A Pledge to Bring Diversity to Frat Row : Colleges: USC is among the schools introducing programs focusing on cultural differences in hopes of improving race relations.


When Tyrone Ferguson strolled into a USC fraternity party recently, he expected the usual banter, beer and ear-shattering music. He did not expect to see a number of African-American students--some of whom belong to Greek organizations--among the 200-plus party-goers.

"There aren't very many blacks on the Row, and at first I thought it was cool and was very happy to see such a mixture there," said Ferguson, who belongs to another USC fraternity and is the only black in his house.

But about 2 a.m., Ferguson's elation changed to distress when a brawl broke out among black and white students. Witnesses say that some white students yelled racial slurs. Campus security had to break up the fight, and the university Office of Student Conduct is investigating the incident.

Although it is unclear who was responsible for the epithets, Ferguson and an administration official who is an "adviser to Greek life" showed up a week later at the fraternity house where the party was held to talk about racism.

Ferguson's "house call" was not made on a whim. He is the founder of USC's Diversity Encouragement program, and the visit was part of his job.

The 24-year-old junior founded the program in fall, 1989, in an attempt to raise racial consciousness on Fraternity Row; the university officially adopted his program last year. Each fraternity and sorority at USC has been asked to appoint a race-relations chairperson to look out for minority pledges, a talk on race relations is given at each house every semester and if racial incidents occur at any of the houses, Diversity Encouragement sends speakers to sort things out.

Said Ferguson: "The reason I targeted the Greek system is because they are a captive audience. They meet in their houses every Monday night. (The university) deals with racism through (the Office of) Student Conduct, but even that was on an individual level and is after the fact. . . . They're not dealing with preventive work."

Across the country, programs that focus on cultural diversity are being introduced into largely Anglo fraternities and sororities in the hope of improving race relations on campus.

More than 20 colleges contacted by The Times--USC, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara, University of Mississippi, University of Illinois at Champaign, University of Pennsylvania and the University of Texas at Austin among them--said their Greek organizations are sponsoring lectures, athletic games, performances, community services and workshops designed to combat racism.

"There are fundamental reasons for (diversity programs) becoming a trend," said Jonathan Brant, executive vice president of the National Interfraternity Conference, a confederation of 62 college fraternities with 5,300 chapters on 800 campuses. "From what I read, there is an increase in race crimes on campuses.

"Another reason is there are more students of color on college campuses than ever before, and with that increasing number of minorities, their needs must be met," said Brant.

"The primary reason we are doing this is because it's the right thing," he said. "We developed a booklet of different programs (started at universities and colleges) and sent it out to fraternity advisers at universities. The dynamic of peer pressure is powerful, and we are trying to capture it in a positive manner."

The NIC, the Panhellenic Conference and the National Pan-Hellenic Council (black Greek organizations), met for the first time last year, proclaimed a week in February "A Greek Celebration of Diversity" and urged their respective chapters to do likewise.

One of most ambitious Greek programs is the University of Illinois' Ebony to Ivory. Started in 1987 by members of a traditionally white fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon, and a traditionally black fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, the program sponsors a series of lectures and workshops on racism every year. Purdue and Penn State have similar programs.

Rick Johnson, 22, president of Sigma Phi Epsilon and chairman of this year's Ebony to Ivory, said Illinois Greeks raised $32,000 from student cultural groups, alumni organizations and university departments to put on a weeklong lecture series and entertainment program last month.

"This is a vanguard," Johnson continued. "This is the future of fraternities. We want it to be yearlong, but we don't want it to be 'administrativ-ized.' It has to stay in the hands of the students. I am a Mexican American and president of my house, and I don't think it's too much to think that in the future a third of all houses will be multicultural. I don't think they will survive unless they (are)."

At the University of Pennsylvania, a program called Campus Organized Lectures on Racial Sensitivity--COLORS--was founded by Greeks three years ago after one campus fraternity hired black female strippers for a rush party. That incident, along with a growing trend of racial epithets and swastikas on dormitory walls, sparked a vehement protest by African-American students in 1988.

"It was in the context of this tumultuous year (1988-89) and the Greeks' exclusivity that COLORS came to be," said Roberto Vargas III, a member of one of the founding fraternities, Alpha Phi Alpha.

A three-day lecture series on racism, COLORS includes skits about institutional racism on campus and a student variety show.

Five years ago, a handful of fraternity members at UC Santa Barbara founded Greeks for Racial Awareness and Cultural Education, or GRACE.

Adopted by several other universities, the program seeks to educate fraternity and sorority members about racism and cultural diversity using student-produced videos, said Patrick Naessens, a university adviser to Greek Life. Some fraternity and sorority members become "race educators and cultural awareness promoters" for their houses, arranging "cultural awareness weeks" for various ethnicities throughout the year.

The videos show what it's like to be a minority on a predominantly white campus. "I see an increase of the men and women who are students of color going through rush over the last three years," said Naessens, who believes that increase attests to the program's effectiveness.

Greeks at UC Berkeley have also adopted a GRACE program. In addition, an Ethnic Diversity Committee composed of Greeks has been encouraging students of different backgrounds to rush since 1986, said Mark Gelsinger, a university Greek adviser.

"There are no statistics," Gelsinger said. "But my gut instinct is yeah, there are more minorities rushing. I've seen a trickle of disabled students who have rushed in the last couple of years. A few deaf students and a few students in wheelchairs."

Not everyone believes the programs are useful.

Some African-American students at USC reacted with skepticism when asked about the Diversity Encouragement program.

"I think it's a joke," said Nicole Rivas, 20, who is not involved in Greek organizations. "The Greeks aren't very friendly. They constantly (throw theme parties) that alienate non-white people.

"I don't think encouraging blacks to join their houses is going to solve the problem among the Greeks," she said. "The kind of blacks they'd recruit would sit through a racial joke and not say anything."

Elise Jackson, 21, added: "I've never had a positive experience--I went through rush two years ago and I was the only black girl in the house. Some people wanted me and others didn't, and I could feel it. I just couldn't take it. I left a month later."

Other critics wonder if these programs are simply superficial.

"In some cases (a program) is just lip service," said Bertice Berry, an African-American lecturer who lectures on racism, sexism and homophobia at fraternities and sororities. But at least such programs acknowledge a problem, she added.

Greeks "need the opportunity to change. This is new for them. It's like the Alcoholics Anonymous program--the first step is recognizing the problem. . . . ' You have these white organizations that have not been admitting ethnicities for a billion years, and now they aren't doing that anymore and they wonder why (those students) won't come. It takes time."

Alex Norman, an associate professor in the graduate school of social welfare at UCLA who conducts research and consults in intergroup relations, said, "I think the most important thing about these programs is it brings peers together under the pressure of opening up to understanding other groups. Peer power is much more valuable and powerful than administrative power.

"These programs allow people to test stereotypes or beliefs about ethnicities but, to be successful, they have to be sustained over a long period of time."

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