This past Tuesday, police paid a visit to the Boston University chapter of Alpha Pi Epsilon. Responding to a noise complaint at the off-campus, unsanctioned fraternity, the Boston blue stumbled across five pledges, taped together and left for some indeterminate length of time in the frat house basement. At some point, AEP’s eleven current members had doused the pledges in chili sauce, coffee grounds, honey, mustard, hot sauce, flour, and empty sardine cans, shaved their heads, and forced them to drink a beer and sardine mixture through a gray metal pipe called “Bongzilla.” When police uncovered the pledges, they found the boys visibly shaken, uncommunicative, and their backs “covered in red welts and markings.”
The abuses uncovered at AEP this week are, it seems, nothing special – a continuation of a brutal drinking and hazing culture that leaves some participants unaffected but emotionally or physically scars many others. Last year, the family of George Desdunes levied a $25 million wrongful death lawsuit against twenty members of the Cornell branch of Sigma Alpha Epsilon after Desdunes drank himself into a state of deep intoxication on February 25, 2010. According to the family’s lawsuit, Desdunes clearly required medical attention, but, instead of taking him to the hospital, the brothers at SAE tied Desdunes up and left him on the couch. When some other pledges finally took him to Cayuga Medical Center, Desdunes was too far gone, having a reported blood alcohol level of 0.35 (a whisper away from the lethal level of 0.4) at the time of admission. To their credit, Cornell University has closed the campus’ SAE chapter.
While it would be unhelpful and inaccurate to claim that the Boston and Cornell cases are signs of some significant change in American culture, they are important touchstones in the current battle over fraternity life, hazing, and, most importantly, the culture of binge drinking. The modern incarnation of this decades-old battle took shape after Rolling Stone published the explosive feature article “Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy: Inside Dartmouth’s Hazing Abuses” on March 28. Janet Reitman’s article is an astounding look into the story of Andrew Lohse, a former Dartmouth College student who, having engaged in all manner of destructive behaviour in one of the school’s 17 affiliated fraternities, concluded that Greek life promotes a campus culture of substance abuse, sexual assault, and “intoxicating nihilism.” Most telling, perhaps, was Lohse’s description of the “true bro” at Dartmouth (aka, a Dartmouth man), who can drink “inhuman amounts of beer, vomit profusely, and keep on going.”
It is little wonder that the events that sparked the current debate about fraternity drinking should come from Dartmouth, the campus that provided inspiration for director Ivan Reitman’s classic ode to Greek life, Animal House. Dartmouth students are famously proud of their dominant fraternity and sorority culture, successfully shielding it from school administrators who have long struggled to tame those institutions’ powers. While the national trend over the last decade has been for colleges to close down affiliated fraternities, the conservative students and alumni of Dartmouth have vigorously resisted such efforts. According to Janet Reitman, Greek life is central to Dartmouth’s student culture, given the limited opportunities for amusement present in the hamlet of Hanover, New Hampshire. “Fraternities (unlike sororities, most of which are dry),” she explains, “happen to be the only campus entities that serve alcohol to minors, which about 70 percent of Dartmouth undergrads happen to be.” For undergrads looking for fun, fraternity and sorority parties are one of the few games in town, and the name of the game is “beer.” Binge drinking – defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as the consumption of five or more drinks in a two hour period – is not only part of but is central to the frat culture that makes up such a major part of Dartmouth life.