An article about a string of accidents leads the Ethics Editor to some disturbing questions.
Caitlin Flanagan’s recent Atlantic article, The Dark Power of Fraternities, opens with a stunning first paragraph, stunning not in the beautiful sense but in the more literal meaning of stunned—dazed, stupefied, astonished, shocked to the point of being unable to react.
One warm spring night in 2011, a young man named Travis Hughes stood on the back deck of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity house at Marshall University, in West Virginia, and was struck by what seemed to him—under the influence of powerful inebriants, not least among them the clear ether of youth itself—to be an excellent idea: he would shove a bottle rocket up his ass and blast it into the sweet night air. And perhaps it was an excellent idea. What was not an excellent idea, however, was to misjudge the relative tightness of a 20-year-old sphincter and the propulsive reliability of a 20-cent bottle rocket. What followed ignition was not the bright report of a successful blastoff, but the muffled thud of fire in the hole.
Flanagan’s intent, no doubt, is to light a fire under, if not in, the ass of the reader, to rocket the ridiculous risks of frat life deep into the reader’s … consciousness, to explode the myths, shatter the misconceptions, and blow what she sees as the flotilla of fraternal ships of fools—“vessels populated by human inhabitants who are deranged, frivolous, or oblivious passengers aboard a ship without a pilot, and seemingly ignorant of their own direction”—out of the water. Reading that first paragraph, my own 48-year-old sphincter reflexively tightened, and I read on, aghast and curious, as the author and I together maintained a safe intellectual distance, supported by a healthy measure of detachment, from the world of fraternities. She had investigated that world intensively for the article, but I had never experienced it, attending an Ivy League university where the frat system was virtually nonexistent during my undergraduate years. It was, literally, all Greek to me. So I flew along smoothly with Captain Flanagan as she turned off the fasten seat belts sign, enjoying the view of statistical generalities—if not from 35,000 feet at least from the third-story sleeping porch of the SAE frat house at the University of Idaho—the same porch where a drunk and disoriented 19-year-old sophomore named Amanda Andaverde fell out an open window next to a bed and onto the concrete 25 feet below, ending up with lasting brain damage as a result of her inadvertent act of self-defenestration. I practically fell out of my seat as I read the description.
According to the complaint, shortly after arriving at SAE, Andaverde ran into a friend of hers, and he took her up to the sleeping porch, where he introduced her to a pal of his named Joseph Cody Cook. Andaverde and Cook talked, then climbed into Cook’s bunk, where the two began kissing. It is at this point that the language of the suit finally frees itself of euphemism and reveals the fearsome power of the unambiguous, declarative sentence: “Amanda rolled onto her shoulder toward the exterior wall, and suddenly, quickly, and unexpectedly dropped off Cook’s mattress into the open exterior window, falling from the third-floor ‘sleeping porch’ to the cement approximately 25 feet below.”
But it wasn’t Amanda’s devastating fall that nearly knocked me from my chair. It was the following passage describing the result of her lawsuit.
The inevitable court case—in which the Andaverde family named not only SAE and Tri Delta as defendants, but also the University of Idaho and the Idaho State Board of Education—was dismissed on summary judgment because there was no dispute that Andaverde fell out of an open window, and because there was no evidence of an inherently dangerous condition in the house: that the window was open was obvious to anyone who walked into the room. The court determined that no other person or institution had a duty to protect Amanda from the actions and decisions—the decision to drink alcohol, as a minor; the decision to climb into a bunk bed; the impulse to roll over—that led to her accident.
And then the paragraph following that one revealing that the same fate had literally “befallen” 20-year-old Shane Meyer just two weeks before, placing him in the same hospital ICU as Andaverde. Suddenly, I found myself wondering if the young man from my town who had died tragically in a mysterious fall during his first week of college a few years ago had been in a fraternity and met his death in a similar manner. As the losses from alcohol-sodden activities on Flanagan’s list piled up, I moved past the sobering numbers to some numbing ethical questions. Did the preponderance of past accidents or their propensity to repeat themselves obligate fraternities to institute safeguards, and were there any already in place? Could I stomach the court’s dismissal of Andaverde’s case as correct jurisprudence, even though the finding left me nauseated and retching? Was falling out of a frat window simply an occupational hazard of walking in the door, or were frats themselves an attractive nuisance, making these precipitous plunges evidence of gross negligence or even willful misconduct?
Flanagan addresses most of these questions later in her piece. But I started thinking about all the things we legislate on regularly to protect people from harm, to minimize or eliminate risks and dangers of which we’re marginally, if even, aware. Parts per million of pollutants and toxins in air and water. Potentially tainted Tylenol. Sour milk (by requiring freshness dates). And recently, in my own state of Connecticut, a law addressing the snow and ice that slides off moving cars and causes accidents when it lands on other vehicles. Our society conscientiously protects citizens from relatively unlikely risks with life-altering or life-ending consequences, such as fires and earthquakes through our building codes. Fires in hotels are rare, but sprinklers are ubiquitous. A major earthquake in the U.S. might occur once or twice every century, but structures near fault lines are reinforced and ready. So how is it that not one but two college students could fall and suffer grievous injuries within two weeks of one another, and the court could rule it was the victim’s fault? Because, as Flanagan explains, fraternities have fought hard to shift responsibility onto the victims and liability onto their families. Rather than instituting safeguards to protect the brothers and their visitors from harm, fraternities have instituted policies, procedures, and post-accident protocols designed to protect the institution, essentially creating, encouraging, condoning, and failing to correct a set of conditions conducive to dangerous, damaging, and even deadly outcomes for members and their guests.
The next question I asked myself was what responsibility we have as a society to address conditions that lead to harm. Some believe it should be buyer beware, while others argue that risks should be labeled. We tend to legislate after overwhelming tragedy but not before. The overcrowding, insufficient ventilation, and lack of exits that caused so many to die in the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire led to reforms. The loss of fingers, hands, and limbs in meat processing plants led to safer factories and workplaces. When the health risks and societal cost of smoking became evident, the Surgeon General stepped in, and when we finally acknowledged the damage caused by racial and ethnic discrimination, we outlawed it. We had no compunction about passing laws to rectify these conditions, and there is substantial legal precedent behind it, along with an implicit obligation through the social contract to ensure safer and less harmful outcomes for our citizens.
So what’s different about drunk college students falling from windows, or for that matter suffering sexual abuse and the other depredations that are reported frequently in the frat houses? Why do we treat some harms as tolerable and others as intolerable? The cynical and unfortunately true answer is that our tolerance for harm and injustice has mostly to do with who has a vested interest in tolerating it and the relative financial and political power of those being harmed. Falling through a skylight and landing 40 feet below may look cool in a James Bond or Bruce Willis movie, but it was anything but cool for the MIT student who injured his head and his genitals in such a fall. It wasn’t just dust off the glass fragments, stand up, and keep on fighting for this young man, who was fortunate that his injuries were not life-threatening or debilitating.
So why haven’t we legislated yet? The falls that Flanagan documents in her article appear to be a relatively new vulnerability, and new vulnerabilities are usually precipitated by shifts in our social structure that expose them. Before the industrial revolution, when most work was done in homes and small workshops, a disaster such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire wasn’t possible. Before urbanization and the heavy population concentrations that accompanied it, earthquakes did not present the same risks of mass death they do today. In the case of fraternities, Flanagan points out that the demise of in loco parentis policies at colleges and universities in the 1970s along with the rise in the drinking age from 18 to 21 nationwide during the 1980s rendered fraternities, by virtue of their independent stature, safe harbors for the unsupervised consumption of alcohol that educational institutions quietly condoned after they could no longer legally serve drinks to students. And as Flanagan points out, when you mix the traditions of hazing with the availability of alcohol and the absence of adult authority, you have accidents—multiple accidents—waiting to happen.
Here’s the ethical problem raised by the article that bothers me the most. Instead of clamping down on drinking, ensuring the safety of students, and policing to prevent accidents, it seems the fraternities, if we believe Flanagan’s characterization, are focused primarily on preventing themselves from being bankrupted, or having to pay damages, or even from being sued at all when bad things happen to students within their walls. Perversely, they’ve created a framework that shifts punishment and liability onto the individual students—most of whom lack the adult judgment or mental acuity to be responsible for much of anything or to understand the risks they are taking—a position I find both ethically irresponsible and morally repugnant. Sure, fraternities offer a wealth of wonderful opportunities to students in terms of social life, community service, leadership training, and post-graduation support. But their stance on these accidents strikes me as just plain wrong. It relies on the argument that it’s going to happen no matter what we do, so we might as well protect ourselves instead of trying to prevent it. To me, this is no different from schools issuing bulletproof vests to teachers and students and abandoning all efforts to prevent tragedies involving firearms.
At the end, we are left with too many students—and even one is too many—whose lives have been damaged or cut short, and many more questions, including this one. If ethics are an essential component of leadership, what ethical behavior standards are fraternities modeling for their members? It appears the answer is not “hold out a helping hand to someone who’s tumbling,” but “save your own skin and make it someone else’s fault.” Let the chips—or kids—fall where they may. And let the other guy take the fall.