Dying to join a fraternity?


MARY REICHARD, HOST: It’s Tuesday, the 19th of November, 2019. Glad to have you along for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Mary Reichard.

NICK EICHER, HOST: And I’m Nick Eicher. First up today: boys behaving badly.

San Diego State University suspended all 14 of its fraternities last week following the death of a freshman student. Nineteen-year-old Dylan Hernandez suffered a head injury when he fell from his dorm room bunk bed. Hours before he was at a party hosted by the Phi Gamma fraternity. Officials ruled his death an accident, but toxicology results are pending.

REICHARD: Hernandez’s case adds to a troubling statistic. Ten young men hoping to join college fraternities have died at American universities in the past three years. That’s a sharp increase from 50 years ago, when there was on average one death per year in similar circumstances. 

Excessive alcohol consumption and other dangerous behavior associated with pledging rituals are often a factor.

Anthony Bradley is a professor of religious studies at The King’s College in New York City. He’s been studying this phenomenon and is writing a book about fraternities. He joins us now to talk about it.

Good morning, professor!

ANTHONY BRADLEY, GUEST: Hi there. Happy to be with you.

REICHARD: Glad for you to be here. New pledges to a fraternity often do risky and degrading rituals. That has been going on for years. What’s the draw that makes so many young men willing to do these things just to join a social club?

BRADLEY: It seems that a lot of young men are willing to actually die, to put their lives on the line to join these organizations. And there are basically five things that all these fraternities promise that a high school student wants when they go to college. 

First, they want acceptance. An 18-year-old young man wants to be accepted and included in a group of other guys. Number two, they want friendship and fraternities promise that you’ll get your best friends here. Fraternities also promise social status. If you join the frat, your social status rises. You move from being a loser to a winner. Fraternities also promise, fourthly, fun. If you spend time with us, you will have a lot of fun. And then lastly, networking. If you come to the fraternity, we’ll get you connected with alumni. And so what happens is that these young men are willing to put their lives on the line for the purpose of getting all of those benefits of being in a fraternity.

REICHARD: And those things are valuable. Anyone would want to have those things in their life. What do you think is contributing to making this problem worse in more recent years?

BRADLEY: We’ve seen an escalation in these incidences of kids dying, hazing, alcohol abuse, etc. and much of this can be actually traced back to the 1978 film Animal House. That film single-handedly is credited with changing the fraternity culture on colleges in the 80s and 90s. So, the middle school and high school guys who watched that movie in the late 70s lived that out in the 80s and 90s and it’s escalated. Secondly, you have a group of young men who are younger millennials. They’re now sort of generation Z. They’ve been completely coddled as children. So what does that mean? They don’t know what boundaries are. Why is that? Because they were over-parented. That is, adults were always around them. They never got to do free-range play, parent-free play, and they never tested the boundaries of what was too much. So, you get a group of guys who don’t know when to say when, coupled with this image of what fraternity is like. And then you add onto that alcohol, which undermines and disrupts reasoning capacity, and you get the mess that we’re in today.

REICHARD: A toxic brew is what you’re talking about there. Some of these young men come from church going families. What can churches and Christian families do to interrupt this cycle?

BRADLEY: I think that for Christians who are sending their children to universities that have fraternity culture and their sons and daughters are interested in, it’s important for parents to know that the greek culture that existed when they were in college no longer exists. I think secondly, you have to send your children into these organizations, if they’re interested, fully aware of the risks. The risk of being exposed to alcohol abuse, the risk of being exposed to hazing, the risk—especially if you are a girl—the risk of being exposed to sexual assault, the risk of being exposed to possibly dying, and typically what we find with adolescents as they move into early adulthood is they have a fear of saying no. And so parents need to embolden their children to actually say no and realize that they’re not going to miss out by saying no and get rejected by the group.

And so one of the questions is why is it that these students are so eager, even the Christian kids, why are they so eager to follow the rules of the group? Well, because they have a fear of being left out. So if you’re afraid of being left out of the group, you’ll actually compromise your morals and your ethics and even your faith principles and commitments in order to be in the group. So Christians should actually be free—and this is I think why the church is so important—to be freed up to bravely say no and to not fear being rejected by the group because, as a Christian, you have a better group. You have God’s people. That’s a deeper, richer, more inclusive group to be a member of. And so if you get rejected from this Greek culture, there should be—hopefully, Lord willing—Christians on the campus that can give you all the things you think that you’re going to get—acceptance, friendship, social status, fun, networking—that Christians should be providing these things for other Christians. The extent to which we are quite vigilant about providing those things on college campuses will make fraternities and sororities less appealing.

REICHARD: Anthony Bradley is a professor of religious studies at The King’s College in New York City.

BRADLEY: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.


(Photo/Howard Lipin, The San Diego Union-Tribune)

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