Monday, September 18, 2000

More frats go alcohol-free

Trend fairly recent here, but successful

By Ben L. Kaufman
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        More and more traditionally white college fraternities are dissolving the bond between beer and brotherhood.

        “We're going to get out of the bar business and get back to the fraternity business,” said Robert A. Biggs, executive vice president of the international Phi Delta Theta fraternity. “We don't like the sticky floors. We don't like the smell of stale beer.”

        Phi Delts are not alone. An estimated 20 percent of local houses in the North American Interfraternity Conference are alcohol-free.

        The accelerating trend reflects efforts of risk managers at national fraternity offices who are seeking ways to cope with increasingly abusive underage drinking, vandalism, violence and sometimes deadly hazing.

        “These guys don't drink because they like to drink,” says Andy Miller, a 1993 grad and Phi Delt who directed the University of Florida's alcohol and drug resource center for five years. “They drink because it masks the fact that very

        precious few of them know what it is to be a man.”

        Locally, the few fraternities that have adopted alcohol-free housing still are recruiting successfully, and the men who choose dry houses are getting good grades.

        This brings them in line with traditionally white sororities, and traditionally black fraternities and sororities that have had alcohol-free houses for generations.

        Of the seven fraternities with houses at the University of Cincinnati, Phi Delts and Phi Gamma Delta are dry. At Miami, 26 fraternities have houses, of which three are dry.

        The most recent to go alcohol-free are Phi Delts at Miami University. That happened on the fraternity's deadline of July 1.

        Landon Dunn, Phi Delt president at Miami, says turning off the tap hasn't hurt recruiting. “Everybody knows it. We don't have to pitch it ... I don't see what the difference is.”

        A dry house also may appeal to women, Mr. Dunn added. “From what I know, they'd much rather have a calmer party.”

        With binge drinking in a fraternity house, things can get “pretty nasty,” he says.

        Mr. Dunn says a Phi Delt's first possession violation will draw a one-on-one warning. After that, the brother faces a rising scale of fines and community service requirements, ending in expulsion from the fraternity after four offenses.

No animal house

               A Miami competitor, Beta Theta Pi, already has found alcohol-free housing to be a plus, president Ben Beshear says.

        “It's given our guys a chance to study in the house and keep the house clean,” he says.

        Moreover, many of last year's 28 pledges said the alcohol-free policy was a reason to join, he said. “People were looking for something different and we had the courage to be different.”

        It's paying off. Betas already are posting top grades among Miami fraternities.

        Actually, the frat had little choice. Betas lost their charter in 1998 after fires and other problems attributed in part to alcohol abuse. The international fraternity recruited new members as an alcohol-free colony. When their charter was restored, Betas retained the policy by choice.

        FarmHouse, an ag campus fraternity, went dry nationally in 1974, but no one followed its example for a quarter-century.

        This summer, three other international fraternities joined the Phi Delts in banning alcohol from chapter residences. Five more are to follow by mid-2003.

        It's not a return to Prohibition. Parties away from fraternity houses are governed only by frequently ignored and unenforced state laws.

        Newly abstentious fraternities are catching up to 26 traditionally white sororities in the National Panhellenic Conference and nine historically black fraternities and sororities in the National Pan-Hellenic Council.

        Michael V. W. Gordon, spokesman for the National Pan-Hellenic Council, says alcohol-free policies have extended beyond black fraternity and sorority houses to all members' events.

        This has been no burden for cultural reasons, Mr. Gordon explains: Dancing, rather than alcohol, is central to partying by young African-Americans and many come from abstentious religious backgrounds.

        The new embrace of alcohol-free housing by a few white fraternities is attributed largely to a declining tolerance for drunkenness and a need to reverse increasing undergraduate vandalism and violence — including date rape and sometimes deadly hazing.

        Many freshmen are joining alcohol-free houses because boozy brotherhoods might put them at a competitive disadvantage in class and after graduation, says David Glassman, national Sigma Nu director of insurance and risk reduction. Further, Mr. Glassman says, retention is up as newcomers earn grades required to enter full membership.

Some reluctance

               There is a downside, too. Competition from houses that serve alcohol can be dispiriting.

        For instance, Sigma Nu recently backed away from a national deadline when undergraduates argued it would jeopardize chapters where others have beer parties. Now, Sigma Nu chapters that keep grades up, and vandalism and violence down, won't have to adopt alcohol-free housing.

        Stiffening the spine of alcohol-free fraternities are policies adopted in the past three years by long-dry white sororities. Three will co-sponsor events only in alcohol-free houses. Eighteen will co-sponsor programs with fraternities only if events are alcohol-free.

        That can be a plus, UC Phi Delt Paul Sakalas says.

        “It's us or Fiji,” he says, referring to the other dry fraternity house at UC, Phi Gamma Delta.

        Don't young women shun “Dry Delts?”

        “What? With a swimming pool?” Mr. Sakalas responds with amusement.

        Still, it's not that easy. UC's Phi Delt chapter was in sharp decline when it embraced alcohol-free housing in April 1997. As one current member put it, the fraternity “imploded” when many members walked away.

        “They suffered a little bit from that,” Thomas Balzer, Phi Delt national project coordinator for alcohol-free housing, acknowledges.

        However, there was a sweetener. Alumni who demanded the aging house become alcohol-free — two months after the international fraternity adopted the 2000 deadline — pledged enough to build a new house around the pool on Digby Avenue.

        In a sense, Mr. Sakalas, who is from Union Township, Clermont County, illustrates tensions facing alcohol-free fraternities.

        A 1998 freshman, he ignored Phi Delts, assuming a dry house would be no fun. However, he joined in 1999 because he wanted to be in a fraternity and “I had a lot in common with the guys.”

        That was their fascination with motorcycles and hot cars, a bond beyond beers.

        The absence of drunks lurching past his room or study table is nice, Mr. Sakalas says, and wonders how other fraternities get any studying done.

        When rush week begins, Mr. Sakalas says, Phi Delts won't push or hide their policy. “We're a dry house but alcohol isn't everything.”

        Brad King of Lakewood, Ohio, became a Phi Delt at UC in 1998. “I didn't join because it was dry. Did it matter? Not a lot. It wasn't a negative thing.”

        However, other fraternities can promise beer parties at their houses and “it is harder to attract people and that hurts a lot,” Mr. King says.

Leading the way

               No one denies the allure of fraternities includes virtual immunity for underage drinking.

        Or, as Mr. Sakalas puts it, other UC houses were delighted when Phi Delts and Fijis became alcohol-free. Friends in other fraternities said they were pleased that “someone took the focus off of us. It's like someone took the burden off the whole Greek system.”

        Refusal to comply or willful violations of the alcohol-free deadlines can provoke drastic responses from national fraternities. Chapters that refuse to comply or break their promises have been disbanded, Phi Delts' Mr. Biggs says. “The plan is to go back with a new group of students.”

        As recently as the 1960s, NIC's Mr. Williamson says, fraternities focused on scholarship, self-development, brotherhood and giving back to the community. They also partied hard but alcohol abuse was a relatively minor concern.

        However, Mr. Williamson says, rising vandalism and violence and falling memberships forced fraternities to ask, “Why is alcohol at the center of our organization? It was never intended to be.”

        It's about time, Florida's Mr. Miller recently told the Phi Delt national magazine. Students are bringing more problems than previous generations and increasingly are turning to alcohol.

        “We find that, because of the increases in divorces and other reasons, they lack positive male role models,” Mr. Miller says. “When they get to college, they fall into self-destructive behaviors.”


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