The Greek system has been part of UW student life for more than 100 years, but do today’s fraternities and sororities prepare undergraduates to be the leaders of tomorrow, or do the chapters function at the level of “Animal House”? As a companion to our tour of Greek Row, two alumni debate the value of fraternities and sororities.
By Douglas A. Luetjen, ’80
My pride in being a member of a fraternity at the University of Washington—and my continuing membership as an alumnus these past 20 years—is a result of my association with some of the finest people I have ever met. They are the undergraduates, the young alumni and the seasoned veterans of the fraternal experience who make the bonds of our brotherhood so valuable to those who truly embrace all it has to offer.
I joined a fraternity at the University of Washington in 1978 as a junior transfer student from a small school in Colorado. I was looking for a new home and new friends in a big city at one of America’s largest universities. I found all of this at Sigma Chi.
I joined the chapter at a time of great change. It was a time when being a part of something “traditional” was not acceptable—a time when making a commitment to an organization rather than your own personal desires was not the norm. At our chapter, the student leaders and alumni advisers provided us an opportunity to grow and learn—beyond what we gleaned from our classes—in exchange for our commitment to our chapter. The ‘70s provided a lot of opportunities to test the mettle of our leaders and the cohesiveness of our chapter. But whether it was issues related to inappropriate behavior or undertaking our new commitment to community service and scholarship, our leaders and advisers proved their worth—and our members remained true to our shared values.
We were proud to become members of a fraternity that was led by energetic young men who sought to give value to the fraternity experience. One such member was our chapter president, Mark Stanley. Mark not only served as our chapter president but also served as ASUW vice president of governance and led the ASUW Experimental College. One of Mark’s goals was for every one of the approximately 80 members of Sigma Chi to participate in at least one community service project. We reached this goal and then some.
By the mid 1980s, our existing chapter house was unable to adequately house all of the members. From 1982 until 1988, Sigma Chi alumni and undergraduates committed themselves to the complete renovation of the Chapter House. The result of this $1.2 million project was the completion of one of the largest fraternity chapter houses on campus, capable of housing nearly 100 young men. And as part of the fund-raising for this project, the Sigma Chi scholarship fund grew to more than $200,000.
But my fraternity is not alone in its commitment to improving the lives of its members and being a positive influence in the community. For example, the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity undertook a Rose Bowl Football Run from Seattle to Pasadena which raised $24,000 for the Curtis Williams Fund. Nearly every fraternity and sorority at the UW raises thousands of dollars each year for charitable purposes, and many have wonderful tuition assistance programs. All of these chapters provide opportunities for leadership development by their members. It is no coincidence that all but eight U.S. presidents since 1856 have been regular or honorary members of a college fraternity. And studies show that 85 percent of the Fortune 500 executives are fraternity members. In every walk of life you will find successful individuals who have had positive experiences in their college fraternity or sorority.
But what about the problems regarding fraternities which we hear about all too often? The response to these problems is what really tests the fraternities’ commitment to their ideals. Recently, members of a fraternity at the UW were accused of hazing several of their new members with the advice and assistance of their undergraduate and alumni leaders. This situation involved institutional problems as well as lapses of individual judgment. Therefore, the Interfraternity Council (which acts as the “Chamber of Commerce” for the fraternities at the UW) investigated the charges of hazing. After a review of the evidence, a unanimous vote was reached to expel the offending fraternity from IFC membership. For this commitment to the IFC’s ideals and standards of conduct and because of the leadership exhibited by both alumni and undergraduate officers of the UW Greek system in handling this matter, I am proud to be a member of the Greek system at the University of Washington.
Nearly all national college fraternities and sororities were founded on ideals and standards of behavior that respectable members of society would applaud. Contrary to the public’s perception, the vast majority of the fraternity leadership, both undergraduate and alumni, are committed to these standards. The difficulty however is two-fold: influencing the public’s perception of the value of fraternity membership and directing the behavior of the membership to live by these standards.
As to the latter, at times we succeed, at times we have failed, but I am convinced that the commitment to ensure that our members live up to our standards and ideals will prevail. Many of the fraternities and sororities at the University of Washington have been on this campus for 100 years or more and they will continue to exist so long as there are alumni members who are committed to preserving the standards and ideals of these organizations, and so long as there are young men and women who desire to be a part of organizations that contribute to their educational experience.
It is the perception of the public where fraternities have achieved the least success. Too often the stereotype “Animal House” image is still associated with fraternities. Too often the report of a misdeed by an individual or group is attributed to a fraternity as a whole. Fraternity members often blame the media for only reporting the bad and not the good. But right or wrong, that’s life. In fact, this perception problem can be attributed to three primary sources. First, blame should be placed on the individual perpetrators, but not as members of a fraternity, or as UW students, or as football players, or as any other category. When institutional blame is called for, the undergraduate and alumni members of the fraternity and members in the Greek system are to blame if they do not address the source of the problem. Such was not the case in the hazing incident described above. There the Greek system held the chapter accountable.
The third place to lay blame is at the feet of outsiders who either excuse the bad behavior because “they’re just a bunch of frat boys” or who refer to all fraternities and their members as “just a bunch of frat boys that haze and abuse alcohol.” Guess what? These people are a big part of our problem. This generalization of our members merely encourages the wrong people to join our fraternities and it lowers the standard by which our members believe society will judge them.
We must demand that acts of individual irresponsibility and/or immaturity become the responsibility of the individuals. We must expect that the fraternities live up to the standards of conduct that their literature proclaims. We, who are alumni members of a fraternity, must demand that our chapters act in such a way that we can all be proud to say we are Greeks.
For my part, I must admit that I have been extremely fortunate in my fraternal experience. I joined a fraternity comprised of so many wonderful individuals and outstanding leaders, both young and old. In these past 20 years, I have been witness to many successes of the fraternities at the UW and around the country. It has been a rewarding and valuable experience. Without question or hesitation, I can say I am proud to be a Sigma Chi and an alumni member of the Greek system at the University of Washington.
Douglas A. Luetjen, ‘80, is a business lawyer in Seattle at the firm of Bullivant Houser Bailey PC. While at the UW, Luetjen was a member of Sigma Chi, and after graduation he spent two years in Chicago working for the Sigma Chi Foundation. He also has served as a member of the Sigma Chi international board of trustees and was a founding member of the UW Alumni Interfraternity Council.
By Charles R. Cross, ‘81
The closest I ever came to joining a fraternity was buying a T-shirt for the movie National Lampoon’s Animal House. The shirt sported a slogan that summed up the attitude of entitlement held by every frat member I encountered at the University of Washington: “We’re college students—we can do anything we want.”
Animal House was a hilarious movie but like most great comedies, there was truth behind the humor. When John Belushi’s Bluto Blatarsky announced his sage words of frat wisdom to new pledges—”My advice to you is to start drinking heavily”—the scriptwriters acknowledged what has long been the sad reality of the Greek system. Fraternities are, for all practical purposes, not much more than organized saloons. Located conveniently near campus, they are places where underage classmen can be guaranteed a steady supply of alcohol. Anyone who argues otherwise is ignoring the larger truth to plead a smaller point.
Current fraternity members—and certainly their alumni—usually cite fellowship between members, relationships that last beyond college, and numerous charity drives for worthy causes as the center of Greek life. But fellowship is not something the fraternities have a patent on—I found lifelong friends in the halls of McCarty Hall. To speak of brotherhood as the driving force behind the Greek system is to ignore the reality that those sylvan ideals have long ago been supplanted by partying. Even the most ardent defender of fraternities would find themselves hard pressed to pick any answer other than “drinking” if they were ever facing a Family Feud game board that asked “Name the one thing that goes on in every frat house.”
The second answer would be “hazing,” which goes hand-in-hand with drinking. A recent book on fraternity initiation rituals includes an appendix with the names of 200 young men who died in hazing rituals during the last century. “When these people die,” argues Hank Nuwer, author of Wrongs of Passage, “they are known by their last drink. They die as drunkards—ignoble deaths.”
The UW hasn’t been immune. In January 1998 a young member of Delta Kappa Epsilon committed suicide, allegedly after a six-day hazing ritual. Other local headlines have been so bizarre as to sound like something out of a John Belushi nightclub monologue. Remember when a sheep was discovered in the basement of UW frat used as part of a hazing ritual?
I grew up in Pullman, where my father is a professor, and this certainly shaped my views of fraternities. One of the few positive things I can say about UW frats is that they seem like amateur drinkers compared to their Wazzu brethren, where partying binges recently have been often followed by night-long riots. Some WSU frats made peace with the university by banning drinking from their houses. In practice this has simply meant that their parties have shifted to private annexes, thus giving the whole neighborhood the appearance of Mardi Gras every Saturday night.
Fraternity members are certainly not the only college students who drink and party. I managed to do a bit of both myself in dorms and occasionally even at frat houses. But there is a major difference between a weekend college party and a lifestyle centered around intoxication. What scares me the most about the fraternity system is that by its nature it creates a “pack mentality” that encourages young men toward extremes of behavior that a single individual on his own wouldn’t be capable of. Within this group-think, there begins a sense of privilege and entitlement that is the precursor to violence, and of course, the inspiration for the Animal House T-shirt slogan. Most of the time these powerful forces of conformity result only in drinking to excess but far too often they end in date-rape, violent crime, and, tragically, death. A recent scandal within Dartmouth’s Greek system developed when a fraternity circulated a newsletter describing members’ sexual escapades and promising “patented date-rape techniques” in a future issue. Another controversy at the University of Alabama erupted when it was discovered that since the university’s desegregation in 1963, not a single black student had ever been offered membership at a sorority or fraternity.
I wish I could say that the Greek system at the University of Washington was above these social blights, but unfortunately this is far from the case. Though UW sororities are relatively free of violent hazing, they are equally guilty of the party lifestyle that marks frat life. While the buildings along frat row still sport remarkable architecture which bespeaks tradition, any casual observer will also notice legions of beer cans and the remnants of a culture that suggests it is entitled to break rules (the rule broken most often, of course, is the law against underage drinking).
Certainly not every fraternity is an Animal House and not every frat boy acts like those we see on MTV’s “Spring Break” specials. Yet even the best-behaved frat members pay a price for their membership: By their very nature fraternities breed conformity and homogeneity, characteristics that are antithetical to what I believe college is about. Going to a university is not just about memorizing chemical compositions or 16th century English literature—it is instead a place we learn to think critically for ourselves. In this way, the Animal House slogan has some rough truth: A university may be the last place many young adults find the freedom to challenge established beliefs and social mores before their careers begin. For that reason, I hope my own son spends his time in college attempting to debunk established theorems and testing the patience of his professors rather than pounding back Big Gulps of Michelob at the nightly house kegger.
There may have been a purpose for fraternities and sororities in the early part of the 20th century, when rural students found themselves attending college far from home, and when these haughty mansions were extensions of university social life. But whatever purpose the Greek system once had, its place within institutes of higher learning is questionable today. “A system that promotes racist, sexist attitudes is antithetical to the spirit of what college is supposed to be,” says Dartmouth Professor Agnes Lugo-Ortiz. “Quite simply, the Greek system is antiquated, a remnant of the past.”
When my father attended college in the 1950s on the east coast, he pledged to a frat. On a recent trip to Pullman, he and I drove by a WSU frat house whose lawn contained enough beer cans to keep a recycling plant in business, and he commented, “That’s the fraternity I belonged to back in Virginia.” Naively, I asked my dad, “Do you ever go in there and share with your fellow frat members or alums?” My father didn’t have to respond with words—the raise in his eyebrows was enough to tell me how much fraternities have changed in 50 years, and how distorted their once admirable franchise has become.
Charles R. Cross, ’81, was editor of The Daily in 1979. He was editor of The Rocket from 1986 to 2000, and is the author of four books, including the recently published Heavier Than Heaven, a biography of Kurt Cobain (Hyperion Books, 2001).