NEWARK, DEL. — In the 1978 film "Animal House," with bad-boy actor John Belushi, college fraternity brothers are depicted as hard-drinking, womanizing, academic underperformers.
As in art, so in life. The University of Delaware in Newark once had a real-life Animal House. Theta Chi violated school policy often and was booted off campus in 1988. But before it went, it held one final wild party. Shortly after, the fraternity burned to the ground. Some say the brothers set the fire.
Flip forward another decade. Clay Evans, a University of Delaware sophomore, pledges Theta Chi - now the top academic fraternity on campus. On weekends, he and his 40 brothers clean parks and raise funds for charity. Parties are fewer and smaller. Hazing is out. Studying is in. And Theta Chi is not alone.
Alcohol-soaked fraternity culture is beginning to change. As legal liability and bad publicity soar in the wake of high-profile alcohol-related hazing deaths, fraternities and universities are taking action.
Nine national fraternities say local chapters will be required to go "dry" within a few years. Across the nation, about 40 percent of colleges have established "relationship agreements" with their fraternities specifying higher expectations and responsibilities.
Fraternity membership grew rapidly in North America through the 1980s, to about 400,000 today in 5,500 chapters on 800 campuses. In the 1990s, however, growth flattened. Bad publicity may have something to do with that, and fraternities are concerned.
"There's a genuine desire among fraternity leaders to change the culture, particularly in chapters focused on hedonism and alcohol," says Jonathan Brant, executive vice president of the National Interfraternity Conference in Indianapolis, which represents 66 men's fraternities nationwide. "The question is how to return to our core values?"
In Massachusetts last month, a chapter of Phi Gamma Delta was criminally indicted for last year's alcohol-poisoning death of Scott Krueger, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology freshman. Stung, MIT has ordered all freshmen onto campus beginning in 2001 and is putting resident assistants in off-campus fraternity houses.
Some private colleges are fed up with death and destruction, not to mention bad grades, connected to fraternity alcohol, and that means dumping fraternities altogether. Bowdoin last year followed Williams, Amherst, Colby, Middlebury and a few other Eastern colleges in banning fraternities on campus. Others are weighing options.
Yet a few schools, including the University of Delaware, are digging in for a long fight. Deploying innovative fraternity-evaluation and antibinge-drinking programs, Delaware aims to change fraternity culture at its base. The goal: root out attitudes that accommodate drunkenness, hazing, sexual assault, and poor grades.
"There has been an attitude of keeping fraternities at arm's length, so when they screw up you can deny responsibility," says David Roselle, president of the university. "I think the best way is to put your arms around them."
Delaware has done just that after disgust over hazing and drinking violations nearly drove the faculty senate to ban rush in 1992.
Instead, the school created the now three-year-old Five-Star Program, which grades fraternities and sororities annually in five audited areas: academics, financial management, university and community service, campus involvement, and new-member education.
Delaware's Five-Star Program
To the surprise of many, Delaware's plan is starting to show signs of working. In 1996-97, there were no five-star fraternities. Today, three fraternities of the 19 on campus have five stars, seven have three-star and four-star rankings, and two are two-star fraternities.
What the growing number of stars represents is change, officials and students say. For the first time in a decade, fraternities achieved a collective grade point average higher than the overall men's average on campus - an unusual achievement.
Not coincidentally, students and administrators say the number of fraternity-hosted "open" beer bashes has fallen off dramatically.
As the "crisis guy" on campus, Tim Brooks, dean of student affairs, notices the difference. His beeper awakened him a dozen times last year with fraternity-related furors - but only once this year.
Fraternity culture has changed "dramatically" since he arrived on campus two decades ago, he says. Then, fraternity parties had open kegs and 400 to 500 people milling around. The kegger is long gone, banned years ago. But the days of the "open," bring-your-own-beer fraternity party are numbered, too. Most are now by invitation only.
The change is especially apparent during rush events, which a few years ago were hard-charging drinking parties. But as at many universities, "dry rush" is now the norm at Delaware.
Last month, on the final day of rush - the last chance to pitch membership to underclassmen - Sigma Chi's men held forth at their battered but freshly painted chapter house. It was a two-star house a year ago, but is five-star now and proud.
"If you pledge Sigma Chi, I can tell you honestly that your grades will not suffer for being in the fraternity," fraternity president Rich Gilpin tells a room packed with prospective pledges.
"We really want you to succeed academically because frankly, if you don't get good grades, you're no good to us."
That sort of blunt talk is music to the ears of Jesse Foster-Stout, a sophomore who runs cross-country and doesn't like to drink much.
"The reason I came to this fraternity for rush is that it represents something all the way at the other end of the spectrum," he says. "I'm not a typical frat-type person. I'm different. Sure, partying is part of being in a fraternity. But if that's all it is, it's a waste of my time."
Throughout the evening, as small groups of five or six freshmen move room to room for a sales pitch on the academic support the frat provides, along with social life, pledge training, and community service, the refrain is the same: Good grades are crucial, hazing is out, brotherhood is at the core. And oh, by the way, fun is key, too.
This is exactly the sort of change the university's president hopes for. Intense and soft-spoken, Roselle is a mathematician by training. He is a chief executive who gets annoyed when he sees a building with peeling paint. A few years ago on his daily walk across campus, the battered Sigma Phi Epsilon house caught his eye.
Initially he worried about fire conditions. That led to discussions about how the university could help fraternities. He decided to adapt the approach used at Utah State University.
Under this system, privileges decline with ranking. Sigma Nu and Alpha Tau Omega, two of the oldest fraternities on campus, for example, are not permitted to hold parties because of their two-star rankings. Not having parties is a big deal since they attract new members. (Some houses hold them anyway, and risk getting caught. The system isn't perfect, officials admit.) Any frat with one star two semesters in a row is de-recognized by the university - a virtual death knell.
Campus-wide penalties for drunkenness have also been stiffened. One violation yields a $50 fine and a letter to parents. Three strikes yield a one-year suspension. Violations also deduct five-star points. This calibrated carrot-and-stick system makes clear that top-performing fraternities will thrive - underachievers may not.
"We're going to limit the intake of new members unless they can come up to definable standards," Roselle says. "If certain of them don't, we'll eliminate them."
Star-system gets mixed reviews
Fraternity members are ambivalent. Those whose fraternities have four or five stars are generally enthusiastic. Those with fewer stars generally bridle under the system. Even those with good scores fear points will be deducted from their fraternities' scores if they are openly critical of the system - a striking anomaly at a university.
"On one hand, we like the five-star system and the fact our successes count for something," says a fraternity president who asked not to be named. "The problem is that they begin to use it to bully you around."
Back in 1923, when Greek fraternities were new and growing fast at the University of Delaware, then-President Walter Hullihen wanted many fraternities on campus "to reduce the number of non-fraternity men, 'barbarians,' to the lowest possible limits," historian John Munroe writes. That hope would have been sorely tested at homecoming last year in a muddy field behind the University of Delaware's stadium. Several thousand members of 19 fraternities and 11 sororities and their friends, in formal attire, went sliding in the mud.
Even a tamer version two weeks ago might strain Hullihen's vision of fraternities. Beer flowed, along with merriment and general drunkenness. Still, for Mr. Evans, the sophomore Theta Chi member, this annual blow-out is not the essence of what this fraternity experience is about. He and others are on the lookout for Theta Chi alumni, worried about their "embarrassing behavior" last year in the rain and mud, and eager to avoid a repetition.
"My freshman year the frat parties were huge and totally out of control," he says. "That whole crazy 'Animal House' aspect is fading out. I like it better now.... I can remember the good times instead of saying, 'I think I had a good time.' "
Brooke Guiterman, president of Theta Chi, says change is inevitable. "Our national headquarters loves us," he says. "To them we are the fraternity of the future."
"In a few years," he adds, "when all the guys ... that knew a different culture with all the parties and alcohol are gone, the new guys won't know the difference and the new culture will be the norm. It's gotta happen.
"There's no alternative," he says. "For fraternities here it's either change or die."
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