The Death of Clemson Pledge Tucker Hipps

mn7njw6ir0u0rtfjz1laThe following post for StopHazing was written by author and anti-hazing activist Hank Nuwer. For more information on Hank, check out his website at www.hanknuwer.com.

The death of Clemson University Sigma Phi Epsilon pledge Tucker Hipps, 19, understandably has torn apart the hearts of campus members at this close-knit institution of higher learning.

And I should disclose that I once taught at Clemson some 32 years ago and loved the school, its students, and my colleagues. Hazing was not a big issue at Clemson in 1982-1983, but alcohol abuse and the school’s issues with fraternity parties and nearby downtown bars was a concern of administration and faculty back then. My condolences go out to the family of Tucker but also out to the extended Clemson community.

Unless toxicology results shed light on Hipps’ death, his death will join a small number of other pledging and initiation deaths that remain a mystery. For unless there is a cover-up by fraternity members, and the intense investigation of Oconee County Sheriff Mike Crenshaw has not uncovered one, only Tucker himself knows how he fell from a high bridge span into the rock-bottomed, relatively shallow waters of Lake Hartwell, where he and about 30 Sig Ep pledges and members were jogging around 5:30 a.m.

Here are a couple of the mystery deaths my research has uncovered:

1) In 1873, Kappa Alpha Society pledge Mortimer Leggett perished in a fall into a steep gorge while accompanied by members of the Cornell University chapter. A blindfold was found after the death, and the father expressed his suspicions, but the members stuck to the story that Mortimer wore no blindfold at the time of the mishap.

2) Delta Kappa Epsilon pledge Stuart L. Pierson was struck by a train on the tracks near Kenyon College in 1905. No definitive answers about that episode ever emerged, though rumors in newspapers went wild, and the hard questions simply evaporated when the father forgave the brothers.

3) Northwestern University student Leighton Mount disappeared after a traditional class rush in 1921, and his body was found beneath a pier two years later. Rumors were rampant, but hard facts were absent.

Sheriff Crenshaw has said he and his force have not located any evidence that hazing or foul play occurred, but his investigation is ongoing and toxicology reports (such as whether alcohol or drugs were in Hipps’ system) typically will take some time to emerge.

Here are some of my thoughts on the tragedy:

— The incident will not be hazing if, as USA Today writes, this is a volunteer run with elected pledges AND members as a group bonding experience.

— The incident could be hazing or possibly negligence if it is ever established that Hipps were sleep-deprived or under the influence of alcohol or both. The strongly anti-hazing national Sigma Phi Epsilon reiterated its anti-hazing values and promised its own investigation into the circumstances of death.

Two things trouble me in the news reports that have emerged.

1) Why did one or more of the young men notice Tucker having (in the words of one Sig p witness) “issues” during the predawn event and run on anyway, leaving him behind? Were they callous, indifferent, or required to finish their run by someone in charge? Why were they not wearing reflective clothing?

2) It troubles me that the run ended at 6 a.m. and no call to authorities was made until 1:45 p.m., as chapter members tried to hunt for Tucker. If they had nothing to hide, wouldn’t they have wanted assistance from police or other organized search-and-rescue units? Did any of the members insist no help be requested?

3) I have some problem with the term “voluntary” being used to describe the run in the dark. It is very unlikely a pledge would say no to a run even if he were feeling ill because of group pressure and the quest for camaraderie.

4) Social groups of men, in particular, need to think twice before sending out members and/or pledges on a jog or fool’s errand in the dark or to remote areas. Over time, we have seen the deaths from those causes of a young sorority member at Eastern Illinois University, as well as young men from Tulane University, Grove City College and Skidmore University (which has been trying like Wesleyan University to mandate coed fraternities).

To be sure, not even having answers can bring back Tucker Hipps to life. In my gut and heart I do not know if this incident qualifies as hazing. But I suspect that every man in the Clemson University chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon knows this death could have been prevented had they stopped and helped Tucker when he was struggling. And that is one sad and terrible thing to live with the rest of their lives.