The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus


The Incredible Shrinking Fraternity System

The fall semester at Louisiana State University was not a good time to be a Sigma Nu. The fraternity chapter was cited for hazing its new members, and is already on alcohol-related probation with the university. Their punishment was swift.

“We got busted in mid-November, and by January that was it,” LSU sophomore Billy Thacker said. “We were kicked off campus.”

The Sigma Nus are part of a growing trend in traditional college fraternity life nationwide: they are disappearing. The number of Interfraternity Council (IFC) chapters, recruits, and the sizes of the remaining chapters are all shrinking.

From its peak in 1990, overall fraternity membership across the United States is down 25 percent, according to The New York Times Magazine. The decline has been gradual, yet undeniable.

At Washington State University, the number of new members joining fraternities fell from 359 in 1998 to only 232 in 2003. According to IFC records, The University of Texas at Austin saw a more dramatic drop-off since 2002, as the suspensions of eight fraternities contributed to a 28 percent decrease in the number of men in IFC fraternities.

SMU has not been immune to the reshaping of the Greek system. Since 1990, SMU has lost two IFC fraternities and three sororities to discipline or membership issues.

According to SMU IFC director Ryan Williams, the numbers for men going through rush, the formal recruitment process for fraternities, has been relatively stable. He admits, however, that “slowly but surely, we’re killing ourselves.”

There are countless reasons behind the decline of the fraternity system, but almost all come back to two central issues: risk management and changing times.

By all accounts, there is a lot at stake financially in operating a fraternity. The Association of Insurance Commissioners rank fraternities as the 6th worst insurance risk in the nation, just behind toxic waste and asbestos cleanup efforts.

According to Williams, a double digit percentage increase in insurance costs for fraternities over the last few years has made it less financially viable for national headquarters to keep troublesome fraternities doors’ open.

“Every organization is one lawsuit away from closing,” Williams said. “If they’re really big: two.”

Brandon Miller, SMU Director of New Student Programs, knows fraternities well. Before coming to SMU, he oversaw Greek life at the University of Florida and worked for the national office of his college fraternity, Delta Tau Delta. According to Miller, fraternities will have to catch up with today’s litigious society to survive.

“The old way of doing things isn’t going to work anymore. The smart fraternities will figure that out and change,” Miller said.

Williams agrees that serious change in the system is necessary if fraternities are to recruit and retain today’s college students, whom he calls “Millennials.”

“The Millennial generation is very group oriented, and they want to know what they will get out of it,” Williams said. “They are not as likely to put up with more traditional things that others did before.”

In reference to fraternities, “traditional things” often invokes the specter of hazing, a practice which continues to haunt the fraternity system despite being outlawed nationally.

SMU fraternities in particular have run into trouble with hazing in the last few years, with both the Fiji and Pi Kappa Alpha fraternities receiving sanctions for hazing new members this spring. Alpha Phi Alpha, a traditionally African-American fraternity, was kicked off campus in 2004 for a hazing incident in which a pledge was hospitalized after being forced to drink gallons of water.

Another obstacle fraternities face in their struggle for survival is how to deal with alcohol and underage drinking. Fraternity house residents were found to be twice as likely to binge drink as other college students, according to a 2001 Harvard study.

Problems with alcohol have led schools like Oklahoma University, where a Sigma Chi pledge died from alcohol poisoning this spring, to ban alcohol in all fraternity houses. SMU has taken steps in this direction by ordering chapters to go dry as part of disciplinary sanctions. There are also two voluntarily dry houses on campus, Sig Ep and Phi Delta Theta, which have dry houses nationally.

The only segment of the Greek population seemingly immune to the shrinking trend are the multicultural fraternities, which are seeing membership numbers skyrocket. Younger than most IFC fraternities at most universities, the Multicultural fraternities may be filling an important niche.

“Family is much more important in Hispanic and Asian cultures, and when those kids come to college they are looking for something to help fill that gap,” Williams said, explaining the recruiting success of organizations in the Multicultural Greek Council, of which SMU has five chapters.

For traditional fraternities, there appears to be no real cure for their woes, except time.

“The next few years will be very transitional,” Miller said of the changes fraternities will have to undergo to stay relevant. “The smart get smarter and the dumb get dumber. It’s kind of like Darwinism.”

Students like SMU Sophomore Adam Haller hope that evolution can save his beloved fraternity from going the way of the dinosaur, but he isn’t too hopeful.

“I’m pretty sure fraternities won’t be around for my kids. At least not what we know as fraternities,” Haller said.

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