Binghamton halts pledging amid hazing concerns

BINGHAMTON, N.Y. — Binghamton University, one of the Northeast’s top public colleges, has halted all fraternity and sorority pledging this spring after what it called an “alarmingly high number of serious hazing complaints.”

Administrators and students said there was no indication their hazing problem was worse than those at other colleges. But the move at Binghamton is emblematic of an increasingly tough stance on hazing and on other forms of student misbehavior on campuses nationwide.

The University of Connecticut is advising students this weekend to go home and avoid an often-out-of-control party called Spring Weekend, during which a student was killed off campus in 2010. The University of Colorado at Boulder has announced it will close the entire campus to all visitors Friday to try to stop a longtime marijuana smoke-out held annually that day. The moves follow well-publicized hazing scandals at Boston University and Dartmouth College and student deaths at Cornell and Florida A&M Universities last year.

“The climate on campuses is such that there’s just much less tolerance for aberrant behavior, particularly anything that can result in violence or injuries to others,” said Kevin Kruger, president of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators. “Stopping pledging altogether is not so common, but there’s a huge focus on managing liability and sending a very clear message to students and alumni that this kind of behavior will result in removal of the chapter.”

The concerns are not new, and educators cite three main reasons for the actions — concern for student safety, legal exposure and efforts to avoid embarrassment; Binghamton was widely faulted for its slow response to irregularities and criminal behavior surrounding its basketball team a few years ago.

But Binghamton officials said that their overriding concern was the health and safety of students and that the situation was clear: For the second year in a row, they received an increasing number of reports, mostly anonymous phone calls or emails from pledges, friends of pledges or parents, about hazing during the eight-week pledge period.

Lloyd Howe, the dean of students, said the university took action before it faced a serious episode.

“For us, any hazing is of concern, even if it seems to be at the low end of the range, because that can often escalate into a situation that becomes more dangerous,” he said.

About 12 percent of Binghamton’s 14,700 students are members of the 52 sanctioned professional and social fraternities. After it halted all pledging, the university said the organizations could petition to admit new members based on a review of their pledging activities.

At least 10 fraternities and sororities are under investigation, officials said. No criminal charges have been filed or disciplinary action taken against individual students.

Many fraternity and sorority members say there is no indication that any activity occurred that came close to putting students in danger, like forced drinking, which killed a Cornell student, or beatings, which caused the death of a drum major in the Florida A&M band. Instead, they said, the university had overreacted based on an open-ended definition of hazing.

“This has all been blown out of proportion based on anonymous reports,” said Samantha Vulpis, a junior from Commack, N.Y., and president of Binghamton’s Panhellenic Council. “It’s like hazing now is considered anything that isn’t optional. The way it’s being enforced is that anything you could ever think of is now considered hazing.”

New York is among 44 states with anti-hazing laws. Under New York’s laws, a person can be found guilty of a misdemeanor by conducting initiation and affiliation activities that cause physical injury or create a substantial risk of injury.

Officials at Binghamton, which is part of the State University of New York system, have not disclosed specific complaints under investigation. But indications are that alleged episodes range from relatively minor cases of enforced physical activity or time-consuming rituals to physical violence resulting in cuts or welts.