I want to applaud the courage of Illinois Supreme Court Justice Mary Jane Theis for taking a stand in her dissenting opinion to advocate that the national fraternity organization (“the National”) governing the Northern Illinois University fraternity at the center of a fatal hazing incident should be held to account. She stands for the values to which some of these Greek institutions merely pay lip service, character, courage and honor, while they serve as a front for deplorable and destructive behavior.
In the recent case of Bogenberger v. Pi Kappa Alpha Corp., Inc., the majority of the Court teetered on the brink of requiring the National to defend their role in the hazing death of a pledge that is all too common. Instead of taking a bold step that could finally put an end to these lethal tendencies that have contaminated the DNA of generations of fraternity boys, the Illinois high court retreated. The irony around this vacuum of leadership is thick.
Fraternities purportedly set out to make leaders among men, yet at the highest echelons of power they take no responsibility for the known failings of their surrogates, their campus chapters. This is a legal strategy, not one that reflects moral or ethical values. There is no moral high ground in denying a common fact—many fraternities are breeding grounds for risky behavior and peer pressure that has proven lethal since the inception of the Greek system. Likely those at the top either witnessed or participated in such nefarious activities during their college years. Fraternity goings-on are common knowledge, from the lowly pledge to the president of the National.
Make no mistake, the conduct here cannot be conflated with intervening criminal acts that allow parties to avoid liability when a crime is committed by a third party without notice or warning. So it is the job of the National to step up, to extinguish these criminal behaviors permanently.
Why are national fraternal organizations in existence if not to ensure the fraternity’s quality, reputation and benevolent purpose so that it is enticing to new members. In the absence of such leadership, our courts must incent these organizations by imposing a duty of care under similar circumstances. I agree with Justice Theis who stated in her dissent, “[i]mposing such a duty on the national organizations to exercise reasonable care with respect to pledge events would ‘meaningfully reduce the risk’ of deaths or injuries from hazing by forced consumption of alcohol.”
Leading by example, particularly when standing alone without the cloak of your brethren, demonstrates courage and character. Justice Theis is a model of this brand of leadership. She is an inspiration to both women and men who are looking for bold leadership in a time when purported leaders are abdicating their role and ultimately, their relevance, to maintain a withering and pathetic status quo.
Author: Julie Bordo