Boston — Climbing the stairs at the Tau Epsilon Phi fraternity house of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is like taking a trip back in time. Arranged around the fraternity emblem, collections of photographs trace a tradition dating back to 1916.
But something happens on a curve in the steps between the second- and third-floor landings. A 1972 photo shows 20 men; a 1970 display indicates a membership of some 60. There are no photographs for 1971. That was the year the fraternity, riddled with internal conflicts and on the brink of anarchy, was kicked out of the fold of university-sanctioned organizations and nearly forced to close down.
Like many fraternities in the late '60s and early '70s, Tau Epsilon Phi hit the skids. The era marked a low point in student interest in and support for the tradition-clad Greek system.
But Tau Epsilon Phi survived. MIT administrators, along with officials for the national chapter, cracked down, kicked out the troublemakers, and relaunched the fraternity in 1972.
Fraternities across the country are bouncing back, and many are trying to polish up their tarnished images. But it's a bumpy road, strewn with accusations of lingering discrimination and anti-intellectualism. Meanwhile, hazing-related injuries and even a few fatalities still occur during fraternity initiations.
On the other side, fraternity leaders, alumni, and rank-and-file members say things are changing for the better.
"It's not the eating goldfish and other high school antics that it used to be be," says William Bringham, executive secretary of Sigma Chi, an international fraternity with 177 chapters. He says the current fraternity renaissance is marked by an emphasis on charitable activities, brotherhood, and academics.
The change is part of the shift in the nature of incoming students, says Stephen Immerman, business adviser to MIT's 33 fraternities. "They're more career-oriented, more worldly. And less interested in participating in what may be called traditional obnoxious activities."
Whatever their characteristics, a growing number of students seem willing to make the membership pledge. Greek ranks have grown steadily since the fall of 1972, says Jack Anson, executive director of the National Interfraternity Conference (NIC), an information clearinghouse representing 51 national fraternities.
Today, he says, undergraduate membership in national fraternities is nearly 250,000, up from a low of about 150,000 a decade ago. At the same time, the average size of each fraternity has grown from 34 members in 1971 to about 50 members now.
For their part, school administrators are making it clear that the excesses of the past won't be tolerated again. University officials, as well as national fraternity leaders, are keeping pressure on chapters to behave themselves.
For example, Dartmouth College has given its fraternities three years to clean up their acts.In the fall of 1978, the faculty voted to close down the system altogether in the wake of some nationally publicized excesses which allegedly provided the inspiration for the movie "Animal House," a big hit with college and precollege youth.
But the Dartmouth board of trustees later stepped in to give the fraternities another chance, placing them on one-year probation.
Under the current Dartmouth system, each fraternity opens its doors and ledgers to college scrutiny in an annual evaluation, and at the end of three years the entire system will be reviewed.
"The immediate heat is off," says Joseph Zolner, assistant dean of students at Dartmouth."Now the college has recognized improvements and is trying to encourage more."
Some colleges, however, are less willing to give troublemaking fraternities this kind of reprieve. Pierce College in Los Angeles abolished its small Greek system in 1977 after a long series of pranks and hazing incidents, including the hazing-related death of a fraternity pledge in 1973.
But there are dollars-and-cents reasons for many universities to want a strong and viable fraternity system. Of the 5,000 national fraternity chapters, about 3,000 have houses. Local fraternities often offer housing as well.
Many schools tuck a good portion of their undergraduates into these houses, taking pressure off on-campus housing, which is often in short supply.
At the University of California at Berkeley, about 15 percent of undergraduate men live in 38 fraternity houses. And at some fraternity-oriented universities in the Northeast, such as Colgate in New York, the percentages run to 40 percent or more.
Students cite practical as well as personal reasons for taking the Greek option.Although the cost of fraternity living varies widely, it is generally cheaper than living in a campus dorm or off-campus apartment.
Many say the fraternity is the best social option going, with more personal contacts and friendships than could ever be found in the dorms. In addition, members say the relaxed atmosphere -- as well as the partying -- helps them cope with academic pressures.
"There's more of a closeness here," says MIT senior James Flatt, a member of Theta Chi. "The people are more outgoing and have other interests besides school work."
While very few fraternities come close to equaling the raucous behavior of the hard-drinking carousers in "Animal House," it isn't hard to find chapters that have gotten into trouble when their pranks get out of hand.
At MIT, Pi Lambda Phi is currently on probation for, among other things, staging a mock anti-homosexual rally in Harvard Square and leaving real goat heads scattered around campus. (The heads were purchased in a Boston market.)
But while offensive -- and sometimes destructive --fraternity pranks are a problem, the most nettling issue is hazing.
Last year five undergraduates died and many more where injured in ill-conceived initiation rites, says Eileen Stevens, founder of the Committee to Halt Useless College Killings. Mrs. Stevens started a campaign to eliminate hazing after her son, Chuck STenzel, died during a fraternity initiation at Alfred University in 1978.
"Nobody ever intends for something to happen," she says. "But you've got dangerous components there to begin with -- peer pressure, alcohol abuse, and secrecy,"
Officials say most of the trouble arises in local fraternities, which lack the guidance of a national organization. The nationals, meanwhile, face a growing number of lawsuits brought by parents of hazing victims.
Eight states, including California and Texas, have enacted anti-hazing laws, and at least three more are considering such measures. University administrators also are tightening the reins, sometimes imposing hefty fines for hazing or requiring fraternities to get prior approval for initiation activities.
While fraternities strive to turn a cleaner profile to the public eye, some long-term changes already have taken place and may alter the image of fraternities in the future.
Overt discrimination against particular races, creeds, and religions, once common, is virtually unheard of today. More subtle discrimination continues, though. Fraternity members admit that the self-selecting process tends to make the chapters homogeneous.
Meanwhile, the only sanctioned form of discrimination --campuses. Especially at small, independent Northeastern schools, fraternities are being encouraged, and in some cases coerced, into admitting women.
For the future, fraternities are bracing themselves for the anticipated decline in college enrollments. As the pool of college-age students declines, says NIC's Mr. Anson, fraternities will have to do more to cut expenses and make themselves attractive to students.