Commentary

Fraternities Can Change on Their Own

August 30, 2017

In the fall of 2004, a fraternity pledge at the University of Colorado at Boulder died from a combination of alcohol poisoning and a grossly, inexcusably, delayed call for help. The following spring, the university administration issued a nonnegotiable policy, the Registered Fraternal Organization Agreement, which fraternities would need to sign in order to continue receiving campus benefits and services. The agreement required, among other things, that fraternities move the student-recruitment period to the spring of each year.

After extensive discussions among themselves — and with support from the North-American Interfraternity Conference — all undergraduate Interfraternity Council officers, all University of Colorado-based chapter presidents along with their alumni advisers and housing corporations, and the executive directors of all the applicable national fraternities decided unanimously: They would not sign the agreement. The Boulder men’s Greek organizations set a course for the future without any involvement from the CU-Boulder administration.

In the fall of 2005, I became the independent Greek advocate for the Boulder fraternity community. Simultaneously, the undergraduate and alumni interfraternity councils both became private, nonprofit corporations. At the time there were 12 to 13 fraternity chapters with about 800 members.

Since 2005, chapter presidents have served as the board of directors of the Undergraduate Interfraternity Council at the University of Colorado. The student-run council has complete and absolute responsibility for the fraternity community. Chapter presidents set expectations through the council constitution and by-laws, select officers and directors to enforce those expectations, hold one another accountable for the actions of their chapters and brothers, and operate a fair and transparent judicial review process to make that accountability a reality. There has been a transformative change from a traditional Greek "system" into a genuine student community — a community of "Brothers and Cousins."

Today, 20 fraternities are affiliated with the independent Undergraduate Interfraternity Council, with a peak membership last school year of 1,800 members. During the 12 years operating as a student-operated group, there has been growth and there have been challenges. Over that time, some national fraternities closed chapters in Boulder. Moreover, the undergraduate leaders have expelled three chapters for a variety of violations — but mainly because the offending chapters did not use the resources available to fix their cultures.

So what are some of the actions the independent Undergraduate Interfraternity Council has taken in a decade-plus to increase the health, safety, and welfare of those thousands of students who have been part of Greek life in Boulder?

  • There are educational programs taught by a large number of organizations and people (including law-enforcement agencies, the Title IX office, national fraternities, and fraternity alumni) for chapters and members dealing with all the historical problems with fraternities. These include hazing, drugs, alcohol abuse, sexual harassment and assault, and lack of fire safety.
  • There is an official liaison program with the city police and fire departments, and every chapter has an assigned Greek liaison officer. The fire department facilitates a "Greek Fire Academy" annually for chapter leaders.
  • The Undergraduate Interfraternity Council has sponsored training in CPR and basic first aid for thousands of members.
  • For any event with guests and alcohol, chapters register with the Undergraduate Interfraternity Council at least 72 hours in advance. That registration is forwarded to all executive board members of the council and to the Boulder police department. The city fire department and the University of Colorado police department are also informed. Boulder police and council executives do walk-throughs at these events.
  • Each semester all new members attend a seminar, Greek 101, along with their chapter officers. They are taught the common values of the community and receive very direct instruction about alcohol poisoning and the obligation to make immediate calls for help.
  • While the undergraduate council does not hold judicial boards for or sanction individual men, the inappropriate behavior of an individual can and does result in a judicial board for his chapter.
  • All fraternity chapters are dark on Halloween, New Year’s Eve, St. Patrick’s Day, and the night of the University of Colorado vs. Colorado State University football game, all historically troublesome occasions. This has significantly reduced the burden on the city police.

So has that made a difference?

  • Since 2005 there have been no deaths or serious injuries in the fraternity community.
  • Since 2005 there have been no reported physical confrontations between the members of two chapters.
  • Since 2005 there has been no significant fire on any fraternity property.
  • Two Boulder police-department sergeants have stated publicly that the safest place for university students to party in the student section of town is at the fraternity houses.
  • While calls for medical help still happen, they are less frequent. Every fraternity member has been educated about both the Good Samaritan state statute and the University of Colorado Good Samaritan policy.
  • Every fraternity member has had specific instructions about when to call 9ll.
  • We can document that personal connections with the police and fire departments, along with education and prevention, reduce violations and the need for enforcement.

Many universities do an excellent job working with their fraternities and councils. Many of those councils do the same kinds of great things for their members. In Boulder, the Undergraduate Interfraternity Council and its member chapters do these things entirely at student initiative and student expense. (The council is self-funded.)

What we all want to happen nationally is happening on the ground in Boulder. Our undergraduate students are in charge. They make good decisions and reap the rewards, make bad decisions and learn from the consequences. The student leaders are coached and advised by wise men but ultimately make all their own decisions and manage their own money. The "grownups" advise and coach but do not get to play the game. The "kids," as a result, greatly enhance the quality of their undergraduate experiences and add value to their degrees. On this, our graduates in a wide range of professions are also unanimous.

They have learned how to keep their "Brothers and Cousins" and their many guests safe … and happy.

Marc D. Stine is the independent Greek advocate for Boulder, Colo.