Penn State Diary: Public perception and the complex reality of the Greek system

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Penn State Diary: Public perception and the complex reality of the Greek system
The Installation of Sigma Nu Fraternity at the University Club

The following is a story by Lee Stout for Town and Gown and is being re-purposed for informational purposes only.

Fraternities have been a contentious topic on campus this year. But the death of Beta Theta Pi pledge Timothy Piazza and the indictment of 18 Beta members on charges related to that tragic incident brought the academic year to a shattering end. As a result, there seems to be an official posture that suggests Greek organizations are more trouble than they’re worth. I’ll confess up front that I find that troubling.

As an undergraduate in the 1960s, I was a house president and thus a member of IFC, the Interfraternity Council. I was also a member of something called the IFC Board of Control, a judicial group that checked up on fraternity behavior and meted out punishment for violations of established rules. In addition, I served as an alumni chapter officer for several years.

Much of the daily life of members today seems the same as I remember it, but we did not have the extensive time demands of philanthropy, nor did we have the wide-open parties that seem to generate so many problems today.

The first American social fraternities began in the 1820s and ’30s, when they began to displace the campus literary or debating societies. They quickly spread from the Northeast, on both rural and urban campuses. With a tinge of secret society exclusiveness, like Masonic lodges, fraternities in the 19th century provided a more liberal social environment for students and were emblematic of a growing interest in the “extra-curriculum,” student life outside the classroom, and aspirations to become “successful men of the world.”

Presidents and faculty in many schools resisted these organizations, believing the clubs distracted students from their studies and encouraged social life without proper decorum and restraint. Some colleges, including Penn State, did not permit them. However, students persisted in campaigning for change.

Finally, growing enrollments could not be accommodated since Old Main, the only men’s dormitory space, was full and the village lacked enough rooming houses. Without alternatives, the faculty surrendered and lifted the ban in 1887. Chapters immediately began to proliferate and built their own houses in town.

By 1920 fraternities had grown to 20 national chapters with 10 local fraternities. President Sparks, who served from 1908 to 1920, had been a fraternity man himself as an undergraduate. He and Dean of Men Arthur Warnock promoted fraternities and fostered the creation of the IFC to govern the system. And there were problems — social behavior (with prohibition arriving in 1920), house management and finances, and indifference to academics were issues to be addressed.

In the 1930s, nearly half the male student body were members of 47 national and local chapters. This was the era of large new houses being built in the new Highlands fraternity district. It was also the era of formal dances at special times like Homecoming and House Party weekend and, beginning in the ’20s, more liberal attitudes toward drinking and sex.

By the early ’60s, Penn State’s fraternity system had grown to almost 60 chapters, the second largest system in the country. However, with the social revolutions of the late ’60s and ’70s, fraternities declined in popularity, only to recover in the ’80s and reach stability by the 21st century.

The public perception of fraternities and their members has fluctuated as well, from being the home of campus leaders and athletes, to being the stereotypical slobs and proto-yuppies portrayed in Animal House. THON, more formally the IFC-Panhellenic Dance Marathon, the largest student-run philanthropy in the world, represents one side of fraternity life. Unfortunately, bad choices and outrageous behaviors in some houses revolving around hazing, alcohol abuse, and sexual misconduct have lately tipped the scale against the Greek community.

Today, some question whether there is a future for the fraternity system. The university, still sensitive from the public relations and litigation disasters of the Sandusky scandal, has lost patience with groups that can’t control themselves. The public sees unruly parties, trash left on neighbors’ lawns, and students who risk their health and safety by abusing alcohol or drugs.  

The reality is more complex. Fraternity members attempt to live together, govern themselves as organizations, recruit committed members, and maintain a house, while achieving good grades and preparing for future careers through learning leadership skills. Greeks are a minority of the student body and, on any given night, parties in apartments and rental housing push the same boundaries, but without the responsibilities that fraternity members accept by being a part of groups that live and work together.

While the Greek community is often blamed for enabling socially-problematic behavior among students, its members are only the most visible mirrors of their times. In the long run, they provide a sense of belonging in a massive institution and lifelong friendships for their members, as well as loyalty to the university community at large for the rest of their lives.  It takes hard work to make a fraternity succeed in the best of times. In the current climate, securing the commitment of undergraduates, alumni, national chapters, and the university to the future of the system is even more challenging.  

Lee Stout is librarian emeritus, special collections for Penn State.