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American colleges came into being with the express purpose of training young men for the ministry, a preparation that was marked by a chilly round of early risings, Greek and Latin recitations, religious study, and strict discipline meted out by a dour faculty—along with expectations of both temperance and chastity. Hardly conditions that would augur the current trillion-dollar student-loan balloon that hovers over us like a pre-ignition Hindenburg.

But sexual frustration and homiletics would not last forever as the hallmarks of American college life. In , at Union College, in upstate New York hardly a garden of earthly delights in the best of circumstances, but surely a gulag experience for those stuck at Union; imagine studying Thessalonians in the ass-cracking cold of a Schenectady February , a small group of young men came up with a creative act of rebellion against the fun-busters who had them down: the formation of a secret club, which they grandly named the Kappa Alpha Society.

Word of the group spread, and a new kind of college institution was founded, and with it a brand-new notion: that going to college could include some pleasure. It was the American age of societies, and this new type fit right in. Fraternities also gave young college men a way of behaving and of thinking about themselves that quickly took on surprisingly modern dimensions. From the very beginning, fraternities were loathed by the grown-ups running colleges, who tried to banish them.

But independence from overbearing faculties—existing on a plane beyond the reach of discipline—was, in large measure, the point of fraternity membership; far from fearing the opprobrium of their knock-kneed overlords, the young men relished and even courted it. It was, at best, a legally delicate argument, but it was a symbolically potent one, and it has withstood through the years.

Perhaps the best testament to the deep power of fraternities is how quickly and widely they spread. Soon after Gold Rush money began flowing into the newly established state of California—giving rise to the improbable idea of building a great American university on the shores of the Pacific Ocean—fraternity men staked their own claim: a campus in Berkeley had existed barely a year before the brothers of Phi Delta Theta arrived to initiate new members. The thing to remember about fraternities is that when Kappa Alpha was founded at Union, in all of the United States there were only 4, college students; fraternities exist as deeply in the groundwater of American higher education as religious study—and have retained a far greater presence in the lives of modern students.

In fairly short order, a paradox began to emerge, one that exists to this day. While the fraternities continued to exert their independence from the colleges with which they were affiliated, these same colleges started to develop an increasingly bedeviling kind of interdependence with the accursed societies. To begin with, the fraternities involved themselves very deeply in the business of student housing, which provided tremendous financial savings to their host institutions, and allowed them to expand the number of students they could admit.

Greek housing constitutes a troubling fact for college administrators the majority of fraternity-related deaths occur in and around fraternity houses, over which the schools have limited and widely varying levels of operational oversight and also a great boon to them saving them untold millions of dollars in the construction and maintenance of campus-owned and -controlled dormitories.

Moreover, fraternities tie alumni to their colleges in a powerful and lucrative way.


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At least one study has affirmed what had long been assumed: that fraternity men tend to be generous to their alma maters. Furthermore, fraternities provide colleges with unlimited social programming of a kind that is highly attractive to legions of potential students, most of whom are not applying to ivy-covered rejection factories, but rather to vast public institutions and obscure private colleges that are desperate for students. When Mom is trying—against all better judgment—to persuade lackluster Joe Jr. Joe Jr. Maybe he ought to snuff out the joint and take a second look at that application Mom keeps pushing across the kitchen table.

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Will he be in increased physical jeopardy if he joins one of these clubs? The fraternity industry says no.

It is true that fraternity lawsuits tend to involve at least one, and often more, of the four horsemen of the student-life apocalypse, a set of factors that exist far beyond frat row and that are currently bringing college presidents to their knees. First and foremost of these is the binge-drinking epidemic, which anyone outside the problem has a hard time grasping as serious everyone drinks in college! The second is the issue of sexual assault of female undergraduates by their male peers, a subject of urgent importance but one that remains stubbornly difficult even to quantify, let alone rectify, although it absorbs huge amounts of student interest, outrage, institutional funding, and—increasingly—federal attention.

The third is the growing pervasiveness of violent hazing on campus, an art form that reaches its apogee at fraternities, but that has lately spread to all sorts of student groups. And the fourth is the fact that Boomers, who in their own days destroyed the doctrine of in loco parentis so that they could party in blissful, unsupervised freedom, have grown up into the helicopter parents of today, holding fiercely to a pair of mutually exclusive desires: on the one hand that their kids get to experience the same unfettered personal freedoms of college that they remember so fondly, and on the other that the colleges work hard to protect the physical and emotional well-being of their precious children.

Surely they have cornered the market in injuries to the buttocks.

The number of lawsuits that involve paddling gone wrong, or branding that necessitated skin grafts, or a particular variety of sexual torture reserved for hazing and best not described in the gentle pages of this magazine, is astounding. Or, to turn away from the buttocks, as surely a good number of fraternity men would be well advised to do, consider another type of fraternity injury: the tendency of brothers and their guests to get liquored up and fall off—or out of—the damn houses is a story in itself.

The campuses of Washington State University and the University of Idaho are located some eight miles apart in the vast agricultural region of the Northwest known as the Palouse. It was at the latter institution that the year-old sophomore and newly minted Delta Delta Delta pledge Amanda Andaverde arrived in August of , although she had scarcely moved into the Tri Delta house and registered for classes before she was at the center of events that would leave her with brain damage and cast her as the plaintiff in a major lawsuit filed on her behalf by her devastated parents.

It would have been an unremarkable Wednesday evening—focused on the kind of partying and hooking up that are frequent pleasures of modern sorority women—save for its hideous end. They are large rooms filled with bunks, some of which are stacked in triple tiers, and their large windows are often left open, even in the coldest months.

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Many fraternity members have exceedingly fond memories of their time on the porches, which they view—like so many fraternity traditions—as a simultaneously vexing and bonding experience. According to the complaint, shortly after arriving at SAE, Andaverde ran into a friend of hers, and he took her up to the sleeping porch, where he introduced her to a pal of his named Joseph Cody Cook.

The injuries were devastating and included permanent brain injury. Andaverde was airlifted to a trauma center in Seattle, where she remained for many weeks; in the early days of her care, it seemed she might not survive.

Eventually, however, she improved enough to leave the hospital and was transferred to a series of rehabilitation centers, where she spent many months learning to regain basic functions. A television news report dedicated to that miracle revealed a young woman who, while she had escaped death, had clearly been grievously injured. As the reporter interviewed her mother, Andaverde sat in a wheelchair. She eventually improved from this desperate state—learning to walk and dress herself—but she was a far cry from the student of veterinary medicine she had once been.

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The inevitable court case—in which the Andaverde family named not only SAE and Tri Delta as defendants, but also the University of Idaho and the Idaho State Board of Education—was dismissed on summary judgment because there was no dispute that Andaverde fell out of an open window, and because there was no evidence of an inherently dangerous condition in the house: that the window was open was obvious to anyone who walked into the room. The court determined that no other person or institution had a duty to protect Amanda from the actions and decisions—the decision to drink alcohol, as a minor; the decision to climb into a bunk bed; the impulse to roll over—that led to her accident.

I became intrigued by this kind of injury and began to do some more checking into the subject. In September, a student suffered serious injuries after falling off the roof of the Alpha Tau Omega house at the University of Idaho, and two days later a Washington State student fell three stories from a window at Phi Kappa Tau. In November, a year-old suffered critical head injuries when he fell backwards off a second-floor balcony at the Washington State Lambda Chi Alpha house, necessitating the surgical removal of part of his skull.

I decided to widen my search, and quickly discovered that this is not a phenomenon particular to the Northwest. Across the country, kids fall—disastrously—from the upper heights of fraternity houses with some regularity. They tumble from the open windows they are trying to urinate out of, slip off roofs, lose their grasp on drainpipes, misjudge the width of fire-escape landings. On February 25, , a student at the University of California at Berkeley attempted to climb down the drainpipe of the Phi Gamma Delta house, fell, and suffered devastating injuries; on April 14 of the same year, a year-old student at Gannon University, in Pennsylvania, died after a fall from the second-floor balcony of the Alpha Phi Delta house the night before; on May 13, a Cornell student was airlifted to a trauma center after falling from the fire escape at Delta Chi; on October 13, a student at James Madison University fell from the roof of the three-story Delta Chi house and was airlifted to the University of Virginia hospital; on December 1, a year-old woman fell eight feet from the Sigma Alpha Mu house at Penn State.

This summer brought little relief. On July 13, a man fell more than 30 feet from a third-story window at the Theta Delta Chi house at the University of Washington and was transported to Harborview Medical Center which must by now be developing a subspecialty in such injuries ; that same day, a Dartmouth College employee, apparently having consumed LSD and marijuana, fell out of a second-story window of the Sigma Nu house and was seriously injured.

The current school year began, and still the falls continued. In September, a student at Washington State fell down a flight of stairs in the Delta Chi house and was rendered unconscious; a University of Minnesota student was hospitalized after falling off a second-floor balcony of the Phi Kappa Psi house; a Northwestern student was listed in critical condition after falling out of a third-floor window of the Phi Gamma Delta house; and an MIT student injured his head and genitals after falling through a skylight at the Phi Sigma Kappa house and landing some 40 feet below.

These falls, of course, are in addition to the many other kinds of havoc and tragedy associated with fraternities. He had attended a party at SAE of which he was not a member and then wandered, apparently drunk and lost, for five miles before freezing to death under a bridge. They also include the March conviction of Jesse M.

He is appealing the decision. The notion that fraternities are target defendants did not hold true in my investigation. College students can and do fall out of just about any kind of residence, of course. But during the period of time under consideration, serious falls from fraternity houses on the two Palouse campuses far outnumbered those from other types of student residences, including privately owned apartments occupied by students.

Why are so many colleges allowing students to live and party in such unsafe locations? And why do the lawsuits against fraternities for this kind of serious injury and death—so predictable and so preventable—have such a hard time getting traction? The answers lie in the recent history of fraternities and the colleges and universities that host them. What all of these lawsuits ultimately concern is a crucially important question in higher education, one that legal scholars have been grappling with for the past half century.

This question is perhaps most elegantly expressed in the subtitle of Robert D. Bickel and Peter F. During this period of student unrest, the fraternities—long the unquestioned leaders in the area of sabotaging or ignoring the patriarchal control of school administrators—became the exact opposite: representatives of the very status quo the new activists sought to overthrow. Suddenly their beer bashes and sorority mixers, their panty raids and obsession with the big game, seemed impossibly reactionary when compared with the mind-altering drugs being sampled in off-campus apartments where sexual liberation was being born and the Little Red Book proved, if nothing else, a fantastic coaster for a leaky bong.

American students sought to wrest themselves entirely from the disciplinary control of their colleges and universities, institutions that had historically operated in loco parentis , carefully monitoring the private behavior of undergraduates. The students of the new era wanted nothing to do with that infantilizing way of existence, and fought to rid themselves of the various curfews, dorm mothers, demerit systems, and other modes of institutional oppression. It was a turning point: American colleges began to regard their students not as dependents whose private lives they must shape and monitor, but as adult consumers whose contract was solely for an education, not an upbringing.

The doctrine of in loco parentis was abolished at school after school. Through it all, fraternities—for so long the repositories of the most outrageous behavior—moldered, all but forgotten. Membership fell sharply, fraternity houses slid into increasing states of disrepair, and hundreds of chapters closed. If something as fundamentally reactionary as fraternity membership was going to replace something as fundamentally radical as student unrest, it would need to align itself with someone whose bona fides among young, white, middle-class males were unassailable.

Fraternity life was reborn with a vengeance. It was an entirely new kind of student who arrived at the doors of those great and crumbling mansions: at once deeply attracted to the ceremony and formality of fraternity life and yet utterly transformed by the social revolutions of the past decades.

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Furthermore, in Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, with the ultimate result of raising the legal drinking age to 21 in all 50 states. This change moved college partying away from bars and college-sponsored events and toward private houses—an ideal situation for fraternities. When these advances were combined with the evergreen fraternity traditions of violent hazing and brawling among rival frats, the scene quickly became wildly dangerous. Adult supervision was nowhere to be found. Colleges had little authority to intervene in what took place in the personal lives of its students visiting private property.

With these conditions in place, lawsuits began to pour in. The mids were a treacherous time to be the defendant in a tort lawsuit. Americans in vast numbers—motivated perhaps in part by the possibility of financial recompense, and in part by a new national impetus to move personal suffering from the sphere of private sorrow to that of public confession and complaint—began to sue those who had damaged them.

These institutions possess deep reservoirs of liability coverage, but students rarely recover significant funds from their schools. But for the fraternities themselves, it was a far different story. So recently and robustly brought back to life, the fraternities now faced the most serious threat to their existence they had ever experienced. A single lawsuit had the potential to devastate a fraternity.