Say It Ain't So: Frats Gone Mild
Colleges are on a binge to tame fraternities. But angry members (and alums) are fighting back
Four nervous freshmen huddle on the sidewalk outside the Delta Upsilon house at Colgate University. It's homecoming weekend at the 2,750-student school in upstate New York, the party inside the house is raging, and they're on a quest for beer. They take out their wallets, eyeball their fake ID s, and consider the wisdom of presenting them to the private security guards at DU's front door. Deciding the ID s won't pass muster, they keep walking.
They don't have to go far to find a party they can get into. In the backyard of a nearby private house, there are no security guards and no colored wristbands for the underage. This parallel party universe is the domain of the brothers of Delta Kappa Epsilon, a renegade fraternity that Colgate barred from campus for refusing to sell its house to the school and join a new student-residence initiative. But while the college threatened to expel any students who set foot in the DKE house, the order continues in exile. At the house where some brothers now live, they continue to provide for their classmates: kegs of light beer, rock music, and that ubiquitous collegiate drinking game, beer pong. And the occasional joint is smoked.
Homeless. This was exactly the type of scene Colgate University hoped to eradicate last year when it forced 10 fraternities and sororities to sell their houses to the university or face derecognition. In school-owned buildings, all parties must be registered in advance, and private catering companies--complete with ID-checking security guards--must run events where alcohol is served. DKE, the only fraternity that refused to sell, filed a lawsuit charging that the school violated its right to freely associate as well as antitrust laws by exerting monopoly-like control over the student housing market. Last month, the frat asked the local district attorney to investigate the legality of the housing plan. The university steadfastly defends its actions, saying its plan will bolster Greek life. The frat, however, feels endangered. "The situation sucks because we cannot sit down to dinner in our own house," says Sam Higgins, DKE president.
Colgate's effort is a particularly contentious example of a trend toward greater university control of Greek communities. In recent weeks, frats in at least five other states have been fighting derecognition, takeover bids from universities, and community ordinances aimed at quieting their raucous ways. For too long, many schools argue, the Greek system has been a haven for Animal House- style behavior: hazing, sexual assaults, and rampant binge drinking. Efforts to bring frats to heel have followed a similar pattern. Schools require more students to live on campus, depriving the fraternities of revenue generated by residents. Then schools either purchase property or, like Colgate, deny recognition to off-campus houses, compelling the fraternities to sell. Many schools, including the University of South Florida, George Washington University, and the University of Connecticut, have built Greek villages with dorm-style living for frats and sororities. Others have banned private fraternal societies altogether, to the dismay of traditionalists who call Greek life part and parcel of the college experience.
For much of Greek history, the relationship between administrators and fraternal societies was symbiotic. Fraternities assumed responsibility for feeding, housing, and entertaining students long before student life became the purview of the modern college. The arrangement worked well, especially at more remote campuses, like Colgate, where social outlets were limited. As a result, fraternities sit on some of the best land around colleges, making them appealing targets for cash-flush schools eager to expand. In the past 20 years, however, the relationship between schools and their Greek communities has deteriorated. When the drinking age was raised to 21 in the early 1980s, campus social life began to shift even further toward fraternities as a source of entertainment. Communities began passing zoning laws limiting the spread of students into residential neighborhoods, and in the wake of numerous injuries and tragic deaths, concerns over campus safety, from fire codes to binge drinking, became a public obsession.
Meanwhile, colleges have expanded their educational mission, often blurring the line between classroom and dorm room. "We don't care what students do outside the classroom, so long as that experience is educational," says Adam Weinberg, Colgate's dean. "In the old Greek system, there were too many wasted educational moments." To that ambitious end, the school now offers theme dorms, including Peace Studies House, Ecology House, and Asia Interest House. "Residential liberal arts schools are in danger of becoming quaint, and residential initiatives are an effort to update [their] relevance," says Scott Meiklejohn, a Colgate trustee and vice president for planning and institutional advancement at Bowdoin College, which eliminated its Greek system five years ago.
While they may bridle at increased oversight, frats are often willing to sell. Chapters generally own their houses; students and alumni boards are responsible for everything from roof repairs to insurance bills. "Many fraternity houses are getting worn out, and alumni are more than happy to have colleges assume responsibility for maintenance and safety," says Ron Binder, director of Greek affairs at Bowling Green State University and president-elect of the Association of Fraternity Advisors. Indeed, at Colgate, the DKE house is the sole holdout. But changing the fraternity system can be problematic at some schools, Binder says, especially if former Greek alumni have fond memories of college years.
No bequest for you! At Colgate, 1958 grad Charles Sanford, a trustee emeritus, is the loudest voice of opposition. Though Sanford's name is on the school's field house, the Colorado home-building mogul--who flies to meetings of the trustees on his private jet--says he has written a planned $15 million bequest to the school out of his will, decrying what he calls social engineering gone awry. "Colgate argues that fraternities get in the way of intellectual development as designed by the college," Sanford says. "But they provide real campus diversity and a laboratory for conflict resolution, leadership training, and financial management." He formed a group of students and alumni opposed to the plan and argued his case before the board of trustees this fall--so far to no avail. Others say changes were long overdue. "We tried imposing more rules, rules, rules, but it was untenable," says Colgate President Rebecca Chopp. Changing frat culture on campus had been discussed for years; an alcohol-related car wreck in 2000, which killed four college students and sent a DKE to prison for vehicular manslaughter, was the catalyst for bringing the frats under control.
Though Colgate has met resistance, time is on the administration's side. While the lawsuit works its way through the courts, the DKE house remains vacant, draining chapter coffers. Walking around the empty house--only alumni can enter--Sean Devlin, a DKE brother who graduated last year, says the impasse will continue until the school offers a written guarantee that the house will remain a DKE residence after the sale. "There is support from the alumni to fight for our house and our history, and we'll do that as long as we can." Still, while fraternal traditions stretch back centuries, the student institutional memory is short. Four years from now, Colgate's Greek system may be flourishing or it may be extinct, but none of the current students will have known the freewheeling old-school frats. And the freshmen who partied with the DKE brothers-in-exile will all have graduated.
This story appears in the November 28, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.