The party’s over for University of Oregon
fraternities; will OSU be the next sitting duck?
by Anne Le Chevallier
Matsuda still had a few weeks of studying before he finished his first
year at Oregon State University. It was only May, but he was about to
Matsuda was fleeing the state on a road trip with his new brothers, members
of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity. Their escape plan: three days at
California’s Lake Shasta, three days of freedom. The members and
their friends planned to blare Dave Matthews’ songs while lounging
on the sunny roofs of their houseboats. They would take dips in the lake
and attempt to drench each other in water. They would grill burgers and
relax with beers or cocktails.
Katie Hamm, a UO student, was among the 3,000 students who trekked to
the vast lake for the annual getaway that weekend. Hamm said many students
would drink from 9 a.m. until almost sunrise the next day. “It wasn’t
for me,” she said. “I could never do that or want to do that,
but college kids will be college kids, I guess.
Hamm was on the same houseboat as Matsuda on May 11, 2001 when the 19-year-old
freshman died. “Everything seemed under control,” she said.
“No one was going crazy or out of control. All the wrong circumstances—drinking,
being tired, the boats, the
way the water moved —together they created something awful.”
Matsuda had started drinking around 11 a.m. Five hours later, when Matsuda
tried to jump from one houseboat to another, he fell, hit the back of
his head on a railing and disappeared into the water. Immediately, Hamm
and other witnesses jumped in and tried to rescue their friend. Because
of the water’s murkiness, Matsuda
could not be found until 15 or 20 minutes after he fell.
He was dead.
“It was a nightmare,” Hamm said. “It was the most horrible
experience of my life.”
This March, tragedy struck OSU again when Spencer Haugh was visiting friends
at Kappa Sigma fraternity. Haugh, a 20-year-old art major, had been rocking
back and forth on the fire escape railing when he fell three stories to
a concrete patio. His blood alcohol content was at least .20—more
than twice the level at which an Oregon driver is considered drunk. Haugh
sustained severe head and spinal injuries, and five days later his parents
removed him from life support.
Keep track of how long you have been sober with the popular Sobriety Calculator
“The end result was a wake up call; it was legitimately a wake up
call for everybody,” said OSU Greek Life Coordinator Bob Kerr.
The tragic deaths might have alerted all, but it is the University of
Oregon, where no students died, that is taking action. Last May, University
President Dave Frohnmayer approved prohibition on campus Greeks. His new
standards require all Greek chapters to have alcohol and drug-free housing.
For some, the change is not dramatic. All the sororities are substance-free,
and UO already has a handful of substance-free fraternities who emphasize
brotherhood, scholarship and service. They neither use alcohol to recruit
nor to enliven their in-house social functions.
But there are also a number of fraternities who maintain reputations as
beer-guzzling, pot smoking slackers. Inside Beta Theta Pi hangs a testament
to the popularity of this image: a poster of “National Lampoon’s
Animal House.” The 1978 comedy—filmed on the UO campus—is
not a documentary. But the story of the fictional ’60s school, Faber
College, captures an element of truth when it tells of a struggle between
reckless youth, their stogy peers and the administration. The Deltas are
losers whose interests are beer, drugs, sex, pranks and beer. The stuck-up
Omegas conspire with the dean to remove their counterparts. After the
Deltas throw a wild toga party, the dean revokes their charter, and the
Deltas wreak anarchy on campus.
Here’s the world of the modern drinking fraternity: The UO chapter
of Beta Theta Pi volunteered to paint the “O” marking on Skinner’s
Butte. It earns better grades than most wet chapters, it voted to go dry
for a term last year as a sort of self-discipline, and it has alcohol
and social education programs.
Chapter President Shane Meisel said, “We try to educate the guys
because men are already stupid. We tell them what’s right and wrong.”
But members of the Beta house also partake in the Greek system’s
nightlife. Junior Taylor Lewis explained that his chapter hosts parties
in its dark, soundproof basement, which has a sticky dance floor and space
for playing drinking games. Speed quarters and beer pong are popular.
On the third floor, guys in oxford shirts and college women in make-up
and skirts stand on the stained carpet or sit on the grimy couch. At some
parties, female guests rotate bedrooms and down drinks like peppermint
paddy shots or sweettasting kamikazes. Members nurse a cold can of Pabst,
which they retrieved from the trough in the bathroom. Lewis said if anyone
wants to smoke weed, they have to go outside. Otherwise, the partygoers
mingle and play drinking games until the early morning.
“It’s a fun, laid-back atmosphere,” said Lewis. “We
have a good group of friends that come, and we try to keep it as exclusive
The parties are fun for most partygoers, but for the president they are
a headache. Other members take shifts as the sober brother or bouncer,
and they try to ensure their female guests a ride or an escort home. But
if anyone pukes, or is incoherent, belligerent or reckless, the consequences
could fall on Meisel’s shoulders. He could be responsible and liable
for everything that happens in his house.
Meisel and his fraternity brothers might be more cautious and better organized
than the Animal House, but their struggle is the same. Beta Theta Pi and
other wet fraternities are waging a losing battle against the university
to keep their way of life. The Greeks tried disagreeing with the administrators;
then their national leaders wrote letters to Frohnmayer objecting to the
standards. Their remaining choice is to comply or close.
Not only is the University is requiring all Greek chapters to be alcohol
and drug free this fall, but the chapters must also meet endorsement standards
in academic performance, leadership, community service and property management.
If the chapters fail to meet or progress toward these standards within
a year, they will lose the university’s services. Like Dean Wormer
of “Animal House,” Frohnmayer will ask their national headquarters
to revoke their charters.
Meisel thinks the university’s motive for the new policy is to polish
its image at the expense of the chapters. “It makes the university
look very good on paper to the press and national organizations if they
look at all our chapters do,” he said. He believes this campus makeover
will hurt the Greek system’s membership and cause chapters to close.
Greg Lobisser, the UO administrator who proposed the new policy, agrees
UO might lose some chapters. But he believes Greek chapters benefit from
the university’s reputation, and if they want to be affiliated with
it, the school should have the authority to create some standards to define
the quality of the chapters.
“If we are to endorse them,” said Lobisser, the director of
student activity, “we want to do that with confidence that they
are healthy places to be.”
Meisel calls this idea discriminatory. Fraternities and sororities are
self-governing, nonprofit organizations who have a legacy of deciding
what is best for themselves. Now, the university is intruding into the
Greek system’s established and independent form of government. The
university is requiring more of Greeks than other student organizations
and holding them to stricter standards than residents of the dorms, where
21-year-olds are permitted to drink in their rooms.
“The Greek system is just another student organization,” Meisel
said, “But by forcing us to go dry, the university is singling us
out as if we were different ... It is treating us like children instead
of letting 18 to 22-year-old adults govern their own chapters, but it’s
not the university’s responsibility at all; it’s not their
business. It’s up to the national organization of each individual
chapter to improve and help them.”
Meisel and many fraternity members think the new policy is unfair, but
the Greek system may have treated its alcohol and membership problems
with enough disregard that the university now feels the need to force
changes and better protect its students and itself.
Lobisser said the university is concerned the fraternities’ founding
values had been blurred by an emphasis on social functions and alcohol
use, which he said is a selffulfilling problem. Lobisser said the Greek
system’s membership has remained flat despite increases in the number
of students enrolling at Oregon. In order to recruit and maintain members,
UO fraternities have increasingly relied on drinking and parties.
Simultaneously, heavy drinkers are attracted to the Greek system because
they know it will support or promote their habit.
The university comes armed into this debate with studies and statistics
that repeatedly report the Greek system's alcohol abuse. A 1997
survey by the Harvard School of Public Health indicated that about 40
percent of college students are binge drinkers. But the survey showed
the strongest indicator for binge drinking was living in a
fraternity or sorority house. Eighty percent of sorority women and 86
percent of fraternity men living in Greek housing qualified as binge drinkers.
Police records also show alcohol use by Greeks in Oregon is a high-risk
behavior with expensive consequences. According to Eugene police department
reports, from 1997 through 2001, police cited 136 students at UO fraternities
with isdemeanor violations of underage drinking. Police cited almost 20
people at fraternities for furnishing alcohol to minors or allowing a
minor to drink on the property. They also investigated five alleged sexual
assaults at fraternities but made no arrests.
OSU fraternities have also been continually caught defying state liquor
laws and contributing to underage drinking. Sigma Phi Epsilon, the fraternity
of Sean Matsuda, has been a flagrant violator: Four months after Matsuda’s
death, the chapter was busted by
Corvallis police for a party of more than 250 people. They cited 35 partygoers
for underage drinking, and they cited the fraternity with more than 26
counts of furnishing alcohol to minors. Police seized more than 250 cans
and bottles of beer and more than two dozen bottles of hard alcohol. One
fraternity member was hospitalized for alcohol poisoning.
A judge reduced the fraternity’s fine from $30,000 to $10,000 on
the condition it would remain alcohol-free for two years.
UO Greeks say the new policy may cause such massive fraternity parties
to stop, but they argue the policy will be ineffective at stopping underage
and binge drinking. They say fraternities can chug as much beer and throw
as many parties as they want until they are caught. Afterwards, the parties
will just move from fraternities to “live-outs”
—homes or apartments of older members who live in local neighborhoods.
Eugene residents are concerned the new policy could cause more parties
in student housing, which is spread among several neighborhoods and even
the Willamette River. With more parties come more noise, traffic, reckless
behavior and drinking and driving.
Sally Smith, president of the South University Neighborhood Association,
says studentneighbors are already disruptive. They loud music, talk and
laugh until 2 a.m. Sometimes they trash their yards, knock down street
signs, and urinate in public. Smith, who has worked at UO for almost four
decades, said, “Students live in neighborhoods, but they are not
really neighbors. A neighbor is concerned about what somebody else thinks
Smith believes fraternities have more control of their residents than
absentee landlords. She is concerned that if Greek members must find off-campus
locations to drink, the situation in her neighborhood could worsen.
Meisel believes off-campus parties are less safe. “In our fraternity,”
he said, “There are members who watch for those sort of things.
Off campus, there is more anonymity.
Students are not worried about how their house is going to look or if
their president is going to come down on them. They are going to act however
He added that even if Greeks don’t drink at fraternities, drinking
accidents could still occur.
“It can happen anywhere,” he said. “People can leave,
get extremely drunk, come back to the chapter house and fall off the balcony.”
Lobisser doesn’t pretend the policy will lead to abstinence of alcohol
and he doesn’t know how the policy will affect off-campus parties.
His goal is to move the alcohol out of the fraternity houses. This change,
he believes, will create healthy living environments
more conducive to academic performance. The experience of Greek alumnus
Uri Farkas suggests substance-free Greek living might be the best choice.
Farkas joined the University of Montana’s Phi Gamma Delta chapter
in 1994. He said that on any given night in his wet fraternity house,
members would bring over friends or friends of friends. “At parties,”
he added, “People were drinking a lot, getting socked,
and no one seemed to care.”
In 1996, after a series of incidents, a fight between football players
and fraternity members broke the camel’s back. The school’s
Greek leaders voted to go dry.
Farkas said the most immediate improvement to his chapter was its house
appearance. It had new carpet, television, couches and stereo. “Before,
we had never invested,” he said, “but we felt more ownership
and pride knowing we didn’t have so many strangers coming in, leaving
half empty bottles all over the place.”
Farkas, a UO counselor for student athletes, also saw the fraternity’s
recruitment numbers begin to increase. More men interested in leadership,
service and academics gravitated toward the fraternity rather than those
who wanted a place to drink. He said, “We were attracting a better
Not only was the quality of Farkas’s fraternity’s membership
improving, but so was the quality of his experience. He explained, “There
were times when we were throwing a great party—an all out bash—and
I was thinking, ‘This is what fraternity or college life is all
about.’ But after the change, I realized that maybe great parties
are not what fraternities are supposed to be about. I could have found
the social aspects anywhere, but the friendship was there for guys who
wanted to stick it out.”
As Farkas finished his degree at the Missoula school, some chapters began
to decline, and the houses unable or unwilling to adjust no longer have
charters on campus. His friends and classmates who drank heavily did not
stop their alcohol use, but Farkas said his home was no longer a place
for drinkers to hang out all evening.
Farkas’s chapter and campus were ahead of the game. Phi Gamma Delta
had considered a national ban on alcohol in the late 1990s, when the national
movement toward dry housing began. However, the fraternity did not solidify
its decision until 1997 when a pledge at its MIT chapter fell into a coma
after binge drinking and died. The fraternity was indicted for manslaughter
and hazing, and the school paid almost $5 million to the freshman’s
parents. Now, Phi Gamma Delta is one of almost a dozen fraternities to
have alcohol-free housing initiatives. These fraternities have reduced
risk of lawsuits and get breaks on insurance premiums.
There are strong health and financial reasons for going dry, yet OSU has
no plans to change its Greek system. OSU Greek Life Coordinator Bob Kerr
explained, “Coming from someone who has done this for a long time,”
he said, “The solution lies somewhere other than mandatory substance-free
After the two deaths, and UO’s decision to change, many Beaver parents
and alumni are asking questions. But Kerr, who has worked with Greeks
for almost three decades, is asking for patience. He says kicking Greeks
out, moving recruitment to later terms, or going dry without student feedback
are quick fixes to a complex and challenging situation.
People want answers now. Kerr says that works if you are a football team
trying to score a touchdown; it doesn’t work if you are interested
in sustaining an institution and
establishing a lifetime of healthy conduct for students. He wants to continue
building relationships among Greek leaders before they try to find a “slow
approach to the problem. “I do not feel we need an answer tomorrow
because UO is changing,” Kerr says. “We are going to school
BrainstormNW - November 2002