`IF you have to ask, it probably is,'' answers chapter president Dave Koterba when brothers at Ohio State's Tau Kappa Epsilon fraternity want to know what is considered hazing. Yes, forcing pledges - candidates for membership - to consume alcohol, or stay up all night, or to hit them with paddles would qualify, he explains. But, Mr. Koterba says, this is the simplified version, because hazing is more than just headline-grabbing practices like beatings, brandings, or sensory deprivation. ``It is anything degrading to the dignity of the men, both brothers and pledges.'' Hazing, he says, is when a newly initiated brother quits a week later because something during pledging and initiation so humiliates him or violates his sense of right, that he cannot remain there.
According to the Committee to Halt Useless College Killings (CHUCK), 52 documented deaths and countless injuries in the last decade show the need for reform of the pledging practices of college fraternities.
To address these problems, national college fraternities Tau Kappa Epsilon and Zeta Beta Tau announced in late August they will discontinue pledging and replace it with an education process. Their plans differ in development and style but share the objective of eradicating hazing, according to Jonathan J. Brant, executive director of the National Interfraternity Conference.
Under both plans, new members are initiated within 72 hours of being offered admission and afforded full membership rights immediately. Tau Kappa Epsilon's program calls for a month of new member education, then three levels of brotherhood education guided by videotape presentations during the undergraduate years.
Zeta Beta Tau requires a signed contract covering nine points of membership, including academic achievement and integrity; a ban on hazing, sexual abuse of anyone, and drug and alcohol abuse; and a promise to challenge any member in violation of these principles. At required semiannual meetings, the chapter debates expulsion of members in violation. A majority vote of the house is necessary to expel anyone, preventing strictly personal attacks, says Ronald J. Taylor, a Zeta Beta Tau alumni representative.
Any chapters that do not toe the mark will cease to exist, Dr. Taylor says. Chapters at Ohio State and Alfred universities were closed in August because of low standards, he adds.
Zeta Beta Tau's program was enacted this fall by mandate of the national organization. Tau Kappa Epsilon adopted its plan at its national convention last month. After heated debate, the plan passed by one vote among the undergraduate chapters. Votes from alumni representatives raised that margin to 40 votes.
Tau Kappa Epsilon chapters have two years to put the new regulations into effect. ``What this means this fall is a lot of questions,'' says chapter president Koterba. ``Both the brothers and the prospective members really don't know much about it yet.''
The flexibility of Tau Kappa Epsilon's plan also means that some chapters will put it into effect soon, while others will wait until the deadline, Koterba says. Ohio State will begin by implementing gradual changes like a new interview process during the fall ``rush'' period and strengthening big brother programs within the house.
During rush, the chapter will also have to contend with the increased competition from other fraternities on campus that have been critical of the new policy.
Koterba says some other fraternities have been openly hostile, saying Tau Kappa Epsilon must have hazed members so severely that they had to be controlled. His reply: ``We're doing this as something positive to stop hazing, so we'll be here 10 years from now rather than shut down.''
At other schools, the sentiment is similar. Rob Martello, president of the Zeta Beta Tau chapter at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the brothers are pleased with the new program. The semiannual meetings, he says, are a good way to release members who are dead weight on the chapter or who reflect poorly on its members.
Nationwide, Mr. Martello says, the new policy improves standards and ``protects what is best - the brotherhood and the community service.''
Greek fraternities must change their ways in order to survive, say observers, because many schools want to close them down, and laws restricting their activities have become much harsher. In the last 10 years, 27 states have written antihazing laws, making a total of 32 states with such codes, according to Eileen Stevens, the founder of CHUCK, a group she formed after her son Chuck Stenzel died following an alcohol-related hazing incident.
In light of concerns such as lawsuits and the resulting million-dollar liability insurance policies, more than 30 other national fraternities are looking to revise their pledge programs, Brant says. Whether they are joined by social sororities and black Greek service groups remains to be seen.
Sororities often shy away from the subject, saying it is a fraternity problem. But ``the issue affects all of us in the fraternity community, and it may come up for discussion at our next group meeting,'' says Beth Saul, president of the national sororities' Panhellenic Council.
For black service Greeks, the pledge process is an intense, fiercely disciplinary and restrictive six-week period, which is known as being ``on-line.'' According to the 1988 National Pan Hellenic Conference treasurer, A. Nick Pittman, physical beatings and of branding pledges - practices that had existed in a small number of groups - have been abolished by formal statements by the respective national organizations.
Considering all these reforms and other moves, such as stronger antihazing legislation in many states, Mrs. Stevens sums up, ``Not every pledge is abused, and certainly not all pledge programs are bad. But a national statement that fraternities feel it is necessary to fight this is very good.''