I’ve been getting questions like these a lot in the past few days since the article on hazing appeared in The Daily Princetonian on Monday (“In the hot seat: Hazing at Princeton,” April 26, 2010). I figure I owe everybody answers, which I’ll give here to the best of my ability, as honestly and forthrightly as I can.
When I rushed Sigma Alpha Epsilon, I knew that they hazed. This didn’t bother me, since I regarded a bit of hazing as integral to the fraternity experience. However, during rush, the one thing the brothers repeatedly asked the guys who were rushing was, “What have you heard that SAE does for hazing?” When we said what we had heard, the brothers vehemently denied that any of these incidents had occurred, that they were just nasty rumors. I believed the brothers completely. Many of these “rumors” ended up being true: Some of them were printed in Monday’s article.
The questions above were originally posed to me by managing editor emerita Josephine Wolff, the reporter who interviewed me. I told her the truth: I didn’t say anything publicly until now because I knew that if I did, I would officially become the poster child for whatever resulted from my honesty, good or bad. It would be what I would be remembered for, out of everything I did at Princeton. I would also piss off a lot of people who wanted to maintain the status quo that they had helped perpetuate. And I just didn’t want to go through all of the hassle and drama of the fallout, both social and political (with the school administration). So I kept quiet. It was just so much easier.
When the ‘Prince’ heard about my experience through the grapevine and asked to interview me, I consented in the end because I knew that if I didn’t say anything, no one else would. Most people drop fraternities before the real hazing starts. I’m the only late dropout Princeton’s chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon has ever had, several brothers told me. While there are other late dropouts from other fraternities, I imagine they said nothing for the same reasons as I did.
As to why I singled Sigma Alpha Epsilon out, I did nothing of the sort. Like many Princeton students, I’ve heard many rumors about other fraternities’ hazing practices, but the only hazing I can personally vouch for is the hazing that Sigma Alpha Epsilon does, because that’s the only hazing I’ve actually witnessed. I didn’t want to slander another fraternity when I had no way of knowing if what I said was true or not. I know that other fraternities on campus do haze, and that several haze to the same extent as Sigma Alpha Epsilon, but I don’t want to name any names that I can’t back up.
So why let them put my name in the article? Why not just remain anonymous? I believe that asking the ‘Prince’ to leave either my name or the fraternity’s name out of the piece would have made it worthless. Who can believe a person who isn’t willing to stake his reputation on what he says? Knowing that I was putting my integrity on the line in my interview, I was very careful not to exaggerate at all. I was quite worried that the ‘Prince’ would misquote me and I would be left defending a statement that wasn’t entirely true. They didn’t misquote me, so everything said in Monday’s article is exactly what happened, exactly the way it happened.
I let the ‘Prince’ put my name on the piece knowing full well the consequences. I’m okay with being remembered as the snitch who ratted out the fraternities. I did what I did because I remember quite well how close some of the calls were. Anyone who says that hazing at Princeton isn’t a serious concern doesn’t know what a 0.4 blood alcohol content is, or what nicotine poisoning is. They’ve probably also never had a coked-out pledge educator make them lay on the ground while he urinated on them, either, like the pledge educator the year before me did to his pledges. Ultimately, what I wasn’t OK with was the possibility of being remembered at Reunions as “that guy who knew what fraternities at Princeton did, and could have spoken up, and then somebody died because of his fucking cowardice.”
Nowhere in my interview did I say that fraternities are inherently bad organizations, that fraternity brothers are bad people, or that fraternities don’t do good things. I know they do. I joined one, didn’t I? I wanted to be in one enough to chug a 20-ounce bottle of someone else’s chewing tobacco spit. I think the people in Greek organizations are awesome people just like everybody else at Princeton. Hazing isn’t done by bad people, but rather by good people who are cajoled by peer pressure and tradition into enduring, and then inflicting onto others, some pretty shocking things. I think Greek organizations have a great role to fill at Princeton. And maybe even a bit of hazing does, too. However, hazing to the degree that it currently exists at Princeton does not. Period.
I hope the administration will realize that while it will never eliminate hazing entirely at Princeton, it can play a huge role in limiting its scope. I also hope that the University rethinks its policy on not recognizing, and thus not monitoring, Greek organizations. Even if the administration learns nothing from this whole mess, at the very least, if something bad does happen in the future, the University won’t be able to say, “We had no idea this sort of thing was going on. If only someone had stepped forward and let us know.”
The ball’s in your court, President Tilghman.
John Burford is a history major from Shreveport, La. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.