Fraternity rush sobers up at University of Maryland and elsewhere

March 11, 2012

The Phi Gamma Delta fraternity at the University of Maryland threw a rush party at the beginning of the semester, and dozens of potential recruits showed up. The guys threw a football in the front yard, ate pizza in the packed living room and talked at length about sports.

Throughout the event, they refilled their plastic Solo cups with soda.

“You ask them: ‘What do you look for in a fraternity?’ And they might try to impress us and say, ‘Oh, I like girls and partying.’ And I say: ‘Yeah, every house does that. What else?’ ” said Jon Oks, a member who is a junior. “I tell them: Look at our trophies. Talk to these guys. . . . Come to our house, eat some pizza.”

Fraternity rush is sobering up at a number of universities, including Maryland, where administrators ordered the student organizations to overhaul their recruiting — or risk having the university do it for them.

Following incidents at the University of South Carolina and Yale and Cornell universities over the past two years, debate has arisen about the role of fraternities in higher education and whether they should continue to exist. Much of what fraternities offer — a small community at a large school, a network of alumni, community service and leadership opportunities — is now offered by universities themselves.

To survive, fraternities have to change, said Peter Smithhisler, president of the North-American Interfraternity Conference, which represents 75 fraternities with chapters on more than 800 campuses.

“Those chapters that can articulate what it means to be a fraternity man — beyond a drinking culture — are the ones making it,” he said. “Those who rely on the crutch of alcohol won’t make it.”

Often, that change starts with recruiting. If fraternities pick their next class of brothers based on interests, life goals and leadership experiences — instead of their hilarity when plastered — they are more likely to get along when sober, bond without hazing and view their organization as something other than a drinking club. That may mean fewer problems with alcohol abuse down the line.

Most schools prohibited the use of alcohol in recruiting decades ago, and most freshmen and sophomores who rush are younger than the legal drinking age of 21. But school rules and drinking laws often are ignored — and not just by fraternity members.

U-Md. officials say alcohol over the years has played a role in recruiting for many student groups. But fraternities have come under particular scrutiny.

Not long ago, fraternity rush at U-Md. mirrored some of the stereotypes in movies such as “Animal House” and “Old School.” Hordes of intoxicated students wandered the neighborhoods near campus, jumping from one kegger to the next, sometimes giving their cellphone numbers to fraternities they liked.

Spring rush often meant house parties that raged out of control, an increased number of students taken to emergency rooms for alcohol-related problems and the university investigating suspected cases of hazing.

In 2002, U-Md. student Daniel F. Reardon fell into a coma and died after a night of heavy drinking while joining the Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity. His parents sued the fraternity and some of its members for not getting Reardon help quickly enough. The case was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.

Phi Sigma Kappa, which says it is U-Md.’s oldest fraternity, still has a house on Fraternity Row, a loop lined with Greek houses. Its recruitment brochure this year says it has “no pledging and no hazing. None. Never. Ever. Pledging and hazing has no place in a brotherhood.”

Following rush, most fraternities require students to “pledge,” an often weeks- or months-long process during which aspiring members get to know the chapter, its membership and its traditions. It is also when students are most likely to be exposed to hazing.

Historically, pledging takes place during the first semester of freshman year, although U-Md. and other universities have bumped their rush season to second semester. When fraternities get into trouble, it is often while recruiting or pledging new members.

A high-profile incident occurred at Yale in October 2010 when Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity pledges marched through campus chanting things that seemed to promote sexual assault, such as “No means yes!” Yale suspended recognition of Delta Kappa Epsilon, which counts both presidents Bush among its alumni.

In February 2011, a Cornell sophomore died after Sigma Alpha Epsilon members bound his hands and feet, forced him to drink alcohol and deserted him, according to a lawsuit his mother filed against the fraternity. Cornell suspended recognition of the fraternity and forbade any form of pledging — along with hazing, which already was illegal — for the entire system.

In August, administrators halted fraternity rush at the University of South Carolina after two students were arrested, one was hospitalized and six fraternities were caught serving alcohol to recruits.

In the Washington area, the fraternity scene at College Park stands out. Some major local universities, such as Georgetown and Catholic, do not have any recognized fraternities or sororities. American and George Mason universities have unhoused fraternities.

At U-Md., the past two fraternity spring rushes have been more formal than in previous years. Among other changes, recruits are required to sign up for the process and can attend a series of no-alcohol events, including a “Meet the Greeks” information fair.

To be sure, several fraternity members hosted unofficial parties off campus where students drank, according to fraternity leaders. But they were fewer in number, less crowded and less promoted than in previous years. The late January rush passed without major incident, according to school officials.

The change hasn’t been easy. At a meeting in December, two fraternity presidents suggested putting everyone on “social probation” during rush — meaning no one could drink for two weeks, said Marc George, president of the Interfraternity Council. The proposal was quickly rejected.

While many agreed with the idea, George said it would be a difficult sell for members: “The average 20-year-old college guy is not going to be thrilled by it.”

Some fraternity members complain that their rush is becoming too much like sorority rush — a grandly orchestrated process in which recruits watch skits, listen to tear-filled testimonials about the power of sisterhood, and drink lemonade or iced tea.

Nationally, membership in sororities is growing at a faster rate than in fraternities. At Maryland this semester, about 350 men were invited to join 22 fraternities and 500 women joined 14 sororities. About 80 students joined 20 historically black or culturally based fraternities and sororities, which have separate governing boards.

During a January tour of several U-Md. fraternity houses, these words were heard over and over: Brotherhood. Community service. Alumni connections. No hazing. Founding values.

There also was some profanity, a couple of homophobic slurs and numerous references to meeting women at parties.

One of the first houses on the tour was Tau Kappa Epsilon, where members in athletic shorts, T-shirts and ball caps tried to explain their house to freshmen.

“We’re middle-of-the-road academically,” the rush chairman told the prospects. “We have a pretty tight brotherhood, in addition to partying.”

Another member added: “Your social life opens up drastically. You meet so many girls.”

At Sigma Phi Epsilon, members in suits and ties ushered visitors into their boardroom, handed out business cards printed with coming events and noted that a faculty member lives in the house.

“We’re different,” the rush chairman said. “And we’re better because of that.”

Jenna Johnson writes about Maryland politics, including the General Assembly, the administration of Gov. Martin O'Malley and the 2014 election.
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