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Fraternity houses turn off the taps and sober up

Nearly one in five now forbid any drinking

Friday, August 18, 2000

By Bill Schackner, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

With a keg-size cooler in the lobby and Budweiser signs on its walls, the Phi Kappa Sigma house at Washington and Jefferson College looks ready as ever for a Friday night beer blast.

But starting this fall, the members living there won't be able to offer anything stiffer than club soda at their parties.

They aren't the only Greeks getting a crash course in temperance.

On campuses across the country, fraternity houses are going dry.

Nearly one in five chapters in North America has begun phasing in policies that forbid alcohol of any kind anywhere in its house, even in the rooms of brothers who are of legal drinking age.

The crackdown that, in theory, forbids a glass of wine with dinner, let alone a six-pack of beer, isn't coming from universities. It's being pushed by the fraternities themselves.

Tired of sky-high insurance costs, lagging grades and a bad-boy image, national fraternity leaders have grown more outspoken in their calls for a return to their founding principles.

"I think fraternities looked at themselves and said, 'Our values are not about alcohol. So why is alcohol at the center of what we do?' " said Jon Williamson, executive vice president with the North American Interfraternity Conference, an umbrella group of 67 national fraternities in the United States and Canada.

To date, 11 national fraternities have adopted dry housing, 10 of them in the last three years. Collectively they represent slightly more than 1,000 campus chapters, with most of them headed for the changeover this fall.

The movement is touching campuses across Pennsylvania, including larger schools such as Penn State University, the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University. It is also being felt at smaller schools like Washington and Jefferson, a private college of 1,200 students in Washington, Pa., where two of the nine fraternity houses now will be dry.

Make no mistake, the image of actor John Belushi in a toga won't easily fade, nor will the perception of fraternities as places where the "drink-till-you-barf" credo thrives. Even at colleges that applaud dry housing, some administrators wonder if fraternities are ready to handle a blizzard of violations.

Will it be enforced?

"I think there is a consensus among some students that this thing won't be enforced, and if it is, then they won't get caught," said Gerald E. Stebbins, assistant dean for student affairs at Washington and Jefferson. "It may come down to whether some of these fraternities are willing to close down half to a third of their chapters almost overnight if necessary."

Dana Norton Jr., the student leader of another fraternity on campus, said he'll make sure the rule is obeyed in his house.

Some fraternity members who are 21 aren't happy being told to drink elsewhere, said Norton, a Washington and Jefferson senior and president of the campus chapter of Phi Gamma Delta, another national fraternity going dry. But he's convinced members will come to prefer an environment where they can study and relax without noise from an alcohol-fueled party.

"It means more freedom in your home," he said.

"People think they can come to a fraternity house and get away with things they wouldn't try at home. They wouldn't start a fight or start breaking things in their own residence," he said. "So many bad things happen to kids because people do stupid things."

Fraternities say much has changed on campus in the nearly quarter century since beer taps in some houses flowed 24 hours a day and the movie "Animal House" came to symbolize, for better or worse, Greek life.

Binge drinking among college students has emerged as a major public health worry. Highly publicized drinking deaths, sexual assaults and hazing cases have prodded colleges to crack down on fraternities that abuse alcohol.

A decline in new members prompted many chapters to re-examine their image. A wave of lawsuits drove home the problem's consequences.

"It's a minimum of tens of millions of dollars that we have been spending on insurance premiums, legal claims and property damage. And that's ridiculous," said Jon Hockman, chairman of The Alcohol Free Housing Alliance, formed by a group of national fraternities.

Phi Delta Theta, which set a deadline of this summer for its houses to go dry, started a self-examination nearly a decade ago. It went so far as to weigh community service hours put in by chapters against how many police complaints they generated.

It tallied up the grade-point averages for its chapters and found two-thirds were between 2.7 and 3.2, no better than the overall average for male students at those schools.

Binge drinking

And the fraternity compared its members' alcohol consumption with an often-cited Harvard University study of binge drinking. The study estimates that while 40 percent of college students qualify as binge drinkers, the rate in fraternities is closer to 80 percent.

"It's almost embarrassing to say, but the Harvard study was a low-ball figure for where our fraternity was at," said Thomas Balzer, Phi Delta Theta's project coordinator for alcohol-free housing.

"Eighty percent of our members are under 21 and a good majority of them probably possessed alcohol in the fraternity house," he said. "That we found unacceptable."

During 1994 alone, the fraternity faced $2 million in claims, some from members who tumbled down stairs, fell through glass windows, or had other injuries or problems linked to alcohol, he said. The claims handled by an insurer were equal to 40 percent of the group's overall budget.

So, in a move that caused some tension among members, the fraternity's national governing body agreed in 1997 to purge its housing of alcohol. It has begun to see positive results.

Yearly claims against the fraternity have declined to $12,000. Liability premiums that each member must pay have dropped from $140 a year to $100.

Fraternity leaders said they have no illusions that a ban on alcohol alone will solve the problem.

So along with sending representatives into the homes to check for compliance, leaders are organizing major awareness programs about alcohol and drug abuse.

Not every house has embraced the idea.

A chapter of Phi Delta Theta at Cornell University opted to disband rather than adhere to the new rules, so the national fraternity recruited a replacement chapter. At the University of Michigan, a fraternity that violated the alcohol ban and other risk management rules was shut down.

Still, national leaders believe that most chapters will find the change to their advantage.

"It's a lot safer. It's a lot more pleasant to have guests over," Hockman said. "Because they like it, they choose to perpetuate it."

At Washington and Jefferson, Stebbins said he believes fraternities that are able to stick to the policy once classes start Aug. 30 may gain a recruiting edge. That's because college students have grown more discriminating in their housing tastes and less tolerant of living with the aftermath of somebody else's party, including beer-splattered floors.

"It's this whole consumer thing," he said. "They may not want to pay a bunch of money to stick to the floor."

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