Campus greeks face slow enrollment

Nick Doty

Sascha Matuszak

When Kathy Anderson reminisces of being a sorority girl at the University in the 1960s, her eyes light up and she speaks with envy.
The Kappa Kappa Gamma alumna remembers many students waiting to join a fraternity or sorority but said not all of them could because of space constraints in the houses.
“Now, the sororities cannot fill their houses and the fraternities are recruiting members one by one,” she said.
Since the late 1940s, the University greek system, especially fraternities, has seen a dramatic decline in membership — to about one third of what it once was. The membership decline has been coupled with a souring image of greeks by non-greeks, and decreased support from the University and coverage by the Daily.
“I don’t think the greeks have been particularly encouraged on this campus,” said Anderson, who is now a state district court judge.
Many officials say discouragement of the greek system is also a national trend. However, despite constituting less than 4 percent of the nation’s population, graduates of the greek community continue to dominate the country’s highest leadership positions.
According to the University’s Interfraternity Council, 40 of the last 47 Supreme Court justices are fraternity alumni. Also, of the nation’s top 50 corporations, 43 are headed by greek men. And nearly half of all U.S. presidents have been greek.
Jim Hilt, Sigma Chi fraternity alumnus, said greeks are also more likely to give back more money to their respective universities than other college graduates.
“It is a long held belief, and in many cases accurately documented, that greek alumni are strong donors to their universities,” Hilt said.
The University does not keep record of the percentage of alumni donations that are from greeks. But several campus buildings, such as the Carlson School of Management (Curt Carlson, Sigma Chi) and the James Ford Bell Museum of Natural History (James Ford Bell, Lodge), were funded by greeks.
McKinley Boston, University vice president for student development and athletics who was also a student here in the ’60s, said the greek system and the school have historically got along.
“For the most part, the University has valued the greek experience on campus,” said Boston, who is not greek. “We value their energy and level of activism.”
Former University President Nils Hasselmo and University President Mark Yudof have both pushed initiatives to strengthen the University and greek rapport.
However, many University greeks, which constitute 5.6 percent of the undergraduate population, still say the organization’s dwindling image has placed them in the minority of student interest.

Decline in membership
A strong recruitment of new members is vital not only to individual chapters but to the greek system as a whole. If the membership is not replenished each year, some chapters may be forced to close down. Lacking a critical mass essential to effective group functioning and a number of empty beds has led to serious financial crunches for many greek chapters in the last 50 years.
A total of 23 greek chapters have folded on campus since 1933, with 12 closing in the last 27 years.
Phi Kappa Psi fraternity is the latest campus chapter to suffer a financial hardship, which forced the chapter to temporarily shut down this fall because of a failure to meet building codes. The chapter was recently reinstalled, thanks to a $250,000 loan from a national alum, and is undergoing building renovations.
In the past 50 years, the University’s greek population has gone from about 4,000 to less than 1,500.
Some officials have attributed the decline to the increasing amount of lifestyle choices, educational goals and cultural backgrounds at the University. The number of campus groups since mid-century has also increased about 10-fold, and greeks have found themselves lacking the resources to accommodate a broad range of students.
But Hilt said it is bad stereotypes that have wracked the greek establishment. Issues such as alcohol consumption, sexual violence and a drop in academic standards have taken their toll on the greek reputation, he said.
“These negative images of the greek community have prevented students from exploring the greek experience,” Hilt said.
Caught between the reality of stereotypes and statistics — which show greeks party more and drink more than twice as much as undergraduates in general — Dan Campion, chairman of the Interfraternity Council, said recruiting has become a difficult task.
“I was trying to solve that problem for two years,” he said, “and I did not come up with a definite solution.
“I would like it if people would see us for what we are. As a group of ambitious people; instead of frat boys or stuck up snobs,” Campion said.
Anderson said a clean image of the greek system started to decline during the Vietnam War. She mentioned the fact that the Vietnam War polarized and galvanized universities nationwide, which affected the greek system at the University in much the same way it affected the rest of the students.
She added that greeks were as divided and active as any other group of students on the campus, leading to many members dropping their greek affiliation because of a difference in war views within a house.
A transition from the rush system in the ’60s to today’s format has also made recruiting tougher, causing a drop in membership, Anderson said.
She described a rush system in the ’60s that started a week before school, avoiding conflict with students’ class schedules and other activities.
The formal rush system gave students from out of state the chance to view the greek system before choosing to live in the dorms or searching for off-campus housing.
Currently, most students, especially those from out of state, already have residence hall contracts or off-campus housing contracts before they get a glimpse of the greek system.
Greek chapters are invited to advertise themselves at the University’s fall orientation, but according to the Greek Experience survey issued to University greeks this fall, only 7 percent of greeks said they found out about the greek system through orientation.
The survey states that 56 percent found out through friends in a chapter. And this is how fraternities now primarily recruit.
Fraternities have a very informal rush system, usually in the fall and spring quarters. They tend to recruit members who have already expressed interest, or who have friends who are fraternity members.
Sororities still have an actual formal system, in which incoming women are invited to each house in the fall, with each individual choosing a few sororities that she feels fits her personality. The sorority sisters usually end up with those women who had them atop their list, but some women might not get their top choice if the sorority doesn’t give them consent or if they have already met their membership limit.
The structured recruitment process among the sororities, Anderson said, is why they have not experienced the dramatic decline in membership that fraternities have.
Some say the idea that fraternities are elitist and practice nepotism also has been their downfall.
“Fraternities build a hierarchical system, which most of us do not adhere to,” said Jeremy Tremblay, a sophomore at the University. Tremblay is not in a fraternity. “They benefit from this system because they are placed on the top.”
Many greeks find it hard to combat the elitist stereotype. With all of the statistics available pointing toward a greek domination of business and politics, the claim is tough to refute.
“I try and stay clear of fraternities, possibly in part because of the stereotypes,” said Craig Willford, an Institute of Technology student.
But Campion said fraternities still look for the same type of individual as always: one who not only excels in academics and athletics, but is also active in the community and in philanthropic pursuits.
“We are not elitist based on money, but we do want people who will be the best well-rounded individual they can be,” he said.
“I just want people who have the drive to succeed,” he added.

Increase in apathy by non-greeks
Around mid-century, it was rare not to see a story about the greek community in The Minnesota Daily. And for that matter, support on campus for the community was stronger.
For example, in 1948 there were about 150 articles published in the Daily related to greek activity. In contrast, there were only 13 articles in 1997.
But some non-greeks don’t feel that fraternities warrant any media attention.
“I am under the impression that the fraternity house is a wretched hive of scum and villainy,” said Romalyn Schmaltz, a College of Liberal Arts senior.
R. Scott Rogers, the Daily editor in chief, does not hold the same opinion.
“The greeks are generally a good organization that builds good character, but so is the debate team,” Rogers said. “There is no need to cover the status quo, when the status quo stays the same and stays good.”
But many greeks have pointed out that coverage of greeks — especially fraternities — tends to be negative in content focusing on alcohol-related issues or the closure of houses instead of all of the community service greeks are involved with.
Within the past year, the national fraternity system has been under fire following three alcohol-related deaths at fraternity parties. And the incidents have been widely reported in the media nationwide.
“(Fraternities) feel that the Daily only writes about fraternities when something bad happens,” Rogers said.
But Rogers added that drinking deaths happening nationwide in an institution with a local tie is news, and therefore should be published.
The Daily published an editorial addressing the need for fraternities to use the publicity to their own advantage, turning bad publicity into coverage of the good things with which the greek system is involved.
“The editorial painted a picture of a greek community that was taking proactive measures to protect themselves from the kind of abuses that were happening elsewhere in the country,” Rogers said.
But some greeks said they see merit in the media’s coverage of greek issues.
“I am not going to argue that we don’t often earn the negative publicity we get, nor say that the Daily and other organizations should cover our events,” Hilt said.
“I think that the past 10 years of news stories have forced us to examine our actions and are leading to positive changes,” he added.
Aside form the media, the number of Gophers athletes involved in the greek system has also decreased. Jim Stephenson, University women’s gymnastics coach, attributed the lack of greeks on his team to time constraints.
“I think it is a very conscious decision on the part of the athletes,” he said.
He added that with all the work involved in being an athlete, many students do not have the time for the greek system.
However, 30 or 40 years ago, it was not uncommon for athletes to be members of fraternities and sororities. Former football players Bronko Nagurski and George Gibson were both members of Sigma Chi fraternity.
Although in the past the University and the greek community had no formal relationship, during the last 10 years the University has recognized the need to have a strong greek community.
“Recently, the University has definitely been extending themselves to us more,” said Campion. “This will hopefully lead to a resurgence in the greek community.”

Greeks during and after college
According to the Greek Experience survey, greeks have traditionally been the academic, athletic and philanthropic leaders of their school.
In the 1950s, the academic performance of the members of fraternities and sororities exceeded that of undergraduates as a whole. By the 1970s and 1980s, however, the overall grade point average was lower than undergraduates.
Sorority women’s averages used to be slightly below the all women’s average, but now they are on par with undergraduates.
The image of the fraternity system has deteriorated from literary societies promoting knowledge and education to the “Animal House” image of a pack of rowdy drinking buddies out to get girls.
“The only run-ins I’ve had with fraternity people is when they have yelled stuff at me when I am walking down the street,” said David Pass, a CLA sophomore.
Although, in terms of academic excellence, greeks have fallen in the past 30 years, their community involvement seems to compensate for it in a variety of ways.
About 70 percent of greeks participate in volunteer work, compared with 52 percent of the undergraduate population. Also, more greeks hold a job (77 percent) than undergraduates in general (74 percent).
Hence, many greeks argue that their grades should not be under a microscope.
And although statistics show greeks drink a lot more than undergraduates in general, said Mitch Joneja, a member of Sigma Chi fraternity, it isn’t that big of a problem.
“The people in the dorms drink just as much, if not more,” Joneja said. “They cut down on us more because it’s easier to see us.”
“It’s actually a college student’s problem, a national problem, not necessarily only a greek problem,” said Campion. “It’s a bigger problem that they are labeling the frats with.”
In one survey, 67 percent of greeks said it was important to them to experience a feeling of community on campus, compared to 46 percent of the general undergraduate body.
Furthermore, 62 percent of greeks said they experience a sense of community to some extent or a great extent compared with 42 percent for undergraduates in general.
Even with the decline in membership, popularity and the alcohol stigma, 88 percent of fraternity members and 82 percent of sorority members said they were satisfied with their greek experience. Four percent and 5 percent said they were dissatisfied, respectively.

Future outlook
At the University an increased emphasis is being placed on the quality of the undergraduate experience, the development of a greater sense of community, and expanding residential life — all as part of the University’s strategic planning.
And many would agree that the greek system on campus is heading in the right direction.
The greek population has experienced increases over the last four years, reaching 1,437 members in 1997.
Last summer, several University alumni, undergrads and administrators in the Office of Student Development and Athletics began a new program to overcome hurdles between the University and the greek system. The Greek Action Council was formally appointed by Yudof to address short and long-term issues facing the greek community.
In the council’s constitution, it states that the group was formed to be the coordinating unit between the University, the Interfraternity and Panhellenic councils, and the greek alumni organizations.
“Recently, the University has definitely been extending themselves to us more,” said Campion. “This will hopefully lead to a resurgence in the greek community.”
Mary Ann Ryan, director of Housing and Residential Life, said her department has formed a partnership with the greek system.
“A number of fraternities and sororities advertise in our office,” she said.
The University first confronted the decline in the greek system in 1984, and University officials attempted to halt the trend by setting up committees to analyze and try to solve the problem.
The Greek Advisory Board was established in 1984 to evaluate declining membership. Cooperatively, the alumni and undergraduates developed a five-year plan to address: diversity, staffing needs, budgets, audience targeting, mailing/promotional pieces and securing computer equipment and software.
The initiative was able to turn the tide somewhat, increasing membership in the greek system by more than 200 members between 1985 and 1990.
But in April 1990, alumni involvement in the program ended. At that point about $250,000 had been collected and spent in marketing the greek system.
In an attempt to revitalize the idea of a stronger relationship between the University and the greek community, former University President Nils Hasselmo began in 1992 a process called the “Greek Initiative.”
After several years of study and collaboration, the program was discontinued in 1996 because of financial roadblocks.
Between the inception and ultimate demise of the initiative, the greek population hit an all-time low in 1994, with 1,020 active members on campus.
Right now most students in the greek system have said the cost of a fraternity or sorority is the main reason holding them back. In the Greek Experience survey, 51 percent of students said their main concerns about joining a fraternity or sorority are financial concerns and image.
However, living in a fraternity house is cheaper than living in the residence halls: The minimum cost to live in a campus residence hall is about $1,400 a quarter; the average cost to live in a fraternity per quarter is about $1,250 among 22 fraternities.
And many fraternities offer scholarships for high academics and students in financial trouble.
Furthermore, the University could have saved money this fall by relocating students living in residence hall lounges to fraternity houses.
Out of nearly 800 spaces available in fraternity houses, about 160 spaces were open as of winter quarter, and as of fall quarter there were 194 students living in lounges.
Many fraternities rent out open rooms to non-fraternity members.
Anderson said a better cooperation between the University and the greek system is not that difficult and would financially help both parties.
“It benefits the U to make the greek system stronger,” Anderson said. “As the University tries to change its image and academic standing, improving the greek system would go hand in hand with that. It is overall beneficial for the University to support the greeks.”