The party’s over

Rani Gupta

When Matthew Levin arrived on Northwestern’s campus in 1991, he said the Greek scene was like something out of a bad movie.

“We had all types of alcohol, all the time, all over campus,” said Levin, former Interfraternity Council President and Weinberg ’95. “There were kegs in the houses every day and parties all the time. There was hard liquor everywhere. It was pretty much a free-for-all. We even used to have specific parties for specific types of drinks.”

But since Levin’s time, the Greek system has dried up and calmed down, as wet fraternities leave campus and dry chapters come back.

Although fraternities are as strong in numbers as ever, some say the push toward a substance-free system has changed students’ perspective of fraternities and endangers students by forcing them to go to unsupervised off-campus parties.

recent history

In the past seven years, five wet fraternity chapters have left NU. In the past four years, five dry fraternities have recolonized or established chapters in their places. The last fraternity to colonize allowing alcohol in its house, Sigma Phi Epsilon, came to campus in 1990.

That trend likely will continue because of a university policy that gives preference to fraternities that want to establish substance-free housing, Vice President for Student Affairs William Banis said.

Beta Theta Pi and Pi Kappa Alpha both left campus as wet houses and went dry upon their return. Chapters that currently are suspended, such as Sigma Chi and Delta Kappa Epsilon, probably will have to come back to campus with substance-free housing as well, Banis said.

“I think in all probability that would be our preference, especially (considering) the history of some of them and how they closed their chapters at Northwestern,” Banis said.

In addition, seven wet chapters have gone dry in the past three years, leaving only five fraternities at NU that allow alcohol in their houses. One of these chapters, Delta Tau Delta, is currently under probation.

national trends

For the university, part of the motivation behind substance-free housing is to prevent lawsuits stemming from alcohol-related incidents.

“The university is put into a position where they have to do things like this because more kids on campuses are having alcohol problems, and these parents can file a report not only against the the fraternity but against the university,” Chi Psi President Louis Provost said.

Banis said that in the past, NU has been in danger of “criminal action” stemming from fraternity-related events.

NU is following the lead of national fraternities, which are advocating dry housing to reduce insurance costs and their legal liability, Banis said.

Sean Thomas, associate director of Greek affairs, said fraternity insurance costs have skyrocketed in recent years. Sorority insurance runs about $25 per member, while fraternity insurance costs about $100 per member, Thomas said.

Matt Hamill, Delta Chi’s national director of chapter development, said the fraternity supports substance-free housing because it reduces the organization’s fiscal responsibility.

“Ninety percent of our claims are alcohol-related,” he said. “If you can eliminate a high percentage of your claims by merely being alcohol-free, that’s a tremendous advantage from a liability standpoint.”

Thomas said the movement also represents an effort to improve the reputations of fraternities and sororities. Most fraternity systems, including NU’s, started out dry, but the policy declined starting in the 1960s, he said.

“There’s been a real national trend to get fraternities and sororities back to their founding principles,” Thomas said.

going off campus

Although dry chapters are not allowed to have alcohol in their houses, they still can hold events with alcohol off campus.

“Many Greek houses on campus participate in alcoholic events,” said Provost, a Weinberg junior. “All that really changes is the details of where people drink.”

The typical wet fraternity, hampered by the $500 to $800 cost of a major party, can afford to throw only about two big parties each year.

The limited number of on-campus alcoholic parties has driven many fraternity celebrations to their members’ apartments – and farther away from the university’s scrutiny.

Many said the trend toward substance-free housing would not have prevented some of the most high-profile fraternity-related incidents. The 1997 deaths of two freshmen pledges from alcohol poisoning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Louisiana State University both occurred at off-campus parties. And last year, NU suspended DKE after two pledges were sent to the hospital with alcohol poisoning following a party that took place in the apartment of a senior fraternity member.

“I don’t think this necessarily makes fraternities more responsible,” Provost said. “Just because a fraternity goes dry, it doesn’t mean they don’t drink – it just means they don’t drink in their fraternity.”

Banis said he is “concerned” about the increasing number of off-campus parties. He said members of his staff are assessing activities during the fall and early winter to see if more rush activities are moving off campus, and their findings could change policy for next fall.

Not only does dry housing ignore – and possibly increase – the problem of off-campus parties, but many fraternity members also question whether alcohol-free houses are a solution to alcohol abuse.

“I think the university has to be realistic,” Provost said. “If they really want to curb binge drinking … and all the attributes that go along with that, like sexual harassment and sexual assault, making fraternities go dry doesn’t really change that. It just focuses on an attribute of the problem.”

Zeta Beta Tau President Frank Newell said fraternities can remain wet and safe as long as they plan their events responsibly.

“As long as a wet house abides by common-sense risk-management policies, no major problems should arise,” said Newell, a Weinberg junior.

‘a change in attitude’

Although fraternities’ off-campus events still can have alcohol, on-campus alcohol-related activities are sure to decline. And administrators say that trend has increased recruitment numbers across the country.

“There’s been overwhelming evidence that it’s doing nothing more than helping,” Thomas said.

But the transition to substance-free housing has not been easy for some fraternities, like Phi Delta Theta, which NU ordered dry in 1998.

“It wasn’t the easiest thing for Phi Delt to do,” Phi Delt President Jamie Salvatori said. “A lot of people still wanted to drink in the house, including people who are 21. Convincing people it’s the right thing to do isn’t easy when there are seniors who are 21 who have been living in a wet house.

“When your actual chapter house goes dry, your entire fraternity house goes through a change in attitude.”

Phi Delt now is one of NU’s largest fraternities, rushing the second-largest pledge class last year and holding popular dry parties.

“With a lot of houses, the alcohol is the event,” said Salvatori, a McCormick senior. “So we have to be more creative, like when we did the foam parties the last two years.”

Delta Chi’s Hamill said that in addition to decreased legal risks, substance-free chapters benefit from cleaner houses, lower repair costs, increased alumni participation and better academic records.

“It carries over into a ripple effect into other areas,” Hamill said. “For alumni coming back, the last thing they want is their feet sticking to the floor.”

alumni donations

These positive effects are encouraging signs for NU administrators, who say they want to maintain strong fraternities and sororities despite speculation to the contrary.

“There seems to be this conspiracy theory floating about that the university is trying to do away with the Greek system,” Banis said. “Our Greek system is one of the largest in the nation. Most schools have maybe 8 (percent) to 12 percent of the students involved in fraternities and sororities in terms of the percentage of students who are Greek. W
e have a third. … If you look at the information, the data and the action, we provide a lot of support.”

Banis said NU encourages Greek membership because undergraduates in fraternities and sororities generally seek involvement in other campus groups.

“If you take a look at the leadership among students at Northwestern, a high percentage of them come from the Greek system,” he said. “Our Greeks contribute enormously to Northwestern and to the broader community.”

Nationwide studies show that this involvement at the undergraduate level benefits the university later on in the form of alumni donations.

A 1997 study at the University of Missouri-Columbia found that Greeks gave significantly more than non-Greeks to their alma mater.

And a conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University showed a positive correlation between the percentage of students in the Greek system and the rate of alumni giving.

Fraternity and sorority involvement proved more significant to alumni giving rates than other student life factors, including the success of the athletic program, said Steven Peterson, an associate economics professor at Virginia Commonwealth.

“Even after controlling for (other variables), we still find a very significant effect for the Greek factor,” Peterson said. “The Greek connection is always there because of the strong connections between graduated Greeks and chapters still on campus. What you’re doing (by donating) is maintaining that tie.”

Banis said many of the university’s trustees were in fraternities and sororities. And Tim Case, executive director of annual giving, said NU’s Greek alumni are more active in volunteering for university committees and are more likely to come to reunions.

Ed Forester, Business ’51, holds his fraternity membership partially responsible for his continued involvement with the university. Forester attends basketball and football games with other Sigma Nu alumni and has made donations to the school.

“I think so many of (us) remain so active at the university level because of the closeness you have with the fraternity that was part of the school,” he said.

a temporary solution?

With the university committed to maintaining strong fraternities, some are predicting the alcohol-free trend will continue until all chapters on campus are dry.

“I think the system will eventually go dry completely through IFC the way it went through (Panhellenic Association) for the sororities,” Kappa Sigma President James Finley said.

But others, including some key administrators, said that if fraternities improve their behavior, wet houses could find their way to campus again.

“I was given a proposal to make the colonization policy absolutely substance-free, and I wanted to allow it to stand as it is to give us some more flexibility,” Banis said.

Beta President Bassel Korkor said he views substance-free housing as a self-imposed restraint until fraternities return their focus to producing “gentlemen and scholars.”

“Do I think the Greek system will be dry from now until kingdom come? No,” said Korkor, a Weinberg junior. “But this is a step we have to take to rectify the 20 to 40 years where the Greek system has taken a serious decline.”

Although the Greek system in 10 years might be as unrecognizable to current students as today’s system is to Levin, fraternity presidents and administrators are confident that some remnants of the system will always remain.

“The Greek system will always be around and roll with the punches,” said Finley, a McCormick senior. “But I think there will be a huge change in the way the campus views the Greek system, and I don’t know if the campus will accept it. They might not be happy with it. But they’ll have to live with it.”