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Major changes afoot for W&J Greek life

Sunday, October 14, 2001

By Joe Smydo, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

As recently as Matt Dietz's freshman year, Washington and Jefferson College students spent Friday and Saturday nights sallying from one party to another in "the quads," the campus name for fraternity house row.

"The quads would be filled with people," recalled Dietz, a senior and president of Phi Gamma Delta fraternity. "If you walk through the quads now on a weekend, it's like a ghost town."

Greek life, long the foundation of W&J's social scene, is changing in ways some alumni may have to see to believe.

At homecoming this weekend, some graduates will be unable to get a beer in their old fraternity houses. Other alumni will be unable to find their fraternities, let alone a drink.

Because of poor behavior, two fraternities have been kicked off campus in the past two years. Kappa Sigma and Lambda Chi Alpha had been at W&J since 1898 and 1919, respectively.

Eight fraternities and four sororities remain.

But membership in two fraternities -- Zeta Beta Tau and Beta Theta Pi -- has dwindled so much that the groups share a house. With only six or seven members, ZBT is in danger of disappearing from campus, said Jerry Stebbins, associate dean of student affairs.

Stebbins said about 65 percent of students were fraternity or sorority members when he began working at W&J in 1992. As of May 30, according to Stebbins' figures, 49 percent of the college's 1,100 students were fraternity or sorority members.

Four fraternities and all four sororities are "dry," meaning alcohol is prohibited in their houses.

Students looking for a party "probably won't find it here" at Alpha Tau Omega, said Andy Cooper, fraternity president. The senior said ATO went dry last semester because "we needed to clean up some things."

The college three years ago put an end to the annual Carnival Weekend, two-plus days of partying throughout the quads. The status of Greek Week, traditionally featuring chariot races and other games, is up in the air this year. As for the toga party ... .

"We haven't had a toga weekend here since our freshman year," said Jarod Stragand, a senior and president of Phi Kappa Psi.

Students said the movie "Animal House" doesn't come close to capturing fraternity life at the private liberal-arts school.

"It's the total opposite," said Spinner Trynock, a senior and president of Delta Tau Delta.

In part, the changes at W&J reflect a national trend. Alarmed by tales of hazing and alcohol abuse, the governing boards of fraternities and sororities are pressuring chapters to adhere to their traditional values.

For fraternities, those values are scholarship, brotherhood, philanthropy and personal development. "You notice drinking is not one of those four," said Jon Williamson, executive vice president of North-American Interfraternity Conference, a federation of 68 fraternities with 5,500 chapters on 800 campuses.

At W&J, fraternities and sororities face additional pressure from college officials. Stebbins said Greek organizations have been told, "It's a new day. You need to live up to your fraternal ideals." If groups won't do that, he said, "maybe they just need to go away."

Changes in the Greek community are profound because of the way fraternities and sororities have dominated campus life.

Three 1994 graduates -- Dean Hnaras, a member of Kappa Sigma; Chip McCarthy, a member of Lambda Chi Alpha; and Marty Connelly, who remained independent -- described the fraternity party as the mainstay of the college social scene.

The Greek community's roots are deep. College students across the country belong to fraternities founded at what is now W&J.

In 1848, Phi Gamma Delta was founded at Jefferson College in Canonsburg by a group known as the "Immortal Six." The fraternity now has 140 chapters.

Four years later, Phi Kappa Psi was founded at Jefferson College by two students who had been caring for friends with typhoid. The fraternity now has 81 chapters.

Phi Gamma Delta's Dietz said some students view the changes, including the college's levying of a "Greek tax" last year, as a move to eliminate fraternity life. He said the college unveiled the $100-per-person annual tax during the week students decide to pledge fraternities and sororities. He said the tax, unveiled without warning to the Greek community, may have kept some students from pledging.

W&J spokeswoman Tracey Kolodziej said the college envisions a "new Greek life" based on the old-time values. Stebbins said the Greek tax -- officially called the "Greek education fee" -- will be used to sponsor leadership seminars and other events for Greeks.

Stebbins said reform of the Greek community began after his arrival at W&J but accelerated after Brian Mitchell became college president in 1998. He said Mitchell, who did not join a fraternity during his undergraduate days at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., wanted to be a "good neighbor" and responded quickly when homeowners complained about noise from the fraternity houses.

Mitchell banned outdoor drinking in the quads, a move Stebbins said eliminated the "noise and litter and dirt and dangerous situations" associated with the large groups that gathered outside fraternity houses on weekends. Occasionally, he said, arguments about women and other hot-button issues degenerated into violence.

To further guard against injuries, Mitchell banned drinking from glass containers. The college also ordered fraternities to keep guest lists for parties, to document the guests' ages and to have fraternity members work as doorkeepers -- guidelines Stebbins said mirrored policies of the fraternities' governing bodies and insurance agencies.

Some said the college has been heavy-handed.

Alpha Tau Omega's Cooper said he won't go to another fraternity for a drink because he doesn't want to be forced to produce identification should security guards check on a noise complaint inside. "I go to the bar" in town, he said.

The governing bodies of Lambda Chi Alpha and Kappa Sigma revoked the charters for their W&J chapters after the college reported alcohol and hazing violations.

The college has special leverage -- housing -- to bring Greek organizations into line.

In a master plan, unveiled during the summer, W&J said it would replace the quads with an "academic quadrangle," a green space bounded by new classroom buildings and U. Grant Miller Library. While the college envisions some new housing for fraternities and sororities, Stebbins said, it's unclear how many houses will be built, where they will be built or who will build them.

Students said they believe the college will build a couple of houses -- for the Greek organizations that best meet college standards -- and give the others space in dormitories. Eager for the houses, some fraternities and sororities are competing to see which of them can post the best grade-point average and compile the most impressive portfolio of community service work.

W&J is giving the Greek community a lesson in Darwinism. It's "survival of the fittest right now," said Delta Tau Delta's Trynock.

To remain viable, Greek organizations must keep their numbers up. At the same time, they have to be careful about who they recruit. In the current climate, a Greek organization must pass on students who would threaten the house's grade-point average.

"You can't bring in guys who have a 2.0," Dietz said. "They pull your GPA down too far."

So much for the joke about college students not letting their studies get in the way of their "education."

Stebbins said the loss of two fraternities helps account for the sharp drop in the percentage of Greek students at W&J. Trynock said diversification of the student body and an increase in college-sponsored activities also affected fraternity membership in recent years.

"I don't have to be Greek to survive socially on this campus," Trynock said.

Nationally, fraternity membership grew during the 1980s, peaked in 1990, then began a nine-year decline as the organizations struggled to limit drinking and curb other problems. Now membership is rebounding.

While some Greek organizations at W&J still have a difficult time recruiting -- perhaps, Stebbins said, they're not marketing themselves well -- others reported large pledge classes last spring.

Phi Gamma Delta, for example, enrolled about 25 members. Jennifer Barozie, a senior and president of the W&J Panhellenic Council, said sorority membership is steadily increasing.

Instead of passing out beers at a party, fraternity members now get to know recruits in other ways, such as playing video games in the younger students' dorms.

Alpha Tau Omega went dry, temporarily, to iron out internal problems. Phi Gamma Delta, Phi Delta Theta and Phi Kappa Sigma are dry because their governing bodies adopted a national no-alcohol policy. Barozie said W&J sororities will not co-sponsor a party with the fraternities that still serve alcohol.

More and more, students joining fraternities want more than a drinking club, said Jarod Stragand, the Phi Kappa Psi president, and his twin, Jeremy, president of the Interfraternity Council. While some students grumble about good times lost, the Stragands said the shift to scholarship and philanthropy will give fraternity members new reasons to wear their letters with pride.

"The houses that don't want to change," Jarod Stragand said, "are going to be gone."

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