In the final part of this special 3-part series on Black Greek Letter Organization hazing, author Lawrence C. Ross Jr. on why it may be a case of life or death, for both the pledges and the organizations themselves. Part 1 of this series is here. Part 2 of this series is here.
All black Greek organizations prominently display their risk-management policies for both their members and aspirants, and some like Alpha Kappa Alpha and Delta Sigma Theta list hundreds of suspended and expelled chapters and members. But black Greek organizations rely upon volunteer, unpaid regional and district directors, who are tasked with keeping track of between 600 to 700 chapters nationwide. But the track record for this system has not been successful.
Last week, Prairie View student Donnie Wade died while allegedly pledging Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity. The initial investigation notes that Wade collapsed while running around a high school track with his line brothers and a Phi Beta Sigma member between 4 a.m. and 7 a.m.
In 1994, Michael Davis died while pledging Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity. The Kappas eventually paid the Davis family $1.4 million, while the members who caused Davis’ death paid over $800,000. In California, pledges Kenitha Saafir and Kristen High died while taking part in underground activities, leading Alpha Kappa Alpha to settle a $100 million lawsuit.
Almost all hazing injuries and deaths are followed by a lawsuit. However, in most cases, hazing lawsuits for black fraternities and sororities are paid out through their liability insurance, which has caused these organizations to be placed in some very risky company.
“In the ‘80s, the insurance commissioners in Colorado ranked us below liquor stores, bars, child-care centers and asbestos contractors,” said Dr. Walter Kimbrough, author of Black Greek 101 (Fairleigh Dickinson Press).
Yet, there are alternatives to traditional black pledging, and an example comes from an unlikely source: a white fraternity. In 1989, the non-African-American fraternity Sigma Phi Epsilon was struggling with pledge hazing incidents, lack of member retention and high insurance rates. So they decided to create Balanced Man, a new intake program that concentrated less on a prospect proving themselves as a pledge, but as an active brother in the chapter.
“Balanced Man is about four years of continued development,” said Brian Warren, director of operations for Sigma Phi Epsilon. “We help our new members make the transition from high school to college, by focusing on academic, time management and mentoring them on potential roadblocks. And then we prepare our members for post-graduate life.”
Since Balanced Man was started, Sigma Phi Epsilon has reduced its liability insurance claims to 6 percent, and according to the North American Interfraternity Conference, an advocacy group for fraternities that count Alpha Phi Alpha, Kappa Alpha Psi, Phi Beta Sigma and Iota Phi Theta as members. Sigma Phi Epsilon chapters consistently have the highest grade point averages of fraternities.
“The Balanced Man program is great in that every chapter does not automatically gain that status. They have to opt in, or if they are a new or re-colonizing chapter, they have to participate,” Dr. Kimbrough remarked. “We don’t have a model like that in black fraternalism, but with so many chapters being suspended and reconstituted, at the bare minimum we need a program that creates a completely new model for Greek Life with different priorities and objectives.”
Sigma Phi Epsilon had the same traditional problems when it came to eliminating pledging, as many SigEp members felt they had a right to pledge new members the traditional way, simply because of their status as brothers. Balanced Man changed that.
“We’re trying to change our culture from seniority-based to merit-based, much like you experience when you leave school,” said Warren. “Judge new members by what value they bring on merit, not based on how long a member has been there.”
And with 11 paid regional staff members who visit between two to four college chapters each week, Sigma Phi Epsilon is not only able to enforce their rules, but also make sure that Balanced Man runs correctly.
For black Greeks, the decision is whether to continue to turn a blind eye to underground pledging, or to create a different solution that attacks the problem. As for the status quo, hazing attorney Doug Fierberg sees ominous things ahead.
[Black] fraternities and sororities would be wise in this day and age to erroneously believe that they couldn’t go bankrupt,” said Fierberg. “There’s a real possibility with punitive damages and the right circumstances that one could lose everything.”
Lawrence C. Ross Jr. is author of the best-selling The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities. He is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.
Lawrence Ross is the author of the Los Angeles Times best-seller The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities. His newest book, Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses, is a blunt and frank look at the historical and contemporary issue of campus racism on predominantly white college campuses. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.