ORONO, Maine — The spring social season was in full swing along the University of Maine's fraternity row, with a beer bust at Phi Delta Theta, a beer and barbecue party at Sigma Nu, the usual weekend-long flood of suds at Delta Tau Delta, and at Sigma Chi, an evening of . . . milk and cookies.
"There were a lot of women here, and they all seemed to be having a great time," said fraternity president Tyler Batteese. "It was a great success."
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 19, 1992 Home Edition View Part E Page 10 Column 2 View Desk 1 inches; 31 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong fraternity--A story headlined "A Sobering Pledge" in the May 4 edition of View referred to a social event at the Phi Delta Theta house at the University of Maine. That fraternity has no chapter at the University of Maine.
It was also the group's first social function in its new incarnation as an organization that permits no alcohol, no tobacco and no drugs stronger than aspirin on its premises.
In an undergraduate social structure where drinking is a virtual assumption, one bacchanalian blowout too many jolted Sigma Chi into a re-examination of its purposes and an overnight vow of sobriety. "We're still going to socialize," Batteese said. "It's just that our events are not going to contain alcohol."
The local chapter of Sigma Chi purports to be the nation's first chemical-free college fraternity, and the move put the organization at the forefront of a national trend to better regulate the consumption of alcohol on campus or at least to de-emphasize its use.
But as Batteese discovered, sometimes it's lonely at the forefront of a trend.
In the last few years, universities and colleges have been faced with a growing number of legal claims stemming from alcohol-related incidents, with insurance costs rising steadily as a result. In many cases, school administrators and student leaders alike felt it was time to put the brakes on.
Many schools in Southern California and elsewhere now require specially trained bartenders to preside at parties, and some schools are issuing identification bracelets stamped with birth dates to discourage underage drinking. Other fraternities or dormitories refuse to use communal funds to buy alcohol, relying instead on a "bring-your-own" policy. Student residences now routinely set up areas that are off-limits to alcohol. (At Colby College in Waterville, Maine, the announcement of a chemical-free dormitory produced a waiting list of students who wanted to live there.)
But although drinking on campus may be discouraged, it has by no means stopped. The "animal house" image that has long been synonymous with fraternities still flourishes.
"Drinking on college campuses is out of control," said Jay Winsten, director of the Harvard Alcohol Project. "To try to transform a successful fraternity into a chemical-free fraternity is radical."
Certainly that was how many of the brothers at Sigma Chi felt here last spring when the no-alcohol strategy was hastily adopted. The decision followed one especially wild-eyed party where members and guests got so loaded that the walls of the 90-year-old Sigma Chi mansion nearly tumbled down.
"The place was totally trashed," Batteese said. Furniture was upended, windows were broken, food and drink were ground into carpets, holes were punched in walls, drapery was shredded.
The weekend-long rampage was common practice at most houses, fraternity members here insist. But this time, a young woman stepped forward to charge that she had been raped at this particular spring fling. As part of the disciplinary proceedings, university officials ordered Sigma Chi to clean up or shut down.
The edict was reinforced by an offer from the fraternity's national charitable foundation to help foot the bill to refurbish the battered Sigma Chi building. But even that incentive was not enough to convince the majority of the chapter's 35 members, who quit rather than see their house go chemical-free.
By the time school resumed last fall, only Batteese remained. Everyone else had quit or had been expelled for bringing booze, cigarettes or marijuana into the house.
"They're knuckleheads," said Batteese, who said he quickly became the fall guy for the fraternity's new straight-laced image. "They'd like to see me have an unfortunate accident."
Nonetheless, Batteese, a 22-year-old senior with a double major in political science and philosophy, settled in as the lone exponent of chemical-free living.
As the sole undergraduate occupant of the rambling old house, he found ample opportunity to reflect on what he believes to be the purpose of fraternal organizations in the 1990s: "This is a new era. You've either got to adjust to the times or you'll die. Fraternities around the country have been taking a look at themselves and trying to figure out why are we here.
"If the purpose is to hang out together and drink," he said, "then you have to rethink."
This kind of logic, however, places Batteese in a minority. Without a perpetual beer keg, a fraternity is almost unimaginable, many students said.
"That's for sure," said Kerrie Johnson, a 21-year-old psychology major who was doing stretching exercises in front of the Delta Tau Delta house here.
"I just can't see how they're going to get very many people" with their no-chemicals requirements, Johnson said.