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Bottom line Should black fraternities and sororities abolish




                                                   Yes, unless . . .

                                           By Walter M. Kimbrough

T         HIS PAST SPRING, I set off on a four-month
          lecture tour, eager to interact with bright and
          interesting students and present my thoughts on
black fraternities and sororities—the subject of my recent
book.As I prepared for the opportunity to share strate-
                                                                 During the decade since pledging was outlawed,
                                                            undergraduates have not only continued the tradition
                                                            underground—that is, in a form that is virtually invisi-
                                                            ble to administrators and organization officials—but
                                                            have sought opportunities to publicly flaunt their rebel-
gies with colleagues and offer my humble advice on mat-     lion.This level of brazen defiance was interesting to me,
ters facing a very visible but marginally understood        especially because the students saw this as a way to make
student culture, I figured that I would primarily assume     Greek life exciting again, which would therefore
the role of teacher, enter-                                                                 increase interest on cam-
tainer, and honored guest.All                                                               pus. But on almost every
three roles were part of the                                                                campus I visited, at least
tour, and I enjoyed them all                                                                one group was on suspen-
(especially because I think of                                                              sion for hazing-related
myself as an aspiring comic).           IN THE POST-1990 WORLD OF BLACK                     activities.
But I underestimated another              FRATERNALISM, RESPECT COMES                           At the end of the sec-
role—that of student. Over                                                                  ond week, I had a shock-
the course of more than sixty            FROM BREAKING THE RULES AND                        ing conversation with a
engagements, I learned a                                                                    sorority member. She
great deal about black frater-         ENGAGING IN OUTLAWED PLEDGING.                       spoke about how a chap-
nalism today, and quite                                                                     ter of her sorority allowed
frankly, much of what I                                                                     its aspirants to be
learned frightened me.                                                                      “pledged” by members of
     The first two weeks                                                                     other sororities. From my
went as expected. I encoun-                                                                 personal experience, this is
tered the normal concerns facing black fraternities and     something that never would have occurred almost
sororities on campus today. Most chapters had very          twenty years ago when I was initiated.Today, it seems
small numbers; they didn’t always get along with one        that, at least in this case, “pledging” was defined as an
another; and it was fairly clear that the vast majority did opportunity for Greeks to haze another group’s aspirants
not follow the 1990 decision by their respective national   so that they would earn “respect” on campus. In the
organizations to abolish the practice of hazing during      post-1990 world of black fraternalism, respect comes
pledging. On one campus, at least two groups acknowl-       from breaking the rules and engaging in outlawed
edged having their candidates for membership openly         pledging.
participate in the type of hazing activities that were
reminiscent of those conducted prior to 1990. The
pledges ran across the campus wearing identical uni-
forms and even made a scene in a cafeteria.
                                                              T   HE NIGHT AFTER that conversation, I went to
                                                                  bed troubled. My wife had accompanied me on
                                                            the trip; we were both completely shocked at this new

                                       ABOUT CAMPUS / SEPTEMBER–OCTOBER 2005
development in the culture of underground pledging.             of these answers fail to address the two major conse-
The next day, as we traveled home, we had lunch in the          quences of their behavior.
Atlanta airport. That day, ironically, was the tenth                 The first is that every year, numerous students are
anniversary of the death of Michael Davis, the victim in        injured, both mentally and physically, by their peers as
a highly publicized hazing case at Southeast Missouri           they attempt to gain membership in one of these fra-
State University. Davis died from internal injuries,            ternal organizations. Since the major black fraternal
including injuries to the liver, kidney, spleen, brain, as      organizations abolished pledging in 1990, an average of
well as a torn lung. I asked my wife,“How can we stop           four hazing cases have been described in some form of
hazing?”                                                        the news media each year. Since 1999, the rate is
     That day, February 15, in the journal I used to sum-       greater than seven per year.This may be a product of
marize my thoughts after each campus visit, I wrote a           increased access to on-line news items as well as, seem-
phrase that I never expected                                                                  ingly, more incidents.
to consider: “Should black                                                                    Unfortunately, it seems
fraternities and sororities                                                                   that most students accept
abolish undergraduate chap-                                                                   this as an occupational
ters?” After more than a                                                                      hazard of full acceptance
                                        UNDERGRADUATES APPEAR TO BE
decade of doing research,                                                                     within the organization.
writing and reading articles,               IN A STAGE OF DEVELOPMENT                              Second, the numerous
participating in speaking                                                                     injuries and even deaths
engagements, and authoring                   THAT PREVENTS THEM FROM                          have now fed into a liti-
a book about these groups, I                                                                  gious society, and actions
                                       UNDERSTANDING THE BIG PICTURE
suddenly felt impotent to                                                                     viewed as tradition by
help solve this monumental                  BECAUSE IT INTERFERES WITH                        undergraduates threaten the
problem, which was spiral-                                                                    very existence of organiza-
ing out of control.                        THEIR IMMEDIATE DESIRES AND                        tions burdened by the costs
     I decided that day that I                                                                of settlements or defense. In
                                                    PERCEIVED NEEDS.
would begin to share my                                                                       September 2002, lawyers in
misery with students across                                                                   California filed the largest
the country, so during ques-                                                                  lawsuit against any fraternal
tion-and-answer periods, I                                                                    organization ever for $100
looked forward to an oppor-                                                                   million. It was one of about
tunity to ask what I have dubbed the question:“Should           five lawsuits filed since 2000 against black fraternal orga-
we abolish undergraduate chapters?”The response was             nizations for hazing.
always a swift and resounding no, but when pressed to                Within a month after first asking the question, it
develop substantive reasons for not taking such an              became easy to predict students’ answers.As they offered
unthinkable action, students generally lost some of their       superficial but sincere responses, I raised counterissues.
confidence and resolve.                                          Soon, they became hesitant to offer quick answers in the
     Within a month, students presented me with a               face of these serious issues. So the more I asked, as the
familiar set of answers to the question, but none of the        tour progressed, the more reserved students became in
answers were supported by sound facts and logic.Their           their attempts to answer. I asked and asked, and became
answers included (1) undergraduates started these orga-         disheartened, because I desperately wanted to find a sat-
nizations, (2) graduate chapters haze too, (3) people join      isfactory answer.
because of the presence of undergraduate members, and                One of the main things I learned is that the students
(4) the groups derive a sizable portion of their operat-        did not have good, solid information about how the
ing funds from undergraduates.The problem is that all           organizations operate or even the state of the organiza-
                                                                tions. For example, one reason often cited for preserving
Walter M. Kimbrough is president of Philander Smith             undergraduate chapters was that they brought in a sig-
College in Little Rock, Arkansas, and author of Black Greek     nificant sum of money.They could not have been more
101: The Culture, Customs, and Challenges of Black Fraternities
and Sororities. His e-mail address is wkimbrough@philan-        wrong. Generally, less than 25 percent of the active, dues-                                                        paying members are current undergraduates. A recent
We love feedback. Send letters to executive editor Marcia       membership report for my own fraternity showed col-
Baxter Magolda (, and please             lege brothers at 20 percent of the membership.
copy her on notes to authors.                                        More interesting, I also learned that in most cases,

                                        ABOUT CAMPUS / SEPTEMBER–OCTOBER 2005
the core assumptions and values perpetuated by college     they may have graduated, still exert an influence on new
members are diametrically opposed to those of their        members. More important, the students who are mem-
national leadership. Undergraduates indicated that haz-    bers of other organizations on the same campus who
ing proves that people love the organization, while grad-  continue to pledge underground also challenge the new
uate members see hazing as a real threat to the            members to pledge or be disrespected.
organization. Undergraduates also admitted confusion            So everyone has to stop at the same time. During
because persons who hazed or were hazed now tell           this moratorium, the nine groups would commission a
them not to do it.They appear to be in a stage of devel-   task force to seriously study pledging and membership
opment that prevents them from understanding the big       intake and to develop recommendations for a new
picture because it interferes with their immediate desires process that has the potential to work. Pledging as a
and perceived needs. It is almost as if black fraternities concept is not bad, but the challenge is to create pledg-
and sororities are experiencing a Du Boisian “double       ing without hazing.The groups have yet to work as a
consciousness,” with “two souls, two thoughts, two         unified force against this common enemy; therefore,
unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark     their individual efforts have been ineffective. They
body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being      should devote the necessary resources, especially fund-
torn asunder” (p. 45).                                                                     ing, to hire noted experts,
                                                                                           sociologists, psychologists,

I   PROMISED students
   that at the end of the
tour, I would offer a judg-
                                                                                           university administrators,
                                                                                           and others to tackle this
                                                                                           issue.The end result would
                                        STUDENTS MUST UNDERSTAND
ment on the question in                                                                    be a new process that all
writing.That time has now                FULLY THAT THIS IS THE FINAL                      groups would follow, which
come. If I logically review                                                                would level the playing field
all of the facts—most sig-                    ATTEMPT TO SALVAGE                           and get buy-in from the
nificantly, the continued                 UNDERGRADUATE CHAPTERS.
                                                                                           undergraduate culture that
harm, injury, and death to                                                                 transcends individual mem-
students, as well the contin-                                                              berships.
ued lawsuits against black                                                                      After this new process
fraternal organizations—I                                                                  is developed, the ultimatum
must say that black fraterni-                                                              must be given. Students
ties and sororities must end undergraduate chapters if     must understand fully that this is the final attempt to sal-
they want to preserve their organizations.                 vage undergraduate chapters. If chapters violate the new
     I may be the first to ask this question publicly, but  process, they will immediately be revoked forever.After
the national presidents of the major black fraternal orga- a period of five years, the organizations should jointly
nizations have asked this question for years.The choice    review the number of chapters revoked for hazing
for the leadership has been,“Do we continue to halfway     abuses. If that number is high, they would agree to abol-
address hazing and underground pledging and hope that      ish undergraduate chapters immediately.
we don’t get sued out of existence, or do we ensure the         Black fraternities and sororities should abolish
organization’s survival by eliminating its biggest can-    undergraduate chapters only after they make a drastic,
cer—hazing by undergraduates?”                             last-ditch attempt to save them by reworking member-
     Prior to making this move to end undergraduate        ship intake and replacing it with a highly educational
chapters, I have one last idea. I propose that all nine of and engaging membership education program. If the
the organizations that are members of the National Pan-    leadership is unwilling to make this kind of stand, then
Hellenic Council, the umbrella body for the largest        we should abolish undergraduate chapters now. Other-
black fraternal organizations, simultaneously impose a     wise, the courts will soon abolish black fraternal orga-
five-year moratorium on membership intake. I have           nizations altogether.
personally criticized moratoriums because they don’t
work in a vacuum. Normally, one group institutes a
moratorium on new members or suspends a chapter for        NOTE
as long as four years, but in one or two other groups,     Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Signet
underground pledging continues in full swing.The rea-           Classic, 1995. (Originally published 1903.)
son is that those who violated the rules, even though

                                        ABOUT CAMPUS / SEPTEMBER–OCTOBER 2005

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