CHARLOTTESVILLE — The four freshmen walked the row of Greek houses, turning to go up the steps of a brick Colonial with white columns. As they shook hands with the Sigma Alpha Mu upperclassmen, who were bedecked in blazers and smiles, they began an annual rite of spring here at the University of Virginia: rush.
“It feels like we’re trick-or-treating,” Matt Epstein, 18, of Vienna said as the group made its first stop Thursday evening on a two-hour tour of fraternities.
Erik Roberts, who serves as president of the freshman class council, said he decided to take part in rush to seek a fraternal bond reminiscent of the close boyhood friendships that he shared with friends at summer camp.
“If I join a fraternity, it would be for the social experience, and I’d come out with guys that my children will one day call uncle,” said Roberts, 19, of Potomac. “I’ll decide to do it if I feel that there’s a group of guys that I couldn’t spend the next four years without.”
Epstein, Roberts and the two other freshmen joined hundreds of students participating in recruitment activities over the weekend at U-Va., which was officially rekindling Greek life just days after the administration lifted a campuswide ban on fraternities and sororities.
It was perhaps the first glimpse of normality in months for the groups, which have a rich foundation on campus but have weathered one of the most tumultuous periods in their history.
After Rolling Stone magazine published allegations — now discredited — of a gang rape at a campus fraternity in November, the Greek system came under attack, with Teresa A. Sullivan, the university’s president, describing “great sorrow, great rage” and “great determination” in a November letter to students announcing the Greek-system freeze. The ban affected almost one-third of the school’s 15,000 undergraduates.
On Monday, Jan. 12, Sullivan reinstated Phi Kappa Psi after a Charlottesville police investigation cleared the fraternity of any involvement in the sexual-assault allegations raised in the magazine article. But Sullivan nonetheless called on campus fraternities, under threat of continued suspension, to sign an updated agreement with the administration aimed at discouraging binge drinking and enhancing campus safety. All 31 U-Va. fraternities signed on to the new rules — Phi Psi was the first — though two houses did so under protest.
Rush activities could serve as a barometer of sorts, as some students remain uncertain about joining a fraternity scene that was closely scrutinized in media reports. Though fraternities have long been a part of the U-Va. social scene, they were publicly portrayed as central to a college culture of boozing, misogyny and sexual assault.
“We’re all not sure we want to join,” Epstein said. “We’re all pretty much on the fence.”
Gabe Maalouf, 19, of McLean said the idea of Greek life gone awry initially made him wary of trying to join a fraternity.
“I knew stuff like that happened in fraternities, but we tend to think it doesn’t happen where you are,” Maalouf said. “It definitely shook my confidence a bit.”
Epstein said he thinks that fraternities at U-Va. have been vindicated because the Rolling Stone account crumbled and because police cleared the house that had been implicated.
“Obviously the university treated it as a guilty-until-proven-innocent situation, which is unjust since a lot of the so-called acts turned out to be unfounded,” Epstein said. “If you’re educated on the matter, you know that a typical ‘fraternity brother’ is not synonymous with ‘gang rapist.’ ”
Ben Weinberg said he views membership in the Greek system as a way to institute cultural changes in the student body.
“One of the positive aspects of joining a fraternity at this time is that we would be able to be agents of change from the inside as opposed to the outside,” said Weinberg, 19, of Baltimore. “We would never want anything like this to happen to our family, so it would be great to be at the forefront to make sure this doesn’t happen to anyone else’s sisters or daughters while we are here at the university.”
After visiting Sigma Alpha Mu, the students continued on the tour before stopping at the Phi Psi house, where a fire warmed a living room crowded with prospective members.
The four students said that they had not ruled out considering Phi Psi during rush. But Maalouf said that his parents were concerned about the fraternity’s reputation, despite the police findings — a sign of lingering effects of the accusations.
“With all the recent events, their view of fraternities is not very high at the moment,” Maalouf said. “They worry about the impact it could have on my grades and my safety.”
Maalouf said he was partly motivated to join a fraternity to help prevent sexual assaults, by serving as an active bystander at house parties — one of the requirements of the new fraternal agreement with the school.
As the students walked past the stately fraternity houses, they talked about making good impressions on the brothers. They also had talked about the future of Greek life at the school and its role in addressing sexual assault on campus.
If the Rolling Stone article “had to be written about any school, I’d rather it be about U-Va., because now we are in a position where we can be leaders,” Weinberg said. “It makes it even harder for us to ignore the issue.”