AS college starts around the country, so does debate over the virtues and vices of fraternities. Few campus traditions fire the emotions as do frats, which, after diving in status during the activist 1960s, regained popularity in the Reagan '80s. With that popularity has come criticism, usually from college faculty. The Greek system is under increasing attack on campus for sanctioning a number of uncivil and brutish practices - winking about racial prejudice, taking an exploitative view of women, anti-intellectualism, heavy drinking, and hazing freshmen.
Many of these criticisms are valid - though not for all fraternities - and they bear continued attention. (The recent violence in Virginia Beach, Va., though it involved members of mainly black fraternities, raises issues related more to race relations than to the Greek system.)
The most immediate and volatile issue is heavy drinking, particularly during the fall ``rush'' when freshmen hop from house to house hoping to find acceptance. Alcohol abuse has been connected to problems from rape cases to deaths during hazing.
The problem has gotten so severe that colleges such as Williams, Colby, Franklin and Marshall, and Amherst have done away with frats; Middlebury may take a similar tack.
Dozens of colleges have instituted ``dry rush'' - alcohol-free parties for prospective members. Last month two national fraternity systems - Zeta Beta Tau and Tau Kappa Epsilon - eliminated freshman ``pledging'' entirely, putting an end to the accompanying drunkfests and hazing.
These are good efforts, but they aren't enough. ``Dry rush'' addresses only a small part of the problem of excessive drinking in fraternities.
Nor does ending pledging get at the reforms really needed - better tone, stronger governance, and higher academic priorities. Educators such as Harvard's David Riesman argue that students need at least a year at college before joining in order to develop friends, ideas, and an independent center of gravity. Dartmouth (prototype for the movie ``Animal House'') now forbids joining until the sophomore year.
At the same time, fraternities often become campus whipping boys. They reflect male, conservative, traditional, and pro-business values - and it's hard to think of traits more irksome to self-proclaimed sensitive, humanist, liberal faculty members.
Yet the organizations provide a rich social life for many students. They provide contacts and collegiality. They can stifle intellectual pursuit, but many also improve study habits and grades.
The alternative to the centering of student interests and time around fraternities would be a more intense adult faculty presence at all levels - formal and informal - of student life. It's up to faculty to restore the spirit of learning and inquiry they lament has ended on campus.
Fraternities aren't the cause of all ills. But they need to curb regressive thinking and behavior and represent better ideals.