Geeks go Greek
For the estimated 8 to 10 percent of U of C undergrads in a fraternitiy or sorority, membership has its ambiguities.
It's just past five on a gloriously warm spring afternoon, and I'm hanging out in the former dining room of the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity house, along with U of C President Don M. Randel; Max Grinnell, AB'98, AM'02; and about 20 brothers who have come to hear their guests talk about community relations. The stone-floored room is grandly mock-medieval, with a timbered ceiling, chandeliers, a fireplace deep enough for an inglenook, and tall windows draped in red velvet.
Not only am I the sole woman (as Grinnell's guest, I've been allowed to attend this private event), but I am also noticeably underdressed. All the brothers wear ties, many with suits or jackets, though a few rough edges crop up: white sweat socks worn with dress shoes, bare toes in Birkenstock sandals.
Grinnell, author of Hyde Park, Illinois (2001), is often asked to lecture on neighborhood history, but this invitation has an added sweetness. As a first-year in fall 1994, he had pledged Alpha Delt but was thrown out near the end of the quarter-long initiation-a process that until then had involved "a lot of drinking. You have to wear a silly hat. Nothing too terrible." Then Grinnell was ordered to clean the bathroom after a party. "There were six rancid toilets. No vomit-there was some vomit on the dance floor, but that wasn't my area-they just smelled like dank urine. I thought, if we're all supposed to be brothers, why does a pledge have to do it?"
That's all forgotten now. First Grinnell, who sports a dapper U of C tie for the occasion, then Randel talk about the complicated relationship between neighborhood and University, as the brothers listen attentively. It's Randel's first visit to a U of C fraternity house-his first invitation, in fact.
After the lectures, fourth-year Nandan Desai, Alpha Delt's president, presents a bottle of red wine to Grinnell and a 1929 U of C songbook to Randel. "I am deeply moved," the president responds, then asks if anyone can sing the "Alma Mater." No one can.
During the question-and-answer period, a question is posed to Randel: what should the role of fraternities be in relation to the outside community?
The mood darkens. "I don't need to tell you that fraternities have a bad reputation in general in the country at the moment," Randel says. "They are seen to be the locus of alcohol abuse and other bad behavior. And even if all of that is exaggerated, perception is something that one has to cope with.
"Alcohol abuse is certainly not the sole property of fraternities by any means," the president continues. "But I would say, try to work at shedding that image. Try to get your name in the paper for volunteer work, for being the place that has the most interesting faculty members coming to talk. And then you have to try to keep the front porch cleaned up."
Despite the fatherly tone, Randel's speech is blunt. The brothers seem receptive-contrite even. After one more question, the group spills out onto the not-terribly-messy porch, which presumably had been scrubbed up for the occasion. A group photograph is taken, then Randel cheerily departs.
"So where's the Jägermeister?" Grinnell wants to know.
Someone obligingly fetches a bottle from the basement, and we have two rounds of shots. I've never drunk Jägermeister before. It is thick and black and tastes like licorice. It's not half bad.
Alpha Delt, located on University Avenue next to the Seminary Co-op Bookstore and across from Eckhart Hall, is probably the campus's most visible fraternity. On warm afternoons the house's wide stone patio is filled with fraternity brothers relaxing on lawn chairs, tossing a football around, having what appears to be an enviable amount of fun. Alpha Delt's penchant for playing loud music, even during finals week, has not, however, won the group many friends in the math department.
When I was in the College from 1988 to 1991, Greek organizations (both sororities and fraternities) were marginal to undergraduate life, and I assumed it had always been that way. But yearbooks from the University's first three decades prove me wrong. In 1895 the three-year-old U of C had five fraternities. By 1910 there were 17 undergraduate fraternity houses bordering the campus-including four south of the Midway. Fraternities weren't only for undergrads; there were also five medical fraternities, three for law, one for graduate students, and one for debate.
Greek life peaked in the late 1920s. By 1928 there were 33 fraternities and 12 women's "social clubs"-similar to sororities but unaffiliated with national organizations. Most had Greek-letter names, while others were quirky, like the Esoteric Club or the Quadranglers. Each fraternity and women's club "had its place in a carefully graded pecking order of prestige," historian William H. McNeill, AB'38, AM'39, wrote in his 1991 memoir, Hutchins' University.
The 1929 freshman guide to student activities devoted several pages to rushing and pledging rules. For fraternities the formal two-week rush period began during Freshman Week, though men could also join in winter or spring; even high-school seniors in their last semester could pledge. Women's clubs began the process at spring quarter's end and continued through Freshman Week, with chosen members pledging before school opened. Both fraternities and women's clubs "make all advances," the rules stated firmly. "After a period of rushing, the student is either extended a bid or dropped."
During World War II women's clubs thrived while fraternity life understandably stalled. Of the 14 fraternities still listed in the 1945 student handbook, five had "no house for the duration" while six were "inactive for the duration." By the mid-1950s just nine fraternities and four women's clubs remained. The 1957 yearbook, Cap & Gown, predicted that Greek organizations would resurge in the next decade, though "the days when thirty-plus fraternities pledged eighty percent of a freshman class" were not expected to return.
In the 1960s and 1970s Greek organizations attempted to move with the times, becoming more political (at the height of the Cuban missile crisis, the Interfraternity Council invited a former Cuban ambassador to speak) and less exclusive (the local chapters of both Alpha Delt and Delta Upsilon went coed). The administration seemed to encourage fraternity life; according to the 1963 Cap & Gown, "The policy of the university has always been favorable to the fraternity system, and in attempting to expand the system, the administration has offered to construct a Fraternity Quadrangle...no definite decisions have been made as yet." The quad never came to pass, and by the late 1970s Greek organizations were not even listed with other campus social groups but were lumped in with housing.
Back in 1929-when Greek organizations appeared in the yearbook's "secret societies" section-Alpha Delt claimed 35 student members, including four graduate students, and 11 professors. By 1955 there were 27 members; by 1977 there were 15, including five women.
Beginning in the early 1980s, however, the Greek system made a slow resurgence-so slow I completely missed it as an undergrad. In 1983 Phi Kappa Psi became the first new fraternity on campus in 60 years. Two years later the U of C had its first national sorority, Alpha Omicron Pi, followed in 1986 by a second sorority, Kappa Alpha Theta. A third, Delta Gamma, established a U of C chapter in 2001. For the guys, there are now ten fraternities, including Alpha Delt and Delta Upsilon, which are once again all male. The semi-Greek organization Alpha Phi Omega, a coed service fraternity, also was reestablished at the University in 1997.
Because the administration does not officially recognize Greek organizations, exact membership numbers aren't available. Single sex and with selective membership, fraternities and sororities can't be considered registered student organizations (RSO); instead they fall into the category of "community organizations." Lori Hurvitz, assistant director of student activities, estimates that between 8 and 10 percent of undergraduates belong to a fraternity or a sorority-a percentage comparable to that at the University of Michigan. While the number pales in comparison to institutions like the University of Florida, where 70 percent of students are in fraternities or sororities, "it's a decent-size Greek system," says Hurvitz, who serves as Greek liaison. "The reality is, a lot of our students are involved."
Perhaps the most telling sign of the Greek resurgence is that this academic year the administration will stop pretending the groups don't exist. Greek organizations still won't be RSOs, but they will be granted certain privileges: recruitment support, the chance to apply for storage and office space in the Reynolds Club or Ida Noyes. In exchange Hurvitz hopes to get names and contact information for each group's leaders, a commitment that leaders will attend the University's alcohol-awareness sessions, and advance warning of large parties.
For some the policy change doesn't go far enough. Withholding the RSO title, complains second-year Oscar Fernandez, president of Sigma Phi Epsilon, indicates that fraternities and sororities are still "excess baggage." Kappa Alpha Theta, says fourth-year Megan Driscoll, isn't even supposed to have chapters at schools that don't recognize the Greek system, but because the national sorority's focus is scholarship, an exception was made for Chicago. "It's a shame the administration doesn't understand what a great machine they have for building up a sense of community," Driscoll says.
But other Greeks prefer the current hands-off relationship. Alpha Delt's Desai is typical: if the increased oversight is intended "as a restrictive measure, there are several problems I have with it," he says. "I don't see why it's necessary."
No matter what their status, Greek organizations certainly play a larger role in undergraduate social life. According to Desai, open parties at the house attract up to 500 people-more than 10 percent of the undergraduate student body. Greek charity events have an increasingly high profile, with the sorority Kappa Alpha Theta's Mr. University pageant the most obvious example. "Greek organizations provide a social outlet," says Hurvitz, "not only for their members, but for the rest of the community as well."
I actually made fun of one of my friends for joining a sorority," confesses Driscoll of Kappa Alpha Theta. We're sitting in Hutchinson Commons on a bright February day, and Driscoll must shade her eyes to look my direction, like a suspect facing the spotlight during a police interrogation. "I've always had a bad feeling about sororities. But I was friends with all these boys, and I found it really hard to meet nice girls until I joined Theta."
"One of the reasons I came here is because it wasn't a very big Greek place," adds third-year Kate Grady, another Theta, sitting out of the glare. "I never thought it would be anything I'd want to do."
It's a recurring theme: the reluctant Greek member, vaguely surprised and embarrassed by-and yet proud of-being in a fraternity or sorority. At a school where being Greek is not a mark of status and belonging but its polar opposite, the ambivalence is understandable.
"Joining a sorority here would obviously not be the normal, popular thing to do," says Grady, "so for that reason it attracts people who wouldn't be in a sorority at other places."
Third-year Emilee Lales of Delta Gamma perhaps best personifies the cross between the sorority-girl and the U of C library-dork stereotypes. Her career goal is to become a wedding planner, so she is concentrating in human development: "I want to understand the family, the role of marriage in our society, getting married earlier or later in life, the rising divorce rate," she says.
According to Desai, fraternities are equally anomalous. "At other schools, you have formalized rush processes, strong rivalries between Greek organizations, people who don't have friends outside their chapters," he says. "All those rules don't apply to this school." Some non-Greek students might think that "frats and sororities are made up of the stereotypical beer-chugging, 'need to buy my friends' boneheads," says Fernandez of Sigma Phi Epsilon, but in fact "things are much different here, because none of us are boneheads."
Nationally, however, Greek stereotypes are alive and well, says Driscoll. "When I went to the national convention, I did meet a lot of girls who fit the mold-blond and engaged. At other places, it's a lot more superficial. Even our rush is not as superficial. We hate rush," she says, as Grady nods vehemently. "We wish we didn't have to do it," but the national organizations require it. Sorority rush at the U of C involves programmed events such as short, dry parties and "skit night," while fraternity recruitment happens informally at open parties. "We just gauge people's interest by how much they talk to brothers," says Desai.
Fraternities and sororities are by nature exclusive, says Greek liaison Hurvitz, but Chicago students who want to join a Greek organization are very likely to succeed. While women might not make their first choice, their second or third choice will almost certainly accept them; for men, joining a Greek organization is a lot like joining any other set of friends. "There's probably one person every year who falls through the cracks. Maybe one," Hurvitz says, "whereas some registered student organizations are really elitist-you really have to struggle your way in."
Most Greeks deny that their group attracts a certain type of person, but prejudices and rumors abound: "Everyone knows who's the party frat, the philanthropic sorority, et cetera," says Sig Ep's Fernandez. Alpha Omicron Pi women are supposed to be particularly pretty (though some students say that distinction goes to Kappa Alpha Theta), while Delta Gammas are nice; Phi Gamma Delta attracts football players and other jocks, Phi Delta Theta brothers are preppy, Sigma Phi Epsilon brothers are serious and conservative.
Conservative or not, Sig Ep is also widely known for two things that are actually true: it's dry and antihazing. "My decision to join rested heavily" on those characterisitcs, says Fernandez, as well as the fact that pledges have "all the same rights and privileges as any other member, regardless of how long they've been in the fraternity." Had Grinnell opted for Sig Ep, he might still be a fraternity brother today-or at least he wouldn't have been kicked out for refusing to scrub filthy toilets.
At ten o' clock on a Saturday morning late in spring quarter-a time when many overworked (or overpartied) undergrads sleep in-I meet up with seven Alpha Phi Omega volunteers at Breakfast for the Hungry, held monthly at the United Church of Hyde Park, 53rd and Blackstone. Rows of folding tables fill the high-ceilinged room, which has stained-glass windows and a stunning wooden balcony curving along two walls. About 100 people-some families, but mostly middle-aged men-eat pancakes, eggs, and sausages off Styrofoam plates. "I really like sitting down and talking with the people," says fourth-year Ellie Goldberg, the group's president. "They're so nice. Their outlook on life is so positive."
Alpha Phi Omega, a coeducational fraternity, focuses on service; members must perform 25 service hours per quarter. APO is and isn't a Greek organization: "A lot of people don't even know what we are or confuse us with AOII," says Goldberg. True, APO has a Greek name and charges dues ($15-25 a year, compared to about $500 for the others), and its members sometimes participate in Greek charity fund-raisers. But the group doesn't demand exclusivity (one member also belongs to sorority Delta Gamma, another to fraternity Delta Kappa Epsilon), and its service events are open to anyone.
At sororities a specific "service requirement" outlines members' philanthropic responsibilities. Second-year Rina Martinez joined Alpha Omicron Pi primarily to do community service. "It's so easy to take part in philanthropy all the time," she says. Sororities usually support specific groups or causes chosen by the national office. At AOII it's arthritis research, at Kappa Alpha Theta it's Court Appointed Special Advocates, at Delta Gamma it's blindness and vision care.
Fourth-year Bethany Ruedel, who coordinates Delta Gamma's service efforts, takes the group's philanthropic mission and its motto, "Do good," particularly seriously. While the Chicago chapter is just a year old, under Ruedel it has already established a regular vision-screening program-adapting tests developed by Prevent Blindness America-at the Children's Museum on Navy Pier.
Delta Gamma's screening program uses shapes rather than letters, so children don't have to speak English to take the test. Among the group's members are Korean, Chinese, Russian, French, and Spanish speakers who can understand, or at least guess at, a child's answers. Delta Gamma has done vision screening at three Hyde Park locations and plans more events.
The screening program, as well as fund-raising efforts for the blind, won Ruedel a Women of Vision Award from Prevent Blindness America and LensCrafters. Five Chicagoans were recognized in 2002-all medical professionals except Ruedel.
"We don't advertise that we do two service events a quarter," says Kappa Alpha Theta's Driscoll, co-organizer of the outwardly silly Mr. University pageant, which this year raised $4,000 for Court Appointed Special Advocates. "But that's a large part of what Greek organizations are about."
At the very end of spring quarter I return to Alpha Delt for Senior Breakfast, a 24-hour party for graduating seniors, free to the entire College. Downstairs, where Nirvana's Nevermind is blasting, it's much too noisy to interview Desai. "Do you mind coming up to my room?" he asks politely.
I try not to blanch: I am 32 years old, married for eight years, and I have just been invited up to a frat boy's room for the first time ever. The room smells of something rank but unidentifiable. It also contains another guy, who sits quietly crafting a project out of posterboard, paying us no attention.
"A lot of people don't really realize the advantages of being Greek," says Desai. "It teaches you how to be a more balanced person. There's a social aspect combined with a literary environment, in this house especially."
A literary environment? "Alpha Delt was actually founded as a literary society," he says earnestly. The group regularly sponsors "literary events," he explains, such as the talk by Grinnell and Randel. Speakers have included economics lecturer Allen Sanderson and David Faxon, the U of C Hospitals' cardiology chief.
Brothers also read their own writing at weekly chapter meetings; Desai recently read an article he wrote while interning at an environmental magazine. "Our ability to gather in the library on Mondays and talk about whatever we want to talk about is something that's-" he pauses, "-sacred might be pushing it, but it's definitely very important to everyone in the house."
Alpha Delt's calendar is crammed with purely social events-Wednesday night study breaks, open parties three or four times a quarter, formals, poker nights-but not with community service. "I'll be the first to admit it hasn't been enough," Desai says, but President Randel's comments "definitely made an impact on people in the house. I think everyone's realizing slowly-maybe as a result of the rude shock of having Don Randel say those words to us-that it's good to get involved."
Mark Papa, AB'89, an Alpha Delt alumni board member who regularly attends the fraternity's events, was particularly struck by Randel's lecture. As the board's vice president of philanthropic affairs, Papa is working with Chris Gross, a first-year who volunteered to motivate the Alpha Delts. Beginning in fall 2002, "I have asked our undergraduates as a group to commit to 100 hours of community service per quarter," Papa says-about three hours per person, comparable to many sororities' requirements.
In a way, the growth of sororities and fraternities is typically U of C, in that it runs completely contrary to national trends. Every year more colleges and universities across the country lose patience with the problems of the Greek system: drinking, hazing, antiacademic attitudes. New York's Alfred University and Maine's Bowdoin and Colby Colleges have eliminated the Greek system, while Dartmouth College has imposed strict rules about alcohol and service.
Even during the heyday of fraternities at Chicago-when the fraternity pages in Cap & Gown listed professors as well as students-the groups came in for criticism. "We realize that fraternities are not always an asset to our collegiate institution, but often a very difficult and baffling problem," the Alpha Delts wrote when inviting newly appointed president Robert Maynard Hutchins to speak at their house in 1929. "It is our belief that they can be made constructive social and educational units in the university community."
In the first of several Alpha Delt talks, Hutchins said that fraternities play an important role in higher education. And, contends Harry Ashmore in Unseasonable Truths (1989), Hutchins was not being sarcastic when he remarked of fraternities: "Upon them must depend the development and maintenance of a wholesome, virile social life."
While Hutchins "ridiculed the rah-rah aspects of undergraduate life," writes Ashmore, "he made ritual appearances at traditional student events." On at least one occasion, Hutchins marched arm-in-arm with the Alpha Delts to Hutchinson Court, where he attended the Interfraternity Sing and the awarding of "C" blankets.
That would seem unlikely behavior for the man considered the architect of Chicago's emphasis on undergraduate academics-to the neglect of a social life and everything else. Or perhaps not, considering that Hutchins, while a student at Yale, pledged Alpha Delt.
In my own undergraduate days I knew several students who idolized Hutchins but only one member of a Greek organization: my calculus T.A., a Nebraska woman with blowsy white-blond hair, who sometimes wore a sorority T-shirt (which sorority, I don't recall). While some members of the class mixed up the proofs' Greek letters, she knew them all. It wasn't her math major that taught her, she explained one day, but those nights when she and her sisters had to recite the Greek alphabet after downing a required quantity of beer. The class reacted to this anecdote with both puzzlement and outright derision.
Thankfully, I am much less judgmental now. Nonetheless, in several of my discussions with today's young Greek Chicagoans, I couldn't shake a nagging, freaked-out feeling-especially with the sorority sisters. No matter how friendly they were, I felt as if we were shouting at each other across a canyon of difference and misunderstanding.
During the interviews I kept imagining that, if I could wish myself young again and rush a sorority (rather than deejay on WHPK and draw comics, as I actually did as an undergrad), I wouldn't be pretty enough or nice enough to cut it. I would be the one person, as Lori Hurvitz put it, who fell through the cracks.
The human need for belonging is powerful and at the same time terrifying: how can you be part of a cohesive group unless some people are closed out of it? In the end, I'm back to that spring afternoon at Alpha Delt. The issue, for Greeks and non-Greeks, it seems, is still community relations.
Golus, AB'91, AM'93, is a freelance writer in Chicago and at work on a novel.
The photo illustrations on these pages are based on images posted on the Web sites
of several Chicago fraternities and sororities.
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