A Row on the Row

Can campus Greeks get their house(s) in order? The U says 'yes,' but irritated neighbors aren't so sure.

Animal House, the comedic caricature of fraternity-sorority life, was one of 1978's highest grossing movies. It continues to be a popular video seller. And more than two decades later, vestiges of the film's outrageous portrayal of campus life taint the world of the Greeks, like splatters from a food fight.

The term "Animal House" is still applied as an accusatory catchword whenever transgressions of campus Greeks capture attention and offend sensibilities. Certainly the University of Utah has suffered its share of splatters. The sterling values on which the fraternity-sorority system was founded are occasionally diluted by outbreaks of excessive indulgence and community backlash.

At a recent installment of "Continuum Conversations," a periodic, magazine-sponsored forum that explores issues of campus interest, the topic was both cogent and provocative: "What Are Greeks Good For Today?"

After a temperate exchange of thoughts and opinions among panelists that belied the sometimes heated relations in recent years between University Greeks and their Greek Row neighbors, the answer seems to be: While there is surely a world of good in the Greek system, that world sorely needs a hard look and some bottom-line behavior modification.

On a balmy evening in May 1996, nearly 100 officers from five police agencies around Salt Lake City responded to a reported "riot" on Greek Row near the University.

The incident started when frat house partygoers failed to disperse, refusing to obey an order by University Police who were enforcing a city ordinance that stipulates a limit to the number of people allowed on a premises when alcohol is present.

Instead, students verbally assaulted the officers and threw things. While no one was seriously injured, the incident further damaged already strained relations between fraternities and sororities and their neighbors in the affluent Federal Heights area near Greek Row. Despite the best attempts of student leaders to mollify neighbors, complaints of litter, lewdness, and excessive noise and traffic continued to be filed with police and University officials after the May 1996 incident.

"Living in a flight path, you might be able to withstand 200 airplane passes directly over your house before that 201st time finally sets you off" is how Dean of Students Stayner Landward BS'70 MS'73 PhD'80 describes the cumulative process by which the neighbors said, "Enough is enough."

That moment arrived in July 1999, when 77 Federal Heights residents signed a petition and took it to City Hall. Believing the root of the trouble to be students' widespread abuse of alcohol, neighbors pleaded with Salt Lake City Council members to ban drinking in fraternity houses (sororities were already dry). They also hired an attorney and threatened a nuisance lawsuit against chapter houses. These actions had a sobering effect on the Greeks, who, if they wanted to remain active in campus life, were forced to rethink their identity and purpose.

"When other students have parties, I know that underage drinking takes place. But there's something about an out-of-hand Greek party that makes good copy."

The fraternal system at the U isn't alone in contemplating a moral regeneration and return to founding values. College fraternities nationwide are redefining themselves in the face of a public image associated with "Animal House" antics, alcohol- and hazing-related deaths, sexual assaults, sliding grades, and changing student demographics.

At Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, where more than half the student population is Greek-affiliated, the faculty, believing the system to be discriminatory and incapable of reform, passed a resolution urging withdrawal of recognition of the Greeks. The chief complaint was that the system creates divisions in the student body based on ethnicity and class.

Alive and Well at the U?
Things may have calmed down since the 1980s, but problems—both old and new—have flared again, even though fraternities and sororities today are bound by stricter rules and are more focused on social service.

Faculty and administrators at Utah, while concerned, haven't taken as hard a stance as Dartmouth's. Barbara Snyder, the University's vice president for student affairs and senior administrator for student organizations, believes there is hope for the future of fraternities and sororities.

Historically, she says, the Greeks have generated institutional and community loyalty and a collective spirit that is hard to come by at a public university with a large commuter population like the U.

"We have such a unique environment here," Snyder observes. "There are very few flagship universities in urban settings. Most of them are in smaller towns where the fraternities and sororities constitute some portion of social life. Here, the Greeks are uniquely poised to provide much more."

Snyder is disturbed about alcohol abuse, low grade point averages, and student retention, health, and safety. Until recently, citations for underage drinking, public intoxication, and other illegal activity on Greek Row were at record levels. In addition, grade point averages for Greeks are below the University average, although they have improved over the past 14 years.

At their best, however, Snyder believes the Greeks can make a greater effort to enhance service, philanthropy, scholarship, and student life. Many on campus agree.

"Lose the Greeks? It would be a big loss to the University," says John Ashton BS'66 JD'69, executive director of the Alumni Association. "Not only do Greek alumni dedicate countless hours to University and community service, but their institutional loyalty is generally very strong," he says. "Involved students go on to be dedicated alumni, whether they were active in student council, sports, the student newspaper, or the fraternal system."

Greek alumni have also been very generous to the University, says Scott Mietchen BS'84 MPA'91, a major gifts officer in the University's Development Office. "My sense is that many of our major donors were very involved in the Greek system," he says, "and as a result, they became more involved in the fabric of the University. Many of them talk about their Greek experience as one of the highlights of their University experience."

Mietchen is one of five individuals who sit on the national board of the Phi Delta Theta fraternity, the only dry fraternity on campus. He says he can attest to the "reckless acts of youth," and to the truth of many accusations leveled against Greeks.

But even at their worst, fraternities are irreplaceable when it comes to providing students leadership and management skills, and teaching them how to be responsible and work together, asserts Mietchen.

"The Greeks have been on campus 90 years. They are one of the oldest continuing student organizations on campus. The system has been here that long because it serves a purpose. And it will continue to serve that purpose for the next 150 years," he contends.

Dave Hancock believes the sense of community that Greeks provide their members is unique. "I can't think of another organization that provides that same sense of community to as many people," he says. Though they comprise only three percent of the student population, he thinks their good influence is disproportionate to their numbers.

Hancock isn't a Greek; he's editor-in-chief of The Daily Utah Chronicle. He's sympathetic to the extra responsibilities Greeks often must shoulder. "Other students on campus don't have the same obligations," he says.

"When other students have parties, I know that underage drinking takes place. But there's something about an out-of-hand Greek party that makes good copy," says Hancock. "Even when people are made aware of good things the Greeks do through the media or otherwise, they simply don't resonate with people like the bad stories."

Community service efforts rank high among the "good things" in Greek life. Ann Varanakis, past president of the Pi Beta Phi sorority and former president of the University's Panhellenic Council, says that last year alone, men's organizations raised more than $30,000 for philanthropic organizations. "This fall, in a matter of 15 weeks, the women did over 2,000 hours of community service," she points out, and maintains the effort is "unmatched by any organization on campus," including the Bennion Community Service Center.

Even more importantly, a Greek affiliation "helps students grow and learn and mature in ways they wouldn't have the opportunity to do otherwise," Varanakis says. "I will leave this University a much better person [because of my Greek experience], and I'm very thankful."

Another area of concern is a lack of ethnic diversity among the University's Greeks. Cherry Ridges BS'52, who retired in March after 28 years on campus as Greek adviser, says ethnic minorities are underrepresented on Greek Row, but not totally absent. "We have encouraged our chapter houses to up their efforts at diversifying," she says. "Nationally there are African American, Latino, gay, and lesbian fraternities organizing. None has approached the U, but the campus welcomes them."

An important consideration in "this period of individualism," notes Ridges, is that Greek life "requires committing yourself to the betterment of the group." And, she says, the discussions and activities in chapter houses "define the kind of quality intellectual exchange that can take place on campus."

"What we need is a realization that Greeks are clearly not all bad," asserts alumni director Ashton. "Some of our very best students and leaders come from the Greek environment. It's not a matter of eliminating the Greeks; it's a matter of finding ways to control bad behavior when it arises."

"What we need is a realization that Greeks are clearly not all bad."

Vice President Snyder concurs. "I think we have the microcosm for all good or all bad things to happen," she says, adding that the time is ripe for the Greeks to reposition themselves, and suggesting that steps be taken now "rather than wait for a tragedy to occur."

Family Feud
Disgruntled neighbors, however, aren't convinced the Greeks at the U are capable of the kind of changes necessary to assuage their concerns. The University's urban setting—which Snyder says gives Greeks their sticking power—can also be a detriment, considering Greek Row's proximity to family homes.

All but one of the U's eight fraternities and six sororities own a house on Wolcott Avenue and 100 South, a narrow border of two streets separating the University campus from the upscale, historic neighborhood of Federal Heights.

"You have a permanent built-in conflict," says Noel De Nevers, who has lived since 1963 in a house adjacent to the Sigma Chi fraternity. Although periods of relative harmony exist, he believes "there will never be lasting peace between the neighbors and fraternities."

De Nevers, a professor of chemical and fuels engineering at the U, has witnessed years of student antics, raucous parties, and disreputable behavior. He also remembers a day when open drinking wasn't allowed in fraternity houses and things were relatively quiet.

He recalls a different world in the early 1960s, when many students didn't own cars, alcoholic beverages were forbidden, and chaperones were required at social functions. Party drinking was surreptitious and the music of the period was less disruptive.

Bob Sanders BS'53, a fraternity alumnus who now lives in Federal Heights, has memories as well. Supervision took the form of housemothers and a dean of students, otherwise known as the "mean dean," he recalls. When Sanders was an active Greek in the 1950s, fellowship and brotherhood were the most important principles, he says. "There was drinking, but it was basically sneak drinking. And the University really took the role of your parent," he says, referring to the doctrine of in loco parentis (in place of parents) by which most universities of that era supervised students.

But the anti-establishment sentiment of the late 1960s and 1970s changed the way universities related to and governed their students, De Nevers says. In 1968 a U.S. Supreme Court decision also held that universities were not responsible for the behavior of students off campus. Now universities mostly take the posture that supervising means to support and to recommend or suggest.

Coincidentally, this anti-establishment sentiment also negatively affected the Greek system, says Torr Brush BS'96, a former Sigma Nu district representative. Frats, which were considered part of the establishment, "needed a way to attract new members," explains Brush, who pledged in the mid-1980s. He remembers few rules, except the rule of free alcohol.

The party-hardy image worked. In 1985 membership for U sororities reached an all-time high of 784 but dropped to 504 members in 1999. In the same period, fraternity membership peaked at 723 but now has dropped to 428.

The fraternities' national organizations and their Federal Heights neighbors were distressed by deteriorating behavior in the houses and alcohol abuse during the '80s.

All fraternities and sororities are governed by national organizations, and their alumni, who comprise the house corporations, generally own the fraternity houses. "The national organizations were beleaguered by lawsuits. It got so bad that not even Lloyds of London would insure fraternities," says Brush.

When the cost of liability insurance went up, so did dues, and house rules became more restrictive. Fraternities got together and established a risk management policy, along with programs on alcohol abuse, housing, health, and new-member education. By the early 1990s, all fraternities banned kegs and hazing. Nationally, Phi Delta Theta went dry, and Sigma Nu will soon follow suit.

"The U went above and beyond the call of duty to ensure compliance of the sororities and fraternities. But about three years ago the parties started again, and things got out of control."

The period of the mid-'80s to the mid-'90s also saw a change in fraternities' relations with their neighbors. During the '80s, the conflict between the two continued to grow, recalls Sanders, and culminated in a prolonged 1987 Salt Lake City Council debate over a proposed zoning change. "A committee of concerned neighbors asked the council to narrow the area where fraternities were permitted to reside and to institute behavioral rules," he says.

"The U went above and beyond the call of duty to ensure compliance of the sororities and fraternities. But about three years ago the parties started again, and things got out of control," Sanders notes. Frustrated by what they perceived to be the University's negligence and students' indifference, the neighbors continued to press for action.

Slow Taming of U Greeks
All interested parties sought to resolve the conflict outside the courtroom, and several closed-door meetings toward that end were held last summer.

Greek leaders agreed to a temporary ban of alcohol through the conclusion of Fall 1999 Rush Week. They also promised to ensure a more rigorous compliance with the 1987 city ordinance.

David Pershing, the University's senior vice president for academic affairs, sent a letter to fraternity presidents urging them to "seriously consider" going alcohol-free. But fraternities were hesitant to take such action, claiming members' rights as adults to govern themselves in the privacy of their own homes. The University was also loath to implement blanket policies or restrictions that might infringe upon the civil rights of students living off campus.

"We have no jurisdiction over a group of students living in private residences," says Dean of Students Landward. "We can't require them to go dry as the neighbors might like. What we can do is educate, influence, encourage, and make attractive at the national and local levels students going substance-free."

The University's stance is that the best measures are implemented from within the fraternal organizations, says Landward. "With a top-down directive, we have to police it. But with a bottom-up, there is buy-in from the beginning, eliminating much of the need for enforcement."

But that stance doesn't satisfy some neighbors who say that even if the U can't prevent students from drinking, it can deny a chapter recognition for gross negligence, illegal activity, or inappropriate behavior. Refusing to sanction a house, explains Landward, leaves the fraternity open to an eviction notice under zoning laws that restrict the number of unrelated individuals under the same roof to four.

He questions what would be gained by the University's use of this trump card. "If what we're trying to do is teach students to become good neighbors, what kind of lesson is a court battle?" he asks.

"We would like these individuals to be self-governing," says Vice President Snyder. "The Greek Judiciary is responsible for devising and implementing sanctions. When we see that's not happening, the institution has both an opportunity and an obligation to step in and help Greek alumni discipline students. We have every right within the student code of conduct to do that kind of thing."

The Greek Judiciary is composed of six students and five alumni, neighbors, or faculty. "They take their role seriously and have no compunction about doling out punishment and fines," says Jay Wilgus, Interfraternity Council president.

So far, says Snyder, students have effectively addressed neighbors' concerns, although the fraternities haven't agreed to go alcohol-free. But the Greek Council has instituted new behavioral guidelines and nearly doubled fines for breaking them. Since October, there have been no citations on Greek row.

Wilgus says the biggest challenge he faces is educating fraternities and sororities that a problem exists. "It's not a matter of governing. I think we govern ourselves just fine. It's a matter of education."

And that's a process that takes time and considerable effort.

—Kirsten Wille BA'92 MA'97 covers higher education for the Ogden Standard-Examiner.



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Copyright 2000 by The University of Utah Alumni Association