Surrounded by his pledge brothers and 40 other club patrons, Burford climbed onto the stage and selected a stripper. She removed his shirt, handcuffed him to a tall metal pole in the middle of the stage and began to beat him with a thick leather belt volunteered by one of his pledge brothers.
“Then they put me in this chair and handcuffed my hands behind my back,” Burford said in an interview with The Daily Princetonian. “She would give me a lap dance and then hit me. And then she bit my nipple, really hard. I had a black, bite-shaped bruise there for three weeks.”
Burford’s trip to the strip club was only one of several pledge tasks he needed to complete before he could become a full member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, though he ultimately decided to drop the fraternity rush during the winter of his freshman year, before the pledge period ended that spring. Though fraternity hazing exercises may violate both University rules and state laws, often combining heavy drinking by minors with other illegal activities, the University neither officially recognizes nor actively engages with any of the Greek organizations on campus. Former fraternity members interviewed for this article told the ‘Prince’ that the University’s lack of oversight exacerbates these activities, but President Tilghman said she does not think recognizing Greek organizations would help the administration significantly influence members’ behavior.
The fraternity Burford rushed, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, is one of at least 13 Greek organizations — three sororities and at least 10 fraternities —at Princeton. Though none of the chapters have houses, as they do at many colleges, an estimated 15 percent of Princeton undergraduates are members of these organizations. But University administrators have long maintained a policy of not recognizing these groups.
“I fundamentally believe that it’s impossible to regulate the very things that we are most concerned about with fraternities … which are the excessive alcohol and the hazing,” Tilghman said. “The notion that recognizing them will fix that — all you have to do is look at episodes that happen all over this country at universities that have recognized their fraternities and sororities to know that this is chasing fool’s gold.”
Though fraternity hazing is by no means unique to Princeton, some students and alumni said they believe University recognition might improve the situation on campus.
“Hazing was a problem for fraternities at Princeton. This is in large part due to the lack of recognition and regulation from the University,” said Evan Baehr ’05, a former member of the Kappa Alpha fraternity. “By not recognizing the fraternities, it leaves the officers of the fraternities to have zero oversight … Recognizing the fraternities and sororities would certainly help with sound governance of the social organizations.”
According to state law, “[a] person is guilty of hazing if, in connection with initiation of applicants to or members of a student or fraternal organization, he knowingly or recklessly organizes, promotes, facilitates or engages in any conduct, other than competitive athletic events, which places or may place another person in danger of bodily injury.”
The University’s “Rights, Rules, Responsibilities” (RRR) guide outlines an even more specific hazing policy, prohibiting “a broad range of behaviors that may place another person in danger of bodily injury or behavior that demonstrates indifference or disregard for another person’s dignity or well-being.” Examples of hazing listed in RRR include forced ingestion of alcohol, food, drugs or “any undesirable substance,” as well as mentally abusive or demeaning behavior, acts that could result in physical, mental, or emotional harm, and physical abuse in the form of whipping, paddling, beating or exposure to the elements.
Fraternity rush activities at Princeton run the gamut from harmless, silly tasks to more serious, potentially dangerous challenges. Some of the most visible examples include pledges from various fraternities streaking through large lecture classes and Kappa Alpha pledges standing outside McCosh Hall all day dressed as Secret Service agents.
Sororities tend to have tamer pledge requirements than fraternities. Frances Schendle ’06, who joined Kappa Alpha Theta when she was a freshman, recalled that new members were required to be “on call” one night per week to run errands for the older sisters.
“Older girls could call on us to do things like go to Frist and buy a bag of candy and come eat it with them while watching ‘Sex and the City,’ ” she said. “The activities we had to go through as a pledge were meant to foster bonding as a class.”
One senior, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, recalled his experience rushing Alpha Epsilon Pi, explaining that pledges were required to make trips to Philadelphia, where they had to complete tasks like peeing on the University of Pennsylvania’s famed “Split Button” sculpture or receiving a lap dance from a black stripper. Other Alpha Epsilon Pi pledges, the senior said, were forced to crawl around in the Mathey Courtyard and pretend to be cows by eating grass and mooing loudly. Arthur Levy ’10, whose netID is listed on the website of Alpha Epsilon Pi’s national organization as the official contact for the Princeton chapter, declined to comment for this article.
Some fraternity pledge tasks, however, are more dangerous, often involving underage binge drinking.
“Usually I was drunk three or four nights a week — not really that often, I guess, compared to some people,” Burford said. “On average, I threw up once a day for my entire first semester. Not every day, but once or twice a week, I would throw up multiple times.”
Burford was not the only member of his pledge class who was forced to consume excessive amounts of alcohol.
“I was one of a pledge class of seven,” he explained, “and I think five of the seven got alcohol poisoning at one point or another in their freshman year.” He also recalled that one of his pledge brothers had once registered a blood alcohol level of 0.40 — a level that can result in coma — at the University Medical Center at Princeton.
Brandon Weghorst, the associate executive director of communications for the Sigma Alpha Epsilon national organization, said the fraternity maintains “strict regulations” for its more than 200 chapters across the country.
“Each group creates its own pledge program for new members, but our Fraternity Laws spell out stringent guidelines in order to provide the best experience possible for our new members,” Weghorst said in an e-mail. “Sigma Alpha Epsilon does not condone hazing or any other illegal activity and provides educational resources for all of our members to combat hazing or inappropriate behavior.” Weghorst declined to comment on specific allegations about the Princeton chapter.
Kyle O’Donovan ’11, who is listed on the website of Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s national organization as the official contact for the Princeton chapter, declined to comment for this article.
Tilghman said hazing and binge drinking in fraternities have long been major concerns for University trustees. “[In spring 2005] one of our trustees said something that has certainly lingered in my mind and in the minds of the trustees: ‘Would we be having a different conversation if a student had just died?’ ” she recalled.
Two years after that question was raised, in March 2007, a student did die: a freshman at Rider University, just seven miles from the Princeton campus. Gary DeVercelly was found in cardiac arrest at that university’s Phi Kappa Tau house after a night of binge drinking at a fraternity event. He was brought to the hospital, where he died 30 hours later. Rider, which does recognize its Greek organizations, subsequently shut down its Phi Kappa Tau chapter in August 2007.
But fear for his life was not what ultimately compelled Burford to drop out of Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s rush process in the January of his freshman year. It had become increasingly difficult for Burford to complete his coursework and meet his responsibilities as a member of the varsity fencing team while adhering to the demands of older brothers.
“I was the only person who played a varsity sport and who actually wasn’t willing to give up working on academics,” he said. “So I eventually got singled out.”
Burford explained that Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s hazing activities during his four months of rush ranged from the crazy to the demeaning.
“There was stuff that was crazy … and sometimes illegal that they made everybody do, but it wasn’t that big of a deal. I didn’t mind that much,” he explained. “Then there’s the category where it was just completely humiliating, and they were definitely singling me out and trying to hurt me. That was not cool.”
And it wasn’t just physical. “Not only do they haze you physically, but they also haze you mentally,” he said. “We would do something exactly right, and they would make up something that we did wrong and haze us over it. You get worried that every time you’re gonna do something, you’re gonna get yelled at. Even now, I still don’t really like to check my e-mail because I still have that feeling of, like, ‘Oh my god, if I check my e-mail, I’m going to have some e-mail bitching at me over something.’ ”
Well into the rush process, Burford wasn’t completing his tasks as well or as quickly as his pledge brothers, and he often got sick from his frequent vomiting. That meant he was regularly singled out by the fraternity’s older brothers.
One night in early December 2008, it all came to a head. The older brothers took the seven pledges to Springdale Golf Course, behind Forbes College, and gave each a gallon of milk. Except for Burford.
“They gave me a doughnut and a hot coffee,” Burford recalled. “They told me, ‘Burford, sit down, just relax, enjoy yourself. You’ve been fucking your other pledge brothers over, just sitting on your ass while they’re doing all the work, so this is just one more example of that.’ ”
The older members then made the other six pledges chug milk and run wind sprints repeatedly across the golf course.
“They threw up, like, 15 or 20 times,” Burford said of his pledge brothers. “And they said specifically, ‘Guys, when you’re feeling like shit right now, remember: It’s Burford’s fault.’ ”
Then one of the senior brothers, known within the fraternity as “the pledge educator,” turned to Burford and offered him a chance at redemption, handing the freshman a 20-ounce Dr. Pepper bottle filled with tobacco spit. “Burford, if you chug this thing in one go, everybody can go home,” Burford recalled the senior brother saying. “We’ll put all this behind us. You’ll have redeemed yourself.”
“Chewing tobacco pretty much instantly makes you throw up … so none of them thought I could do it,” Burford said. Still, he took the bottle and managed to drink all of its contents in one chug. “Then [the senior brother] was just, like, ‘Psych!’ and he made them continue,” Burford explained. “And I was just, like, ‘This is so fucked up.’ ”
The entire event — and Burford’s severe physical illness when the nicotine reached his bloodstream minutes later — marked the first time he considered dropping out of the rush process. He didn’t quit, though, instead using the three weeks of winter break to rest and recover at home from his first semester of Princeton life. When he returned to campus in January 2009, he felt ready to see the rush process through to the end.
Soon after their return, Burford and his pledge brothers were told to strip naked and go swimming in an icy pond at the same golf course behind Forbes.
“We had to break the ice on the pond,” Burford recalled. “We almost got hypothermia.”
But the older members warned the pledges that the worst was yet to come. One January night, the seven pledge brothers were blindfolded and taken into a small dorm room in Cuyler Hall, where they were forced to sit silently, listening to a death metal song blasting on repeat.
“They put us in this room, and they were, like, ‘Don’t move, don’t say anything,’ ” Burford recalled. “They put on this death metal, and it was also really hot, and we still had on all our cold weather stuff. So, of course, we’re burning up. And every five minutes, one of them would come in and pour beer on us or kick us or throw a beer can at us.”
After roughly 30 loops of the track, Burford had had enough.
“I was just like, ‘Why am I doing this?’ ” he explained. “So I stripped off the mask that they put on me, and my bindings, and I walked out … One of the things that really bothered me was not only do I have to do all this now — and I’m not even close to being done — but next year I’m going to have to turn around and do this to the freshmen.”
Burford’s story is a compelling one for those who call for more oversight of the fraternities at Princeton. But Tilghman said she doubts that the administration could successfully regulate Greek organizations, even if it recognized them.
“[Because we don’t recognize Greek organizations] we lose the potential for regulating the behavior that most concerns us,” she said. “Because I’m a skeptic, I think that potential is a low potential. But it’s not zero.”
But Burford said he fears the University will ultimately pay a heavy price for not recognizing or regulating Greek organizations.
“Either it’s going to be through swimming through a lake and getting hypothermia, or it’s going to be from massive alcohol poisoning,” he said. “Eventually, somebody’s probably going to die.”
This is the first article in a five-part series on Greek life at the University. Tomorrow: A look at who rushes fraternities and sororities on campus and why.
Original URL: http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/2010/04/26/25997/