The people who run the fraternity system at USC had a somber message Sunday for this year's group of prospective fraternity initiates: Times have changed.
They say Fraternity Row at the university is trying hard to shed its image as Party Central, a place where, at least in legend, hard drinking, wild hazing and casual sex were the main attractions.
So, all the pledges--young men invited to seek full membership in fraternities--were required to attend a seminar on the dangers of alcohol abuse, promiscuity and initiation stunts. A generation ago, a similar group more likely would have been nursing a massive collective hangover on a Sunday morning and giggling about their exploits.
"We want to get out the message that fraternities are more about education and brotherhood than the "Animal House" image the pledges are used to seeing," said John Peterson, a vice president of the USC Interfraternity Council, which sponsored the event.
Fraternities at USC and most colleges and universities still have their share of boozy festivities, officials concede. But the nearly 300 freshman and sophomores at the seminar seemed to receive with good humor a litany of how the risks are greater these days:
Laws against drunk driving and hazing are much tougher than they were a decade ago. Prosecutors and juries are more willing to charge and convict college students of crimes that once might have been dismissed as schoolboy pranks. Administrators want to take back some of the freedom gained by student protests in the 1960 and '70s. Plus, there is the danger of AIDS.
"My generation was presented with the challenge of the Vietnam War and that was not of our choosing. Your challenge is that you are thrust into a much more conservative era that may not be of your choosing. You are now being held responsible for your actions in a way that the people who created those myths you feel you have to live up to never did. We are holding you to a higher standard," said Kenneth Taylor, the economics teacher who became the director of Greek Life at USC last year.
The keynote speaker Sunday was the Rev. Will Keim, the First Christian Church minister on campus at Oregon State. Keim, who said he talks at about 50 colleges a year, delivered a no-punches-pulled lecture peppered with jokes and expletives. He did not urge teetotalism or chastity but called for moderation and gentlemanly consideration.
According to Keim, an estimated 50 women were the victims of gang rapes on college campuses in the last three years and almost all of those incidents were associated with fraternity and sorority parties. Hazing was blamed for 29 deaths nationwide since 1981, he said. And, while there may have been a decrease in physical abuse in hazing in the last couple of years, most initiations still include psychological abuse and personal degradation, he said.
As a result, several colleges and universities decided to ban fraternities, and other schools may follow suit. Keim said fraternities must police themselves or else "the state and the university will do it for you."
"It is particularly hard at a school like USC in Los Angeles, which is the fastest of the fast lanes," Keim said in an interview. "It is a lot harder here than at the University of Idaho. . . . I can use the term "USC" anywhere in the country and get a "whoa" from the audience. It is like it is "Action Central." But I hold USC up as an example of a "Party Headquarters" which is trying to change its image."
Dry Rush Week
Last month, USC fraternities had their first totally dry Rush Week, meaning that neither prospective pledges nor members could drink during recruitment parties. And, according to Taylor, he received no reports about dangerous hazing last year, although one fraternity was warned not to hold an initiation that seemed to promise a survival march and another club was disciplined after one member got very drunk and then slightly hurt in a bicycle accident.
As an example of how sternly USC now treats abuses, fraternity members talk with embarrassment about a March, 1986, incident in which members of the Kappa Sigma fraternity and Pi Beta Phi sorority, angered by their loss in a competition, chanted anti-Semitic remarks and painted offensive graffiti outside a mainly Jewish fraternity house. Kappa Sigma was suspended from campus activities for two years; the sorority for nine months.
Taylor, who was a fraternity member at the University of Chicago, has supervisory power over 25 fraternities and 11 sororities; their memberships total about 3,300 undergraduates-- 20% of the undergraduates at USC. (In addition, there are 11 clubs that cater to black or Asian students, do not belong to the Interfraternity Council and are not regulated by his office. The audience at Sunday's seminar were almost all Anglo, with a sprinkling of Asian students.)