Barbara Howard: Fraternities and sororities, under fire after headline-grabbing excesses on campuses. Pulitzer finalist and two-time Polk Award winner John Hechinger took a deep dive into Greek life and writes about it in his new book "True Gentlemen." He joins me now in the studio. Thanks for coming in, John.
John Hechinger: Thank you, Barbara.
Howard: Well, you pretty much embedded yourself in one of the country's largest and arguably most controversial fraternity, Sigma Alpha Epsilon. And there are some SAE chapters, I should say, at colleges in the Boston area. But why was SAE your focus?
Hechinger: Well, they had, for almost a decade, more deaths than any other fraternity. They were literally the deadliest fraternity.
Howard: That fraternity, as you pointed out in the book, also has the highest insurance rates of any fraternity in the country?
Hechinger: That's right. During that period when they had so many deaths, it was difficult for them to get insurance.
Howard: A documentary on campus sexual assault was done. It's called "The Hunting Ground," and it featured SAE. And in that documentary, some campus women were quoted in the film as saying that SAE is short for ‘sexual assault expected’ — it was that bad.
Hechinger: That's right. They went around the country and they asked women what the initials stood for, and they all came up with that.
Howard: And then there was SAE’s memorable nine-second video — it went viral a couple of years ago showing members on a bus singing a racist chant, of course with the "N-word" embedded in it. And I'm going to quote it here it says, ‘You can hang them from a tree, but they will never sign with me.’ And here it is from that bus video.
(SOUND CLIP FROM VIDEO)
"There'll never be a [expletive] in SAE. There'll never be a [expletive] in SAE. You can hang them from a tree, but they will never sign with me, there'll never be a [expletive] in SAE."
Howard: So with this kind of reputation, why was it that you chose to profile SAE?
Hechinger: Well, because they were really struggling with this legacy. In fact, they risked losing their insurance coverage. So it enabled me to kind of go inside the fraternity in a way that I don't think any other fraternity in the country would have allowed: fraternity guys going through leadership training, learning the ways of the true gentleman, their creed.
Howard: That is, of course, the title of your book, "True Gentlemen." So talk about that — that title was borrowed from the Sigma Alpha Epsilon creed.
Hechinger: That's right. It's words to live by, and gives a good sense of how they could reform themselves.
Howard: I'm going to read the creed in part, quote, “The true gentleman is the man whose conduct proceeds from good will and an acute sense of propriety.” And then it goes on to talk about self-control, of humility, and it ends with the words, “A man who thinks of the rights and feelings of others rather than his own. And a man with whom honor is sacred and virtue safe.” So given those tapes on the bus and everything else, how is it that SAE strayed so far from those ideals?
Hechinger: Well, fraternities have had a split personality from the very beginning. The first fraternity was actually founded in a tavern and turned into an honor society and that’s very respected — Phi Beta Kappa. They kind of taught American colleges how to foster leadership.
Howard: But these ways that they've gone astray, that's not unique to SAE. You know, you talk about fraternities on the national level trying to rein in the individual chapters on the campuses, but pretty much, they leave it to the deans or the campus police to deal with that kind of misconduct. And then there's the liability insurance that fraternity members have to pay. Talk about that.
Hechinger: Well, you have to pay several hundred dollars a year for liability insurance, but most families don't understand that that essentially protects the national fraternity, not the members. If there's some kind of problem related to underage drinking, for example, the fraternity will distance itself. The families will have to look to their homeowner's policies to protect their kids in court. So parents might want to think about having a pretty stern talk with their kids if they join a fraternity.
Howard: The graduates of these fraternities, the brotherhood, has a fair amount of clout. You write in your book that one-third of the U.S. Supreme Court justices were once fraternity members, that two-fifths of U.S. senators, one-quarter of House members once enjoyed Greek life. And talk about the frat PAC.
Hechinger: So there's this powerful PAC in Washington that defends the rights of fraternities.
Howard: And there was an attempt to try to get sexual assault victims, mostly women, to go first to police and not get the frat brothers in trouble. And of course, that's problematic for many women who are reluctant to go to police. But that was pushed by the frat PAC, as I understand it?
Hechinger: That's right. They eventually gave up on that proposal when even their own members, fraternity men, felt that it was going way too far.
Howard: Well, given all of this, are fraternities redeemable? It's surprising that they've survived all these years.
Hechinger: Well, they're so ingrained in most campuses — they're among the most loyal alumni. They have this incredible career network, they house 250,000 students. So they're here to stay. But what I've discovered also is that there have been college presidents over the years who have taken on fraternities, who've said that they can't be changed and that they would lose donations, and they found that they could actually change the campus social life. They could either get rid of fraternities, as Williams did, or they can try to regulate them much more, as the University of Rhode Island did. And they can see a great reduction in hospitalizations and assaults and deaths.
Howard: OK, thank you so much, John.
Hechinger: Thank you, Barbara.
Howard: John Hechinger new book is "True Gentlemen: The Broken Pledge of America's Fraternities."