EVANSTON, Ill. — At the University of Tennessee this year, some fraternity pledges had hot sauce poured on their genitals. At Emory in Atlanta, pledges were required to consume items “not typical for eating’’ and to engage in fistfights. And at Wesleyan in Connecticut, a few months after the university reached a settlement with a woman who said she was raped at a fraternity house, another woman said that she was raped at a different fraternity house.
Facing a barrage of bad publicity and lawsuits, a growing number of federal investigations and a recent White House task force report, colleges are under intense pressure to curb sexual assault, binge drinking and hazing. They have increasingly focused their efforts on fraternities.
In just the past few months, fraternities have been suspended or put on probation at the Universities of Tennessee, Connecticut, Illinois and Mississippi, as well as at Kent State, Emory, Lehigh, Cornell and Northwestern Universities, among others. In March, after being linked to a string of injuries and deaths, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, one of the largest national fraternities, announced a ban on the pledging rituals that often devolve into hazing and drunkenness.
Wesleyan announced that it was reconsidering the status of fraternities, possibly requiring them to accept women, eliminate their residential houses or disband entirely. Nearby, Trinity College is trying to force fraternities to include female members. And starting July 1, Amherst College will prohibit students from belonging to any fraternity or sorority, even off campus.
“Every institution that has fraternities and sororities is looking at them,’’ said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, an alliance of colleges and universities. He said that while such groups can be valuable additions to college life, “they can also be places where bad behavior gets magnified.’’
Numerous studies show that members of Greek organizations drink more heavily than other students, and alcohol abuse is strongly tied to other forms of misconduct. But in interviews at multiple campuses, fraternity members said that their reputations had been tainted by the bad acts of others.
“I’ve seen the best of it and the worst of it,’’ said Adam Slater, a junior at Northwestern, which has an unusually robust Greek scene, with almost 40 percent of students joining fraternities or sororities. Slater led the efforts of Zeta Beta Tau fraternity in the annual rush for new members last fall.
“I got very jaded because of the way certain frats handled rush, focusing on alcohol and girls too much,’’ he said.
A few nights spent here, in and around the cluster of fraternity houses at the north end of Northwestern’s campus, yielded the kinds of alcohol-fueled scenes that can be found on any weekend, at any of hundreds of campuses, and that keep college presidents awake at night, knowing that the usual partying has elements that can spiral out of control.
Near midnight on a Saturday, eight people spilled out of a fraternity house, including a woman who walked unsteadily as she held a red Solo cup, and a man who paused to relieve himself on a tree. They called up to the open third-floor window of another frat house, where a man in a drinking game teetered alarmingly against the sill.
They and dozens of others converged on a crowded house near campus, where one young man urinated on an overturned lawn chair in the yard, another propped up a woman who repeatedly said, “Don’t let me throw up,’’ and in a basement, students danced to throbbing hip-hop music or played beer pong on plywood tables. Later, clusters of students straggled out past a forest of empty bottles and cups, with many of the men — and a few of the women — making their way noisily back to the frat houses for the night.
Fraternities have no monopoly on this kind of revelry, or on serious misconduct — similar ills have plagued sports teams, marching bands and even debate and glee clubs — and defenders of Greek life argue that there will be no less trouble without it. They also note that students who belong to fraternities and sororities have higher graduation rates than their peers, that the groups do volunteer work, and that alumni are known for loyalty to their organizations and colleges.
As result, administrators do not denounce fraternities outright, even while they try to rein them in.
“I think we have to be very careful before we blame the Greeks,’’ said Patricia Telles-Irvin, the university’s vice president for student affairs. “They’re so visible that they get easily targeted. I’m not saying they’re so innocent, but other student organizations that are hazing and drinking aren’t really in the limelight as the Greeks are.’’
In this school year, Northwestern, like many of its peers, has toughened its policies against hazing and sexual assault, and planned a hazing prevention task force and a student survey on campus social issues. But there is no plan to restrict fraternities.
In April, the president of Dartmouth College, Philip J. Hanlon, declared that “Dartmouth’s promise is being hijacked by extreme behavior,’’ citing sexual assault and “a culture where dangerous drinking has become the rule.’’ But at a college where fraternities dominate social life and have faced intense criticism, he did not single them out, saying that change was needed in all settings.
At Amherst, officials say there is no evidence that fraternity members have caused more than their share of trouble in recent years, yet the college has decided to eliminate them.
While there are no definitive national figures on fraternity membership, the ranks appear thinner than they were a generation ago, but still strong. The North-American Interfraternity Conference, which did not respond to interview requests, counts 74 national and international fraternities as members, comprising 325,000 individuals.
Hundreds of colleges, including the University of Notre Dame, Rice University and Vassar College, have no Greek system. At others, like Brandeis, Harvard and Georgetown, there are off-campus fraternities that the schools do not recognize.
But it is a short list of schools that have gone as far as Amherst plans to, eliminating once-robust Greek systems, including Williams, Colby and Bowdoin Colleges, and Alfred University. Experts say private colleges have more legal leeway to impose such restrictions than state schools do.
Three decades ago, Amherst barred fraternities from campus, but they continued to function in off-campus houses, leaving administrators with responsibility for students but no oversight of a large part of their college lives. In January, it was revealed that a student who had been expelled after the college concluded he had committed sexual assault was living with his former fraternity brothers in their off-campus house, just yards away from a college dorm.
“It’s a gray area that’s untenable,’’ said Biddy Martin, Amherst’s president. “We’ve had incidents where we literally couldn’t find out who was involved because we have no authority.’’
In the ramshackle, off-campus house rented by members of the Chi Psi fraternity at Amherst, Will Kamin, a junior and the group’s president, watched fellow members clean up after a party and said, “For a lot of these guys, this is the only place where they can talk openly about their lives and form strong bonds.’’
“We recognize that around the country there have been serious problems with Greek life,’’ he said. “But that’s not us.’’