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Can deeply ingrained frat culture be reformed after hazing deaths?

College fraternities have long been associated with alcohol abuse and hazing, but recent deaths have put pressure on a number of schools to make changes. Will it make a difference? John Hechinger, author of "True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America's Fraternities," joins John Yang to discuss whether these organizations can disentangle themselves from their darker inclinations.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Drinking and hazing have long been a fact of life with fraternities around the country, but a series of recent deaths has put a new spotlight on that culture and some tragic consequences.

    Now, a number of colleges and universities are feeling pressure to make changes. But the question, of course, is, how significant will they be?

    It is the focus of our weekly segment, Making the Grade.

    John Yang has our look.

  • John Yang:

    Colleges and universities across the country are cracking down on the sometimes deadly antics of Greek life.

    Ohio State University suspended all fraternity recruiting and social activities following investigations into alcohol abuse and hazing. Greek life also came to a halt at Texas State, Florida State, and Michigan State, all after reports of alcohol abuse, sexual misconduct, hazing, or pledge fatalities.

  • John E. Thrasher:

    We know it's happened. We know it's happened at other universities. And it's obviously not just a problem for Florida State. It's a problem for just about every major university.

  • John Yang:

    New criminal charges have been filed against fraternity members in one of the most prominent hazing deaths, the case of 19-year-old Pennsylvania State University pledge Tim Piazza. Investigators say he died after being given at least 18 drinks in less than an hour-and-a-half.

  • Jim Piazza:

    Tim is not just our son anymore. He represents every son and daughter of every family that has someone that they want to send to college that may want to participate in Greek life.

  • John Yang:

    A case that's intensifying calls for changes in college fraternities.

    For more on the increasing pressures on college fraternities, we're joined by John Hechinger, he is a Bloomberg News senior editor and the author of "True Gentlemen- The Broken Pledge of America's Fraternities."

    John Hechinger, thanks for joining us.

    We just heard in that taped spot about the number of colleges that are taking action this year against fraternities. Are we reaching a tipping point, do you think?

  • John Hechinger:

    Well, the really shocking aspect of what we're seeing now is that this is not a record number of deaths.

    We have had four this year. But, in 2012, we had seven. So, there have been other times when colleges and fraternities could have taken action, and they didn't. Now, I hope we're at a turning point. I see more concern, and I see more colleges shutting down fraternities for sort of indefinite bans, which is somewhat unusual.

    But I have to say, a lot of those bans after several weeks or several months disappear because fraternities are such a powerful force on campuses.

  • John Yang:

    You talk in your book about the obstacles to doing something about fraternities.

  • John Hechinger:

    Well, I mean, fraternities are ingrained in higher education, much more than I ever realized before I started researching this book.

    They own $3 billion in real estate. They house 250,000 students, more than any other landlord, except for the colleges themselves. Their members are among the most loyal alumni. And so they're not — it's not like getting rid of some small subculture. It's getting — it's focusing on something that is really central to what most universities are about.

  • John Yang:

    And you write — you say that alcohol is the wellspring of most fraternity vice.

    It that simple, that if they were to ban alcohol in frats, that most of these problems would go away, do you think?

  • John Hechinger:

    Well, nothing is that simple, but it would make a huge difference.

    I look at one national fraternity that more than a decade ago had a policy of having dry chapter houses, and they cut back dramatically on the number of deaths and other injuries. Their insurance rates, which is one way that I look at this, since I'm a business reporter, declined by more than 90 percent.

    So, yes, it would make an enormous difference. It wouldn't end the behavior, but it would certainly reduce it.

  • John Yang:

    And you also say that hazing and tests of manhood and alcohol deaths go back to the 19th century, sort of predate the fraternity system.

    If they were to ban drinking at fraternities, would it just move somewhere else on campus life?

  • John Hechinger:

    Well, fraternities added something special to this sort of time-honored hazing tradition. And that's pledging, which is this weeks- or months-long period where the youngest, most vulnerable men are asked to have these tests of their tolerance and their manhood and often asked to drink until unconsciousness.

    And that's all of the — all of the young men who died this year were pledges. And that's not a coincidence. So, another step that universities could take is to ban pledging. It's very hard to hide an entire pledge program.

    And the fraternity that I focused on in my books, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, before — it banned pledging three-and-a-half years ago. Before then, it was the deadliest fraternity in America. It had more deaths, 10 over almost a decade.

    Since then, it hasn't had any deaths, and its rates of injuries and losses have declined more than 90 percent. So, there is some evidence there that that would be a step that would make a difference.

  • John Yang:

    One case that's getting a lot of attention is Penn State.

    New charges have recently been filed. Is that, do you think, going to be driving — enough to drive changes in fraternity life on other campuses?

  • John Hechinger:

    The Penn State case is so horrifying on the one hand, because you have a young man forced to drink until he can barely stand, and then fall down a flight of stairs, while his brothers, so to speak, refuse to call for help over an entire night, and he dies of traumatic brain injuries.

    It's kind of — it's appalling. But what was really special about Penn State is the documentation. They had surveillance footage of what happened. And just over the last week, the prosecutors found out that they had been misled by the police, that there was actually other footage showing that the fraternity members had forced him to drink 18 drinks in an hour-and-a-half.

    So, I think that just the visceral sense of just how much this was — how irresponsible this was is getting a lot of attention. And it should, because, in many of the other cases that I looked at, there was similar behavior. There was horrifying forced drinking, a refusal to call an ambulance, even attempts to cover up the crime.

    I think that that will make a difference. I don't — there's no way you can explain away the surveillance footage.

  • John Yang:

    And fraternities will also point out their community service, that they do good in their communities.

  • John Hechinger:

    And that's absolutely true.

    I called the book "True Gentlemen" because I wanted to look at their values and some of — and a lot of the good that they do in campus. They raise $20 million a year for charity. Their alumni are among the most loyal donors. They create a career network that leads to higher incomes after graduation.

    One study found that you might earn a third more if you join a fraternity, even, though, actually your grades might be lower. And so that is powerful. And they also had a very big impact on sort of the shape of higher education in America.

    They, in a sense, kind of created this sort of residential college system, the focus on extracurriculars and sports that we all kind of take for granted. But, from the beginning, they had this dark side.

    And the question that I'm looking at in the book is, can they disentangle their dark side from some of their more laudable traditions?

  • John Yang:

    John Hechinger.

    The book is "True Gentlemen- The Broken Pledge of America's Fraternities."

    Thanks for being with us.

  • John Hechinger:

    Thank you, John.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And an apology.

    Earlier in that report, we mistakenly said that Michigan State had suspended fraternity activity. It was actually the University of Michigan.

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