BOSTON — THEY call it ``brotherhood,'' and pulling together behind it, fraternities claim to be cleaning up their act. But what really is making the difference, say observers, is self-discipline. Looking at what many people associate with fraternity life - degradation of females, excessive alcohol abuse and related fatalities, not to mention ``rush'' fees and dues that can be more than $1,000 for the first year - some might wonder why anyone would want to be part of such an organization.
But for Jeff Zinn, now a successful attorney with his own firm in Los Angeles, brotherhood involves much more than being ready to party at any hour. Mr. Zinn not only joined a fraternity as an undergraduate, but also has remained actively involved for more than 12 years.
Looking back to when he officially became associated with the fraternity in the late '70s, Zinn recalls a time when ``parental relationships were such that there was no true outlet for male companionship.'' Fraternities provided this, he says, in a socially acceptable form.
Zinn feels that historically the fraternity represented a place where ``people could foster ideas and share dreams - a perfect society with perfect friendships.''
But what about today?
``I think that attitude, although probably to a lesser degree, is still there,'' says Zinn. He feels that those who carry and perpetuate this ideal allow fraternities to endure. His ongoing commitment to the fraternity comes from his ``appreciation of [it] having allowed me that time.''
Zinn's postgraduate involvement with his fraternity began during his second year at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. While there, he was president of the Student Bar Association and has since served on its board of governors.
The challenges and problems fraternities face are for the most part brought on by their own reckless and excessive behavior, say some observers. Many who stand up for them feel fraternities that are on the strongest ground keep a close eye on themselves. An open line of communication and a nonhostile working relationship with university administrators are also invaluable assets to any Greek organization, they say.
At most colleges and universities, the liaison between the school and the individual chapters is the interfraternity council (IFC). Made up of members of each fraternity on campus and elected officials, the IFC enacts legislation and serves as a judiciary board.
IFCs are recognizing the necessity of holding member chapters accountable for their actions. For example, the IFC at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., is sending out a message to Greeks about the importance of academics. To make sure that they have everyone's attention, they have linked academic achievement to an integral aspect of fraternal life - social activities. Fraternities will have their social privileges suspended if the chapter's grade-point average falls below the school average.
In recent years, IFCs across the United States have been adopting a no-alcohol policy during new member recruitment. According to the national Interfraternity Conference, ``dry rush'' has rapidly become the rule rather than the exception.
Individual fraternities are beginning to see that if they do not take the initiative to govern themselves, others will do it for them. All Greek fraternities have been removed from several campuses, including Amherst College (Mass.), Colby College (Maine), and the University of Lowell (Mass.).
And serving alcohol to minors is no longer being ignored. Last June, the Pennsylvania Superior Court upheld a May 1987 conviction of 11 Pennsylvania State University fraternities for serving beer to minors.
``The past is no longer with us,'' asserts Jack Burns, coordinator of fraternity affairs at Washington State. ``The system has been moving in positive directions in defining what Greek organizations are all about.''