Welcome to Frat City.
In a three minute, 16 second music video that surfaced last December, Yale rappers “DaLegend” and “MC Lars” captured that simple message in their musical debut, informing Yale students that “frat city … runs the whole school.” The video continues, rhythmically chanting a sequence of different Yale fraternities — including Alpha Delta Phi, Delta Kappa Epsilon and Zeta Psi.
While the video acknowledges the traditionally athletic fraternities ADPhi, DKE and Zeta, Yale is also home to a variety of other Greek organizations, including Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Sigma Phi Epsilon and Alpha Epsilon Pi, which all typically draw members of the student body beyond just sports teams.
But while existing fraternities on campus have attracted interested students every year, recent efforts to establish new chapters have not been met with the same success.
Early last month, Geoff McDonald, coordinator of chapter and colony development for Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity, arrived on campus in an effort to recruit students interested in starting an Alpha Sig chapter at the University. Though McDonald had intended to be on campus for one month to build a solid group of “founding members” for an Alpha Sig chapter at Yale, he ultimately cut his visit short by 11 days, leaving New Haven on Jan. 31.
McDonald said his efforts to start an Alpha Sig chapter on campus were hindered by Yale’s lack of a central student center and “inter-fraternity council,” which he said limited his ability to contact students who had previously expressed interest in joining a fraternity but had not yet found their niche. Though University administrators were not opposed to the idea of a new fraternity, he said they did not lend as much support as administrators had at other universities.
But Alpha Sig’s recruitment challenges have not prevented other fraternities from considering expanding to Yale. Less than one month after Alpha Sig suspended official expansion efforts, another national fraternity, Chi Psi, has started looking into the possibility of establishing a chapter on campus. Justin Froeber, leadership consultant for Chi Psi fraternity, arrived at Yale on Wednesday for a two-day visit to the University. He spoke with student leaders and fraternity members in order to gain a better understanding of Yale’s Greek life culture and determine whether Chi Psi should begin formal expansion efforts at Yale.
“We initially opened at Yale in 1924 and we closed in 1963, and so we have a strong population of Chi Psi alumni who are also Yale alumni,” said Bradley Beskin, Chi Psi assistant executive director. “We have a rich history [with Yale] that we’d like to reconnect with.”
BACK TO THE ROOTS
Like Chi Psi, Alpha Sig also shares a historical connection with the University. The fraternity was first founded at Yale 167 years ago as a sophomore literary society, but membership declined following the start of World War II and disappeared from campus entirely in 1943. As a result, McDonald said, Alpha Sig’s efforts to reestablish its presence on campus mark an attempt by the fraternity to “go back to its roots.”
But reconnecting with its founding institution has not been easy. The absence of a University-wide umbrella organization overseeing fraternity activity made it difficult for McDonald to reach out to students who would be potentially interested in the new organization.
Compared to other institutions, which McDonald said have specified administrators tasked with managing Greek life, Yale’s fraternities are more independent from the administration, which made it more difficult to garner administrative support for his efforts.
According to John Meeske, associate dean for student organizations and physical resources, the process for establishing a new fraternity at Yale is the same as with any other undergraduate organization. Though a large majority of the University’s fraternities are not registered organizations with the Yale College Dean’s Office, Meeske said administrators would “certainly” review an application from any group of students who want to start a new organization.
Still, he added, the administration keeps Yale’s fraternities “at arms length.”
“We’ve chosen the route of having them be independent of Yale,” he said. “There are many [universities] with a real structure [to govern fraternities], and some have a hostile approach and some ignore the groups and let the things that happen just happen. We’re in that range somewhere, but it’s not that we’re necessarily extreme. It’s not that there’s one model for all universities in the country and Yale’s against that model — we’re just a different model.”
In an interview last month, Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry also affirmed that the Dean’s Office would be “receptive” to the formation of new groups if students expressed interest.
University administrators at other colleges are more involved in the Greek system, McDonald said, adding that he was able to recruit 56 founding members for an Alpha Sig chapter at the University of Arizona because of the larger Greek culture there. Unlike Yale, the University of Arizona has a central student center as well as an inter-fraternity council, and a large majority of the university’s fraternities are registered with the administration, said Aaron Tatad, one of the co-founders of the university’s recently established Alpha Sig chapter.
Tatad said the strong support from campus administrators facilitated communication and helped ensure that all Greek organizations followed campus guidelines. He added that the close relationship between fraternities and administrators made it easier for fraternity leaders to speak with University officials if they thought the administration was “being too big brother.”
A SUCCESS STORY
But Alpha Sig’s comparative lack of success at Yale contrasts with previous expansion efforts from other fraternities in the last decade.
Sigma Phi Epsilon, or “SigEp,” founded its Yale chapter in 2003. The new fraternity was meant to offer an alternative experience for students who wanted to join a social group on campus but had not yet found their match, said Aaron Shelley ’05, who co-founded the University’s SigEp chapter and served as the group’s chaplain in its inaugural year. Similarly, Alpha Sig and Chi Psi representatives expressed these same goals when describing what roles they hoped their fraternities would fill on campus.
“The whole premise behind SigEp was that it was meant to be different from the other fraternities,” Shelley said. “Rather than going through an initiation process that really tried to break you down and mold you into somebody, the purpose was to pick people who already had an established image of themselves and use that to mold the fraternity.”
In a similar process to Alpha Sig’s and Chi Psi’s initial expansion strategies, the national SigEp headquarters had sent two recruiters to campus to garner student interest in establishing a Yale SigEp chapter, Shelley said. Their proposal to bring SigEp to Yale seemed “fun and rewarding at the same time,” he added, and the other co-founders began recruiting additional students who they thought would be a good fit for the new fraternity.
SigEp grew pretty quickly at Yale, Shelley continued, adding that it was not difficult to get students interested in the new fraternity. By the end of the first year, SigEp had purchased a house on Lynwood Place and had “substantially” more students interested in living in the house than the space could accommodate. SigEp has since relocated to High Street, moving into the house designed and formally inhabited by Paul Rudolph, former Dean of Architecture from 1958-66. The fraternity’s move was controversial since the group renovated the house, eliminating many of Rudolph’s original design elements.
“The downstairs [of the original house] would be packed with guys sitting along the walls, sitting on the furniture, sitting on the floors and standing by the stairs,” Shelley said.
He added that he thought SigEp — which currently has over 90 members — grew so quickly because there had been a “social vacuum” on campus for students uninterested in the University’s existing fraternities, which he said had included ADPhi, DKE and Zeta Psi. Shelley said he wanted SigEp to be the fraternity that “didn’t have to have a kegger” at social functions and that a “girl would be able to come and not have to worry about whether or not [the events] would be sketchy.” In addition, he stressed that SigEp would not haze new members.
Shelley said he could not say why Alpha Sig was facing more difficulty attracting students for a new fraternity, though he said he thought there had been an especially strong need for a different type of social organization on campus during his time at Yale.
Their varying successes aside, student organizers of both the current and former initiatives faced similar experiences with University administrators. McDonald said administrators were not opposed to the idea but did not actively promote expansion efforts, and Shelley said he thought administrators at the time were “kind of standoffish” in terms of supporting their efforts.
Shelley said he believes that administrators originally viewed SigEp as “just another fraternity” that said it would not haze. But he said it quickly garnered esteem in its first years:
“There was definitely more respect [for SigEp] by the time I left,” he said. “All of us were involved in other aspects of student life. We had guys who were involved in a cappella groups [and] guys who wrote for the student newspaper. So [administrators] had been exposed to the guys who were in our fraternity in other settings.”
CURRENT GREEK CULTURE
Unlike some of Yale’s peer institutions, the University’s social scene is not as dependent on the Greek system, according to several fraternity leaders and administrators interviewed.
Avi Arfin ’14, president of Alpha Epsilon Pi — one of the few campus fraternities registered with the Dean’s Office — said he thinks Yale has a smaller Greek culture because of the University’s housing system and the presence of senior societies.
Fraternities provide additional housing and dining options that might encourage students who are unsatisfied with their universities’ living arrangements to join a fraternity, Arfin said. But because most Yale students find the University’s housing situation “good enough,” they do not feel a need to move off campus or join a fraternity to give themselves that option, he said.
He added that Yale’s residential colleges already offer a social niche that is not as readily available at other universities and that senior societies have historically functioned as the campus’ social groups, thus removing the need for fraternities as a sphere for intimate social interactions. Though Arfin said he thinks the importance of senior societies has since declined, their previously strong role in Yale’s culture established a social environment that simply did not need fraternities in order to thrive.
“To some degree, there’s no good reason [why Yale does not have a larger Greek culture],” he said. “[The idea that] because fraternities haven’t been popular before, they aren’t popular now … [means] that that inertia doesn’t exist.”
Similarly, Meeske said he thinks Yale’s smaller fraternity presence is a “natural thing.” Students don’t come to Yale immediately expecting to join a fraternity, he said, adding that when students do decide to pledge, they make a “choice” rather than follow a social expectation.
ADPhi president Jamey Silveira ’13 said Yale’s fraternity culture is “unique” in that many fraternities are connected to different athletic teams, adding that he thinks the University’s fraternities can generally function as the “social arms” of varsity athletic teams. As a result, Silveira said, it is already “sort of predetermined” who will get involved with fraternities.
In addition, Silveira said Yale students are so active in other extracurricular activities that fraternity life becomes more of a “temporary commitment” than a part of college identity, a characteristic of Yale’s culture that Silveira said is not necessarily true at other universities.
“We’re so involved with so many different things,” he said. “Like literally from the day you step on campus, you have hundreds of organizations giving you their pitches … so people get involved with fraternities, but it’s not like they play a huge role.”
But Silveira said he still thought fraternities fill a necessary role for students at Yale who need a place off campus where they can “just go and blow off steam.”
Cultural fraternities — including the African-American fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha — are among the plethora of fraternities represented in Yale’s past. Despite a long history that dates back to the early 1900s, Director of the Afro-American Cultural Center Rodney Cohen said in a Thursday email that Alpha Phi Alpha currently does not have any active members on campus.
He added that this is not unusual among cultural fraternities at Yale’s peer institutions, which he said have also experienced an “ebb and flow” in recruitment over the years.
Cohen said cultural groups have played an important role in the University’s historical development: members of Alpha Phi Alpha were active in helping form the Afro-American Cultural Center and Black Student Alliance at Yale. Cohen added that cultural fraternities — which he said were initially established on predominately Caucasian campuses to provide a “brotherhood” for African American men — continue to “promote community” among the African American population.
Just as fluctuations in membership are not uncommon among cultural fraternities, these vacillations can also be experienced by other social organizations on campus.
REACTING TO NATIONAL MEDIA
But Yale’s recent fraternity history has taken a more turbulent turn. After one of the University’s fraternities, DKE, came under national scrutiny in Oct. 2010 for its controversial hazing practices, in which pledges chanted “No means yes, yes means anal” on Old Campus, University administrators publicly condemned their actions and imposed restrictions on the fraternity.
In response to the controversy, Yale College Dean Mary Miller said in a May email to the student body that the Executive Committee had placed a five-year ban on all DKE campus activities and formally requested that the DKE national organization suspend the chapter for five years. Miller added that though it was unusual to announce ExComm’s decisions publicly, she thought it was important to share the Committee’s conclusions, since a “wide range of community members [had] been affected by this incident.”
Despite the sanctions, DKE members interviewed last December said they did not think the ban has significantly affected the fraternity’s activities. One senior DKE member, who wished to remain anonymous in order to maintain a positive relationship with existing DKE brothers, said he thought the ban’s primary effect was to “change the tone” of the fraternity.
“Each individual is more vigilant about what’s going on now than [they were] in the past,” he said. “I think now we pay more attention to basically how the actions of the fraternity affect people in the Yale community.”
Still, he said he did not think the controversy necessarily limited the group’s routine activities or ability to recruit new members, in part because DKE has traditionally drawn its membership from the football team. He added that he did not think DKE was a “particularly bad place or that there was anything wrong with it internally,” but that the recent scrutiny encouraged members to be more aware of the fraternity’s actions.
Shortly after the DKE incident, 16 Yale students and alumni filed a Title IX complaint in March with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights alleging that the University had a hostile sexual environment. In response, University President Richard Levin convened the Advisory Committee on Campus Climate last April to evaluate the University’s sexual culture. In the Advisory Committee’s report, which was released last November, Committee members recommended that University officials establish a leadership council to govern Yale’s fraternities.
But at a “Yale Greek Roundtable” held with administrators and Greek organization leaders last fall to discuss the possibility of creating such a council, several fraternity presidents interviewed last semester said they were resistant to the idea. Some said they saw a new leadership council as a way for University administrators to exercise additional control, and others said such a council was unnecessary since fraternity presidents already communicate informally.
“It seems to us that the fraternities on campus are more independent… than [those] on other campuses,” Meeske said. “[Campus fraternity leaders] think in general that rules are stifling, whether they’re made by Yale administrators or the fraternity’s administration; it’s still someone telling them what they can or can’t do.”
Meeske added that Yale students were “independent in general” and typically preferred to make their own decisions.
Indeed, several fraternity leaders interviewed last month said they thought the University’s stricter tailgating policies, which banned kegs and unauthorized U-Hauls from all future tailgates, unnecessarily restricted fraternity activities. While some Greek organization leaders said they understood the need for the tighter regulations, others said the new policies — which were implemented after a U-Haul headed for SigEp’s tailgate crashed during the Yale-Harvard Game last November — were limiting.
“[SAE] will certainly not be tailgating to the same capacity and numbers as before,” former SAE President Ben Singleton ’13 said in a January email. “The new rules are so overbearing compared to what we have been used to that I would assume there will be little interest among brothers in the fraternity.”
Singleton said he thought administrators were “clearly reacting” to national media criticism without fully understanding how to prevent future accidents. The new regulations will likely decrease tailgate attendance in the upcoming years, he said, adding that he thinks the lower turnout might discourage alumni who frequent football games and negatively affect Yale’s football program as a whole.
AN OPEN QUESTION
As Alpha Sig continues its informal recruitment efforts and Chi Psi decides whether to expand to Yale, fraternity leaders’ insistence that their groups’ daily activities have not been sigificantly affected indicate the relative independence of Yale’s Greek organizations and student body.
Despite campus discussion surrounding Yale’s fraternities, Silveira said he did not feel as if he were “constantly walking on eggshells,” adding that he did not think students have “shied away” from fraternities any more than usual.
“It’s not like the cops have driven past [the ADPhi] house any more than they would normally,” Silveira said.
Still, the recent challenges that Alpha Sig has faced in returning to Yale — particularly in light of SigEp’s success less than a decade earlier — suggests that fraternity culture at Yale is not the same as it was when Shelley first began his recruitment efforts nine years ago. Though Chi Psi representative Froeber left campus Thursday, the fraternity may return to the University if it decides to reestablish a chapter on campus.
For students hoping to join a fraternity, it remains to be seen whether they will have two additional options to select from during the rush season this coming fall.
Correction: Feb. 24
A previous version of this article incorrectly quoted the DKE pledge chants from October 2010.