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Greek life: Local fraternities strive to close book on 'Animal House' reputation

Twenty-five years ago, the world was introduced to John "Bluto" Blutarsky. They met a Jack-drinking, toga-wearing, raunchy, rowdy member of the Delta house at fictional Faber College personified by "Saturday Night Live" comedian John Belushi. The...

Twenty-five years ago, the world was introduced to John "Bluto" Blutarsky.

They met a Jack-drinking, toga-wearing, raunchy, rowdy member of the Delta house at fictional Faber College personified by "Saturday Night Live" comedian John Belushi.

They also met the stereotypical fraternity member.

The 1978 movie "National Lampoon's Animal House" remains a comedy classic and has entered the digital age with the recent release of a 25th anniversary DVD.

And its depiction of campus Greek life continues to create widespread preconceptions about fraternities.

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"That's probably the worst piece of advertising we've had," said Austin Van Sickle, president of Sigma Chi Fraternity at North Dakota State University. "That's the image everyone gets when they think about them (fraternities)."

Recent portrayals of Greek life in pop culture include MTV's catty "Sorority Life," a reality TV series at its third house this fall. In its second season, "Fraternity Life" is keeping the "Animal House" mentality alive as MTV.com invites viewers to "see who should get spanked, shaved and puked on."

"To be honest, at some campuses, that's not far from the truth," said Seth Knudsen, president of Sigma Nu at NDSU.

But at NDSU, Greek leaders say, that's not the case. Increasing insurance rates and risk of lawsuits have spurred national headquarters to impose new regulations.

That, coupled with stricter campus policies, has prompted NDSU's Greek organizations to shift their focus away from partying and back to the founding missions of scholarship, leadership and friendship.

Forget the parties inviting the entire student body to drink beer. House bulletin boards are more likely to post study hours than happy hours.

Changes like these are necessary for fraternity chapters to thrive, said Jon Williamson, executive vice president of the North-American Interfraternity Conference.

The conference peaked in 1990 with 400,000 members. But by 1999, membership had bottomed out at 300,000 after almost a decade when the fraternities' driving force was drinking, Williamson said.

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The downslide was recognized in 1995, and the organization pushed a return to a well-rounded system -- one that focuses on leadership and brotherhood.

Since then, membership has increased about 2 percent to 3 percent annually.

National sorority membership experienced a slight drop in the early 1990s, but numbers are back to the levels of a late '80s boom. While the number of current members is unclear, more than 80,000 women joined a sorority nationally in 2002-03.

At the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, which has 13 fraternities and seven sororities, the percentage of undergraduate students who are Greek holds steady at slightly more than 10 percent, said coordinator Cassie Gerhardt. This percentage is close to the national norm.

NDSU Greek chapters have seen a steady decline in membership the past few years, said Amy Ostgulen, coordinator of Greek life and leadership.

For many years, 10 percent of the student body was involved in Greek life. The number dropped to 8.9 percent in 2000, and is now less than 6 percent of undergraduate students. NDSU's four sororities have 200 members; the 10 fraternities have about 400.

But at NDSU this fall, new member numbers increased. Sixty-four women joined sororities, compared to 54 last fall. Fraternity presidents said they saw more men attending recruiting events.

Ostgulen expects the upswing to continue.

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"I think that it's just a transitional time," she said. "People needed to understand that fraternities and sororities are evolving and changing with the times."

Managing risk

Adam Holten, president of Alpha Tau Omega, knows that in the past, fraternities were more risqué. He hears stories about partying from alumni when they're back for homecoming.

"From what it sounds like, they didn't get much done," he said.

Alcohol is no longer allowed in the Alpha Tau Omega house at NDSU. In 1999, university officials mandated that future social events be dry after several hundred students attended a party there. Despite hiring two security guards, many underage students drank.

Since then, more and more of the ATO houses nationwide have gone dry. FarmHouse Fraternity has been dry since the house opened in 1955. Theta Chi went dry this year, as did most of that fraternity's chapters nationwide.

All four NDSU sororities also are dry.

At the other seven social fraternities, alcohol is not allowed in common areas as part of NDSU's 2001 Greek Life Initiatives and Action Plan.

Members who are 21 may drink in their room, but with no more than three guests who are also of legal age. The chapters monitor alcohol use themselves, but Ostgulen said the university will respond to reports or rumors of policy violations on a case-by-case basis, and may punish offenders.

Social events where drinking would be allowed, such as a formal party held at a hotel banquet room, are planned more carefully now, Ostgulen said, with increased attention paid to fire codes and security.

Prakash Mathew, NDSU dean of student life, spearheaded the 2001 initiative, with input from administration, faculty, Greek alumni advisers and students. The discussion group formed in 1999 after the ATO party.

Mathew calls the changes made to the Greek system a success.

"If you drive down University Drive or 12th Avenue, you will see a different culture," he said.

Students no longer blatantly violate campus rules by drinking outside houses. Mathew no longer receives calls from neighbors angered by loud parties. Nor has he seen a police report concerning problems at a fraternity in the last few years.

"Because of that, they can concentrate on what the Greek system is about," Mathew said.

Some young men turn from fraternities because of the new rules. Pat Remiger, president of FarmHouse, said potential members sometimes walk away when they hear it's a dry house.

"If they're here for that, it's not worth the time to get them to join," Remiger said.

Students only interested in alcohol who do join usually end up leaving the house.

"For every one guy in it (recruitment) for the right reasons, there's probably three or four in it for the wrong reasons," said Preston Dihle, president of Delta Upsilon. "They find out pretty soon that doesn't work."

Hazing prohibited

Besides heavy drinking, Greek houses are often thought to haze new members, a charge they deny.

"You're asking these guys to be your friends," Holten said. "Why would you do those things to your friends?"

Some chapters offer a toll-free hotline that a new member can call if they feel hazed at any time. NDSU has a detailed policy against hazing, aimed at Greek organizations and athletic teams.

While the familiar wooden paddles, adorned with a chapter's letters, still hang in most houses, they're not used for spanking.

At FarmHouse, the paddle is used as a way for new members to meet alumni. Sixty alumni must sign one side. New members decorate the other side and give the paddle to their big brother in the house.

But suspicions arise because part of the initiation, the ritual, is secret.

"We keep that inside. That's part of our ideals and beliefs and we don't want everyone to know that," said Grant Anderson, president of Alpha Gamma Rho Fraternity.

"That's what ties everyone together, that they understand and believe in a ritual," Ostgulen said.

But chapters assure new members that hazing does not occur.

"We tell them it's nothing we wouldn't want your mother to see," Anderson added.

Sororities combat their own stereotypes. NDSU senior Rachel Breimeier, president of Ceres Women's Fraternity, which is geared to women interested in agriculture, hears them every time she returns home to New Salem, N.D.

"They have this idea in their head that all sorority girls are stuck-up rich girls," Breimeier said.

Sarah Erbes, president of Kappa Alpha Theta, said these ideas have become worse with MTV's "Sorority Life."

"A lot of girls think that it's more of a partying atmosphere, going out and meeting guys," she said.

During recruitment, potential new members frequently ask sororities if what they see on TV is real. Emphatically, they say no.

"It's hard for them to watch these shows and these movies and see that a reputation is getting built when their organizations are nothing like that," Ostgulen said.

"Sorority Life" depicts local sororities that do not have as many established rules and policies as national organizations. All of NDSU's sororities are part of a national network.

The women try to laugh it off, Ostgulen said. During NDSU's recruitment this fall, they used the show in a skit addressing sorority stereotypes.

"I think the movies and the 'reality' TV shows, they're looking for drama and they're looking for things people are interested in watching," Ostgulen said. "They wouldn't be interested in seeing study time."

Many houses have regular study tables or groups. Some have a professional focus. For example, Sigma Phi Delta only accepts members from the College of Engineering and Architecture.

"We're students first," president Paul Raadt said. "If we weren't students first at this house, we wouldn't be anything."

As a whole, the Greek system's grade point average is on par with that of the undergraduate student body at NDSU. Last spring, the total undergraduate GPA was 2.97 while the Greek's was 2.94.

Pointing fingers

Besides scholarship, fraternities and sororities also stress their community involvement. Through service and fund-raising projects, NDSU's Greek system donated about 10,000 hours and $58,000 to charity in 2002.

Houses go trick or treating for spare change to raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Foundation. They run a football from Grand Forks to Fargo for the Village Family Crisis Center. They walk in relays for multiple sclerosis and cancer. They sit in jail for the March of Dimes and in a hot tub for Special Olympics.

Some members are dismayed that, despite their good works, the Fargo-Moorhead community still views the Greek system negatively.

"If there's a finger to be pointed, they point it at us. If there's something they can pin on us, it's pinned," Alpha Gamma Rho's Anderson said.

The area has seen the negative side of the Greek system. In 1994, a hazing incident at Minnesota State University Moorhead became public after a student sought help from a campus security officer.

The student had been forced to drink alcohol, eat vomit and dog food, was burned with hot wax, struck with a paddle and had a string tied around his neck. The incident happened at Old Order of the Owls, a 100-year-old local fraternity not connected to a national organization.

The fraternity was suspended from university recognition until the fall semester of 1995. Three members were charged with felony false imprisonment and, as part of a plea agreement, were sentenced to 100 hours of community service each.

Although the incident was labeled as a rare occurrence, it is an example of what the public remembers.

"It doesn't make headlines when it says 'Josh Scraper makes friends for lifetime and gets first job from alumnus,' " said Scraper, president of Theta Chi. "We're trying to become better men while we're in college."

Houses are working harder to promote themselves positively. Chapter presidents said it's difficult to explain what Greek life is about to someone who hasn't been part of it. That leaves media portrayals as the basis for their knowledge.

"I've never been a part of something else where there's such a stigma attached to it, where I had to justify such a good decision," Scraper said.

While "Animal House" may be getting popped into the DVD players of a new generation, Greeks are optimistic that its effect is waning.

"For a long time it's given us a bad name," said Raadt of Sigma Phi Delta. "I think we're slowly starting to recover from that. I think it's getting better.

"Maybe people are starting to realize it's just a movie after all."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Sherri Richards at (701) 241-5525

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