When two recruiters from Sigma Phi Epsilon’s national headquarters arrived at Yale to open a new chapter of the fraternity, they knew just where to look for strapping Yale men to become the first Sigma Phi Epsilon brothers: sororities.
“The fact of the matter is a sorority knows the best men on campus,” one of the Sigma Phi Epsilon regional directors, Corey Adams, told a group of Kappa Alpha Theta girls at their meeting last week. “Everywhere we go, they do.”
Specifically, Adams and fellow Regional Director Jeffrey Keltner have been searching for men who conform to the “SLAG” standard: scholar, leader, athlete, gentleman. Sigma Phi Epsilon has a single-tier membership, no pledging process, and requires a minimum 3.0 grade point average. Adams and Keltner said the fraternity aims to expand to every Ivy League campus. In their three weeks at Yale, the two regional directors want to recruit a core group of 12 Sigma Phi Epsilon men to lead the nation’s largest fraternity to a position of prominence here at Yale.
They are hoping that some of the lucky 12 will be gleaned from names that the Theta girls wrote on small yellow suggestion cards.
But the same problem that Adams and Keltner have encountered across the Yale campus came up again at the Theta House, albeit briefly. When asked to define the ideal fraternity man, the Theta girls could only offer one characteristic: he should be good at beer pong.
When Adams, Keltner and a third Sigma Phi Epsilon alumnus chuckled and asked for a more serious answer, the girls laughed, but stood firm: he should be good at beer pong.
It took the Sigma Phi Epsilons another try to elicit the answers they were looking for — he should be involved in the community; have integrity, leadership skills, and manners; know when to open doors; and have proper “phone skills.”
The delayed response was indicative of the difficulties the two organizers have encountered in their quest to found Yale’s newest fraternity.
Even though Delta Kappa Epsilon, which was founded here in 1844, has remained active for over a century and a half, there are currently only seven fraternities and three sororities at Yale, the rest of which were established or re-opened after 1984.
Fraternities at Yale are widely perceived as little more than social groups, where parties run late and the beer flows like spring water. While that reputation keeps membership in the established houses steady through a national slump in the Greek population, it makes for some unfriendly responses when Yalies are asked to welcome a new fraternity into their midst. Some of the students Adams and Keltner approached simply turned and walked away.
“We are trying to demolish the stereotype,” Adams said. “But our reputation does not precede us.”
Sigma Phi Epsilon is not alone in finding that the beer pong stereotype inhibits growth on college campuses. Greek membership started falling nationwide around 1990, as a spate of deaths from alcohol poisoning and new movies about the vulgar underbelly of fraternity life made headlines. From a high of 400,000, the Greek population tracked by the North American Interfraternity Conference, or NIC, fell by almost a quarter until 1999, when newly directed recruitment efforts and education programs started drawing the traditional fraternity man back into the fold.
The national headquarters of two fraternities with Yale chapters, Beta Theta Phi and Zeta Psi, reported a similar trend.
“What you had was a group of people joining frats beginning in 1990 who were in it as a social club,” said NIC Executive Vice President Jon Williamson. “They in essence made it unattractive for our traditional base of students. Now we are getting back to our traditional base — ones who are interested in leadership opportunities and dedicated to philanthropy.”
At Yale, the Greek scene has not been immune to what Thomas Olver, a spokesman for the national organization of Beta Theta Phi, called an “identity crisis” among fraternities.
“It’s a concern that people are joining the fraternity for the sake of the fraternity, not just for the parties,” Sigma Chi Public Relations Chairman LeKeith Lewis ’04 said. “You have to understand that there’s something more to Sigma Chi than just the parties.”
In an effort to combat the stereotype, Lewis said brothers at Sigma Chi are considering ways to publicize some of their other activities, including a recent volunteer commitment with Centro San Jose, a local community center.
But established Yale fraternities do not necessarily take issue with their reputation as pillars of the campus social scene.
Clinton Dockery ’03, head of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, says that his fraternity has not seen a decline in membership in recent years — and that its reputation for throwing good parties does not pose a problem in recruiting new members or in undertaking non-party related activities.
The Sigma Phi Epsilon recruiters pointed out that many of the needs fraternities meet at other schools — help with job placement, resume writing, or academic tutoring, for example — are well taken care of at Yale. Still, Keltner and Adams said Sigma Phi Epsilon wants to defy the stereotype of an exclusively social fraternity, which has been fed by movies like “Animal House.”
“If I won the lottery I would buy the rights to that movie and prevent it ever being shown again,” Keltner said. “It adds to the misperception.”
He added that Sigma Phi Epsilon men, unlike their Hollywood counterparts, do not abuse alcohol, mistreat women or break school rules.
As Adams told the Theta girls, “We are looking for the guys who walk up the stairs behind you in case you fall, not to look at your butt.”