Drying of the Frats
by JASON SPINGARN-KOFF
CARLOS ALMENDAREZ PROMISED HIS MOTHER HE WOULDN'T DRINK in college. "My
uncle fell off a freeway overpass when he was drunk and died," says the
UC Berkeley freshman, his slender frame sinking into an oversized couch. "I
never plan to drink."
A mounted deer head looms above him on an adjacent wall. Across the room are shelves of antique leather-bound books, dating to the fraternity house's founding in 1892. In the corner, a football game plays on an impressively large television.
This semester he visited several fraternity houses before he decided to join Sigma Nu. "Most houses I went to would tell you there's no hazing, but there was," he says. "And they smelled like beer and trash. I got a great vibe here - I didn't meet the stereotypical frat guy." He says the fact that Sigma Nu went dry voluntarily in 1997 is just one reason he decided to join.
"If you take alcohol away from fraternity houses," he says, "you start focusing on the meaning of fraternities - which is brotherhood, not social life."
"One of the main motivations for joining a fraternity is to hang out with girls and drink with them," says a Sigma Alpha Epsilon brother. "If girls can't come drink with you, there won't be any parties."
Almendarez may represent the frat boy of the new millennium. A national anti-alcohol movement, which is spreading across the nation, is set to overtake Berkeley's fraternities. At Sigma Nu, for example, brothers are still allowed to drink at parties outside the house. Inside, however, alcohol can never be served or consumed.
In 1997 the national organizations of several newly dry fraternities asked sororities to support the dry movement. In response, the National Panhellenic Conference (NPC), the umbrella organization for the nation's 26 sororities, unanimously passed an initiative banning sororities from co-sponsoring parties at fraternities where alcohol is served. The ban will become effective in the fall semester of 2000. Two sororities with chapters at Berkeley, Pi Beta Phi and Kappa Kappa Gamma, decided to take the resolution a step further; they voted to no longer co-sponsor any type of party with a fraternity that isn't dry.
The resolution is not a legal mandate, but a recommendation to support the dry movement, says Lindsey Mercer, the Panhellenic President of Berkeley's 12 sororities. Mercer, 22, is also a member of Pi Beta Phi, a sorority that adopted the stricter policy. "This will reduce liability and return fraternities to the values they were founded on," she says.
The resolution is called NPC 2000, though some refer to it as Dry2K. While Mercer says NPC 2000 was drafted to support Berkeley's two dry fraternities, Mercer acknowledged it will also be felt by the 30 fraternities at Berkeley that still allow alcohol in their houses. "It's kind of forcing other fraternities to follow suit," she says.
But many fraternity leaders do not want to follow in Sigma Nu's footsteps. "This could change the way fraternities have been doing things for a hundred years," says Trevor Astbury, the student head of the Inter-Fraternity Council, the governing body for Berkeley's 32 fraternities. "Parties as we know them center around a DJ or band and alcohol," he says. "I don't think you can have a huge party without alcohol." He adds with a laugh, "A fraternity party can't really go on without sororities attending."
The resolution, when implemented next fall, will allow fraternities to invite women or alcohol into their houses, but not both - at least in any official capacity. While the NPC assumed men would choose women over booze, fraternity members say they face a serious dilemma.
The resolution, when implemented next fall, will
allow fraternities to invite women or alcohol into their houses, but not both
- at least in any official capacity. While the NPC assumed men would choose
women over booze, fraternity members say they face a serious dilemma.
"One of the main motivations for joining a fraternity is to hang out with girls and drink with them," says a Sigma Alpha Epsilon brother who asked to remain anonymous. "If girls can't come drink with you, there won't be any parties."
Greek leaders are quick to point out, however, that fraternities will still be able to throw any type of party they wish outside of their houses. Even Sigma Nu, the dry fraternity, will be able to invite a sorority to a bar in San Francisco.
While alcohol plays a key role in fraternity culture, it has been blamed for many of the Greek system's recent woes. In the last two years, two Berkeley fraternities have been shut down for alcohol-related hazing of new members. In the early 1990's, three fraternity brothers died in alcohol-related incidents at their houses.
Alcohol is also blamed for sexual assaults of sorority women, says Mercer. "I've personally had friends who've been sexually assaulted, by both Greek and non-Greek men," she says. The numbers are hard to know, she says, because victims often do not report the incidents. "Any time you have a student body of 35,000 and a Greek community of 2,000 students," she says, "these things are going to happen. Especially under the influence of alcohol."
Sorority women realize they have a role in the discussion concerning drinking and parties. "You can't talk about the issue of alcohol and how it plays a role in fraternity life without talking about the sorority women," says Tina Barnett, a UC Berkeley student services employee who oversees the sororities. "It certainly isn't just the men's problem," she says.
But while the NPC is united in its support of dry fraternities, it is unable to draft specific rules for the national sororities to follow. "Since there are 26 different women's organizations in the NPC," Barnett says, "you've got 26 different versions of how they're going to support the initiative." Some sororities say they will not sponsor an event unless it is substance free. Others will not be sponsors unless the actual fraternity is substance free. In either case, there is a potentially vast loophole: how will sororities define "sponsorship" itself? And how will the regulations be enforced?
Mercer says Berkeley sororities and fraternities will meet next semester to decide exactly how the initiative will be implemented. "We want to have group consensus," she says, especially over the controversial issue of sponsorship.
The Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority, like Mercer's Pi Beta Phi house, decided to only sponsor parties with dry fraternities. Its national organization defines sponsorship by how many sorority members attend a fraternity function, says Errin Eddy, Berkeley's Kappa Kappa Gamma president . If five women visit a fraternity function that serves alcohol, they will be in violation, says Eddy. Other sororities have set the number higher, says Mercer, prompting fears that sororities will be treated differently under the resolution. "We'll try to work together to keep everyone at the same level," she says.
Trevor Astbury, the Inter-Fraternity President, says fraternities must work with sororities to implement the resolution. "The only way it will really be implemented is if we as a Greek system decide to implement it and put it into our Greek Code of Conduct," he says. The Code of Conduct includes a set of rules the fraternities and sororities must follow when having parties. "Then our judicial committee and risk management committees can start to monitor it."
Many fraternity and sorority members say they don't want to implement the resolution. Some women say the resolution has been forced upon them and will dampen their social life. "It's almost as if we're being punished for something [the men] asked us to do," says Maggie Koshland, 19, a sophomore at the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority. "I don't understand why restrictions are being put on us when very few of them have set dates to have their houses go dry."
The social chair of the Chai Omega sorority has similar concerns. "Making sure that underage people don't drink is important," says Meredeth Mandell, a sophomore. "But making them go dry is a Draconian approach to the drinking scene."
Even Astbury, whose job as a fraternity leader requires him to help implement the measure, is deeply ambivalent. "Personally, I think it's not necessarily something we need to do at Cal," he says. He is skeptical of a policy which supports the two dry fraternities on campus but would restrict the quality of life for 30 other fraternities. "I personally don't like the idea that some people decided they were going to make a policy that changes how our lives go," he says.
On a Wednesday night a few blocks away from Sigma Nu, a handful of young men play pool and drink beer in the Pi Alpha Phi fraternity. Behind the pool table is a fully stocked bar. Chris Rakunas, 20, is one of the oldest brothers in the room. "I pay $600 a month for my room," he says. "I have a right to open a beer if I want."
Technically, he doesn't. State law mandates that only those over 21 can drink alcohol. Still, Rakunas says, that doesn't seem to stop fraternity brothers of all ages from drinking whenever they want.
Rakunas says fraternity members at Berkeley can now get "plastered" six nights a week. On Monday you can get drunk during the house meeting. On Tuesday you can get drunk at an "exchange" with a sorority - where a sorority will visit a fraternity or vice versa. On Wednesday you can go to an "underground bar" at one of several fraternities, where drinks are sold illegally. On Thursday there are "date parties" in San Francisco, where a house will rent a bus to take brothers and their dates to a bar or club - only those over 21 are supposed to drink, so be sure to bring your fake ID. On Friday and Saturday, you can party off campus or drink in the house.
While Rakunas supports the right of brothers to drink in their own houses, he says he would like to see the Dry2K resolution implemented. In terms of throwing parties, he says, the resolution "will totally level the playing field." He says his house doesn't have enough money to throw exchanges on a par with the larger, more established fraternities. He says banning parties with alcohol would give his house a chance to distinguish itself with its creativity, not just its liquor budget.
A month ago his house threw a successful ice cream party for a sorority. "We bought 10 gallons of ice cream, got forty girls over for 22 guys," he says with a smile. He says his fraternity could throw themed non-alcoholic dance parties with DJs and elaborate decorations. In the 1950s and 60s, he says, his brothers used to build a small lake outside their fraternity house, complete with a boat that rowed dates to a tropical-themed party.
Sitting in a quaint living room decorated for Christmas, several sorority women at Kappa Kappa Gamma said they are not enthusiastic about the NPC 2000 mandates. Sophomore Koshland says parties with alcohol will not be replaced by dry events. "They'll just be moved to bars," she says.
"Or basements," adds Jessica Wood, 19. Wood worries about the implications of making fraternities and sororities dry. "There will be more drunk driving, more underground drinking -- and people might be less likely to call the hospital or police if they drank too much, for fear of getting in trouble."
Back at Sigma Nu, Carlos Almendarez concedes that not everyone is enthusiastic about the Dry2K movement. Yet he is glad the resolution is going forward, and thinks it will give people like himself more options in which fraternity to rush, cleaner houses, and more options for dry parties. Most importantly, he says, it will help return fraternities to their core values.
But he also understands human nature. "I look back to prohibition," he says, "and no matter how much the school wants to push something, if people are against it, then it's kind of futile."