On the nation's college campuses, the return to the 1950s--the hair styles, the politics, the boozing--is in full swing. But at many colleges, the doors may be closing on the institution that for most people epitomizes a conservative campus life style--the fraternity house.
Armed with new charges of sexism, racism and even criminal activities, a number of universities from Harvard to California State University, Chico, are beginning to reevaluate and, in many cases, actually ban all-male, predominantly white social clubs from their campuses.
The latest major university to question the continued existence of fraternities is Stanford.
While the "troubles we are having here are somewhat unique . . . in many ways they are representative of what I expect may become a national trend of the 1980s," said James Lyons, Stanford's dean of student affairs.
Like other colleges that have taken action in one way or another against such groups during the last year or so, Stanford is considering severely restricting or even eliminating all fraternity houses from campus, not just the isolated bad apple. The reason: The traditions of fraternities--secrecy, exclusivity and all-too-frequent bouts of debauchery--have finally come into conflict not only with the goals of the university but with the values of the larger society.
On many campuses, administrators report, there has been a recent rise in complaints about wild drinking orgies and the abuse of underclassmen in dangerous hazing pranks, as well as harassment of women and minorities.
"Pranks not unlike what we have seen for years--only now they seem much more serious, much more vicious," one UCLA counselor remarked.
More Popular Than Ever
Ironically, the troubles facing fraternities are coming just as the popularity of these groups is reaching an all-time high. According to Jonathan J. Brant, executive director of the National Interfraternity Conference in Indianapolis, membership in all-male Greek societies stands at 250,000, compared with 150,000 in the early 1970s. Today's membership figure is double the 125,000 recorded in the early 1960s--a period generally regarded as the peak of fraternity popularity, Brant noted.
Anyone who has been on a college campus knows that run-ins between fraternity members and college administrators are nothing new, dating back nearly as far as the founding of the organizations in the early 19th Century.
For most fraternities, one of the worst periods started in the 1940s and continued through the 1960s when many individual chapters broke ranks either temporarily or permanently with national organizations over the admissibility of blacks. During the Vietnam War era, student apathy toward most traditional collegiate organizations also cut into fraternity numbers. While new chapters continued to be established, particularly in the South and West, membership in individual houses nationwide dropped by more than 30% between 1965 and 1972.
While some observers argue that the latest round of trouble is simply more of the same, many educators see a fundamental shift in attitude toward self-selective, all-male social organizations.
Said Diana Conklin, director of Stanford's fraternal housing system, "There is something about the white male, 'group mentality' that turns nice guys into jerks."
"And there is something about the 1980s," added Su Uhland, a Stanford graduate student, "that doesn't allow us to put up with it any longer."
Fraternity members themselves have taken strong exception to accusations that their organizations have become unwelcome anachronisms on campus. They argue that fraternities continue to promote such wholesome, old-fashioned values as "brotherhood" and "friendship," "freedom of choice" and "commitment to common goals," to say nothing of the connections they have with influential, well-heeled alumni.
Yet, many universities simply are not buying those arguments any longer.
- Just a few months ago, a Harvard University committee recommended that the college sever all ties with nine exclusive social clubs that refuse to break their 200-year-old tradition of not admitting women. The invitation-only clubs at Harvard had never been affiliated with national organizations, although they date back even further than national fraternities to 1791. That year, six friends gathered for an evening of ale and song and had such a good time they decided to start a private social club called "The Pig." Since that time, a number of others were established.
Rather than change such long-standing rituals, the clubs themselves decided in December to cut their ties with the university.
- At the University of California, Berkeley, tensions between fraternities and minority groups became so great that the chancellor had to step in and impose stiff restrictions on the Greeks, even though none of the organizations are housed on university property.
- At Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, the faculty voted to close down the fraternal system altogether in the wake of numerous nationally publicized excesses. Although the Dartmouth governing board did not go along with the faculty recommendation, the university has tried to work closely with its fraternities to substantially improve their standards of behavior.
- At Colby College in Maine, fraternities and sororities were expelled last spring after a long court battle on the grounds that they were discriminatory and harmful to campus social life.
- At Amherst College in central Massachusetts, the trustees voted to ban fraternities because of complaints of vandalism, sexism and anti-intellectual behavior. Fraternity members reacted by chanting obscenities, throwing food in the dining halls and hanging the college president in effigy.
Rites Turned Deadly
In some cases, fraternity activities have turned deadly.
The morning after an initiation party at the Omega Psi Phi fraternity at Tennessee State University, a 20-year-old member was found dead with five times more alcohol in his blood than is considered necessary to be legally intoxicated, according to the state medical examiner's ruling.
In California, a 20-year-old Belmont resident who was a fraternity member at Cal State Chico is currently standing trial on charges of murder for allegedly killing a pledge while drag racing near the Sacramento River.
Here at Stanford, there have yet to be any tragedies even though the university has had its share of problems. Numerous parties have gotten out of control, resulting in broken furniture, demolished water pipes and even a few roughed-up students. In one house, the police confiscated dozens of pieces of furniture allegedly stolen from various university departments. At other houses, a frequent afternoon pastime has been to sit on the roofs and either toss bicycles to the ground or comment loudly on the anatomy of female passers-by.
A football player from Zeta Psi was accused of assaulting as many as five different women at a recent Beta Theta Pi party. The student was suspended. His fraternity was also put on probation after a Mills College student was thrown into a pond and two pledges, one of them legally blind, were found bound and face-down in a manure-filled horse corral.
Just this year, three other houses have been put on probation or sharply reprimanded for their activities.
'It Is Worse' This Year
"I don't know if the behavior is worse this year or if people are just more sensitive to it," Stanford's Conklin said. "I think it is both. I think people are more sensitive to it-- and it is worse."
Conklin also noted that none of the campus's minority fraternities have had any serious problems. And the only difficulty faced by any of the sororities dates back to 1979 when a group of women temporarily disrupted the library by bursting into song.
Current problems notwithstanding, Stanford officials are quick to point out that the issue of women's rights provided the original impetus for reassessing the role of fraternities.
That issue was first raised a decade ago. Armed with a new federal anti-sex-discrimination regulation known as Title IX, a handful of Stanford female students went to the administration to complain that while men were allowed to live in fraternities, women were not even permitted to form their own social groups on campus.
In 1944, sororities had been banned at Stanford at the behest of dormitory and sorority advisers, who said that the existence of such organizations had become divisive and the competition to join vicious.
Despite fears that such problems might recur, the Stanford Board of Trustees--citing the inherent inequity of a policy that recognized male organizations but not female ones--officially reinstated sororities in 1977.
But the sororities do not have their own residences on campus, as 12 of the fraternities do, and this has caused the Stanford administration to question whether inequalities exist when it comes to providing student housing.
Student Residence Problem
For all its beauty--8,000 acres of rolling hills, palm trees, low Mediterranean-style buildings with red-tiled roofs, not to mention Western sun--the "Farm," as Stanford is affectionately known, has a student residence problem.
With room for only about 88% of the student body on campus, the university is forced to hold an annual room draw. Lucky students are placed in a variety of desirable living quarters, ranging from communal "theme" houses to new, apartment-like complexes. But others find themselves in mobile homes on campus or, worse yet, thrust into the tight, over-priced Palo Alto housing market.
This is not the case with most fraternity members, who not only get to choose the people with whom they live, but also are housed in some of the prime locations on campus.
Fearing that other groups may some day seek their "fair share" of housing similar to that enjoyed by the residential fraternities, Stanford has placed a moratorium on the formation of new residential groups while the university reviews its policy.
The existing system, which gives special housing privileges to "some students and denies them to others, is inherently inequitable and must be reconsidered," said Lyons, the dean of students.
When similar housing issues have been raised at other colleges, more times than not the fraternities have won the right to remain on campus, according to officials at several national fraternity organizations.
Largely because of pressure brought by the national organizations and powerful alumni, universities administrators have had to contend with the fact that Greek houses on many campuses are typically the property of the fraternity, not the university--and, therefore, somewhat outside the university's purview.
Campus-Wide Task Force
Faced with some of that same pressures at Stanford, where many of the fraternities own their own houses but not the land on which they are built, the university administration set up a campus-wide task force in the fall of 1983 to determine what, if anything, should be done about the situation.
Last spring, after six months of deliberation, the 18-member committee released a series of recommendations that stopped just short of calling for the abolition of fraternities. But some task force members said their proposals essentially undercut the very essence of the selective fraternal system. The committee said that no group should have the right to exclude members from campus housing simply on the basis of "subjective judgments," and moreover, that "all fraternal groups, whether all-male, all-female or coed, should have equal access to university resources."
In a letter to Dean Lyons, fraternity presidents reacted angrily to the committee's report, saying that "the task force has been hasty and incomplete in its efforts" and that it had overlooked the many positive aspects of fraternal life, not the least of which is the opportunity for students to find a niche in what might otherwise seem like a large and somewhat impersonal university.
Explained Mike Llerandi, president of Sigma Chi: "The reason we need to maintain fraternities on campus is that it helps you strike a balance throughout college--a balance between scholastic activities, athletics, extracurriculars and social aspects. . . . It offsets the pressures of academics. It's a way of sharing common experiences. It's a way of learning responsibility."
At least some fraternity members are confident of their future, noting that they have strong advocates among alumni as well as on the Board of Trustees. Indeed, many past and present members of the board, as well as many of the university's most generous contributors, have strong fraternal ties--a situation that even President Donald Kennedy admits he cannot overlook.
"People have given money to the university on the assumption that fraternities will have a continued existence here," Kennedy said. "We have moral commitments, if not legal ones."
Proposal Within Year
Within the next year or so, Kennedy expects to make a proposal to the board, based in part on what the dean of students urges him to do as well as what the task force called for.
According to Lyons, who will make the initial recommendation to the president, the question of continuing or abolishing fraternities at Stanford will be answered on the basis of educational and philosophical considerations, not just the trouble in which a handful of groups have found themselves in recent months.
"I don't see it in the cards to get rid of them completely," Lyons commented. Still, he said, fraternities pose some fundamental problems that cannot be ignored any longer.
"Appearances to the contrary, Stanford is a fundamentally egalitarian place--a university that takes students regardless of their social or ethnic background and regardless of their ability to pay.
"It is highly selective only on intellectual grounds. . . . When it comes to a fraternities, there is a growing concern among faculty today: Why in the hell did we have places like this at Stanford anyway? Aren't they fundamentally anti-intellectual, as well as being discriminatory?"
Explained Uhland, a graduate student who served on the task force: "One of Stanford's phobias is that it doesn't want to be like USC. What it comes down to in the end is that this is a university that wants to be taken seriously. . . . And it's hard to take seriously any university that is dominated by Greeks."