Colby College stopped recognizing fraternities back in the 1980s, but in 2019 it still had a problem. Rumors had it, rather than dissipating in the intervening decades, the organizations had burrowed underground.
Their secrecy caused many on the small-town Maine campus to wonder if their peers were involved in these covert societies. Administrators feared their presence would be “unfair and deeply troubling” to students who actively chose to study at Colby because it didn’t have fraternities. When someone posted on the college’s internal web platform saying they had been approached to join a secret fraternity, administrators said they had to act.
They hired a private investigator in the spring of 2019 to root out the frats. Over the course of nearly three dozen interviews, the investigator found four secret groups that had been meeting in private at the liberal arts college. These organizations bore Greek names and could seem legitimate to unsuspecting students.
The presence of underground fraternities highlights a challenge all colleges face when trying to monitor and rein in the problem behaviors of Greek organizations.
When colleges recognize them, they have some control over the groups’ actions on campus. Yet allowing official fraternities and sororities may open colleges up to liability for students’ bad behaviors.
Or colleges can do what Colby and more recently Swarthmore College have done: Throw up their hands and ban Greek life outright. In doing so, administrators risk allowing the behavior to run rampant outside of their purview.
Colby’s decision to hire a private investigator to track these underground fraternities is novel. What the investigator, Jonathan Goodman, found might be more surprising. Hidden organizations were surviving on the campus.
Even if the secret groups have only a few members, they still pose a serious problem, said Karlene Burrell-McRae, the college’s dean. Greek life might work at other campuses, she said, but exclusive organizations like fraternities aren’t welcome at Colby. And a small group, she said, might quickly become a large one.
The reasons for joining underground fraternities sound a lot like those for joining a legitimate one. A student told Goodman he sought out one of the organizations because “he did not feel part of any particular group at Colby,” which has about 2,000 students.
The groups operated a lot like traditional fraternities. They only accepted men into their ranks, and in at least two cases the members “drank alcohol together, but it was not required,” Goodman said in his report.
The culture of secrecy spread across the campus. Goodman found students accused their peers of being in fraternities, even if they didn’t have proof to back up those accusations. Instead, they relied on hearsay or rumor.
“These students, and others, suggested that underground fraternity activity is highly organized and pervasive throughout the student body,” Goodman wrote. “The actual evidence suggests that a relatively small number of Colby students are actually fraternity members.”
As a result of the investigation, Colby sanctioned 21 students, which included removal from leadership positions and probation that could result in expulsion.
Keep it from happening to you
Rush is underway around the country, and new students are looking for friends on campus. Don’t risk dangerous behavior or expulsion: Ensure you’re joining a legit fraternity — and one whose practices will keep you safe.
Here are some tips to make sure.
Report cards help, but double-check them
Many states now require universities to monitor and publish reports detailing wrongdoing among the fraternities on their campus. But what’s included in those documents varies.
After the death in 2017 of Timothy Piazza, Pennsylvania State University started to publish a report card indicating which fraternities had violated which rules. The report card is also meant to highlight individual groups’ positives such as grade point averages and community service hours. That has helped to reduce many of the problem behaviors associated with Greek life, said Lisa M. Powers, a spokeswoman for the university.
But some feel that data is too vague to help students who are choosing a Greek organization, including Douglas E. Fierberg, an attorney whose firm often represents the families of those who have lost children to hazing deaths.
For example, Penn State’s 2019 report states the university in 2017 suspended Beta Theta Pi “indefinitely for hazing violations.” Those violations? Apparently, Piazza’s death. (While the report is vague, Powers said the university has publicized its decision to ban the fraternity in the past.)
Fierberg argued the report card also doesn’t list specifically what violations the fraternities committed. Instead, they lump the violations into broad categories such as hazing or alcohol violations. Sexual misconduct and assault share the same subgroup. For everything else, there’s an “other” category.
“Other? What’s that?” Fierberg asked. “Did someone suffer a serious injury or death as a result of something other than hazing, alcohol or sexual violence?”
Powers said the other category can include violations such as “disorderly conduct,” or failure to register a party. She added the original categories were chosen because they were of the most concern to the university.
Do more research. Here’s how
Do any university offices have departments that oversee and recognize Greek groups. Parents can check these offices’ website to see if the fraternity their child plans to join is included on the official list.
Most fraternities also list their university chapters on their website. If your student says he is part of a fraternity, but you can’t find it either on the university’s or the fraternity’s website, that could be a cause for concern.
A registered fraternity should also appear in Google search. Researching the fraternity might also bring up recent headlines about what kind of activity the fraternity gets up to. Such a search might reveal a party that was busted by cops or that the fraternity in question recently hosted a charitable event.