'Dry' Housing Grows Even as Students Protest Alcohol Bans

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Then he arrived at the University of Michigan in fall 1996, Michael Greene wanted to join a fraternity, but worried that an "animal house" drinking culture might hurt his grades.

Then he discovered and joined Phi Delta Theta, the university's only "substance-free" fraternity. "We have the highest fraternity grade-point average and the biggest parties on campus without a drop of alcohol," he boasts. But Phi Delta Theta may not be alone for long.

Seven national fraternities representing nearly 1,000 of the 5,000 or so fraternity chapters in the United States voted to shun alcohol last year.

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Phi Delta Theta says 58 of its 120 chapters are alcohol free, and expects the rest to be by 2000.

Many fraternities will debate going dry at their national meetings this summer with several expected to banish booze this fall, officials say.

This small-but-growing shift by fraternities to core traditions of brotherhood and academic achievement reflects one of two seemingly contrary trends.

On the one hand, many students are voting with their feet for more alcohol control by demanding substance-free housing on campus. At the University of Michigan, 2,600 students, or 27 percent of those living on campus, live in substance-free dorms. That's up from 1,900 students in 1989, when the program began. Colleges nationwide are climbing on the bandwagon - as are fraternities.

On the other hand, many other students see their personal happiness so intertwined with alcohol use that they are willing to fight when alcohol use is curtailed. Alcohol arrests on campus were up 10 percent in 1996, the fifth rise in five years, according to a new survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Officials say drinking levels are about the same - but enforcement has increased. Recent clashes have occurred over new restrictions, enforcement of existing restrictions, or alcohol bans on campus.

On May 2, about 3,000 Michigan State University students fought with police in East Lansing after the university banned alcohol from a field near to the football stadium. Similar clashes occurred the same weekend at Plymouth State College in Plymouth, N.H., and Washington State University in Pullman.

But if anything, the confrontations seem to have made administrators more determined. Michigan State President M. Peter McPherson said the students' behavior "will not be tolerated" and that the university supports "vigorous prosecution of those arrested."

That may be good news for students who are seeking a substance-free atmosphere at schools - and a red flag for the fraternities that are on the front lines of the debate.

The strength of feeling about whether fraternities will increasingly go dry can be found along the leafy great Greek way of Ann Arbor's Washtenaw Avenue.

Phi Delta Theta, a once-grand brick home with shutters that need a fresh coat of paint, sits at the corner of Washtenaw and South University. Directly across the street is the squat, three-story brick Sigma Alpha Epsilon home.

The two fraternities are arch rivals that annually wage a good-natured football tussle in the "mud bowl" in the lot next door. They also share diametrically opposing views on the dry-fraternity issue.

Standing in the dusty trophy room of Phi Delta Theta, sophomore Daniel Josephs reflects for a moment on the future of fraternities on campus.

"I think that eventually most fraternities on campus are going to be dry like us," he says. "I think the others are going to be thrown off campus - mostly for liability reasons."

Standing nearby, Mr. Greene agrees. "I had a choice," he says. "I knew when I joined that it would be different. But I rarely drink and I liked the comfort level of knowing that I was not going to be forced to drink." Alcohol's absence isn't a damper on parties, he says. "We just post guys at the door. We're not saying that guys can't drink - just not in the house."

A few steps away, across the street relaxing in the spring sunshine on a small deck tucked behind the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house, Justin Reckard is sipping a cold brew with his eyes partly closed. But he sits up straight to consider the direction in which fraternities are headed.

"There's no question this is a trend that all fraternities are thinking about," says the senior, a past president of the fraternity. "I just think that you send your kids to school to be adults. If I want to have a beer in my room I should be able to do that."

But both Greene and Josephs say they were drawn, not repelled, by the no-drinking policy of the house - and that self-policing is working well. Most of their friends understand the policy and don't hassle them about it. One fraternity brother was given a warning a year ago but there are few violations.

"We live by that policy - and we back it up," Greene says. "Not everyone totally likes it - but everyone follows it, and that's the most important thing."

The policy has benefits, he says. "It has an effect during the week, because instead of sitting back and having a beer, you might have a tendency to study instead."

* Send comments to claytonm@csps.com

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