—increasingly—federal attention. The third is the growing pervasiveness of violent hazing on campus, an art form that reaches its apogee at fraternities, but that has lately spread to all sorts of student groups. And the fourth is the fact that Boomers, who in their own days destroyed the doctrine of in loco parentis so that they could party in blissful, unsupervised freedom, have grown up into the helicopter parents of today, holding fiercely to a pair of mutually exclusive desires: on the one hand that their kids get to experience the same unfettered personal freedoms of college that they remember so fondly, and on the other that the colleges work hard to protect the physical and emotional well-being of their precious children.
But it’s impossible to examine particular types of campus calamity and not find that a large number of them cluster at fraternity houses. Surely they have cornered the market in injuries to the buttocks. The number of lawsuits that involve paddling gone wrong, or branding that necessitated skin grafts, or a particular variety of sexual torture reserved for hazing and best not described in the gentle pages of this magazine, is astounding. To say nothing of the University of Tennessee frat boy who got dropped off, insensate, at the university hospital’s emergency room and was originally assumed to be the victim of a sexual assault, and only later turned out to have damaged his rectum by allegedly pumping wine into it through an enema hose, as had his pals.
Or, to turn away from the buttocks, as surely a good number of fraternity men would be well advised to do, consider another type of fraternity injury: the tendency of brothers and their guests to get liquored up and fall off—or out of—the damn houses is a story in itself.
The campuses of Washington State University and the University of Idaho are located some eight miles apart in the vast agricultural region of the Northwest known as the Palouse. It was at the latter institution that the 19-year-old sophomore and newly minted Delta Delta Delta pledge Amanda Andaverde arrived in August of 2009, although she had scarcely moved into the Tri Delta house and registered for classes before she was at the center of events that would leave her with brain damage and cast her as the plaintiff in a major lawsuit filed on her behalf by her devastated parents.
It would have been an unremarkable Wednesday evening—focused on the kind of partying and hooking up that are frequent pleasures of modern sorority women—save for its hideous end. Andaverde and her sorority sisters began the night at Sigma Chi, where the “sorority ladies” drank alcohol and spent the evening with “dates” they had been assigned during a party game. (The language of Andaverde’s legal complaint often seems couched in a combination of ’50s lingo and polite euphemism, intended perhaps to preclude a conservative Idaho jury from making moralistic judgments about the plaintiff’s behavior.) The charms of Andaverde’s assigned date ran thin, apparently, because close to midnight, she left him and made her way over to the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house, where she quickly ended up on the third-floor sleeping porch.
Many fraternity houses, especially older ones, have sleeping porches—sometimes called “cold airs” or “rack rooms”—typically located on the top floor of the buildings’ gable ends. They are large rooms filled with bunks, some of which are stacked in triple tiers, and their large windows are often left open, even in the coldest months. Many fraternity members have exceedingly fond memories of their time on the porches, which they view—like so many fraternity traditions—as a simultaneously vexing and bonding experience. Although these group sleeping arrangements were once considered an impediment to a young man’s sex life, the hookup culture, in which privacy is no longer a requirement of sexual activity, has changed that, and the sleeping-porch experience is once again coming into favor. For a variety of reasons, sleeping porches feature in a number of lawsuits, pointing to an astonishing fact: despite fraternity houses’ position as de facto residence halls for so many American college students, safety features are decidedly spotty; about half of them don’t even have fire sprinklers.
According to the complaint, shortly after arriving at SAE, Andaverde ran into a friend of hers, and he took her up to the sleeping porch, where he introduced her to a pal of his named Joseph Cody Cook. Andaverde and Cook talked, then climbed into Cook’s bunk, where the two began kissing. It is at this point that the language of the suit finally frees itself of euphemism and reveals the fearsome power of the unambiguous, declarative sentence: “Amanda rolled onto her shoulder toward the exterior wall, and suddenly, quickly, and unexpectedly dropped off Cook’s mattress into the open exterior window, falling from the third-floor ‘sleeping porch’ to the cement approximately 25 feet below.”
The injuries were devastating and included permanent brain injury. Andaverde was airlifted to a trauma center in Seattle, where she remained for many weeks; in the early days of her care, it seemed she might not survive. Eventually, however, she improved enough to leave the hospital and was transferred to a series of rehabilitation centers, where she spent many months learning to regain basic functions. Police, interviewed about the case, defended themselves the way police departments in college towns all over the country reasonably defend themselves when accused of not preventing a fraternity-house disaster: “We just can’t send undercover people into private houses or private parties,” said David Duke, the Moscow, Idaho, assistant chief of police.
Local news outlets covered Andaverde’s plight widely and sympathetically, although the optimism with which her “miraculous” recovery was celebrated was perhaps exaggerated. A television news report dedicated to that miracle revealed a young woman who, while she had escaped death, had clearly been grievously injured. As the reporter interviewed her mother, Andaverde sat in a wheelchair. When her hands were not propped on a black lap tray latched to the chair, she struggled to grasp a crayon and run it across the pages of a children’s coloring book, or to place the six large pieces of a simple puzzle—square, triangle, circle—into their spaces. She eventually improved from this desperate state—learning to walk and dress herself—but she was a far cry from the student of veterinary medicine she had once been.
The local inclinations to see a badly injured college student as a figure deserving of community support, and to view even a limited recovery as evidence of the goodness of God, are not unaligned with regional preferences for self-reliance and for taking responsibility for one’s own actions, however dire the consequences. The inevitable court case—in which the Andaverde family named not only SAE and Tri Delta as defendants, but also the University of Idaho and the Idaho State Board of Education—was dismissed on summary judgment because there was no dispute that Andaverde fell out of an open window, and because there was no evidence of an inherently dangerous condition in the house: that the window was open was obvious to anyone who walked into the room. The court determined that no other person or institution had a duty to protect Amanda from the actions and decisions—the decision to drink alcohol, as a minor; the decision to climb into a bunk bed; the impulse to roll over—that led to her accident.
Andaverde’s case seemed to me to be an isolated tragedy, until I sent away to the Latah County courthouse for a copy of the complaint and discovered within it this sentence: “Amanda’s fall was the second fall of a student from an upper-story fraternity house window at the University of Idaho within approximately a two-week period.” This struck me as an astonishing coincidence. I looked into the matter and found that, indeed, a 20-year-old man named Shane Meyer had fallen from the third-floor window of the Delta Tau Delta house just 12 days before Andaverde’s fall from SAE; not surprisingly, the police reported that “alcohol may have been a factor.” He, too, had been airlifted to Seattle, and incredibly, the two fought for their lives in the same critical-care unit at Harborview Medical Center. I became intrigued by this kind of injury and began to do some more checking into the subject. I discovered that two months afterAndaverde’s fall, a 20-year-old student at Washington State—“quite intoxicated,” in the laconic assessment of a local cop—pitched forward and fell from a third-floor window of Alpha Kappa Lambda, escaping serious injury when his fall was broken by an SUV parked below. That these three events were not greeted on either campus by any kind of clamoring sense of urgency—that they were, rather, met with a resigned sort of “here we go again” attitude by campus administrators and with what appeared to be the pro forma appointment of an investigative task force—sparked my interest, and so it was that I entered the bizarre world of falls from fraternity houses, which, far from being freakish and unpredictable events, are in fact fairly regular occurrences across the country.
During the 2012–13 school year on the Palouse—where students from the two campuses often share apartments and attend parties at each other’s schools—the falls continued. In September, a student suffered serious injuries after falling off the roof of the Alpha Tau Omega house at the University of Idaho, and two days later a Washington State student fell three stories from a window at Phi Kappa Tau. In November, a 19-year-old suffered critical head injuries when he fell backwards off a second-floor balcony at the Washington State Lambda Chi Alpha house, necessitating the surgical removal of part of his skull. In April, a University of Idaho student named Krysta Huft filed a suit against the Delta Chi fraternity, seeking damages for a broken pelvis resulting from a 2011 fall, which she claims was from the house’s third-story sleeping porch onto a basketball court beneath it.
I decided to widen my search, and quickly discovered that this is not a phenomenon particular to the Northwest. Across the country, kids fall—disastrously—from the upper heights of fraternity houses with some regularity. They tumble from the open windows they are trying to urinate out of, slip off roofs, lose their grasp on drainpipes, misjudge the width of fire-escape landings. On February 25, 2012, a student at the University of California at Berkeley attempted to climb down the drainpipe of the Phi Gamma Delta house, fell, and suffered devastating injuries; on April 14 of the same year, a 21-year-old student at Gannon University, in Pennsylvania, died after a fall from the second-floor balcony of the Alpha Phi Delta house the night before; on May 13, a Cornell student was airlifted to a trauma center after falling from the fire escape at Delta Chi; on October 13, a student at James Madison University fell from the roof of the three-story Delta Chi house and was airlifted to the University of Virginia hospital; on December 1, a 19-year-old woman fell eight feet from the Sigma Alpha Mu house at Penn State.
This summer brought little relief. On July 13, a man fell more than 30 feet from a third-story window at the Theta Delta Chi house at the University of Washington and was transported to Harborview Medical Center (which must by now be developing a subspecialty in such injuries); that same day, a Dartmouth College employee, apparently having consumed LSD and marijuana, fell out of a second-story window of the Sigma Nu house and was seriously injured. On August 13, a student at the University of Oklahoma fell face-first off a balcony of the SAE house; the next day, a woman fell from a second-story fire escape at Phi Kappa Tau at Washington State University.
At many fraternities, the protocol in the event of the death of a member advises brothers to leave family notification to the police, the university, or medical professionals; to lock the deceased's door; and to have boxes available for his family. (Philip Heying)
The current school year began, and still the falls continued. In September, a student at Washington State fell down a flight of stairs in the Delta Chi house and was rendered unconscious; a University of Minnesota student was hospitalized after falling off a second-floor balcony of the Phi Kappa Psi house; a Northwestern student was listed in critical condition after falling out of a third-floor window of the Phi Gamma Delta house; and an MIT student injured his head and genitals after falling through a skylight at the Phi Sigma Kappa house and landing some 40 feet below.
These falls, of course, are in addition to the many other kinds of havoc and tragedy associated with fraternities. On the Palouse, such incidents include the January 2013 death of 18-year-old Joseph Wiederrick, a University of Idaho freshman who had made the dean’s list his first semester, and who had plans to become an architect. He had attended a party at SAE (of which he was not a member) and then wandered, apparently drunk and lost, for five miles before freezing to death under a bridge. They also include the March 2013 conviction of Jesse M. Vierstra, who, while visiting Sigma Chi over the University of Idaho’s homecoming weekend, raped an 18-year-old freshman in the bushes outside the house. (He is appealing the decision.)
The notion that fraternities are target defendants did not hold true in my investigation. College students can (and do) fall out of just about any kind of residence, of course. But during the period of time under consideration, serious falls from fraternity houses on the two Palouse campuses far outnumbered those from other types of student residences, including privately owned apartments occupied by students. I began to view Amanda Andaverde’s situation in a new light. Why are so many colleges allowing students to live and party in such unsafe locations? And why do the lawsuits against fraternities for this kind of serious injury and death—so predictable and so preventable—have such a hard time getting traction? The answers lie in the recent history of fraternities and the colleges and universities that host them.
from the archives
The Hazards of Duke
"With a social scene dominated by fraternities and sororities (a way of life consisting of ardent partying and hooking up, offset by spurts of busywork composing angry letters to campus newspapers and taking online alcohol-education classes), ... [Duke] is a university whose thoughtful students are overshadowed by its voraciously self-centered ones."
Read the full story by Caitlin Flanagan in the Jan/Feb 2011 issue.
What all of these lawsuits ultimately concern is a crucially important question in higher education, one that legal scholars have been grappling with for the past half century. This question is perhaps most elegantly expressed in the subtitle of Robert D. Bickel and Peter F. Lake’s authoritative 1999 book on the subject, The Rights and Responsibilities of the Modern University: Who Assumes the Risks of College Life?
The answer to this question has been steadily evolving ever since the 1960s, when dramatic changes took place on American campuses, changes that affected both a university’s ability to control student behavior and the status of fraternities in the undergraduate firmament. During this period of student unrest, the fraternities—long the unquestioned leaders in the area of sabotaging or ignoring the patriarchal control of school administrators—became the exact opposite: representatives of the very status quo the new activists sought to overthrow. Suddenly their beer bashes and sorority mixers, their panty raids and obsession with the big game, seemed impossibly reactionary when compared with the mind-altering drugs being sampled in off-campus apartments where sexual liberation was being born and the Little Red Book proved, if nothing else, a fantastic coaster for a leaky bong.
American students sought to wrest themselves entirely from the disciplinary control of their colleges and universities, institutions that had historically operated in loco parentis, carefully monitoring the private behavior of undergraduates. The students of the new era wanted nothing to do with that infantilizing way of existence, and fought to rid themselves of the various curfews, dorm mothers, demerit systems, and other modes of institutional oppression. If they were old enough to die in Vietnam, powerful enough to overthrow a president, groovy enough to expand their minds with LSD and free love, then they certainly didn’t need their own colleges—the very places where they were forming their radical, nation-changing ideas—to treat them like teenyboppers in need of a sock hop and a chaperone. It was a turning point: American colleges began to regard their students not as dependents whose private lives they must shape and monitor, but as adult consumers whose contract was solely for an education, not an upbringing. The doctrine of in loco parentis was abolished at school after school. Through it all, fraternities—for so long the repositories of the most outrageous behavior—moldered, all but forgotten. Membership fell sharply, fraternity houses slid into increasing states of disrepair, and hundreds of chapters closed.
Animal House, released in 1978, at once predicted and to no small extent occasioned the roaring return of fraternity life that began in the early ’80s and that gave birth to today’s vital Greek scene. The casting of John Belushi was essential to the movie’s influence: no one had greater credibility in the post-’60s youth culture. If something as fundamentally reactionary as fraternity membership was going to replace something as fundamentally radical as student unrest, it would need to align itself with someone whose bona fides among young, white, middle-class males were unassailable. In this newly forming culture, the drugs and personal liberation of the ’60s would be paired with the self-serving materialism of the ’80s, all of which made partying for its own sake—and not as a philosophical adjunct to solving some complicated problem in Southeast Asia—a righteous activity for the pampered young collegian. Fraternity life was reborn with a vengeance.
It was an entirely new kind of student who arrived at the doors of those great and crumbling mansions: at once deeply attracted to the ceremony and formality of fraternity life and yet utterly transformed by the social revolutions of the past decades. These new members and their countless guests brought with them hard drugs, new and ever-developing sexual attitudes, and a stunningly high tolerance for squalor (never had middle- and upper-middle-class American young people lived in such filth as did ’60s and ’70s college kids who were intent on rejecting their parents’ bourgeois ways). Furthermore, in 1984 Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, with the ultimate result of raising the legal drinking age to 21 in all 50 states. This change moved college partying away from bars and college-sponsored events and toward private houses—an ideal situation for fraternities. When these advances were combined with the evergreen fraternity traditions of violent hazing and brawling among rival frats, the scene quickly became wildly dangerous.
Adult supervision was nowhere to be found. Colleges had little authority to intervene in what took place in the personal lives of its students visiting private property. Fraternities, eager to provide their members with the independence that is at the heart of the system—and responsive to members’ wish for the same level of freedom that non-Greek students enjoyed—had largely gotten rid of the live-in resident advisers who had once provided some sort of check on the brothers. With these conditions in place, lawsuits began to pour in.
The mid-1980s were a treacherous time to be the defendant in a tort lawsuit. Personal-injury cases had undergone a long shift to the plaintiff’s advantage; the theory of comparative negligence—by which an individual can acknowledge his or her own partial responsibility for an injury yet still recover damages from a defendant—had become the standard; the era of huge jury verdicts was at hand. Americans in vast numbers—motivated perhaps in part by the possibility of financial recompense, and in part by a new national impetus to move personal suffering from the sphere of private sorrow to that of public confession and complaint—began to sue those who had damaged them. Many fraternity lawsuits listed the relevant college or university among the defendants, a practice still common among less experienced plaintiff’s attorneys. These institutions possess deep reservoirs of liability coverage, but students rarely recover significant funds from their schools. As Amanda Andaverde’s attorneys discovered the hard way, a great deal of time and money can be spent seeking damages from institutions of higher learning, which can be protected by everything from sovereign immunity and damage caps (in the case of public universities), to their limited ability to monitor the private behavior of their students. But for the fraternities themselves, it was a far different story.
So recently and robustly brought back to life, the fraternities now faced the most serious threat to their existence they had ever experienced. A single lawsuit had the potential to devastate a fraternity. In 1985, a young man grievously injured in a Kappa Alpha–related accident reached a settlement with the fraternity that, over the course of his lifetime, could amount to some $21 million—a sum that caught the attention of everyone in the Greek world...
Read full story here: http://www.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2014/03/the-dark-power-of-fr...