Fraternities attempt to rehabilitate their image

With an increased emphasis on service and chivalry over beirut and binge drinking, fraternity brothers at Yale and across the country are feeling pressure to renew their focus on “gentlemanly” conduct.

During the past year, as fraternities have taken fire for underage drinking and often dangerous hazing of new pledges, leaders of national chapters said they have begun working in greater earnest to replace the stereotypical image of fraternity life with a more refined and altruistic image.

Through the enforcement of the Balanced Man program in the nation’s largest fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon — along with Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s True Gentlemen and Beta Theta Pi’s Men of Principle programs, among others — major fraternities are attempting to eliminate the negative stigma sometimes associated with the Greek scene. Each of these initiatives stresses academics, etiquette and service.

Yale College Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg said the nationwide movement to make fraternities more gentlemanly could be attributed to an attempt to limit behavior for which the national chapters may be held legally responsible.

“My suspicion is that the national fraternities are trying to minimize their liabilities,” she said.

David Graziano, director of the Balanced Man Initiative at the SigEp National Fraternity, said the program was developed in the early 1990s to encourage many college chapters to reform their lax alcohol policies. The Balanced Man program’s philosophy is derived from the ancient Greek idea of “sound minds and sound bodies,” Graziano said, which emphasizes a healthy lifestyle and the pursuit of knowledge. The recent attention the Balanced Man program has received is largely due to the spread of the credo into over 75 percent of the chapters, he said.

“We want to keep our men engaged and invested in the chapter for all four years,” he said.

Graziano said alcohol violations by SigEp’s Yale chapter earlier this year were a result of emulating the typical fraternity formula for serving as a popular social spot for the student body. But like some college fraternity chapters that have made recent national headlines, Yale’s chapter does not stand for these social norms.

SigEp President Yohannes Abraham ’07 said the program is a continuous part of the brothers’ development during his years in the fraternity and that the credo helps them become better people. In his fraternity, he said, a pledge process is not even necessary because by identifying standout members of the student body, SigEp is able to maintain the quality of the group.

“We are not just trying to put forward an image,” he said. “We are trying to recruit good, thoughtful people and productive members of the Yale community.”

Although fraternities are most visible for the parties they throw, such as SAE’s Thursday late night or Delta Kappa Epsilon’s Tang, fraternity presidents insist that their purpose is more about fostering brotherhood than pumping kegs, citing weekly chapter meetings and weekend retreats taken exclusively with fraternity brothers.

Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity President Chris Crane ’07 said that while he acknowledges the negative stereotypes often associated with fraternity life, he does not agree with them.

“I don’t think it’s really fair,” he said. “From the outside it might look like that because the only aspect you’d see are the big parties … but being in a fraternity is very different from what people see .”

Often, when people think of fraternity life, they have preconceived notions about the brothers that do not include being “gentlemen or scholars,” said Travis Fischer, a leadership consultant for Beta’s national chapter.

“I’m not going to lie, it’s a lot easier to hold a party than to go out and do community service,” he said. “It’s a harder commitment to say, ‘I’m going to be an outstanding gentleman.’”

But Fischer said Beta’s ongoing mission is to return to the values it was founded upon, which do not include the “typical frat boy image.” He added that the Yale chapter consistently stands out in its commitment to academics and service.

Historically, fraternities have not always faced the problem of reconciling these two images. Beta brother Gardner Stern ’49 said he joined the fraternity with a group of post-World War II returning veterans who were “celebrating and just being happy they were alive.” He said he does not recall any problems with binge drinking or hazing, which are frequently associated with fraternity life today.

“I think that that situation has gotten much worse — we were naive young guys,” Stern said. “It was pretty innocent … but a lot has changed in 50 years.”

In an attempt to avoid the problems associated with binge drinking and hazing, SigEp has done away with its pledge process, which was not part of the fraternity when it was founded but made its way into the chapters in the 1940s and 1950s, Graziano said. This decision, he said, substantially contributed to the success of the Balanced Man initiative.

Many Yale students said they have noticed and appreciated the enforcement of the Balanced Man program and the effect that it has had on the personality of the fraternity. Josh Blair ’09, who pledged SigEp this fall, said he knew about the Balanced Man program when he decided to join and was attracted by the unique experience that the fraternity could offer him.

“Part of the reason that I joined SigEp was because it is the ‘gentlemanly’ frat,” he said. “I knew that it wasn’t just about getting wasted on a Saturday. It’s also about getting to know a well-rounded group of guys with lots of diverse interests, whether it be athletics, community service or academics.”

Yale’s chapter of Sigma Chi also espouses a tradition of service to the community, said President Ratko Jovic ’07. While, unlike SigEp, Sigma Chi does have a pledging process, the fraternity is extremely strict about its anti-hazing policies and limits its activities to meetings and philanthropic events.

“If you want someone to be your brother, it cannot be someone you abused,” Jovic said.

Sam Beutler ’07, president of Yale’s SAE chapter, said True Gentlemen has been the credo of his fraternity since its founding in 1856 and is the single most important aspect of the fraternity nationwide. The philosophy emphasizes the ideal of individual behavior as well as a consciousness of the feelings of others, he said.

“Our pledge process tries to teach some of these values through the True Gentlemen, as well as many old-fashioned principles of etiquette [such as] proper table settings [and] walking on the street side with a girl,” Beutler said. “It’s also about presenting yourself well, which we try and uphold in events such as football tailgates, where all our brothers are dressed in coat and tie.”

Beta President Adam Clark-Joseph ’07 said his fraternity is also dedicated to community service and that each of the brothers tries to represent the fraternity in a gentlemanly way on a daily basis.

Trachtenberg said the Yale College Dean’s Office has initiated an attempt to engage in more dialogue with the fraternities this year, and the result has been positive so far. But overall, she said she believes alcohol violations are more prevalent among other American fraternities than they are at Yale.

“It is my impression that we compare favorably to other universities,” she said.

Yale’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity chapter, above, has a True Gentlemen program emphasizing strong values and etiquette.
Robin Swartout
Yale’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity chapter, above, has a True Gentlemen program emphasizing strong values and etiquette.

Comments