The Dry Wave

University of Minnesota fraternities make it their mission to toss out the booze bottle and sober up

The grand mansions along the University of Minnesota's fraternity row have a sense of tradition about them, what with their century-long history of stuffy literary clubs, secret handshakes, and framed parchments that line their walls. After World War II, while the goals of the brotherhoods didn't change much--turning gangly teens into men, fostering the scholarly life--many added gluttonous alcohol consumption to their list of values. But in recent months, after decades of abiding by the "boys will be boys" credo when it comes to booze bingeing, a good share of the 22 frats on campus are choosing to--or being forced to--ban alcohol from their premises and go dry.

Alpha Tau Omega sits square in the middle of one block along frat row, a massive brick-and-stone Tudor with a 15-foot terrace that looks out over the traffic speeding by on University Avenue. Inside, fraternity president Andy Cosgrove is on a roll, talking about ATO's recent move to join the growing national trend of giving up the bottle. "The floor doesn't reek of beer," he says, standing near the marble fireplace that anchors the living room's obstacle course of leather furniture. "There's less of the smell and mess associated with partying."

As Cosgrove speaks, fraternity brothers meander in and out of the room, on their way to class or the breakfast table. The scene looks like something out of a J. Crew catalog, a picture of clean-cut collegiate utopia with not a beer belly or bloodshot eye in sight. Alpha Tau Omega is one of three university fraternities that have so far taken the alcohol-free plunge. Much of the impetus behind the change has come from the national fraternity organizations, who've grown weary of bad publicity surrounding events such as the 1997 alcohol-poisoning death of M.I.T. pledge Scott Krueger. ATO's chapter at UM was re-chartered last year after a decade-long absence from campus, an agreement Alpha Tau Omega International consented to only when members agreed to a blanket ban on booze in the house.

No drunks, no chunks: Alpha Tau Omega is one of three frats that have already kicked the habit
Jim Skuldt
No drunks, no chunks: Alpha Tau Omega is one of three frats that have already kicked the habit

It's no secret that concerns about liability were partly responsible for the requirement--that is, having to pay for property damage caused by inebriated guests or getting sued for alcohol-related deaths that occur in the house. "We don't have to deal with the liability of 300 people in your house on a Friday night and all the stuff that can break," Cosgrove explains, noting that liability translates directly into dollars and cents: The chapter receives a 35 percent insurance rebate every year that they ban booze and record no alcohol-related incidents. ATO members are still free to drink at campus bars and fraternity houses where alcohol is permitted.

Three blocks away is Theta Chi, which last year was instructed by its national headquarters to go dry by 2003. But rather than wait four years, members of the local chapter voted in November to ban booze immediately. Since then, house president Mark Rice has seized upon the idea of using Theta Chi's dry-house status as a recruitment tool. "This is the one thing that makes us stand out," he says, gesturing with his hands as if to further emphasize the earnestness of his words. "We want more responsible people. We want to appeal to people who would never think of joining a fraternity"--and, he adds, to parents who might otherwise be leery of encouraging their sons to join up. Theta Chi has 16 current members, well below the house capacity, and it's too early to tell whether Rice's strategy will boost the numbers come the fall rush season.

Even though banning alcohol at fraternities is in vogue only recently, one UM fraternity has been dry for nearly a decade. Farm House--located on the St. Paul campus and made up mostly of agriculture students--banned alcohol in 1990. Rice's hopes are right on, says member Darin Madson: "It's a great recruitment tool. I don't think I'd be here if we weren't dry. It brings up morale in the house and helps our grades." The fact that Farm House continues today with strong membership--nearly 50 students--and hosts frequent events with other fraternities and sororities, Madson adds, should be encouraging for Alpha Tau Omega, Theta Chi, and others frats on the climb to drier ground.

That list is bound to get longer. A handful of other houses have been mandated by their parent chapters to follow suit within the next several years. Among these is Phi Gamma Delta, located several blocks west of fraternity row. No frat knows bad publicity better than Phi Gamma Delta, whose M.I.T. chapter was charged with manslaughter in Krueger's death. The international brotherhood quickly disbanded the M.I.T. house and moved to ban alcohol at all of its 118 chapters by August 2002. According to Bill Martin, executive director of Phi Gamma Delta International, "It's really too early for us to draw any conclusions, but the 25 chapters that are already alcohol-free are still very stable. There has been no noticeable decline in numbers."

Beyond the internal push toward in-house reform, University of Minnesota sororities, all 12 of which are booze-free, have stepped up the pressure on their brothers to sober up. "Frats have taken huge steps in the last couple years to move alcohol outside the Greek system," says Kappa Alpha Theta president Kelly Blanchard, who applauds her brothers for attempting to dismantle their reputations as party-central watering holes, à la Animal House.

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