For generations, rushing a sorority has meant carefully dressing up and parading from house to house for elaborate meet-and-greets that often involve name tags, sing-alongs and tear-filled testimonials to the power of sisterhood.
Meanwhile, most fraternities just threw boozy parties.
Times have changed, and fraternities are being pushed by their national chapters and campus officials to attract new members based on values, leadership and academics — not hilarity when plastered. The idea is that if frats can take the focus off alcohol during rush there will be fewer alcohol-related problems during initiation and the rest of the school year.
Still, many frat brothers continue to find alcohol an easy and reliable way to attract freshmen.
The latest example comes from this year’s rush week at the University of South Carolina, where six of the 18 fraternities were charged with violating campus policies while recruiting new members.
On the first day of rush on Aug. 14, two students were arrested and one was hospitalized after they reportedly drank at fraternity rush parties, according to a university-provided timeline that was posted on the Web site of the student newspaper, the Daily Gamecock. The next two nights, two fraternities were caught serving alcohol at recruitment events. On the fourth night, another fraternity allegedly hosted an alcohol-filled ”stripper day”for recruits, during which one student passed out.
Throughout the week, university officials met with fraternity presidents and begged them to dry up their recruitment events. By Thursday, exasperated school officials had revoked recognition of the Fraternity Council and halted all fraternity recruitment indefinitely.
”We have no leadership coming out of the fraternity system right now,” Jerry Brewer, USC’s longtime vice president of student affairs told the Chronicle of Higher Education last week. (Brewer has not returned a phone message I left Monday morning.)
Many fraternity members are upset that all chapters are being punished for the actions of about one-third, said Dane O’Neill, the student government’s secretary of greek affairs who has been in contact with most fraternity presidents this week. They also don’t understand why the university is now enforcing policies when underage drinking has been a part of fraternity recruitment for so long, she told me Monday afternoon.
“It’s really difficult for them to change the way they do recruitment,” O’Neill said. “It’s hard for them to understand why this crackdown has happened now when they’ve done it for years.”
(When asked if alcohol is also a problem with sorority rush, O’Neill responded, “absolutely not.” Sorority recruitment at USC has proceeded as planned this week with record-breaking numbers of rushees.)
Peter Smithhisler, president of the North American Interfraternity Conference, said there is no question that alcohol needs to disappear from fraternity rush. But he says that will only happen if universities partner with the students while implementing their “zero tolerance for inappropriate behavior.”
Officials need to remember that fraternity members are still students, with full rights to associate with others and join clubs, he told me on Monday, and problems that exist in the greek system are often reflective of the student population as a whole.
The council has started a nationwide campaign called ‘The Case for Fraternity Rights,” which points to University Learning Outcomes Assessment data showing that young men in fraternities experienced “advanced personal growth more rapidly” than their non-greek peers, especially when they joined early in freshman year.
Smithhisler said that for fraternities to stay relevant, rush must be “much more about content than show — whether that’s a home away from home, a social outlet, a leadership opportunity, a community of like-minded people.”
“Those chapters that can articulate what it means to be a fraternity man, beyond a drinking culture, are the ones making it,” he said.
On Sunday night, a group of fraternity presidents at USC sent a four-page letter to the board of trustees and top school officials stating that rush was wrongly terminated and calling for a review of the way the Office of Greek Life handled the situation. (Since the Fraternity Council was relieved of its power, the letter was coordinated through a student government committee.)
“Our members are of better character than the way we are often portrayed by the Office of Greek Life,” the letter reads. It also states that officials are putting the safety of students at risk by “pushing alcohol consumption too far ‘underground’ within the community.”
On Monday afternoon, USC officials met with hundreds of fraternity members, alumni and others to discuss the “future of fraternities” in the first of several open forums, according to the Daily Gamecock.
University officials laid out their concerns clearly: Rush week this year had spiraled out of control in a way that put the lives of students in danger; they said. Last year, 45 percent of the school’s 115 alcohol hospitalizations were greek house members, even though only 20 to 25 percent of the student population is in a fraternity or sorority, according to Keith Ellis, associate director of Greek Life.
Fraternity members lined up to lob questions and angry statements at the panel of officials, according to the Daily Gamecock. Members who worked for a 100 percent dry rush questioned why they were being punished. And some of those who belonged to houses accused of serving alcohol questioned why the university was cracking down so hard and why officials were bashing the fraternity system to the media.
Fraternity rush was still suspended Tuesday afternoon, but officials said it could resume this week.
What do you think? What can fraternities and administrators do to rid rush of underage drinking?