John Burford ’12’s story of fraternity hazing drew widespread attention. He said pledges had to break the ice and swim naked across this pond at Springdale Golf Club.
Frank Wojciechowski

John Burford ’12’s story of fraternity hazing drew widespread attention. He said pledges had to break the ice and swim naked across this pond at Springdale Golf Club.
John Burford ’12’s story of fraternity hazing drew widespread attention. He said pledges had to break the ice and swim naked across this pond at Springdale Golf Club.
Frank Wojciechowski

Princeton’s fraternities and sororities were in the spotlight after The Daily Princetonian reported on fraternity hazing and the Eating Club Task Force voiced several concerns over Greek life’s role on the Street.

Events in late April and early May brought attention to the unsanctioned and largely underground associations that have become an entrenched part of campus life since their return to Princeton in the 1980s. Today, four sororities (including one historically black sorority) and about 10 fraternities operate on campus, drawing roughly 15 to 20 percent of underclassmen each year.  

But after nearly three decades of operating in the shadows, the Greek organizations could find themselves under the University’s regulatory oversight or banished altogether, President Tilghman said May 5.  

“At the moment I am keeping an open mind about all options,” including retaining the University’s existing policy of non-recognition, Tilghman said in an e-mail to PAW. One way to ban Greek life, she said, would be to require matriculating students to pledge not to join fraternities or sororities, the same method used when fraternities were banned from Princeton between 1855 and World War II.

Tilghman’s comments came the week after John Burford ’12, a former Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) pledge, described allegations of serious fraternity hazing in The Daily Princetonian’s article, a story that had been recorded for a fall journalism class and posted on The Weekly Blog at PAW Online in February.

Among the hazing activities Burford described were chugging a 20-ounce bottle of tobacco spit, getting whipped and bitten at a strip club, breaking the ice on a frozen pond before swimming across it naked, and drinking potentially lethal amounts of alcohol. Burford also said that in a previous year, a fraternity member had forced pledges to lie on the ground while he urinated on them and screamed at them. The story generated a strong reaction on the Prince Web site from supporters and critics of Greek life, drawing more than 400 comments.  

The national SAE headquarters released a statement denying all allegations. Current members of SAE and other Greek organizations declined to comment for this article, citing a policy not to talk to the media.

Because of their unrecognized status, Princeton’s fraternities and sororities do not have on-campus houses or access to the University’s resources, resorting to dorm rooms and vacant classrooms for their functions. Serving primarily a social role, fraternities and sororities usually host weekly room parties in addition to organizing semi-formal events.

Greek life has flourished despite the administration’s disapproval and non-recognition — a policy that’s been in place since 1983. University vice president and secretary Robert Durkee ’69, who headed the Eating Club Task Force, listed several concerns about the fraternities and sororities: an early rush that narrows social options in the first weeks of a student’s freshman year, excessive and/or underage alcohol consumption, hazing, and “feeder” relationships between Greek organizations and some of the bicker eating clubs.  

The 2009 senior survey reported that 57 percent of Ivy Club members, 50 percent of Tiger Inn members, and 27 percent of Cottage members in the Class of 2009 were in a fraternity or sorority. “Since fraternity and sorority members are disproportionately white and from upper-income families, these feeder relationships contribute to a sense of exclusivity and the social and economic stratification of the clubs,” Durkee said. Dues for fraternity and sorority members typically range from $500 to $600 per year, not including initiation fees.

Some students said that by joining a certain fraternity or sorority, underclassmen gain the necessary connections to bicker successfully. “If you don’t know upperclassmen, you basically can’t get in. You don’t have an affiliation or a connection in any way,” said Laura Robertson ’10, a former member of the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority.  

A key figure in the return of Greek-letter organizations to Princeton in the 1980s was William Robinson ’51, who wrote in a 1982 PAW article that he hoped to restore the intellectual environment that was once found in Whig, Clio, and other societies at Princeton.  

Robert Bradford ’84, who with Robinson formed an exploratory Council for Fraternities on campus, said another goal was to provide social options on campus. “There was a lot of ‘clique-iness’ in the eating clubs,” Bradford said, “and I wanted to create a system that was outside of that.”

For Mim Stokes Brown ’85, the founding president of Kappa Alpha Theta, a sorority offered support for female students in what was still a male-dominated campus. “It was very hard to meet other women on campus, and we wanted to make friends who were female,” Brown said.

By spring 1982, three fraternities (SAE, Zeta Psi, Phi Kappa Sigma) and one sorority (Kappa Alpha Theta) had formed “colonies” on campus, and more chapters were on the way. But the administration wasn’t pleased. In the following year, the trustees passed a resolution that declared Greek-letter organizations ineligible for University recognition — a policy that remains in effect today. “The trustees felt quite strongly that fraternities and sororities are not just another local student organization but rather ... [they] can have quite profound effects on the residential and social life of an institution,” President William Bowen *58 said at the time. A majority of students agreed with the administration: An Undergraduate Student Government referendum to recognize Greek life was defeated by the student body 1,193 to 728 that same month.

Fraternities and sororities exploded in popularity anyway. By the 1989­–90 school year, at least a dozen fraternities and sororities operated on campus, including four minority Greek societies. And by 1993, about 15 percent of the student body was involved in Greek life — a figure that has remained “fairly constant,” according to the Eating Club Task Force report.  

While fraternities hazed members in the 1980s, according to two alumni who were Zeta Psi members at Princeton, they were not as severe as the allegations reported in the Prince. The variation among the University’s Greek organizations in current initiation and hazing rituals is unclear. Jeremy Chan ’10, a former Zeta Psi pledge, said the hazing he experienced before quitting the pledge process involved nudity, vomiting, and degradation.  

Kelsey Platt ’11, president of the Panhellenic Council
Kelsey Platt ’11, president of the Panhellenic Council
Courtesy Kelsey Platt ’11

Now, as the University considers changing its position on Greek life, Princeton’s sororities say they are willing to discuss delaying rush with the administration — a request made by the University in 2004 that was rejected at the time. “The idea of open communication with the administration has received positive feedback,” said Kelsey Platt ’11, president of the Panhellenic Council, the umbrella organization for Princeton’s sororities. “If a discussion about moving rush will help this occur, then we are happy to oblige.”  

But a University decision to ban Greek life, Platt said,   “would take away the support system that 400 young women rely on every day.”  

Many alumni who were fraternity and sorority members as undergraduates said they had enjoyed their experience in Greek life, through which they had made lifelong friends.