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October 16, 2013

Fraternities scuttle recruiting ban prompted by drinking deaths

After a freshman died from downing beer, rum and 151-proof liquor in an initiation ritual, California Polytechnic State University in 2010 banned fraternities from recruiting newly arrived students.

Right away, the North-American Interfraternity Conference, which represents 75 national fraternities, jumped in. The Indianapolis-based trade group emailed and met with Cal Poly administrators, paid for a study that opposed the ban and spurred a three-year campaign by student leaders. It won, and the school lifted the restriction this year. One freshman, Charlie Ross, couldn't be happier about the opportunity to join a fraternity right away instead of waiting three months.

"You've got a group of guys who watch out for you when you're drinking," Ross, 18, said after unpacking his bags at freshman orientation on the San Luis Obispo campus.

The university's turnabout shows how the Interfraternity Conference is blocking an approach that some higher education leaders say can save lives: postponing recruitment of freshmen, who account for a disproportionate number of fraternity-related deaths. The conference has opposed proposals at dozens of colleges to delay recruiting by a semester or a year.

"These organizations were putting our freshmen at risk," said Shirley Tilghman, former president of Princeton University, which prohibited fraternity recruiting of freshmen, starting in the fall of 2012. "There is so much vulnerability in that first week, that first month as a freshman on a college campus — of feeling lost. It leads to all kinds of decisions that you would not make if you had a little more time to find your way."

Princeton students who belonged to fraternities, especially freshmen, were more likely to be hospitalized because of drinking, said Tilghman, who stepped down as president in June. Of 60 fraternity-related deaths nationwide since 2005, 24, or 40 percent, were of freshmen, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

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