UA Puts Fraternities Back on Right Track

by Bill Bowden  on Monday, Jun. 9, 2003 12:00 am  

Blame it on Bluto Blutarsky.

He was the "pledgemaster" played by John Belushi in the 1978 movie "Animal House."

Through that immensely popular low-budget film, Belushi and his buds branded fraternities as bastions of beer drinking and bad grades. And the label stuck.

The decade that followed saw an increase in popularity of fraternities on college campuses nationwide, and it appears many of the new pledges had seen the movie. Hazing and heavy drinking were high on the agenda. Going to class was more of an afterthought.

After hitting a record of about 400,000 undergraduates in 1990, fraternity membership has dropped by an estimated 30 percent at American colleges. Across the country, many chapters have shut down because they've lost the members they needed for financial support.

The story is similar at the University of Arkansas. The number of new fraternity

members at the UA dropped by 18 percent between 1991 and 2002. Between 1990 and 1999, the number of UA fraternities decreased from 21 to 16 and sororities dropped from 12 to 10.

Kappa Alpha closed its UA chapter. And Sigma Alpha Epsilon, historically one of the strongest fraternities at the university, was on probation for the past year because of an alleged hazing incident involving a muddy basement floor and broken beer bottles. If that's not bad enough, the SAEs also need at least $1 million to renovate their 49-year-old building.

To incoming freshmen, decrepit old frat houses don't look so good when compared to new dormitories and apartments.

Freshmen are a more diverse group now than they were in previous decades. Many of them don't want to be associated with a system that has the reputation for hazing, excessive drinking and poor academic performance.

But UA administrators are trying to change the fraternity system and its reputation.

Task Force

John White, chancellor of the UA's Fayetteville campus, formed The Task Force on the Enhancement of Greek Life last year to come up with solutions for the university's fraternities, in particular.

From 1991 to 2002, UA sororities saw membership increase 18 percent. (See graphic below.) Sororities appear to be stronger nationwide than fraternities. Historically, sorority women at the UA have had a culture of scholarship and service, with no hazing. Chi Omega, one of the strongest national sororities, was founded at the UA in 1895.

So, with men's fraternities in mind, the task force came up with 20 recommendations. Many of them had to do with recruitment of pledges — potential members who typically go through a semester trial period before initiation.

Hazing is forbidden, but there has been debate in the past over what amounts to hazing. In the task force report, anything causing "mental or physical stress and/or embarrassment" is considered hazing. Hazing had already been defined that way in the UA's Student Code of Conduct.

Traditionally, UA fraternities have used verbal abuse to test the pledges' commitment to the group. Sort of an "if they can put up with this, they're one of us" kind of attitude. Also, fraternities have a history of using pledges as janitors to clean the houses. Apparently, that could be considered hazing under the new rules if the house members aren't also helping. The boot-camp era appears to be over for UA fraternities.

The biggest change from the recommendations is that pledges won't be allowed to live in fraternity houses beginning in fall of 2004. The pledges must live in a UA dormitory for their first academic year. The task force hopes that will put the kibosh on irresponsible freshman behavior.

"That helps eliminate hazing," said Scott Walter, director of Greek Life Operations for the UA. "People don't have 24-hour access to [the pledges], and it changes the dynamics of the house if you have only sophomores, juniors and seniors in there."

"What we could determine is a lot of parents didn't like sending their sons up here to live in a motel until they pledged and moved into a fraternity house," said David Gearhart, vice chancellor for university advancement and chairman of the Greek life task force. "Basically, we're hoping the houses will move away from a lot of the things that are considered hazing."

For some students, Gearhart said, Greek life can be "a healthy, good experience." Most fraternities require pledges to attend study hall and keep their grades up, he said.

"I believe [fraternities] can be a real positive influence on a student if they're done right and they're clean, safe environments," he said. "And that's what we're trying to do."

Gearhart said Old Miss turned its fraternity system around, and membership is up. He said the UA plans to do the same thing.

Brian Hemphill, associate vice chancellor for student affairs and dean of students, said it will take two years to implement all of the recommendations.

"We're really taking it one stage at a time," he said.

"It's not going to be an easy change," Walter said. "It's going to be a rough next year and a half."

"We really want men coming into the Greek community that view scholarship, leadership and service as the components of that experience," Hemphill said.

When most fraternities were founded a century ago, that was their mission, Hemphill said. It wasn't until later in the 20th century that partying became the focus of many fraternities.

Gearhart and Walter were both members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon — Gearhart at Westminster College in Missouri and Walter at the University of Southern Mississippi.

Hemphill was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Inc. at St. Augustine College in Raleigh, N.C.

Fraternity Heritage

White said implementation of the task force recommendations will strengthen the UA's fraternities. White, who was a Sigma Nu at the UA, said fraternities have a rich history in Fayetteville.

Many distinguished Arkansans were fraternity members at the UA, including Rob Walton, chairman of the board of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., (Lambda Chi Alpha) and John Tyson, chairman and CEO of Tyson Foods Inc. (Phi Delta Theta).

Fraternities have a "wonderful history and heritage" at the UA, Gearhart said. "I believe it can continue in that vein with some tweaking," he added.

"Greek life has played a significant role at the University of Arkansas," White said via e-mail. "An amazingly large fraction of student body presidents have come through the UA Greek system. Greek houses have also fared well in academic competitions year-in and year-out. Greek organizations have also been leaders in community service.

"Unfortunately, Greek successes in academics, campus leadership, and service roles have been overshadowed by a few unfortunate incidents. The latter caused some to conclude that Greek organizations were overly emphasizing social life."

"The social aspect is always going to be part of it," Walter said. "But you don't want that to be the priority. You still get people who want to join a fraternity for partying. But we want that to be No. 7 or 8 on the list with academics and public service at the top."

Walter said drinking in common areas of fraternities, like living rooms and backyards, has been forbidden since 1959. But over the years, many fraternities have done it anyway. The university is trying to enforce that law now. Only students who are 21 are allowed to drink, and they must imbibe in their fraternity room.

Walter said fraternity camaraderie can be emphasized without centering the culture around alcohol.

Donor Dilemma

A major problem at the UA and other colleges nationwide is that donations to fraternities and sororities aren't eligible for income-tax deductions.

The Greek houses are classified as social organizations by the Internal Revenue Service and are governed by 501(c)(7) not-for-profit rules.

The UA, however, is a tax-exempt state institution, so donations to the university are tax deductible.

The UA is currently looking at a plan where donations could be made to the university, and alumni could request that the money be earmarked for a particular Greek house. The UA would try to work with donors to see that the money goes where they want it to go.

A problem with that plan is that two UA fraternities (Kappa Sigma and FarmHouse) own their houses and the land, and four other fraternities have 99-year leases on their houses. (See chart below.) The IRS says a 99-year lease is tantamount to ownership. So for those six fraternities, donations for maintenance, upkeep and refurbishment of those houses wouldn't be tax deductible, according to the task force report.

So UA officials are trying to talk fraternity members and alumni into shortening the length of their leases, preferably to five years. But some of the fraternity alumni don't trust the UA administration. If the lease comes up for renewal every five years, they believe it will be easier for the UA to evict them for some minor transgression. The UA took over the Delta Gamma and Phi Mu houses on Maple Street when those sororities shut down, but the university had majority ownership of those houses.

"I think there are some people who don't want shorter leases because they fear the university will have more power over them," Gearhart said.

But if the Greeks don't change the leases, they won't be able to get the tax deductions, which make it more affordable to do much-needed renovations.

Ownership of the Greek houses is a bit confusing. In many cases, the fraternity owns the house and the UA owns the land underneath it. In other cases, the UA also owns part of the house.

"There is a friendly dispute on the whole issue of ownership," Gearhart said "You're talking about something that was set up 75 years ago. Those people aren't around now. A lot of this [information] has been lost over a period of time. I don't think it really matters a lot as long as the houses are under control — have a semblance of control."

Gearhart said donations to fraternities on campus aren't currently monitored by the UA unless funds are for scholarships.

Over the years, the four fraternities who have raised the most private money from alumni are Kappa Sigma, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Phi Delta Theta and Sigma Chi. But those numbers aren't available to the public.

UA House History

When soldiers returned to Fayetteville from World War II, the UA didn't have enough housing to accommodate all of the new students who wanted to attend college on the G.I. Bill.

So the UA built temporary barracks on the front lawn of Old Main and worked out a bond issue with the state Legislature to build fraternity houses to serve as dormitories.

Many of those houses — including Lambda Chi Alpha, Sigma Nu, Pi Kappa Alpha and Zeta Tau Alpha — were completed in 1950. The next decade saw construction of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house in 1954, sorority Delta Delta Delta in 1954 and Phi Delta Theta in 1958.

Fraternities were very popular in the 1950s but declined during the Vietnam War. They experienced a resurgence in the Reagan-era 1980s.

Sigma Alpha Epsilon is getting ready for the renovation of its 49-year-old house on Stadium Drive. Edward Prewitt, a financial consultant with A.G. Edwards & Sons in Fayetteville who serves as the SAE chapter adviser, said it will cost at least $1 million to bring the house up to snuff. Sigma Chi spent about $2 million to renovate its house on Maple Street a few years ago.

"We're going to spend whatever we need to spend to meet the needs of men living on campus," Prewitt said. "We have new dorms being built. We want to be comparable to those living standards. It's not 1954 anymore."

"A lot of these houses had deteriorated," Gearhart said. "We didn't feel they were safe environments."

The SAEs have had other problems besides the house. The fraternity was put on probation for the 2002-2003 school year after UA police responded to a call in February 2002 and found pledges covered in mud in the basement of the frat house. Some of the pledges were apparently bleeding from cuts they received from a broken beer bottle as they tried to scrub the muddy floor.

But the probation ended in May, and the fraternity will be able to recruit pledges again this fall.

A-List Alumni

Here's a sampling of some prominent University of Arkansas alumni who were in fraternities:

Alum — Affiliation — Position — Fraternity

Rob Walton — Wal-Mart Stores Inc. — chairman — Lambda Chi Alpha
Jim Walton — Arvest Bank Group Inc. — chairman — Lambda Chi Alpha
John Tyson — Tyson Foods Inc. — chairman and CEO — Phi Delta Theta
Gary George — George's Inc. — CEO — Pi Kappa Alpha
B. Alan Sugg — UA System — president — Sigma Chi
Wayne Garrison — J.B. Hunt Transport Services Inc. — chairman — Phi Delta Theta
Scott Ford — Alltell Corp. — CEO — Sigma Chi
Jerry Jones — Dallas Cowboys — owner — Kappa Sigma
John Paul Hammerschmidt — U.S. Congress — retired — Pi Kappa Alpha
David Pryor — U.S. Senate — retired — Sigma Alpha Episilon
Source: UA alumni

UA Fraternity Houses

1. Phi Gamma Delta (Fiji) (NA)

10 N. Garland Ave.

Square feet: NA — Value: $612,000

Lease: 5 years — Expires: 2007

2. Sigma Alpha Epsilon (1954)

110 Stadium Drive

Square feet: 20,643 — Value: $1,437,000

Lease: 99 years — Expires: 2083

3. Lambda Chi Alpha (1950)

120 Stadium Drive

Square feet: 21,741 — Value: $1,514,000

Lease: 99 years — Expires: 2098

4. Phi Delta Theta (1958)

108 Stadium Drive

Square feet: 17,743 — Value: $1,235,000

Lease: 99 years — Expires: NA

5. Alpha Phi Alpha (1960s)

1425 Markham Road

Square feet: 3,500 — Value: $194,000

Lease: None — Expires: NA

6. Alpha Gamma Rho (1967)

459 N. Razorback Road

Square feet: 14,000 — Value: $975,000

Lease: 99 years — Expires: 2095

7. Chi Omega* (1935) —

940 W. Maple St.

Square feet: 19,692 — Value: $1,060,150

Lease: None — Expires: NA

8. Alpha Delta Pi (1938) —

519 N. Oakland Ave.

Square feet: 20,507 — Value: $1,760,000

Lease: 99 years — Expires: 2091

9. Zeta Tau Alpha (1950)

530 N. Oakland Ave.

Square feet: 22,426 — Value: $1,562,000

Lease: None — Expires: NA

10. Delta Delta Delta* (1954) — — 920 W. Maple St.

Square feet: 22,680 — Value: $2,134,000 —

Lease: None — Expires: NA

11. Kappa Kappa Gamma* (1940) — 800 W. Maple St.

Square feet: 22,770 — Value: $1,489,600

Lease: None — Expires: NA

12. Sigma Chi (1965)

618 W. Maple St.

Square feet: 22,976 — Value: $2,652,000

Lease: 25 years — Expires: 2019

13. Pi Beta Phi* (1965) — — 502 W. Maple St.

Square feet: 20,036 — Value: $1,551,250

Lease: None — Expires: NA

14. Kappa Delta* (NA) — — 404 W. Maple St.

Square feet: NA — Value: $608,820

Lease: None — Expires: NA

15. FarmHouse* (1930s)

346 N. Arkansas Ave.

Square feet: 10,000 — Value: $561,000

Lease: None — Expires: NA

16. Sigma Nu** (1950) — — 348 Arkansas Ave.

Square feet: 21,259 — Value: $1,480,000

Lease: None — Expires: NA

17. Pi Kappa Alpha (1950) — — 320 N. Arkansas Ave.

Square feet: 16,647 — Value: $1,159,000

Lease: 99 years — Expires: 2080

18. Kappa Sigma* (1931) — — 320 N. Arkansas Ave.

Square feet: 29,068 — Value: $1,180,200

Lease: None — Expires: NA

(Year built) *These houses appear to be owned by the Greek organization. In all the other cases, the University of Arkansas owns the land and frequently has a financial interest in the house itself, but the fraternity could own the house. The amounts include the value of land. **This house is currently being used for overflow housing at the UA. But Sigma Nu has the option to renvoate it and move back in. Seven UA fraternities and two sororities currently don't have houses.

NA - Information not available.

Source: University of Arkansas, Washington County Assessor's Office and fraternity alumni (in the case of FarmHouse).



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