With administrators alarmed by a rise in binge drinking among college students, brothers across the nation are feeling pressure to step out of the long shadow of Animal House. But fraternity members purported membership in Greek organizations is more of an intellectual experience than many think. Do fraternities do more than produce beer-guzziling John Belushis?
On a Thursday night, students made their way down High Street toward a house whose foundations shook to the heavy bass of the blaring hip-hop music. On the steps of the house, the men of Sigma Alpha Epsilon stood, casually nodding to guests as they entered the house. Inside, tipsy students filled the narrow hallways and the treacherously steep stairs leading to the basement, the heart of SAE Late Night.
While many students may dismiss SAE Late Night as frivolous debauchery, holding a party for 300 to 500 people is in fact “a huge social responsibility,” according to Benjamin Cohen ’06, a former president of SAE,
Nick Piepmeier ’07, a would-be fraternity brother who decided not to take the plunge, said frat boys want to do three things: party, get girls, and be popular. The hard partying stereotype currently plagues fraternities at Yale, as the University administration investigates whether fraternities foster a culture of alcohol abuse.
But is providing students a place to binge-drink the only purpose fraternities serve on campuses? Or does the fraternity system contribute something else to student life? At a university where only a minority of students are members of Greek organizations, who joins fraternities, and why? Often, fraternity members said, the answer has little to do with partying.
Instead, the men I spoke with described their fraternities as communities where social education took place and meaningful relationships developed.
According to Cohen, membership in a fraternity offers a chance for similar types of men to form a community. His own fraternity, he claimed, appeals to “people who are not jocks at Yale, but maybe were in high school.” Some men choose to be in a fraternity with members of their varsity sports team, while others are encouraged to rush by friends who are in a fraternity.
“A lot of guys in my major were in Beta,” said Piepmeier, while Jordan Hanson ’07, a member of Beta Theta Phi, was introduced to the idea of joining a fraternity by his rugby teammates. David Berv ’06, president of Sigma Phi Epsilon, or Sig Ep, said he was simply seeking a community outside of his residential college, which he occasionally found to be “restrictive.”
In addition, Hanson likened fraternity involvement to other extracurricular commitments which give a student structure and focus.
“People assume that fraternity guys aren’t as smart as the average person. But being in a fraternity actually forces you to be a little more organized,” he said.
In fact, Beta was the first fraternity at Yale to institute a GPA requirement for its Pledges, affirming the fraternity’s commitment to academic excellence.
Hanson elaborated on Beta’s Pledge philosophy. “The ideal Pledge process is one that is a two-way street,” he said. When a Pledge does not become a brother, it is usually a mutual decision. “We like to be selective,” said Hanson about the assembling of a group of Pledges. “But we don’t have to be. Usually, the Rushees who come out are the ones we want in the fraternity.”
Nearly all fraternities incorporate the Rush and Pledge processes, in which interested underclassmen get a sense of the character and members of a fraternity, although the traditions and rituals of each organization are different. The trials of the Pledge period are exemplified in the common Pledge element of Hell Week. During this week, Pledges live in the fraternity house and must fit their lives — schoolwork, friends, other activities — around the planned fraternity activities of the week.
Piepmeier, who went through Rush for Beta but did not Pledge, recalled witnessing a particularly notable Pledge practice. He described being at a table in Commons when the DKE Pledges arrived, covered in fish entrails. “At least I think they were fish guts,” he said. “It was the most sickening thing ever.” Instances like these are obviously more visible, but they are also extreme.
The issue of Pledge is a contentious one. Sig Ep’s founders decided to depart from the nearly universal fraternity custom of Pledging, thus distinguishing the fraternity from others at Yale. Berv explained, “We don’t see the point of kicking someone’s ass for two weeks and then calling him a brother.” However, the fraternities that incorporate Pledging are fiercely loyal to, and even philosophical about, the process. Almost every brother I interviewed claimed Pledge to be an important part of turning a group of young men into brothers.
“Having done Pledge and coming out at the other end, you’re a better man,” said one member of SAE.
SIGMA EPSILON: “The Balanced Man”
Sig Ep has a different concept of — and a different word for — the Rush and Pledge processes. “‘Recruits’ is the only word we use,” said Berv. “We’re looking for the people whom we have to convince to join.” This ideal type, the young man who has other interests and involvements, presents an interesting challenge to Sig Ep.
“Given the type of guys in Sig Ep, Sig Ep can’t always be their priority,” Berv pointed out. For Recruitment, Sig Ep approaches sororities for recommendations of “good guys,” in addition to compiling a list themselves. “We figure that if a guy is popular with a group of girls, he has the traits we’re looking for in a man.”
This tactic was first employed in the founding of the fraternity’s Yale chapter. In the fall of 2002, two recruiters from the National Administration came to campus, and through discussions with deans, professors, and sororities, assembled a list of men who were “gentlemen,” had strong academic records, and were leaders on campus. From meetings in the basement of WLH in early 2003, when the fraternity was “just a vision,” to the moment when Berv signed a sheet of paper, becoming a brother, Berv was attracted to Sig Ep because he believed that it was a chance to make a difference at Yale.
Sig Ep’s Recruitment period incorporates elements of Rush and Pledge. For example, the Recruits attend Recruitment Events which present “all sides of the fraternity.” Recruits may hear from a guest speaker about economic development in New Haven, or they may be educated on the ins and outs of buying a used car. Once a year, Sig Ep assembles a panel of Yale women who reveal to the Recruits “What Women Want.” Berv told me that the Recruitment events are inspired by the fraternity’s motto, “Sound Mind, Sound Body,” and the Sig Ep ideal of “the balanced man.”
Has Berv’s time in Sig Ep changed him? He discussed his decision to make the fraternity his first priority and the challenges he faced as a member and as president.
“I learned that the hardest thing to do is to create something out of nothing,” Berv said, adding that the founding and the subsequent development of the fraternity’s Yale chapter have taught him a great deal about the business world. Berv said he’s grateful for the opportunity he’s had to interact with and learn from the “accomplished businessmen” at Sig Ep’s National Headquarters and on the Alumni Board.
SIGMA ALPHA EPISILON: “The True Gentleman”
Cohen, of SAE, also highlighted the connection between fraternities and business. He discussed the opportunity he had while president of the fraternity last year to “develop and execute leadership and management skills.” Besides the coordination of the weekly Late Night, the president is responsible for philanthropy, tailgates, fundraising, and the newsletter, which is sent twice a semester to the National Administration of SAE. “Now, when I go in for a consulting interview — which I’ll be doing soon — I have experience coming up with creative solutions for an array of problems,” Cohen said.
The topic of how a man behaves among other men is central to the ideology of fraternities. Whether it was a question of acquiring business intelligence, or the debate over the value of Pledging, fraternity brothers claimed to have learned something about the way a man functions socially.
“Being in SAE is really a non-academic education for gentlemen,” said Felix Hernandez. While Hernandez was wary of me at first (“I bet you’re writing a shitty, backhanded exposé”), he let his guard down quickly enough. As he and other members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon gathered in the living room of the house (which functions as an auxiliary dance floor on Thursday nights) they began to discuss the cultural education they have received as brothers of the fraternity.
“Hey, now I know the fourteen settings of the table,” Peter Burns ’08 said. He began to list them: salad fork, crustacean fork, dessert fork. This and other pieces of genteel knowledge are imparted during the Pledge process.
Cohen located the roots of the Pledge process in the initiation rites in ancient, horticultural societies. “Horticultural societies would take men out of society, strip them of their cultural identity, and then build them back up,” he said. “During Pledge, you face tasks together, and the only way to get through it is as a Pledge class.”
Indeed, when asked why their fraternity means so much to them, SAE brothers talk about the particular effects of going through something difficult with a small group of young men. The closeness that comes from this experience, the brothers claim, is inimitable.
“You’re forced to hang out with a group of guys that you might not hang out with otherwise,” said one brother. “You become good friends because of the shared experience.”
Greg Aponte ’06, a recent president of SAE, distinguished Pledge from other challenging experiences, such as being on a sports team, because those in charge of the Pledge process are the Pledges’ peers. “You’re pushed hard to limits you weren’t pushed before,” Aponte said, “without an older authority figure, like a coach or a parent.” According to Aponte, Pledge proves that a man can be subservient to a group of men with whom he is simultaneously developing friendships. Following the example of these authority figure-peers, Aponte said, “You learn, ‘This is how a good guy conducts himself.'”
The making of a true gentleman, it seems, is inseparable from the Pledge process. In fact, many brothers said they believed that it could not be accomplished without Pledging.
Burns (whose Pledge experience blessed him with a confidence in table-setting) said a fraternity without Pledge is “like an eating club,” referring to the selective organizations at Princeton University. Another brother argued that “the harder you work for something, the more you appreciate it.” Indeed, the brothers of SAE insisted that the travails of getting into a fraternity are essential to one’s experience in the fraternity. As one brother put it, “Not having Pledge defeats the purpose of a fraternity.”
ALPHA DELTA PHI: More than “Shadyphi”
The gentlemen of Alpha Delta Phi, who are virtually all members of the lacrosse team, were slightly less philosophical about the Pledge process.
James Rump ’07, president of the fraternity, said that ADPhi is “laid-back” about the Pledge process. ADPhi’s Pledge, according to Rump, is mostly fun and only on occasion miserable. The fraternity’s high jinks caught the attention of Sports Illustrated On Campus, which cited ADPhi’s wintertime naked punt returns as one of the top 102 things to do before graduation.
The question of motivation in Pledging ADPhi is less complex than for other fraternities. Rump admitted that the fraternity draws virtually entirely from the lacrosse team. “We’re trying to get away from that,” he added, pointing out that among the current Pledges, there are three non-lacrosse players. For the most part, though, ADPhi continues to be known as the lacrosse fraternity. Dan Brillman ’06, last year’s president pointed out that it is natural that the members of the lacrosse team should be in a fraternity together. “We’re a homogenous group,” he said, characterizing the members of ADPhi as mostly preppy. “Lacrosse is kind of a small world,” Brillman explained. “A lot of the kids are similar, so it’s natural that we’re in the same fraternity.”
The brothers of ADPhi make it a point to acknowledge and laugh at their own preppiness. They are candid about other aspects of the fraternity’s character, as well. When I asked them what they thought of the epithet, “Shadyphi,” they laughed heartily and offered no defense. “I think that was a self-proclaimed name,” Brillman said, insisting that he and his friend Meaghan Burke had coined the nickname three years ago. While the other brothers in the room challenged this claim, no one resisted the label. ADPhi does not take itself too seriously.
“I can’t say there’s not an actual basis to the name,” Brillman said. The brothers admitted that they go out a lot and enjoy tailgating. Brillman added, “If we were caring about our reputation …” He trailed off.
“We’re doing community service this year!” Will Sale chimed in enthusiastically. Though fraternities generally participate in community service projects every year, Sale admitted that for ADPhi, “It’s been a while.” Sale discussed the upcoming Habitat for Humanity project lightheartedly. “You know, hammering, nailing, flannel shirts, sealed-toe shoes, chugging beers on the side.”
But hidden beneath the self-mocking machismo of the men of ADPhi is a softer side. Women of Yale, take note: the brothers of “Shadyphi” can be nurturing. Brillman disappeared mid-interview and returned with the fraternity’s cat in his arms. True, she is named after an ex-lacrosse coach, but she was a stray, and the brothers took her in and even put a flea collar on her. Now, she rubbed against the brothers’ legs as they gathered around to pet her.
On my way out of the house, I noticed, amid shabby couches and bags of garbage, a golf bag propped against the wall. Classy yet shady, men’s men and yet known to dress as women during Pledge, the gentlemen of ADPhi are perhaps most notable for their honesty. Short of claims of academic excellence, a service-oriented consciousness, or lofty ideas about brotherhood, the members of ADPhi are, above all, good friends who like to hang out together.
At a university renowned for its blue-blood background, fraternities are a surprisingly democratizing force.
Besides facing the unenviable task of cleaning up after parties, SAE Pledges have the more positive experience of house upkeep.
“I’m from Greenwich,” said Burns, referring to his affluent Connecticut upbringing. “But I painted most of this house with my own two hands. I learned how to dry-wall when I got here.” He added that a lot of the brothers came from backgrounds which did not emphasize manual labor, and that being in SAE has conferred upon them the “manly” ability to “fix a house.” What’s more, one brother insisted, because the brothers have helped spruce up the house over the years, they “would never dream of disrespecting it.”
The house is not only a living space for some of SAE’s juniors; it is a gathering place for all brothers. It is where the fraternity takes on a shape. Aponte made sure that I realized that fewer than half of the brothers in the room live in the house. “So the others just came by because they wanted to,” he said.
The desire to be connected to a group and a place is, Aponte acknowledged, part of what drives a fraternity. “I went to boarding school,” he said. “We lived in houses, and you were bitter enemies with the people from the other houses. You hated them for whatever reason. That kind of affiliation is what I was looking for when I came to college.”
At one point in our conversation, Aponte offered a gentle criticism of my language. “The word ‘frat’ is disrespectful, at least in our fraternity,” he explained. “It’s the socially stigmatized, bastardized version of the word.” He added, thoughtfully, “And you miss out on the root: frater.”