As USC works to raise its national profile, fraternities are on the chopping block

Jonathon Xue/Daily Trojan

It’s pitch black in the basement of a house on 28th Street, where approximately 25 freshman boys stand tightly packed. Amid complete silence, the door slams open and loud music pours in. Two men, silhouettes against the yellow light from the doorway, hold enough alcohol to supply a party. They order the pledges to drink up for the long night ahead.

For decades, scenes like this one — conveyed to the Daily Trojan by a former fraternity member — have felt familiar to students who go through the process of joining, or “pledging,” a fraternity. To prove their dedication, new fraternity members typically go through an initiation period that lasts several weeks or months, which can involve hazing — harassment or abuse from older members of the house.

That culture is now starting to change, a Daily Trojan investigation has found. Following multiple reports of hazing from different USC fraternities, the University is cracking down on misconduct among Greek organizations. In the past year, five fraternities were investigated for hazing violations, misconduct or drug abuse, according to USC’s Office of Fraternity and Sorority Leadership Development. Three ultimately lost University recognition.

According to Vice President for Student Affairs Ainsley Carry, this number is unprecedented. Carry said he believes this increase is due to the University receiving more reports of concerning behavior than ever before through Department of Public Safety calls, the LiveSafe app and anonymous tips.

“There have been at least six organizations that have been suspended over the past three years, and it’s a five-to-six-year suspension,” Carry said. “What has changed is that more students are reporting these incidents now.”

These investigations come on the heels of a turbulent year for Greek life on campus. The University deferred the rush process — which traditionally takes place in the first week of fall classes — until the spring for students who do not have a USC GPA, most of whom are incoming freshmen and transfer students. Carry championed this initiative as essential for mental health and academic performance.

In DPS reports obtained by Daily Trojan, officers responded to incidents on Greek Row 216 times in 2018. Most responses resulted in the individuals complying with officers’ requests. However, a dozen of those requests resulted in either a full party shutdown or reports sent to Student Affairs.

Now, as Carry prepares to leave USC in April, fraternities who have reportedly hazed their members are on the chopping block.  

John Hechinger, a senior editor at Bloomberg News and author of “True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America’s Fraternities,” says, however, that universities traditionally aren’t in any rush to get fraternities in trouble due to the rock-solid alumni ties they often institute.

“The alumni association of fraternities are big donors,” Hechinger said. “They often put pressure on administrators if they crack down, so unless there’s a lot of public pressure or something really horrific happens, the easiest course is to kind of look the other way.”

Hechinger believes, however, that social media and cell phone videos are able to capture so much more of what happens behind closed doors, that “it’s really in your face, so it’s really hard to deny.”


Sabrina Chen/Daily Trojan

The FSLD website lists five Greek organizations that were investigated over the past year: Sigma Alpha Mu, Pi Kappa Phi, Phi Sigma Kappa, Phi Kappa Psi and Theta Xi.

Pi Kappa Phi, Phi Kappa Psi and Theta Xi officially lost University recognition after investigations found evidence of hazing.

Phi Sigma Kappa was taken off of interim suspension after the University failed to find conclusive evidence for allegations of misconduct in November 2018.

In the past academic year, Sigma Alpha Mu — widely known as “Sammy” — was placed on interim suspension twice for hazing allegations, according to FSLD.

The first suspension began in October 2018 while the University investigated alleged hazing violations.

A month later, the Undergraduate Student Government received screenshots from a private Sammy member Facebook group showing pro-hazing comments made in Fall 2017 by current members, including outgoing USG Vice President Blake Ackerman, the Daily Trojan previously reported.

The screenshots, which were also sent anonymously to the Daily Trojan, show Ackerman and others supporting a post that encouraged pledges to have sex in a casket during “hell week” — the final, most intense week of pledging for new fraternity members before initiation.

Ackerman said he regretted the implication in the comments and that he did not condone hazing, the Daily Trojan previously reported. Sammy’s suspension was lifted a week later, but the organization was suspended again on Jan. 17. That suspension was lifted on March 12.

“The Mu Theta chapter does not condone the events from Fall 2017,” the USC chapter of Sigma Alpha Mu said in a statement to the Daily Trojan. “The current leadership was elected based on an anti-hazing platform.”

Student Judicial Affairs and Community Standards declined to comment on past investigations, though Sammy confirmed it was being investigated by SJACS.

Jordan Carmona, a judicial officer from SJACS, said conclusions to the investigations are not made public. Instead, when an investigation on a house is concluded, the final decision is given to the chapter president, who decides what to do with the information.

“We will continue to cooperate with the University administration as they investigate concerns,” Sammy said in a statement to Daily Trojan. “[We are] committed to creating a safe and positive fraternity experience at USC. We will continue our cooperation with SJACS on this matter and hope that a resolution can be reached quickly.”

Another screenshot sent anonymously to the Daily Trojan shows a Las Vegas scavenger hunt list from October 2017 that allegedly instructed Sammy pledges to film an “active shooter conspiracy video” inside the Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino, where the largest mass shooting in recent U.S. history had taken place just three weeks prior. SJACS did not confirm whether it investigated this incident.

Andy Huston, executive director of Sammy’s national chapter, wrote in a statement to the Daily Trojan that the USC chapter has changed its policies since the hazing incidents and is committed to enforcing member safety.

“We are disappointed about the misconduct from Fall 2017 involving our chapter at USC,” Huston wrote. “Since [the Las Vegas incident], we have made substantial changes at the Mu Theta chapter, including completely new chapter leadership.”

Huston confirmed that the leaders involved in the incident are no longer affiliated with the fraternity.

“Beginning in 2018, the chapter implemented a revamped candidate education program that was reviewed and approved by both the International Headquarters and USC’s [FSLD] Office,” Huston wrote. “We are continuing to cooperate fully with the University and are committed to taking additional actions that help ensure all of our members are supporting a healthy and safe environment.”

In addition to the allegations against Sammy, the USC chapter of Theta Xi filed a lawsuit against SJACS Director Donna Budar-Turner and Carry in 2018 after losing University recognition due to a hazing allegation that the fraternity claims is false.

“Theta Xi was never provided official notice outlining the specific factual allegations or policies allegedly violated and was only told there were ‘reports of alleged behaviors that may have endangered the University community, including hazing,’” the lawsuit read.

According to the suit, a former member of Theta Xi reported concerns of organizational misconduct to SJACS in January 2018.

The former member was placed on social probation and eventually resigned from the organization after reports that he engaged in sexual misconduct and racist behavior, the suit read. The former member attempted to join another fraternity but was dismissed from that fraternity due to similar sexual misconduct allegations.  

“After [he] resigned from Theta Xi, he tried to have Theta Xi removed from USC fraternity row and simultaneously threatened several of the members living in the … fraternity house,” the complaint read.

The suit alleges Theta Xi was placed on interim suspension as a result of the filed complaint, and the organization was never provided with an official notice outlining the allegations.

The suit also includes a report from Theta Xi’s president detailing his experience with Turner during SJACS’ investigation of the fraternity while it was on interim suspension.

“During the course of the meeting, which lasted two hours, I was asked many leading questions … I was given no time to give any clarification or tell my side of the story,” the suit read. “It felt as if [Turner] had already made her mind up of what she believed and was only set on forcing the answers that she wanted out of me … I wasn’t offered any water or breaks … the mental and emotional stress that this situation brought on me has caused me to lose sleep, suffer … and seek out on-campus counseling.”

According to the suit, USC provided no opportunity for Theta Xi to cross examine the witness, who was described by fellow members in the suit as “being very disrespectful towards women” and as having allegedly said “women exist on the planet so [he] can have sex with them.”

Turner found the complaint against Theta Xi was substantiated and sanctioned the immediate loss of recognition for the fraternity.


Tucker Judkins/Daily Trojan

Hazing at USC fraternities ranges in intensity, encompassing everything from making pledges do menial tasks for active members to forcing them to drink alcohol until they black out.

Heavy drinking, in particular, has proven to be one of the most dangerous forms of pledging at USC.

In April 2017, Alasdair Russell, who was pledging Phi Kappa Psi, died by suicide after withdrawing from USC that January.

His mother filed a lawsuit against the University claiming that Phi Kappa Psi members forced her son to drink so much that he fell off of a platform and injured his head at a party in October 2016, causing him emotional duress in the months that followed.

According to previous Daily Trojan reporting, the members allegedly pressured him not to seek immediate medical attention out of fear that they would get in trouble with the University, even though he exhibited concussion-like symptoms such as vomiting, dizziness and headaches. His mother claims in the lawsuit that fraternity members gave her son cocaine and Adderall so that he could resume his pledge duties.

The case echoes the 2017 death of Penn State University student Timothy Piazza, who participated in a pledging ritual called “The Gauntlet” at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity. After drinking heavily, Piazza was so inebriated that he fell down a flight of stairs and was knocked unconscious.

The story made national headlines after reports revealed that Piazza’s fraternity brothers did not transport Piazza to the hospital until 12 hours later, where he was pronounced dead the morning after the party.

These incidents are the culmination of more than a century of pledging tradition. Hazing, specifically by men, in American higher education dates back to just after the end of the Civil War, when soldiers who had experienced hazing in the military brought it with them to academic institutions.

Fraternities codified this system for their pledge programs, and ever since then, hazing has been a way to distinguish the men who are not committed or “weak,” according to Hechinger.

In her 2019 book “Fraternity: An Inside Look at a Year of College Boys Becoming Men,” investigative journalist Alexandra Robbins writes that fraternity hazing in the United States increased in the late 1800s as a way for upperclassmen to intimidate younger members.

Even though today it is a crime in 44 states, including California, 73 percent of people in college Greek life are hazed, according to Robbins.

“Hazing can be viewed as a means of group survival,” she writes. “People generally want to believe that they are decent citizens who make good decisions. So when they do something stupid or cruel, they feel uncomfortable afterward when they try to reconcile their behavior with their image of themselves.”

Hazing has become such an integral part of the fraternity experience that college freshmen come to campus with expectations already in place. In an interview with the Daily Trojan, an inactive member of Sammy who joined in Fall 2015 and spent three years as a member of the fraternity said hazing continues because pledges expect and want to be hazed.

The former member, who wished to remain anonymous, said the “hazing” he experienced at Sammy consisted mainly of heavy workouts and philosophical discussions — unusual for many fraternities, which tend to include heavy drinking in their hazing processes. During the pledge process, he said most others in his pledge class did not want to participate in these character development activities and instead wanted the “conventional” hazing experience.

“There would be a few nights here and there where the main two guys who were doing their thing were like, ‘We’re going to let some other people take over, and they’ll do the more conventional hazing,’” he said. “Dark robes, loud music, there’s drinking, that sort of thing.”

The former member described how pledges would be placed in a room and told to drink a set amount of alcohol — on weeknights or before chapter meetings.

Hechinger explains that many fraternities who claim they have eliminated hazing still have a “pledge program,” which is essentially a cover for continuing the same activities.

“But it often gets into really ugly stuff,” Hechinger said. “Humiliation, and the worst is forced drinking that has killed so many students.”

Last month, nine brothers from Delta Kappa Epsilon at Louisiana State University were arrested for hazing-related crimes. They allegedly forced pledges to lie in mounds of broken glass while the active members kicked them with steel-toed boots and urinated on them, according to the New York Post.  

“As long as [fraternities] have a pledge process, inevitably one year or another, it’s going to get out of control, or something terrible is going to happen,” Hechinger said.

Carry said the most concerning reports the University has received involve students alleging that substances were slipped into their drinks at fraternity parties.

“I am concerned about the number of random, loosely connected reports that we receive about students having something slipped into their drinks or being roofied at a party or an event,” Carry said. “We will get one report, then we won’t hear anything else in a long time. Then we will get another report.”

Carry said when he meets with students individually regarding these allegations, they say the situation is common on campus.

“But we are not getting these reports of this happening all the time,” Carry said. “We need those reports because those reports eventually give us a pattern. I know people think, ‘Oh, this happened to me and two of my friends, it’s not a big deal, I don’t want to report it or make a big deal out of it’ … We need those reports to identify these patterns.”


Lillian Zeng/Daily Trojan

For many fraternity members, the exact process USC undertakes to investigate Greek organizations is unclear. This came to a head in October when FSLD instructed Sammy and Phi Sigma Kappa to cancel their social activities while they were placed on interim suspension, according to a previous Daily Trojan report.

During the incident, Associate Vice Provost for Student Affairs Monique Allard sent both fraternities a memo citing violations of health and safety codes and hazing regulations. Phi Sigma Kappa released a statement following the incident announcing its plans to potentially sue the University over a lack of transparency.

“Unfortunately, the University’s standard operating procedure has been to ‘suspend first, provide information later,’” the statement read. “We believe that procedure runs counter to the law, due process and fundamental fairness.”

After fraternities are placed on interim suspension, the University’s next step is to investigate the nature of the allegations, Carry said.

“While we review this allegation, we pause [the fraternities’] activities so that we can [have a] thorough investigation,” Carry said. “During an interim suspension, we’re doing our homework. We interview … and gather information.”

Carry said that by having the fraternities suspend social activities and events, the University can ensure that no further harm occurs, if the allegations are proven to be true.

“Any time we receive an allegation for inappropriate behavior by a fraternity, we take action, we will interim suspend,” Carry said. “It has always been our approach and it has always been our practice.”

Carry said the increase in suspensions this year is not because the University’s commitment to ensuring safety has changed but because of the amount of reports and tips that the University has received.

As part of the effort to investigate these claims, the Office of Student Affairs has enlisted the help of SJACS, the Office of Professionalism and Ethics and DPS, according to Carry. All four offices work together to interview members of the organizations and key witnesses.

“It’s not a CSI investigation,” Carry said. “People are not in [the fraternity houses] with blue lights and scanning for fingerprints.”

Carry explained that organizations are notified of their conduct violations and are given an opportunity to state their case afterward. When the University comes to a decision, organizations are invited to  make an appeal.

“What’s missing in that notification is more specifics,” Carry said. “Sometimes, those specific details jeopardize the reporting party.”

Carry explained that the University aims to notify the accused party of a decision no more than 15 days after first notifying them of their violations. However, it took approximately 21 days for Phi Sigma Kappa and Sammy to be notified of their decisions. Carry attributes the extended turnaround time to the fact that many fraternity members and pledges do not show up for interviews, which are part of the investigation.

Pledges are told by pledge masters not to discuss hazing outside of the fraternity, according to the former Sammy member.

“Everyone knows hazing is happening, and if you make it into specifics, then it’s a liability,” the former member said.

Carry said, however, that he urges anyone with information regarding substance abuse, hazing or general concerns to report it, even if the reports are anonymous. In terms of due process, however, Carry said judicial processes for individuals are different than due process for organizations.

Despite the criticism over SJACS’ response to hazing allegations, Carry explained that the administration’s policy values safety over social activities. This means that fraternities are watched more closely than they may like, and the administration will continue to closely monitor their social activities.

“When we receive the reports that we received, out of … taking care of the community, I would prefer to stop a group, then receive a continuation of hazing reports,” Carry said. “If a kid dies, we won’t be having a conversation about why you didn’t let them throw a party.”