Substance-free fraternity house movement growing in Greek life

DALLAS -- You wouldn't know it since negative headlines get all the attention, but fraternities and sororities do a lot of good for their members, their campuses, and their communities.

That said, yet another fraternity chapter was suspended due to alcohol-related hazing allegations on Monday with SMU shutting down the Pi Kappa Alpha house.

That incident that further shows why some national fraternity organizations have or are about to make their chapter houses completely substance-free in an attempt to save Greek life from irrelevance, banishment, or both.

Two of the largest national fraternities, Sigma Phi Epsilon and Beta Theta Pi, recently decided to start phasing in a dry program in all of their chapter houses this coming fall with full implementation scheduled for 2020.  In SigEp's case, the move was actually voted through by undergraduates as opposed to being an order from the top.

"The words 'existential threat' have been used on multiple occasions, and probably rightfully so," says SigEp CEO Brian C. Warren Jr.  "Behavior is a product of people and environment, and we're trying to influence people and environment and ultimately provide a safer experience that's also a more relevant experience."

The numbers don't lie.  SigEp compared its chapter houses that already have some kind of substance policy with those that don't have any, and over the past five years its 85 wet houses had 18 insurance claims with a total payout of nearly $3.4 million while its 70 dry and semi-dry houses had only 10 claims totaling a payout of less than $151,000.  Additionally, chapter houses with substance policies averaged more members and better GPAs than chapter houses with no restrictions.  Beta had similar results when comparing its dry and wet chapters.

"When fraternity is done right," says Warren, "you see engagement on campus go up; you see retention of students and persistence of graduation improve; and you see academic performance higher than the average student, as well."

Of course, enforcement is the key.  In 2017 there were at least two deaths involving alcohol and hazing at fraternity houses that were supposed to be dry, including Beta's chapter at Penn State University.  Warren says SigEp plans to double its support staff to help chapters transition to and enforce the dry policy, and the organization also seeks active involvement from colleges and universities to make it a team effort.

But, can't members just move their parties to other unregulated locations like off-campus houses and apartments?  Yes, but the hope is that if a person just wants to be destructive rather than productive he'll be turned off from joining a principled social organization in the first place.

"There is no silver bullet to the complicated issues surrounding hazing," says HazingPrevention.org executive director Emily Pualwan, "but 82 percent of hazing deaths at the college level involve alcohol abuse.

"Given the relationship between hazing and alcohol/substance abuse, we absolutely support steps that remove the variables from hazing situations."

Note of disclosure: the writer of this story is a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon