‘Animal Houses’ Try to Sober Up


It’s Friday night on Fraternity Row, and one house’s boisterous beer bash has a line of revelers snaking out onto the front lawn. At the Sigma Nu house next door, the young men prepare for an evening’s entertainment of a quieter sort: playing video games, munching on chips and downing all the sodas they can drink.

Don’t think for a minute that the 31 members of the Sigma Nu chapter are teetotalers. As one boasts with an impish grin: “We get wasted.”

They just don’t do it at home, anymore.

Their stately red-brick house has gone “dry,” making it one of the beachheads of a campaign to change the lifestyle of an American fraternity system awash in a sea of suds.


A fledgling temperance movement is knocking on the Animal House door, arising from a renewed commitment to quell hazing, vandalism, date rape and other misbehavior associated with binge drinking.

Fraternities have seen scandals and crackdowns in the past. But this one is different: It springs largely from Greek-letter organizations themselves. Their leaders and alumni have been sobered up by the cost of house repairs, insurance premiums and the lawsuits that result when things go dreadfully wrong.

They also talk wistfully of returning to the high ideals of their founding fathers: scholarship, leadership and public service.

“We think that the climate of the whole fraternity community will be dramatically different by the year 2000,” said Mo Littlefield, national director of Sigma Nu.

To date, only a few dozen of the 5,700 fraternity chapters at colleges in North America have become “substance free,” meaning no booze, drugs or smoking on the premises.

But hundreds are poised to follow.

Leading the charge is Sigma Nu’s national headquarters at Virginia Military Institute, which has persuaded 26 of its 210 chapters to go alcohol-free. Most are newly formed chapters or ones reopened as dry houses after a history of troubles--as was the case at UC Berkeley.


“We are in the process of committing ourselves to being totally alcohol-free by the year 2000,” said Littlefield. “We will be making that announcement pretty soon to our chapters.”

A second national fraternity, Phi Delta Theta, recently adopted a similar no-alcohol resolution requiring its 180 chapters to fall in line by July 2000. Although none of the other 61 national fraternity headquarters has gone that far, a third of them are considering steps toward sobriety.

At a scattering of campuses--such as Washington State and the universities of Colorado, Montana and Oklahoma--all the fraternities have agreed to ban booze from house parties.

“It’s really a battle to change the drinking culture. . . . It’s frightening how pervasive it is,” said Jonathan Brant, executive vice president of the National Interfraternity Conference.

Indeed, not all frat brothers are ready to embrace the new morality.

“We like to have parties with the girls,” said Tom Lavia, president of Berkeley’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter, Sigma Nu’s next-door neighbor. “Girls like to drink too. They aren’t going to come over and hang out and play Twister.”

The temperance movement also has met with resistance--starting with wild underground parties--at some supposedly dry frats.


But the impetus for change is powerful, often fueled by hijinks that turned tragic. Some incidents are kept quiet, as when a female student was branded by a fraternity at conservative Pepperdine University in Malibu. But others bring headlines. During this school year:

* At a fraternity initiation at Texas A&M; University, a pledge was lifted off his feet by the waistband of his underwear, a “wedgie,” rupturing a testicle that had to be surgically removed.

* A University of Georgia running back was paddled so vigorously during a midnight fraternity rite that he ended up in the emergency room.

* A 17-year-old died at Clarkson University in New York after joining in a Theta Chi “bid night” ritual in which pledges chugged tequila and Southern Comfort until they vomited. The teenager did, and choked to death.

Such horrors have always been around, fraternity leaders point out, as young men get their first chance to cut loose from their parents and taste a vodka Collins. Going back decades, some colleges gave up and simply abolished frats.

These days, though, overall fraternity membership is on the rise. And with surveys showing students more serious-minded than ever--preoccupied with uncertain job prospects, among other things--the question seems a natural: Might there be a less drastic remedy?


An Awkward Time at Berkeley’s Sigma Nu

Going cold turkey sometimes has been a shaky experience for occupants of the Sigma Nu house, built in 1921 on the edge of the Berkeley campus.

The chapter used to compete with its neighbors for the title of wildest party host. Older members regularly threw garbage, food or worse around the house--just so they could order the pledges to clean up the mess. The place had an unshakable sour smell.

“This was a house full of broken windows and broken promises,” said Bob Tuck, the alumni president who literally cleaned house.

Not only did Tuck and other alums give all active members the boot last year, they spent nine months and $225,000 repairing walls and windows, and replacing broken doors and carpets, sticky from spilled beer and vomit.

Mason Bancroft marvels at the transformation. A pledge last year under the rowdy crowd, he was invited back by the alums to be president of the dried-out house.

At first, the 22-year-old philosophy major was unsure about the “substance free” rules and what he was getting into. Would the house attract only “geeks and nerds”?


But recruiting went well, he said, filling the frat with jocks on the crew team and other “regular guys” drawn to a tamer house.

Bancroft now endorses separating booze from the bedroom.

“There are plenty of bars right down the hill,” he said. “When I go out and drink too much, I come home and go to sleep. . . . There’s nobody here getting drunk, getting belligerent and breaking things.”

Still, it can be lonely in the vanguard of change.

It has been awkward for the Sigma Nus when alumni drop by after football games and are told they cannot hoist a beer for old times’ sake. Or when Sigma Nu brothers from UCLA or USC arrive in Winnebagos laden with party supplies. Or when members of rival fraternities hurl taunts at them--and beer cans at their doorstep.

Then there is the matter of female students. Sororities traditionally have been alcohol-free. So they regularly pair with fraternities for mixers where the drinks flow as freely as the pickup lines.

A breakthrough came in February when Sigma Nu joined with a sorority to co-host a dance party at a trendy club in San Francisco. Rented buses swept 350 invited guests across the San Francisco Bay Bridge to the nightspot that featured two bands, a disc jockey and a cash bar.

Sigma Nu social chairman Joe Devaty became a hero to his brothers for restoring their reputation as normal guys, despite the no-booze policy. “I’ve had people say to me, ‘You guys are really smart for throwing a party at a club and keeping your house clean.”


Drinking Parties Go Underground

Before the Sigma Nu crowd gets too confident about their victory over demon rum, they might check places that tried it before.

At the University of Colorado at Boulder, fraternity presidents voted overwhelmingly in September 1995 to ban alcohol from house parties.

The decision came after a string of incidents: a reported gang rape of a 19-year-old at Delta Sigma Chi; brain damage to a student punched in the face at another frat’s party; and the death of freshman Amanda MacDonald, who was “roof surfing” atop a car when a drunk fraternity man lost control at the wheel.

What happened after they laid down the law?

Underground parties. So many, in fact, that Greek leaders decided a few weeks ago to retreat from the alcohol ban and restore an old set of rules that allow parties--but are designed to keep them under control.

“When the [alcohol ban] was first passed, a lot of students felt forced into it,” explained Thomas Lorz, a university liaison with fraternities. “Now students are saying, ‘We could not make those changes all at once.’ ”

The backsliding sounds familiar to Richard McKaig, dean of students at Indiana University, where the Alpha Tau Omega chapter went “substance free” 3 1/2 years ago after a pledge was hospitalized for alcohol poisoning.


Since then, enthusiasm among ATO members has steadily eroded. He blames peer pressure in a culture based on booze.

“The first year, it was a mark of distinction and pride,” McKaig said. “The second year, it wasn’t their idea. And in the third year, it became a burden.”

McKaig is also director of the Center for the Study of the College Fraternity, which recently reported that alcohol abuse and hazing remain pervasive.

After spending months at four frats, researchers described a self-styled “elite” who believe, “We can do whatever we want, as long as no one beyond the group knows or is directly affected.”

Then there are the stats compiled by the National Interfraternity Conference, a clearinghouse for the 63 national groups.

While 45% of college men unaffiliated with frats are likely to engage in binge drinking, the figure rises to 86% for men living in fraternities. Of 110 gang rapes reported on campuses in a seven-year period, 80% occurred at frat functions.


The misbehavior extends into the classroom. One study found that fraternity members admitted “significantly more cheating” than non-members. And joining a frat during the first year of college has “a significant negative impact on a student’s cognitive development,” another study concluded.

It’s not easy to change this whole frat culture--as the University of Colorado can attest.

Even easing up on the no-booze rule for parties did not bring peace to the Boulder campus. Not long ago, when firetrucks responded to a false alarm at an Alpha Tau Omega party, drunk students pelted firefighters with beer cans and climbed all over their trucks. Police responded by cracking down on wild parties. On one Saturday night last month, officers cited 84 minors for underage drinking and seized 61 cases of beer.

All this just 18 months after the frats adopted their drinking ban.

Membership Revives After ‘Animal House’

Sigma Nu was founded in 1869, an era when fraternities were being started at campuses around America to foster leadership, citizenship and Christian ethics. With higher education still largely for the wealthy, frat houses also served a practical purpose as places to live and eat.

Their ranks swelled after World War II, as a wider cross-section of American men headed off to college aided by the GI Bill. But many campuses began to have second thoughts about the fraternity system because of concerns about exclusivity and the evolution of frat houses into places to party without much self-policing.

“National Lampoon’s Animal House,” set in the early 1960s, based much of its humor on mocking the stodgy traditional frats, an attitude that became prevalent in that counterculture decade. Frat membership bottomed out in 1972, at 149,000 nationally.

But “Animal House” hit movie theaters in 1978 and wound up helping to revive the frat system by glorifying the rebellious drinking culture. Membership began a steady climb--to 400,000 at latest count--setting the stage for a confrontation.


The 1980s spawned public outrage over drunk driving, compelling many states to raise the drinking age to 21, meaning more than half of college fraternity members suddenly were too young to drink lawfully. At the same time, an anti-hazing crusade was being waged by Eileen Stevens, whose son died at Alfred University in New York after he was locked in a car trunk and told he wouldn’t be released until he drank a pint of Jack Daniels, a six-pack of beer and wine.

“So many people think these are isolated incidents,” said Stevens, a Sayville, N.Y., homemaker before she began crisscrossing the country to push for sensible behavior by frats. “It’s treated like college pranks--’Boys will be boys’--when, in fact, it has broken families.”

Lawsuits Lead to New Rules

Another cultural force came into play: litigation mania. Consider “Animal House” from the perspective of a personal injury lawyer.

Why not go after the guys who left the dead horse in the dean’s office? Or “Pinto” (Tom Hulse) for sleeping with the mayor’s 14-year-old daughter? Or “Bluto” (John Belushi) for leaving all those broken cars and bodies in the wake of his vehicular assault on the city parade?

Such concerns are not the stuff of fiction for real fraternity leaders. These days they spend a third of their budgets on insurance and legal costs. For Kappa Alpha Psi, those recently included a $2.25-million settlement at Southeastern Missouri State University, where a pledge died of a brain hemorrhage after he was slammed to the ground.

“Fraternities are put in a position that the thoughtless action of one member could cause all of the resources to be drained,” said Brant of the National Interfraternity Conference.


In a review of 1,200 claims against fraternities from 1987 to 1995, an insurance brokerage found that “alcohol was involved in 90% of all claims, whether they be falls from roofs, sexual abuse or automobile accidents.”

What’s more, claims filed against fraternity chapters invariably name their national organizations. “They are seen as a deeper pocket than a bunch of college kids living in a fraternity,” said attorney Gary E. Powell, associate editor of the Fraternal Law newsletter.

The trend has been fortified by court rulings that brush aside the argument that fraternity chapters are autonomous from their national organizations. The rulings, Powell said, have delivered the nationals a message: “You know these problems take place and should have taken steps to correct them.”

In 1987, national leaders formed the Fraternity Insurance Purchasing Group to give them buying leverage and devise a strategy to lower their risk. Today, nearly three out of four fraternities have adopted the group’s “risk management plan,” which dramatically changes the way they host parties.

Among the policies: No beer kegs, because they encourage binge drinking. No open parties. All functions should have a guest list, with bouncers at the door checking IDs and stamping the hands of minors to prevent underage drinking. Serve food and nonalcoholic beverages when serving harder stuff. All recruiting activities--rushing--should be alcohol free.

The catch is, someone has to enforce such rules. And frat members still are not the best at self-policing. So as alcohol-related embarrassments continued, the National Interfraternity Conference began suggesting a stronger approach--dry houses. A year ago, it formed a Substance-Free Housing Task Force.


“When individuals or chapters don’t act consistently with our values,” the nation’s leading fraternity group explained, “it is our responsibility to confront them.”

Pepperdine Impressed With Reform Efforts

It was approaching midnight and the “choirboys” of Lambda Omega Sigma at Pepperdine were engaged in a classic ritual.

Sitting in a circle, the solemn young men passed around a rough-hewn wood mask, dubbed the “Teek,” a woman’s pink garter around its neck.

One playfully snapped the garter. Another bounced the hunk of dark wood in his hands like a hot potato before passing it along.

The Teek made three passes around the circle before a bashful, bespectacled young man held on to it and shared his secret--the whole idea of the ritual. He had asked his girlfriend to marry him.

As he divulged the details, one fraternity brother gently removed the glasses from his face. Another yanked him from his chair and wrestled him to the floor. Soon all the brothers were piling on him, like football players on a fumble.


Just as quickly, however, the writhing pile untangled itself. The young men returned to their seats and bowed their heads in prayer.

“Dear Heavenly Father, thank you for a great fraternity brother,” a red-headed fellow began. “We give him a hard time, but he knows we wish him a loving relationship with his fiancee.”

Such wholesome fun is what one expects at Pepperdine, a campus with evangelical Christian roots that banned dancing until 1988 and where alcohol is still taboo. The frats here are basically social clubs, without their own houses.

But here, too, they are changing. Though the campus has had frats for decades, they have been independents. Now school officials are insisting that all six affiliate with national frats.

The reason? Teetotaling Pepperdine is impressed with the reform movement among the nationals.

“The national Greeks have taken the lead on tackling substance abuse, hazing,” said Bob White, Pepperdine’s associate dean of students. “We thought the national organizations could help us with those problems. We needed people who would work from inside.”


The impetus for the change came from a variety of incidents, including reports of drinking and hazing. Then there was the time a few years back when a “little sister” joined 13 fraternity brothers in a branding ritual. Though the student volunteered to have the frat’s Greek letters seared into her upper arm, administrators learned of the episode when her wound got infected. That frat was disbanded.

Now the requirement that all link up with nationals means that the surviving frats will have to change their Greek-letter names, traditions, rituals.

That irked the earnest Lambdas, who were nicknamed the “choirboys” for winning an annual songfest. They felt better after shopping for a national and finding Psi Upsilon, which seems dedicated to the spirit of public service that marked frats a century ago.

Still, the Lambdas will no longer be the Lambdas and they do not know which rituals they will have to forsake, perhaps the Teek passing or the one that followed: the brothers slipped into the night to initiate several new pledges by riding large blocks of ice down Pepperdine’s magnificent main lawn that plunges toward the Pacific.

It’s the sort of image that national fraternity leaders hope to see spread as houses elsewhere give up bad boy habits. But they know that’s hardly the rule yet.

Except for a Christian fraternity, none at UCLA or USC have joined the rush to dryness. Phi Kappa Sigma plans to open a beer-less house at UCLA in the fall, though, and both campuses have affiliates of the nationals--Sigma Nu or Phi Delta Theta--calling for alcohol-free houses by the year 2000.


“Progress has been a snail’s pace,” said Littlefield, Sigma Nu’s national director. “But we’re committed.”


Going Dry

Two of the nation’s oldest and largest fraternities--Phi Delta Theta and Sigma Nu--have decided that all of their houses will go alcohol-free by mid-2000. Their California chapters:

Phi Delta Theta



UC Berkeley

UC Davis

UC Irvine

UC Riverside

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

Cal State Northridge

Cal State Sacramento

San Jose State

Sonoma State

U. of the Pacific

University of La Verne

Sigma Nu




UC Berkeley

UC Irvine

UC San Diego

UC Santa Barbara


San Jose State

San Diego State

Cal State Chico

Cal State Fresno

Cal State Fullerton

Cal State L.A.

Cal State Long Beach

Cal Poly Pomona

Cal State San Bernardino

Cal Poly San Luis Obispo

Note: Not all chapters have houses.

Source: Phi Delta Theta and Sigma Nu national fraternities