The death of Dylan Hernandez, a fraternity pledge at San Diego State University, marks the fourth death this month in an incident related to fraternity hazing. His death comes at a time when Greek organizations are under increased scrutiny by university administrators and has therefore led to the suspension of fourteen fraternities in his university. Last year, I spoke with various students involved in Greek life at Stony Brook University to better understand this obscure social practice.
Kevin, who wishes to remain anonymous because he fears repercussions from his fraternity brothers, did not walk through the bleak corridors of Melville Library on his first day at Stony Brook University anticipating that he would join Greek life. It was a thought — a fleeting consideration at most. Yet when recruitment season began and various fraternities reached out to him displaying interest, he caved in to his social curiosity and dove straight into a scene that has been under scrutiny by university administrators for years.
Considerable time has passed since Kevin’s initiation, but he still vividly recalls the expectations imposed upon him by his fraternity under the guise of brotherhood, all of which he initially insisted remain undisclosed. It was an experience he would later describe as “cultish” and “unpleasant.”
As our conversation progressed, Kevin allowed himself to become more vulnerable about the darker aspects of his hazing. He was cautious in the way he framed his words and occasionally looked behind his shoulders, as if fearing retribution for opening up. Nevertheless, he spoke of the times his counterparts were made to drive to Montauk at ungodly hours and take photos in the cold upon command by his fraternity brothers, and when he was forced to drink a concoction of alcoholic beverages while locked in a basement until he was given permission to stop.
As an individual with very little exposure to Greek life, I was always intrigued by the psychology of its members’ willingness to endure humiliation. I asked Kevin why he had allowed himself to go through such an extreme form of social violence. He was driven and social, the antithesis of a student one would expect to be a victim. He merely answered, “Why not?”
The indifference in his response startled me, but it reflects a deeper failure on the part of universities to foster an environment of inclusivity. When speaking with Bridget, another student who also asked to remain anonymous, I learned that the fear of social alienation prevails as a cliché, but predominant, driver of Greek life participation. The urgent desire to remedy one’s sense of purposelessness pushes students into these organizations where they are either partaking in or become complacent to cycles of abuse. The secrecy and exclusivity associated with Greek organizations provide its members with the illusory comfort of shared values. Their philanthropic missions enshrine in them a notion of goodwill and purpose. Yet at the end of the day, none of the students that I spoke to, including Kevin, confessed to joining their organizations to satisfy the social warriors raging within. They merely wanted a shared social experience.
Kevin attested to this when he recognized that while his organization did outwardly participate in philanthropy, various inequalities existed in his fraternity in the form of racial and socioeconomic disparities. His fraternity was dominated by his affluent white counterparts — with little respect for fostering diversity.
By then, our lunch break was drawing to an end. I finally asked him the one question that was long overdue: Did his undesirable experiences with hazing inspire him to change things for future generations — to make it kinder, perhaps?
He responded with reluctance. “Everyone in the past has been through it. I’ve been through it. Are we just supposed to make it easy and let everyone in?” he asked me distastefully.
I thought about his words despite their heavy apathy. His desire to maintain the antiquated traditions of hazing is an intriguing reflection of a power dynamic that is detrimental to society beyond universities. What happens when that hierarchical mindset leaves academia and goes into the real world? What happens when it is in charge of life-altering decisions in sectors of medicine, economics and politics? Are these truly the mindsets we want shaping our world?
Greek organizations were formed centuries ago by a scholar who sought to transform the world outside of his university. After being rejected by two exclusive societies, John Heath desired a space for civic discourse surrounded by others who shared his curiosity for learning. The motto of his organization, Phi Beta Kappa, was Philosophia Bios Kybernethes, or “Philosophy is the guide of life,” with philosophy meaning the love for wisdom — true wisdom, which certainly does not include maintaining guises of philanthropy to hide aggressive practices within.
In light of another death of a fraternity pledge this week at San Diego State University, perhaps it is time for Greek organizations to trace back to their roots: to understand the true meaning of their formation — which was never to perpetuate detrimental social practices, but rather to better the world with their unmatched passion, expertise and good intention… and end hazing after all.