The new millennium hasn’t been kind to the brothers of Lambda Phi Epsilon.
In recent years, the nationwide Asian fraternity has been linked to a fatal stabbing in San Jose, a drug raid in Riverside and gunplay in Texas.
With the death Aug. 30 of a 19-year-old pledge after a football game in Irvine -- a rough, no-pads, no helmets tackle contest for pledges -- the fraternity again finds itself in an unflattering spotlight.
The latest incident, which is being investigated by Irvine police as a possible hazing case, could also damage the reputation of other Asian fraternities, said Walter M. Kimbrough, a college president who has written about ethnic fraternities.
Media coverage of the San Jose and Irvine fatalities has provided the public’s first real exposure to Asian Greek organizations, Kimbrough said, and this could pose a public relations nightmare that could stall or sink the burgeoning movement.
Indeed, following the death of 19-year-old Kenny Luong of Rosemead in the football game, fellow pledges, some from Cal Poly Pomona who were rushing the UCI fraternity, swore off Greek life. They decided to launch a university community service club in their friend’s name instead.
Members of Lambda Phi Epsilon acknowledge that Luong’s death will make it tougher to recruit members this fall. But they insist it’s too soon to write off their group or other Asian fraternities.
“It’s going to affect all of us across the nation,” said Matt Sun, president of Lambda’s UC Santa Barbara chapter. “But we’ve been in this situation before [after the San Jose killing]. We’ve just gotta prove to people that our organization represents so much more than what happened.... It’s always the bad news that gets media attention, but we do countless service projects to help the university and community.”
None of this was envisioned by the students who founded Lambda Phi Epsilon in 1981 at UCLA.
“We were just a bunch of guys starting another fraternity,” said Neil Miyazaki, one of the original 19 members. “It wasn’t even expected to grow.”
The concept wasn’t original. Asian fraternities date back to 1916, said Kimbrough. But none caught on.
In another era, Lambda Phi Epsilon might have remained similarly obscure. But in the 1980s, with Asian enrollment climbing at California colleges -- and fraternities enjoying a renaissance inspired in part by the 1978 movie “Animal House” -- Lambda Phi Epsilon tapped into something larger.
Following the rise of black fraternities in the early 1900s, and Latino groups in the mid-1970s, Lambda Phi Epsilon helped inaugurate “a third wave of multicultural fraternities and sororities,” Kimbrough said.
By 1990, spinoff chapters were operating at six California universities and one in Texas. From there, the movement exploded. Today, the fraternity has 44 chapters across the U.S. and Canada, according to its website.
But that rapid growth set the stage for trouble.
Unlike older fraternities, Lambda Phi Epsilon chapters don’t answer to a centralized national office.
“It’s more like a federation of local fraternities,” said Sally Peterson, dean of students at UCI. When a traditional frat gets out of line, “we call the national office and they come in and really clean house,” she said.
Older fraternities, worried about possible lawsuits, have full-time staffs and impose strict policies to keep a lid on the potentially volatile Greek mixture of booze, youth and machismo.
Independent frats such as Lambda Phi Epsilon, which also doesn’t belong to UCI’s fraternity council, are typically harder to discipline, Peterson said.
That doesn’t mean they’re rowdy, however. UCI’s Lambda chapter, formed in 1989, had a clean slate before the fatal football game, she said: “That’s why this was such a shock to us.”
Lambda Phi Epsilon’s track record at other campuses is mixed.
In 2003, San Jose State University Lambdas were involved in a midnight melee that left one member fatally stabbed in the heart and several others hospitalized. Police said about 60 frat brothers faced off against rivals from Pi Alpha Phi, another Asian fraternity.
Part of the dispute revolved around which group was the first Asian fraternity to spread nationally.
Both frats, which had also clashed at UC Davis, were suspended by San Jose State. A warrant has been issued for a man who has never been caught, according to the San Jose Mercury News. Police said a “code of silence” among witnesses had made it tough to crack the case.
In 2002, police in Austin, Texas, arrested a Lambda member after he allegedly fired six shots at the frat house during a fight, according to the campus newspaper.
And Riverside police seized LSD, ecstasy and other drugs during a 2001 raid on Lambda’s house at UC Riverside, according to news reports. The chapter president, who police said sold drugs to an undercover cop, later pleaded guilty to possession of ecstasy.
Lambda members say such episodes are rare in the group’s 24-year history.
Indeed, on some campuses, the fraternity strives to defy stereotypical Greek life. “No one’s permitted to drink, no one’s permitted to smoke. We don’t believe in that at all,” a former Lambda officer told the Boston Globe in 2000, describing the group’s alcohol-free pledge process at Boston University.
Likewise, at Northwestern University outside Chicago, a Lambda chapter president told the campus paper that his group catered to Asians who “grow up with Christian ideals that don’t necessarily go with the image of drunken frats.”
He said the group’s No. 1 purpose was academics: “We don’t throw a lot of parties.”
UC Santa Barbara’s Sun said every chapter of the fraternity stressed charity work and community service.
But such efforts could be overshadowed by the publicity surrounding the San Jose stabbing, in which some experts compared the fraternity to a street gang, and the Irvine football death, said Kimbrough, president of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark.
“The average person knows zero about Asian groups,” he said. “I do presentations where I show photos of Asian fraternities, and people are completely shocked that they exist.”
Even social scientists haven’t really studied the phenomenon, he said.
“There has been no major introduction of Asian Greek life across the country,” Kimbrough said. So if the public’s initial impression is formed by stories of mayhem, “it could stall the movement,” Kimbrough predicted.
And because Lambda Phi Epsilon has no national office, “they don’t have anyone to put a media spin on such events,” he said.
Sun sounded a more optimistic note. He said people would eventually see past the negative incidents, which he called aberrations, and discover the fraternity’s many positive attributes.
But for now, the Irvine death is apparently hard to ignore. When asked if the news was affecting the Santa Barbara chapter’s plans for fall rush to recruit members, Sun declined to comment.