STROLL among the gas lamps, weathered oaks, and stately brick buildings at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, and you might guess that the most contentious Greeks on this campus are Socrates and Plato.
Convinced that Denison's nine fraternities need to be reined in, the school's Board of Trustees has proposed a plan to turn them out of their houses.
While Denison's administrators are not the first in the United States to consider curtailing, or even eradicating, their Greek system, they have introduced a daunting new weapon to the arsenal of fraternity fighters' arguments: demographics.
As the college student body grows older, less white, less affluent, and more female than ever before, colleges are struggling to appeal to this new clientele. At Denison, as at other colleges, leafy photographs of fraternity row are disappearing from the viewbook. This change is particularly pronounced at Denison, where the Greek system once included 90 percent of the student body.
These days, just 20 percent of Denison's 1,800 students are fraternity members. And independent students complain that fraternities command the best social spaces on campus, while almost all the other Denison students must live in residence halls. Administrators say fraternities have become less of an impetus for students to come to Denison than to leave.
''Students choose to go to a small residential college like Denison because they want to participate in a lot of things,'' says Denison President Michele Tolela Myers ''That's what we sell. If the social atmosphere is perceived to be divisive, people will go elsewhere.''
Denison statistics show that fraternity members have slightly below average grades. In light of that, in addition to their decaying houses, financial troubles, and continued reports of hazing, fighting, underage drinking, and sexism, Ms. Myers says: ''you have to wonder what positives they are contributing.''
While Denison's fraternity members admit the system needs help, they liken the administration's plan to giving the campus social scene a swig of hemlock. Just because fewer students are going Greek, they say, doesn't mean they are any less interested in partying.
''If 50 percent of the students are unhappy with the social life, that means that 50 percent are happy with it. Why make everybody miserable?'' asks John Harrison, vice president of Denison's Inter-Fraternity Council. Mr. Harrison, a member of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, says that like most of his fellow members, he would not have come to Denison if the fraternities did not have houses.
Fraternities are working on a counter proposal in which they say they might agree to move their parties to an open-campus social center if one is made available.
Fraternity members aren't the only ones who say the administration should reconsider. Latisha Bunkley, president of Delta Sigma Theta sorority, says the administration has killed the campus nightlife by closing several social centers, including the bowling alley, in recent years. While she rarely frequents fraternity row, she says, it makes no sense to take away the only social option left at Denison. ''What is there for students to do?''
Chuck Brinkman, chairman of Denison's Board of Trustees, says that when today's students ask this question, they are really asking: ''Where can I go to drink in an unsupervised environment?''
Indeed, nearly all of the 300 students at a recent forum agreed, by show of hands, that underage drinking is part of the social life at Denison. A recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that 85 percent of college students drink, and 44 percent identify themselves as heavy, or ''binge,'' drinkers.
This thirst for alcohol among college students presents a quandary for administrators: Wink at underage drinking and risk tragedies; or crack down and risk creating the image of a boring campus.
Harrison, the Sigma Alpha Epsilon member, argues that because so many students are determined to drink before they are 21, such behavior will occur whether or not there are fraternity houses. All the board's proposal will do, he says, is drive more drinkers into the dorms and to the bars in Columbus, 30 miles east, which could lead to drunk driving.
Besides, fraternity members say, things are changing. After a flurry of lawsuits in the 1980s, the cost of insuring fraternities exceeded that of nuclear-waste disposal companies. In response, 38 national fraternities formed an insurance purchasing collective and set strict behavior guidelines. Since then, member fraternities have been barred from buying alcohol with chapter funds or serving minors. While fraternity members admit that enforcement is spotty, they say the difference is tangible.
''Recent alumni come back to the houses and are surprised not to see blowout parties,'' says David Westol, national president of Theta Chi fraternity in Indianapolis.
Fraternity officials, like college administrators, are coming back to in loco parentis after a lapse in the 1980s, Mr. Westol says. ''We realize that we are still dealing with 18-year-olds,'' Mr. Westol says. ''If we don't offer a model for guidance, if we don't impose judgment, then we're asking for tragedy.'' Theta Chi has shut down 26 chapters in six years for disciplinary reasons, he notes.
While fraternity officials say the number of men joining fraternities is declining, there are still roughly 400,000 fraternity members nationwide in 5,500 chapters.
Greek demographics, like the those of the general student body, are evolving, Westol says, though admittedly not as fast. ''Seventy to 80 percent of our members work to support themselves,'' he says, ''you don't see a lot of BMWs in the parking lot anymore. Fraternities will adjust to realities in the marketplace but I don't think some administrators want to give us the chance.''