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Fraternity, sorority membership up amid bad publicity

Not even an onslaught of bad press can take the fizz out of fraternities and sororities welcoming pledges in record numbers.

'Greek life perseveres' even as campus groups fight stereotypes

An image from the 2014 film Neighbors, which University of Arkansas higher education professor Michael Hevel says has contributed to popularizing perceptions about fraternities. Despite a wave of recent bad press targeting behaviour in fraternities and sororities, membership numbers have been higher than ever. k (Universal Pictures, Glen Wilson/Associated Press)

Hot sauce poured on genitals. A Taser fired at a pledge. Dildos thrown at anti-rape activists. Culturally offensive "socials."

The headlines look very bad, but the good times keep on rolling for membership across U.S. fraternities and sororities.

Recruitment has never been stronger at Greek-letter campus institutions across North America, with 114,330 new frat members in 2013-2014, up 45 per cent from seven years earlier.

"It's been blowing up over the last five to 10 years," said David Stollman, a co-founder of the anti-hazing support group HazingPrevention.org.

Fratmosphere

"Average chapter sizes are up, the numbers of chapters on campuses are up, and in terms of the different types of groups — culturally based groups from historically African-American to Southeast Asian to Latino — those chapters are growing," said the lifelong Phi Delta Theta brother.

Shideh Javan, 19, poses at Ohio's Capital University with members of the Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity after she was nominated to be the fraternity's 'sweetheart,' or female representative for supporting philanthropic efforts. (Courtesy Shideh Javan)

This, despite turbulent press in recent years touching on everything from wearing blackface and deadly hazing rituals to alleged sexual assault and — most recently — a racist bus sing-along by Oklahoma University students in Sigma Alpha Epsilon.

"Greek life perseveres," said Brian Borsari, who has researched frat and sorority culture with Brown University’s Centre for Alcohol Addiction Studies.

"You'd be hard-pressed to design another system with this history, this legacy aspect, these cultural perceptions and these rituals."

Sorority fundraising

In 2013-2014, with 123 out of 193 Alumnae Panhellenics reporting, sororities:

  • Donated 65,552 hours to community service.
  • Raised $136,585 for philanthropies.
  • Raised $593,330 for scholarship opportunities.

Source: National Panhellenic Council

Students are joining up in record numbers, seeking brotherly and sisterly bonds, networking opportunities and a sense of community stewardship.

"Mix in alcohol and freedom and sex and that's a pretty potent combination under one roof," Borsari said.

As much as school administrators might frown on beer busts and noise complaints, he said, they’re popular fixtures of the fratmosphere.

"Selecting in" with a clique of like-minded peers doesn’t just appeal to bros, however.

More young women are also joining sororities.

The National Panhellenic Council, which includes 26 sororities across 672 American and Canadian campuses, welcomed 140,000 initiates in the last academic year, up 75 per cent from seven years earlier.

What’s drawing droves of eager pledges is privilege, according to Michael Hevel.

Elite subgroups 'an attractive path'

That’s particularly true of today’s goal-oriented millenials, who "want to belong and be part of something," unlike the grunge-era generation Xers before them, said Hevel, a professor of higher education at the University of Arkansas who has studied the effects of Greek life on students’ moral reasoning and critical thinking.

They’re seen as elite places, the most prestigious subgroups on the college campus. That’s an attractive path.— Michael Hevel, University of Arkansas professor of higher education

"Many students see connections between these organizations and successful future careers," he said.

"They’re seen as elite places, the most prestigious subgroups on the college campus. That’s an attractive path."

Depictions of the wild Greek life in films such as 2014’s Neighbours and 2003’s Old School may not please school administrators, but they’re apparently catnip for students yearning for the Animal House experience.

Fraternal social institutions aren’t blind to their PR crisis, however.

The video of Sigma Alpha Epsilon members chanting, "There will never be a n---r at SAE" led to two expulsions.

The University of Oklahoma ordered its SAE chapter’s closure, and a torrent of anti-frat sentiment followed.

Matthew Conklin, second from left, poses with his Phi Delta Theta brothers at Wichita State University. The 22-year-old says he joined a fraternity to meet a diverse group of students representing different ideologies, and to 'become the greatest version of myself.' (Courtesy Matthew Conklin)

But not even that incident should take the fizz out of Greek membership rates and chapter growth.

Nor should such "outlying behaviours" affect SAE’s membership in the North-American Interfraternity Conference, according to Pete Smithhisler, the organization’s president.

"Of the almost 400,000 undergrads [in the NIC], the majority of fraternity men are doing things right," he said.

Although Shideh Javan agrees shuttering the SAE house in Oklahoma was a good move, the 19-year-old sophomore at Ohio’s Capital University conceded all Greek affiliations take a hit when such image-tarnishing incidents arise.

Fraternity stats:

  • $20.3 million raised for charities.
  • All-fraternity GPA: 2.912 versus All-Male GPA: 2.892.
  • 50% of the Top 10 Fortune 500 CEOs are fraternity men.
  • 15% of Fortune 100 CEOs are fraternity men.
  • 44% of all U.S. Presidents have been members of a social fraternity.

Source: North-American Interfraternity Conference

"It’s very hard to try to get a better representation of Greek life when you hear something so terrible like this," the Alpha Sigma Alpha sister said.

"We do so much with community partners and philanthropic efforts, and all of a sudden, one group of individuals does a racist chant, and they just put a horrible burden on the reason we join the Greek community."

Matt Conklin, a 22-year-old senior with Phi Delta Theta at Wichita State University, said his frat’s general council president was quick to condemn the behaviour in Oklahoma.

PDT is a diverse and inclusive community, he noted, as is Wichita’s SAE chapter.

After the fallout over the Oklahoma video, Conklin participated in a discussion hosted at Wichita on "Greek and Race Relations."

"I feel like these events, as unfortunate and terrible as they are, provide an opportunity for the communities to learn," he said.

Rehabilitating the image of fraternal college societies probably isn’t essential for boosting membership.

Students move their furniture out of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house at the University of Oklahoma on Monday after school's president severed ties with the national fraternity and ordered its on-campus house be shuttered. (Nick Oxford/Associated Press)

What is necessary, however, is observing basic human decency and respect for others, said Jessica Gendron Williams.

"There are certainly a lot of incidents, especially in recent dates, where fraternities and sororities have screwed up," said Williams, CEO of Phired Up, a company that focuses on developing positive experiences in campus Greek life.

"There’s lots of things to fix," she said. "But I think also there are equal amounts of incidents of fraternities and sororities providing great college experiences, helping develop people and connect them to charities and become better friends and leaders."

Alfred University in New York state abolished the system of Greek social organizations from its campus in 2002, partly due to the death of Zeta Beta Tau fraternity member Benjamin Klein. (Benjamin D. Esham/Wikimedia Commons)

8 recent controversies at U.S. campus societies

New York State, Alfred University, New York state, 2002

After Benjamin Klein was beaten by fellow fraternity members for revealing the house’s hazing practices, his body was found in a creek. The direct cause of death was ruled a suicide by drug overdose.

Southern Methodist University, Texas, 2006

Jacob Stiles overdosed and died in a Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity house after consuming alcohol, cocaine and fentanyl.

Cornell University, New York state, 2011

George Desdunes died of alcohol poisoning after being kidnapped, bound and forced by SAE fraternity pledges to consume large amounts of alcohol.

California State University, Fresno, 2012

Philip Dhanens died of alcohol poisoning after being locked in a room in a fraternity house with 15 other pledges and told to finish eight bottles of liquor in order to be let out.

Pennsylvania State University, 2012

A Penn State sorority came under scrutiny after a photo surfaced of a Mexican themed party. In the photo, two women can be seen holding up signs that read "Will Mow Lawn For Weed + Beer" and "I Don’t Cut Grass, I Smoke It."

University of Idaho, 2013

Jesse M. Vierstra was convicted and sentenced to a maximum of 15 years in prison for sexually assaulting a woman he met at a fraternity party, in the bushes behind the house. According to the Atlantic Monthly magazine, he is appealing his conviction.

California State University, Northridge, 2014

Armando Villa died after a hazing ritual involving the attempted completion of a 29-km hike while blindfolded and without shoes, a cellphone or adequate water. Following the incident, the fraternity withdrew from the university.

Columbia University, New York, 2014

In an echo of what happened two years earlier at Penn State, a Columbia University sorority came under fire on social media after the release of photos of a party where members dressed in costumes that played on racial stereotypes of people in countries such as Japan, Jamaica and Mexico.

— Riannon Westall

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