Sex and drink-fuelled fraternities sober up

June 21, 2002

The hip series this summer on American TV is about university sororities.

In promotional ads for the series, female undergraduates expound on the academic achievement of sorority members, their community service and their lifelong support for one another. Then they admit it is really all about the social life.

This is not the image US fraternity and sorority leaders want to see as they struggle to change their reputations as elitist, restrictive, even racist social organisations whose culture of excessive drinking and physical abuse has proved not only controversial but also occasionally fatal.

Already, several universities have taken advantage of public antipathy towards fraternities to throw them off campus. Others have stripped them of their housing privileges or placed tight restrictions on them. But some fraternities have closed because a generation of students serious about studying rather than socialising just isn't interested. Overall, membership in fraternities has fallen by an estimated 30 per cent in the past ten years to about 300,000.

Alarmed fraternities are scrambling to change their image. One, Sigma Phi Epsilon, has begun what it calls the "Balanced Man Project", emphasising academic performance instead of partying and drinking.

Another, Phi Gamma Delta, has started to reward members who maintain a high academic performance with cash scholarships and has imposed a ban on alcohol in all its chapter houses. A third, Alpha Tau Omega, has shut dozens of its chapters because of alcohol or hazing (initiation) incidents under a new zero-tolerance policy.

Such measures follow several highly publicised incidents of excessive drinking and dangerous hazing ceremonies. At the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity house at the University of Michigan, for instance, a "pledge" student was shot in his genitals with a pellet gun that was supposed to have been empty.

Several students have died in alcohol-related incidents, including a Michigan student who fell out of her dormitory window after drinking at a fraternity that was supposed to be alcohol-free.

Even as fraternities struggle with hazing and drinking, new controversies have arisen over racism and sexism. At the University of Alabama, there are separate fraternities and sororities for whites and blacks. Not a single black has been admitted to Alabama's mainstream fraternities since its establishment in 1831.

At the University of Mississippi, white members of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity were photographed at a party wearing blackface and picking cotton. The photographs, which found their way on to the internet, caused a nationwide outcry.

At Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, the university on which the film National Lampoon's Animal House was loosely based, fraternities and sororities organised a "ghetto party". About 400 students and professors responded with a campus protest. Dartmouth's Zeta Psi fraternity distributed newsletters describing members' sexual experiences, complete with the names of the women involved. The fraternity was closed and more than 100 academics demanded that all fraternities and sororities be thrown off the campus.

Many schools have done just that and banned or restricted them. Universities do, however, face one significant hurdle: nostalgic alumni. Some 1,000 Dartmouth alumni complained about proposed changes to the fraternity system, 25 of whom withdrew their financial support.

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