As they do every week, the 90 members of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity at Oregon State University file into their dining hall for a very different kind of frat party. The rows of scrubbed and pressed young men sit down to eat under the watchful eye of the brother who is acting as manners chair. No swearing is permitted. Napkins on laps are required. Small bites are urged instead of gulps. Scofflaws must do penalty push-ups or pay a fine into the piggy bank in the middle of each table.
Call it the new fratiquette, but these weekly civility sessions are just a small part of a growing reform movement led by SigEp, the country's largest fraternity. As colleges continue to crack down on binge drinking, hazing and general hooliganism, some fraternities are redefining the Greek experience in order to save it.
Oregon State's is among the 256 SigEp chapters nationwide that have adopted the Balanced Man Program, an intensive four-year fraternity experience created 13 years ago by concerned SigEp leaders to shift the center of life in the houses from beer-soaked blowouts to activities that promote healthy living and self-respect. To eliminate hazing, the program does away with the pledge system--all recruits are equal members from Day One. Alcohol is allowed, but booze-free activities are encouraged. The George Washington University chapter does yoga together. At Miami University in Ohio, fraternity brothers learn how to salsa-dance and cook traditional Mexican meals.
The SigEps of Oregon State were a long way from such genteel pursuits just five years ago. At a school that offers a degree in fermentation sciences, the SigEps of old stood out for their love of inebriation. "When I got here in 2001, it was awful," says Mike Powers, 20, a senior. "Drugs were coming in, grades were falling. There were nothing but monster parties." The chapter hit bottom that fall when a single party resulted in a whopping $195,000 in fines for 26 separate counts of providing alcohol to minors. The house needed a fresh start, which led to a purge of partyers in which a third of the brothers left the chapter. "We needed to get rid of the cancers of the frat," says Powers.
Today the chapter, reorganized under the Balanced Man Program, has rebounded. Membership is almost back to prepurge levels, and last summer the chapter won a national SigEp award that placed it in the top 15% in academics and community service of all chapters in the country.
But the frat makeovers have their detractors. In the rush to save fraternity life, some say, SigEp and the Balanced Man Program may be ruining it. "Some of my best experiences in college were stupid things I did with my friends, usually involving alcohol," says Kevin Stange, whose SigEp chapter at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was frequently in trouble with the national organization when he was a student in the late 1990s and which eventually closed for several years. "We never went too far, though," says Stange. "And the real reason people join frats is to have fun. Balanced Man doesn't address that." Online chat rooms like greek chat.com are ablaze with debate about the changes. As one SigEp who clearly missed the etiquette lessons wrote, "The [Balanced Man Program] has effectively cut the balls [off] our fraternity."