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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Hazed: A Greek Tragedy

The seven pledges stood, shoulder to shoulder and in silence, on the newspaper-covered floor of an apartment on Foster Street. Across a row of seven empty trash cans, 14 actives held gallon jugs of liquid, which looked from their colors as if they had been selected at random from the coolers of a 7-Eleven.

A brother known as the “pledge father” told the pledges that though it seemed like a lot to drink, that was just a mental barrier. Each jug they drank was one fewer their pledge brothers would have to finish, he continued. “We want to see you down this stuff, balls to the wall,” he said.

The first active handed a jug across the trash cans to the first pledge. Unscrewing the top, he took a hesitant sip. It was spicy and thick, likely a mixture of ketchup and Tabasco sauce. He started sucking it down. He got through about half of it. Then he puked. By the time the first jug reached the seventh and final pledge, it was still unfinished. But he swallowed its last drops and went to work on the second jug. This continued for four or five hours until the last jug, brewed from a time-honored recipe called “Death,” had been swilled. Each pledge drank about two gallons before the “takeout,” as the pledge events are called, ended. This one was called DTYD: Drink ‘Til You Drop.

It was early January, the first week back from Winter Break. While many freshmen rushed Interfraternity Council chapters, these seven men, pledges of Lambda Phi Epsilon, a historically Asian fraternity, were entering the final phase of their pledge period. The seven, along with six who had already backed out, had pledged three months earlier, in October. Active members extended bids to these freshmen after a series of New Student Week parties, two on-campus info sessions and individual interviews at the off-campus apartment on Foster. Though Lambda is a member of the Multicultural Greek Council, which oversees the two Asian and three Latino chapters, pledging freshmen before Winter Quarter is against university rules for all Greek organizations.

Yet there is no evidence that anyone within Northwestern’s administration knew. The Lambdas, as they are often called by those who know enough to know them as more than just “the Asian frat,” are the biggest MGC chapter and currently hold the council presidency. The fraternity formed at UCLA in 1981 and has since spread to 48 campuses nationwide. NU’s chapter began in 1997, when interested students petitioned neighboring chapters to induct them. Most years, about half of the pledges choose not to join. This year, the chapter lost them all. As in years past, the pledge period began in October and was scheduled to end with the “crossing” ceremony in late January. But none of the 13 made it that far.

Four of the pledges, who were granted anonymity because they feared retribution from active Lambdas, had slightly differing accounts of DTYD and other pledge events. (Some of them attempted to retract their tape-recorded statements in similarly worded e-mails sent earlier this week, denying they ever pledged the fraternity.) All accounts in this story were reconstructed from coinciding details. Reporting included interviews with roommates, parents of the freshman pledges and accounts from older former pledges. None of the fraternity’s active members, including the presidents of Lambda and MGC, agreed to be interviewed. Nine alumni did not return messages seeking comment.

* * *

The Wednesday before the first event, Lambda’s actives sat their new pledges down for an info session. Every Lambda in the country goes through the same events, they said. Because of this, you can meet another brother and bond with him instantly. “Don’t take this personally,” the pledge father said. “It’s only business.” That night, the pledges received e-mails detailing the “info” – this time, the Pledge Creed – they would be expected to recite at the takeout.

That Saturday at midnight, the actives walked the pledges to a plot east of the Sports Pavilion and Aquatics Center and lined them up, shortest to tallest. The pledge father told them to recite the creed going down the line, word by word. A few of them hadn’t learned it, but it didn’t matter. “It’s designed so that they screw you up,” one pledge says. “You screw up and you do punishment.”

Punishment, they would learn, consisted of four exercises. The first was pushups. The second was crunches. The third was “horse stance,” where they had to arch their back, bend their knees and hold their arms out. The fourth was “stock markets,” which involved lying flat on their backs and lifting their legs at various angles on command. They repeated the exercises for about an hour.

After the recitation came a “lesson.” The principle on the first night was just like DTYD’s: sacrifice for your pledge brothers. The second pledge carried the shortest pledge on his back while running around a makeshift baseball diamond. Then the third pledge carried the second pledge, and so forth. While this happened, the others performed punishments.

Though the punishment intensified as Fall Quarter wore on – one night, they held two-liter bottles of water above their heads for an hour after doing hundreds of push-ups and crunches – takeouts retained this basic structure until Winter Quarter.

These events occur against the backdrop of pledge deaths at two other Lambda chapters – one at the University of California, Irvine and one at the University of Texas – in 2005, and at a time when universities faced increasing pressure from law enforcement officials to identify and curtail hazing practices. Last fall, in a landmark case, a New Jersey prosecutor indicted two Rider University officials on charges of aggravated hazing because he believed they had been negligent in policing their Greek system. NU officials, including Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life Dominic Greene and Director of Judicial Affairs Jim Neumeister, say they took note of the charges, which were later dropped, but did not change their own oversight protocols.

All of Lambda’s pledge events are strikingly similar to the ones Lambda pledges at the University of Texas endured in the fall of 2005. After one of the UT pledges died while “crossing,” criminal hazing charges were filed against three of the chapter’s leaders. As part of a plea bargain, those brothers swore an affidavit detailing their pledge process. (View the affidavit by clicking here.) “The pledges were required to meet once a week, usually on Mondays or Tuesdays,” the affidavit states. “The meetings began anywhere from 10 p.m. to midnight and usually lasted four to five hours. The pledge captain taught the pledges the various exercises the pledges were required to do at each meeting: push-ups, duck walks, ‘green bays,’ and abdominal exercises. As time passed, the meetings grew more intense.”

Hank Nuwer, an author of three books on hazing, says it’s more likely that Lambda brothers swap ideas at regional or national conferences than that the national organization prescribes an unwritten hazing regimen. The North American Interfraternity Conference, which regulates Lambda and all but one of NU’s national fraternities, has no address or telephone number for Lambda’s national headquarters. When students want to start a new Lambda chapter, they learn rules from a nearby campus. Essentially, fellow undergrads colonized NU’s chapter. Greene says that in most fraternity chapters, the national office streamlines procedures, but there’s no predicting a national group’s response to rule violations. “The same situation might induce one national organization to do a ‘membership review,’ one might do nothing and one might suspend the chapter,” he says.

Greene adds that students don’t always agree with NU’s broad definition of hazing. “I even had students say they might just do a lot of things and not turn anyone in,” he says of responses at this year’s new member education session in January.
But only new members of Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Association chapters were required to attend this meeting. Jenni Glick, associate director of Fraternity and Sorority Life and MGC’s adviser, says there are no firm plans to hold a similar session for new members of NU’s minority chapters. A session like that might have been eye-opening for the Lambda pledges. “I thought that’s what all fraternities were like,” one says of the process. “I’m sure a lot of us thought of it that way. I didn’t think anything was weird.”

* * *

About three weeks into pledging, six of the pledges walked down to Koi for a benefit party. They were the biggest clique in the class, and five of them would stay on until the end. Walking in, they spotted a handful of brothers scattered around the packed restaurant. The pledges did their best to dodge the actives and headed for the bar, where they bought each other $7 shots of Patron. They were going out hard – with their Saturdays devoted to takeouts, Friday nights had become their main social outlet.

One of the actives swayed over to the pledges. This was odd: Other than the occasional head nod on Sheridan, the pledges avoided the actives whenever possible. They didn’t think of heading over to the apartment on Foster, which reminded them of takeouts. “It was like a beacon of evil,” one pledge says. The brothers adhered to the same unspoken rule. Yet here was an active. “I want to talk to you in the bathroom,” he slurred. The pledges obliged, and the active latched the door. “I wanna know what you guys think about pledging,” he asked.

This caught them off-guard. Until then, the pledge-active dialogue had been a one-way stream of expectations and orders. “It kinda sucks, but I understand the lessons. I wanna stick around and see what you guys have to offer,” one pledge said. The others echoed his tepid sentiment. “Pledging sucked for me too,” the active said. “But the process was memorable, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat if I had the chance to.” It sounded, at first, like the boilerplate pep talks hazing experts say pledges everywhere hear all the time.

Then it veered. “The process is designed to mimic the conditions of war,” the active said. “You’re out there with your squad, and you’re under fire from us” – the actives – “and you’re supposed to stick it out. That state of fear brings you closer.” Everything about Lambda’s pledge process aligns with that mentality. Even as contact with the actives was minimized, the pledges were encouraged to study and eat meals together, which they regularly did.

The following night, at their next takeout, the pledges would sport their new “uniforms” for the first time. Each one had spent about $50 at Wal-Mart on a beanie, windbreaker pants, gloves, shoes and a hoodie. Everything was black, except the sneakers, which were white and blue. Standing tallest to shortest in matching garb, they might as well have been freshman company, Northwestern platoon, army of Lambda Phi Epsilon.

* * *

Right after Winter Break, but before DTYD, the seven remaining pledges met in secret to discuss whether they wanted to finish the process. They emerged with a consensus: If nothing in the next two weeks convinced those who wanted to leave that they should stay, everyone would drop.

Nuwer, the hazing expert, says it’s not surprising they chose to stick together. “You’ve left your parents, and they try to create the idea that the brotherhood is your family here,” he says. “So it can be very disturbing to see others drop out. There’s a kind of solidarity there. They obviously bonded from the push to conform.”

Of those interviewed, just two had told their fathers. One mother found out her son had joined after eavesdropping on a conversation between him and her husband. “When he came home, I was shocked,” she says. “Every joint on his body had bloody spots. But he didn’t want to quit. I was so worried about him in that club.” She told her husband she wanted their son to stop – and she especially didn’t want him hazing others the next year.

Joining the Lambdas had been a tough choice in the first place, the pledges say. But the decision for many Asian American men isn’t whether to join the Lambdas or an IFC house, says a professor in the Asian American studies department who taught a course on Asian masculinities and asked for anonymity. It’s whether to join the Lambdas or nothing at all. He says some of the Lambdas he knows feel “emasculated” because they’re Asian, pointing to negative pop-culture portrayals of Asian men. Asian women are also much more likely to “out-marry,” he adds. “There’s an interesting paradox: You want to be distinctive on the basis of race, but something like a frat is as mainstream as you can get,” the professor says. “You want to be assimilated, but be assimilated in your own way.”

When the two weeks were up, the pledges again met in secret to discuss what they wanted to do. Those who wanted to leave were even more vehement about their choice: After DTYD, and a series of subsequent takeouts that included a night of eating raw onions, mandatory head shaving and all-night calisthenics on South Beach, they wanted out. But they still felt an obligation to the pledge brothers who wanted to stay. The upcoming Hell Week would be even more difficult with a pledge class of two or three. Finally, the pledge captain, who wanted to stay on, made what ended up being a group decision. “Look,” he told the ones who wanted to drop, “I know how you feel. Just quit. I’ll quit too.”

By evening the next day, all seven had told the actives they were going to drop. The actives are still friendly, the pledges say. “They maintain that the process is strictly business, and that we can walk away any time with no hard feelings,” one says.

In interviews, the pledges stressed that they didn’t leave because of the hazing, but because they were more interested in the partying and fun they witnessed during New Student Week than in the “brotherhood” aspects they learned about later. In declining to be interviewed, some of the pledges said they didn’t want to reveal anything that might harm the fraternity or lead to NU scrutiny. (Neumeister says he cannot say whether the group is under investigation.)

Before Winter quarter ended, the Multicultural Center had been booked for Feb. 1 and Feb. 8. The brothers of Lambda Phi Epsilon were seeking new members.

Editor’s Note: This story was written and reported by an IFC fraternity member.

The full affidavit from the hazing case at the University of Texas is available by clicking here.

Due to the sensitive nature of this story, unmoderated commenting on this article has been disabled. Questions or concerns can be shared by writing a letter to the editor or contacting The Daily directly.

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Hazed: A Greek Tragedy