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For some alumni of a certain age, the words “Yale” and “fraternity” go together as naturally as “blue” and “blazer.” But for those undergraduates who came to Yale in the 1970s and 1980s, the sight of Greek letters on Lake Place houses and on posters advertising “rush” events is disorienting, and not a little alarming—did we take the wrong exit and end up in Hanover?
No, but fraternities are back, to the delight of some observers and the discomfort of others. However, today’s Greek scene bears little resemblance to the one that expired 25 years ago, when Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE)—Yale’s last holdout against the waves of social change in the 1960s—lost its house on York Street. The nine fraternities and four sororities that have sprung up over the past 15 years are less a dominant culture than a specialized subculture. And unlike their predecessors—apparently timeless institutions steeped in tradition—the new fraternities seem caught up in the continuous ebb and flow of organizations that comes with an increasingly diverse College population.
In place of the formerly posh clubhouses, which the University now uses for a variety of academic and extracurricular purposes (DKE’s is now Rose Alumni House, home to the Association of Yale Alumni), today’s fraternity men meet in humble off-campus houses, most of them on Lake Place behind Payne Whitney Gymnasium or on Lynwood Place, High Street, or Park Street. (Typically, their officers and a few other juniors and seniors live in.) Nevertheless, the Yale administration and many students have watched the resurgence of fraternities warily. Nationwide, Greek-letter groups carry a reputation for excessive drinking and rowdy behavior. And, in an issue more particular to Yale, there is concern that fraternities—by establishing homogeneous social hubs off-campus—could pose a threat to the democratic social structure of the residential colleges, which are one of Yale' s most attractive selling points.
The tug-of-war between fraternities and the colleges is nothing new. It was in part a dissatisfaction with the fraternity system that led Edward Harkness (Class of 1897) to fund the construction of the first residential colleges in the early 1930s. While Harkness himself had been a member of Psi Upsilon and Wolf’s Head, he had been bothered by the fate of other “average” students who were not among the chosen. In Harkness’s time, junior fraternities and senior societies ruled extracurricular Yale, as they had for much of the 19th century. Yale’s first Greek-letter social fraternity, Alpha Delta Phi, was founded in 1836, followed by Psi Upsilon (later the Fence Club) in 1838 and Delta Kappa Epsilon (commonly known as Deke) in 1844.
Until the 1920s, these three, joined later by Zeta Psi and Beta Theta Pi, met in “tombs” that, like those of the senior societies, were closed to the public. But when several of the buildings were demolished to make way for the Memorial Quadrangle and other new buildings, the major fraternities, with the cooperation of the University, built lavish houses—replete with libraries, bars, grills, and common rooms—on York Street and Fraternity Row. Spurred on by prosperity, increased enrollment, and Prohibition, the number of fraternities expanded to eight, and the houses for the first time became centers of campus social life.
But the Depression and the introduction of the residential college system dealt harsh financial blows to the fraternities. The University began requiring students to eat at least ten meals per week in their colleges, cutting into fraternities' grill-room revenue. (Three fraternities—among them Alpha Delta Phi—did not make it through the Depression.) The colleges also offered common rooms, libraries, squash courts, and other amenities that tempted students to spend their off hours away from the fraternities. Nevertheless, college masters still complained that fraternity men felt more allegiance to their frats than to their colleges.
After World War II, students were required to pay for 21 on-campus meals per week, further weakening the remaining fraternities. At the same time, under pressure from the University, the fraternities did away with pledging and other traditional activities, until the typical Yale fraternity was reduced to little more than a drinking club. But it was the upheaval of the 1960s—coeducation, racial and ethnic diversity, and a skepticism about established social institutions—that caused even the holdouts to close their doors.
Although forced to abandon its building, Delta Kappa Epsilon—for years Yale’s most prominent fraternity—maintained a thin thread of continuity during the years after the Fraternity Row houses were vacated. Deke quietly continued to tap new members and meet in college common rooms during the 1970s and 80s, emerging again with a house on Lake Place in 1987 when the campus climate for fraternities began to improve.
Many reasons have been advanced for the resurgence, which began to pick up momentum in the mid-1980s: a return to more conservative values by the post–Baby Boom generation, the rise in the drinking age from 18 to 21, even the perennial popularity of the fraternity movie Animal House. But it has not escaped notice that many of the founders of the new fraternities were members of the Class of 1988, which endured a dining hall workers' strike for most of its first semester at Yale. Some have suggested that because Commons was not open during that crucial first term, many members of the class felt they were missing opportunities to meet other freshmen—particularly those in other colleges. (According to this theory, fraternity membership should have also increased after Commons stopped serving dinner in 1990—and it did.)
Whatever the cause, new fraternities began to spring up on campus in 1984, when the Old Campus Society—which soon became a chapter of Sigma Chi—was formed. (A year later, Kappa Alpha Theta, Yale’s first sorority, received its charter.) Today, the total number of fraternities comes to nine. Among them are four historic Yale organizations, Zeta Psi, Delta Kappa Epsilon, Alpha Delta Phi, and Beta Theta Pi; a predominantly Jewish fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi; a predominantly Latino group, Lambda Upsilon Lambda; and three others, Sigma Chi, Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE), and Sigma Nu. (Another organization, the 121-year-old St. Anthony Hall, while officially a chapter of Delta Psi, is not usually counted as a fraternity; a coed group, it is an anomalous blend of fraternity, literary society, and senior society.)
When asked about the value of fraternity life, members cite the intense friendships, the organized fun, and the opportunities for alumni networking. Some also mention their organized philanthropic efforts. “Fraternities put inhundreds of hours of volunteer service every year,” says Alpha Epsilon Pi president Andrew Morris '99. “You never hear about that on 20/20." Members of Morris’s fraternity volunteer at a local synagogue and a Jewish old-age home. Other fraternities paint houses for the elderly and participate in sports camps for inner-city children.
By most accounts, the competition for membership in Yale fraternities is not stiff. “So much of it is a self-selection procedure,” says Morris. “I’d have a real moral dilemma if there was someone we didn’t want who really wanted us, but it doesn’t really happen that way.” While some of the fraternities cast a wide net with an open rush, others acquire new members more informally. “There’s no group voting system here,” says Alpha Delta Phi president Keith Andrade '99. “We rely on individual brothers bringing in people and trust their judgment.”
As a result, many of the fraternities tend to fill up with members of the same varsity sport, since upperclassmen get to know the new freshmen on their teams sometimes even before the school year begins. Alpha Delta Phi, for example, took 8 of the 12 freshman lacrosse players last year. Deke tends to attract football players, Zeta Psi has basketball sewn up, and many swimmers opt for Beta Theta Pi. Athletes are unquestionably the biggest force behind the fraternity boom: One fraternity president estimates that 75 percent of Yale fraternity members compete in a varsity sport, compared to only 5 to 6 percent of Yale students in general.
The fraternities do not tend to be racially integrated. While Sigma Chi president Andrew Diamond '99 says his group has ten Asians, three African Americans, and three Latinos among its 35 members, most fraternities cannot claim such a minority presence. Sigma Nu president Brian Regan ' 00 says that the lack of diversity is simply part of the social self-selection process: “We advertise for rush. We don’t turn down black people who rush us, but they just don’t come.” By way of explanation, he notes that “Yale has the cultural houses and different social circles.”
Indeed, fraternities organized around specific ethnic groups come and go at Yale. Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEP), a fraternity that is 80 percent Jewish, installed its Yale chapter in 1989. (While many AEP chapters were founded because of the exclusion of Jews from other fraternities, most of the current Yale fraternities have Jewish members.) Lambda Upsilon Lambda, a Latino fraternity chartered in 1991, counts itself as a service fraternity, as opposed to a social one, according to president Manuel Berrelez '00. African American fraternities have waxed and waned on campus: just last year, two of them, Alpha Phi Alpha and Kappa Alpha Psi, disbanded because of declining membership.
Whatever their demographic mix, the fraternities play two fundamental roles in the social life of the campus. First, they offer their members a group of like-minded people for small parties, formal dances, barbeques, and outings. And to the campus at large, they act as hosts for the kinds of large parties that were once held by college student activity committees (SACs) before the drinking age was raised. “A lot of Yale students don' t care for fraternities very much,” says former Sigma Nu president Dave Bercovich '99. “But what we do have now is a pretty good percentage of the social scene at Yale.” The Dekes now coordinate the campuswide series of Feb Club parties and host the annual Tang competition (a beer-drinking contest), and crowds of up to 800 people flock to the fraternities' off-campus parties.
A persistent objection to fraternities is that they take students away from their residential colleges, both socially and physically. But many fraternity members say they weren’t interested in their colleges anyway, and would likely have moved off-campus with or without the fraternity. “Residential colleges aren’t for everybody,” says Mark Hausman '99, a member of Deke and a football player. “They’re great for a lot of people, but my friends were in other colleges. Here at the house I’m not being force-fed a group of people from my college.”
While many fraternity members tend to appear (not unhappily) isolated from the mainstream social world of the residential colleges, this isolation may have more to do with their status as recruited athletes than as Greeks. Athletes necessarily spend a good deal of time together learning to work as a team, and that group camaraderie naturally carries over to their off hours—especially since some other students may consider them academically suspect. For these athletes, fraternities may even be a way into Yale social life.
“The fraternity introduced me to a lot more kids,” says a football player who belongs to Alpha Delta Phi. “I’ve met more people and gotten more in tune with the campus. So rather than just being a football player, I feel more like a Yale student.”
The withdrawal of some fraternities from campus life extends to an unwillingness to register as undergraduate organizations, a position that has made relations with the Yale College Dean’s Office strained at best. Fraternities say the University has a history of hostility toward the fraternities, and they are suspicious of its motives in wanting them to register. The Dean’s Office argues that if the groups were registered, they could get help establishing an interfraternity council and have access to the benefits that other organizations do.
Last year, a new player stepped into the argument: assistant dean Edgar Letriz-Núñez, whose primary responsibility is directing the Puerto Rican Cultural Center. Letriz-Núñez, who was a fraternity member at Union College, a heavily Greek campus, saw the disorganized state of the Yale fraternity community and sought to do something about it. “I went to [Dean of Student Affairs] Betty Trachtenberg to see if there was anything I could do to enhance these lines of communication,” says Letriz-Núñez. “I convened meeting after meeting, but there was no interest. They want the best of both worlds. You can’t expect access to space on campus, to alumni lists, and other benefits without registration.”
Letriz-Núñez says the students' wariness is based on misconceptions. “Many think that registering means we’ll have administrative control of their activities,” he says. “But there is no administrative oversight of other student organizations. They also think they would somehow be more subject to disciplinary action. But all undergraduates—on and off campus—are already subject to the college regulations.”
Some fraternities have already learned that even if they are under less scrutiny from masters and deans in their off-campus houses, they still answer to the Yale Police, who have jurisdiction in the area surrounding the campus. Yale Police sometimes break up fraternity-sponsored parties, and last October, they arrested Alpha Delta Phi president Keith Andrade when underage freshmen were found to have paid to attend a fraternity function where alcohol was served.
While fraternity officers say they employ safeguards such as identification wristbands to prevent underage drinking, they privately concede that lapses are inevitable. But the fraternities are being made aware by their national organizations how serious the risks of drinking are, and some are determined to change course. “We’re really cracking down,” says SAE president Tod Sacerdoti '01. “We know that alcohol-centered gatherings cannot be our primary focus.” SAE, one of two fraternities that are registered with the Dean’s Office (the other is Sigma Chi), organized a forum on risk management and responsible alcohol use last year.
SAE, and to some extent the smaller Sigma Chi, are emerging as different kinds of fraternities, more like those found at large public universities—actively involved in campus events and politics. SAE has an aggressively open rush, a smaller concentration of athletes, and an unusually tidy house on High Street. A member of another fraternity describes SAE as “the closest thing to a state-school fraternity at Yale.”
Sacerdoti says registering hasn’t hurt his fraternity. “Registration is basically insignificant,” he reports. “There’s not been a single notable difference since we registered.” He also would welcome more cooperation among the fraternities. “I’d like to see more of a formal rush. It would benefit us. We have the nicest house on campus and a really strong brotherhood.”
In its bid to bring fraternity life into the mainstream, SAE is undoubtedly helped by its location on an attractive street near the heart of the campus. Denizens of the two Lake Place houses say their location is their biggest liability because of fears about crime. Some parents won’t let their children live in the houses, and some fraternities have resorted to lotteries to compel students to live in them. The fraternities are heartened, though, by the imminent arrival of a Yale Police substation on nearby Dixwell Avenue.
Sigma Nu recently left behind Lake Place for a house next door to SAE on High Street. But three years ago, Delta Kappa Epsilon had to scrap their plan to buy a handsome Tudor apartment building at 25 Lynwood Place after neighbors, led by a local alderwoman, voiced their opposition to what would have become Lynwood’s third fraternity house.
No matter where they are located, the fraternities show scant signs of returning to their once-powerful position in the social life of the College. “The dynamic here is so changed,” says AEP’s Andrew Morris. “First of all, the College is coed, and the population is now so heterogeneous. I don’t think we could dominate the campus even if we wanted to.”
Dean of Student Affairs Betty Trachtenberg agrees. While she worries about the “balkanization of the student body” when students “go off into separate discreet units,” she doesn’t think fraternities are a threat to the colleges. “It’s not anything I fear at the moment,” she says. “Students are independent people. They’ll make up their own minds.”
Alpha Epsilon Pi
Beta Theta Pi
Delta Kappa Epsilon
Lambda Upsilon Lambda
Sigma Alpha Epsilon
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