Rats

When I was in college, I was in a fraternity. That may be hard to believe. But it was an engineering school, where the male:female ratio was about 8:1 (“…where the Men are Men and so are the Women…”), and 90% of the undergrads found their social life in the Greek system. So my friends and I checked it out and soon joined the most interesting house — not the jocks, or the alpha males, but the misfit house, which fit us well. Think “Animal House” including the nerds.

It was mostly good, apart for some anti-semitism (picture upperclassmen occasionally throwing pennies at us two and one-half wandering Jews, calling us “jew” or “heeb” instead of our names). However, that superficial abuse was a mask for something deeper going on. A few months after I joined, my formal initiation consisted of a solid week of  intense sleep deprivation, wearing food and other garbage for clothes, no showers or even toothbrushing (you’d be surprised how disgusting this can be), coupled with physical punishment that literally left scars on my chest for a decade.

I almost bolted for the door towards the end of the week, fed up with our treatment. But the upperclassmen threatened my fellow initiates with even more pain if I left. And so I stayed and made it through to the end, thinking I’d quit right after.

After initiation, it was all beer and fun for a while. My pledge class and I forgot the pain and remembered that we’d all made it through together. That was the rationale, I later learned: to make the group bond via shared punishment. It did nothing to make me respect the upperclassmen though.

Fast forward to the next fall. I was living in the house and in charge of recruitment (“rush”) for a house that had declining membership and income. I had the idea that if every brother simply picked two unique freshmen they liked, spent a lot of quality time with them, bonded well, then odds were at least one of those two would join. It was a simple plan, focused on people over gimmicks. And, as a result we practically doubled the size of the house that year.

The only problem with that success is that I hadn’t stopped to think about what it would be like to be on the other side of the hazing stick, doing the same repugnant deeds to people I was now responsible for recruiting. During that year’s initiation week, I left half-way through, disgusted with the whole situation. Despite everything I’d been through the year before, I realized it was far worse to give than to receive.

I decided that week to end hazing in my fraternity. A few of my close friends agreed to help.

We spent the next year focused on this task, sometimes to the detriment of our classes. We first tried the subtle route: get ourselves elected to lead the brotherhood and change the rules from inside.

When that failed, we drove cross-country to the national headquarters to research other local chapters that might have solved this problem already. The sizable pro-hazing faction in the house was more or less aware of our intent and joined our field trip just to watch us, thinking we were perhaps going to rat them out to the national leadership. It was some caravan, cross-country.

We of course didn’t rat them out. Had we wanted to blow up the chapter, we could have simply gone to the dean, the media, or even the cops. Anyone in a position of responsibility would have to take legal action, for liability reasons alone, and shut it all down.

Instead, we found a precedent in another chapter of the fraternity that had successfully ended a problem with rampant drug abuse. We got our local alumni association (who was mostly pro-hazing for nostalga reasons, but also pro-not-getting-sued) to take over the house management and fix the problems without forcing a shutdown.

It actually worked. We even had the brothers believing it was the alumni association’s idea in the first place, just to make it easier to swallow.

However, with all of my behind-the-scenes work to end hazing, I’d made a few enemies. After all, I put the ethical objective before many of the relationships. So in the end, I took the blame and transferred schools to Ohio State, where I got my actual degree, safe from the death threats and angry stares. In the end, the house did pretty well from what I hear. No more hazing to this day. And I enjoyed the new school much more than the old one.

Hazing is such an ugly and unnecessary thing. Brotherhood is built from trust and respect, not punishment. I hope other fraternities find this story helpful in their own struggles.