The Dry Wave

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

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.

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.

As anyone who's been to one knows, with big fraternity bashes come the occasional visit by police. Officer Charles Gust, with the Minneapolis Police Department's RECAP Unit, points out that while alcohol-related incidents at local fraternities in the last few years haven't involved severe injuries or deaths, there has been a spate of arrests--for public urination and intoxication, disorderly conduct, and drunk driving. Gary Hein, who patrols the MPD's Second Precinct, which includes fraternity row, agrees that there is cause for concern: "A lot of underage drinking is allowed to go on at frats because it's so hard to control. This is a problem because it's been shown that the earlier you start drinking, the more likely you are to develop problems with alcohol at a later age. And it's an issue for the university people, since they are the ones dealing with the aftermath when the students go back to the dorm and cause problems there." More to the point, Hein adds, "There's a lot of issues involving what happens at these parties. One of the main issues is statutory rape [when] girls are drunk. The problem is that it doesn't get reported. Date rape is one of the most rapidly rising offenses we deal with."

Counting the three fraternities that have so far gone alcohol-free, a majority of the 1800-plus Greek men and women on campus--less than ten percent of the whole student body--now live in dry houses. At the same time, those who revel in the binge-drinking life can continue to do so, though under the constraints of keg bans and strict rules against serving booze on the premises (read: "bring your own beer" for guests).

These restrictions were imposed not by the school's administration, but rather by self-governing bodies like the national fraternities and the local, student-run Interfraternity Council. "We would rather choose the steps we will take than have someone else make them for us," says IFC president Dan Kelly.

Conspicuously absent from the discussion of banning alcohol are the fraternities with, at least in their minds, the most to lose. When asked, "Which frat throws the wildest parties?" and "Which frat will never willingly go dry?" Greek students mention the same names over and again. Not surprisingly, members of these houses were not eager to outline their alcohol-reform plans. The one thing they will comment on, however, is the "bad rap" fraternities that host high alcohol-content parties have received. Sure, they say, some festivities might get a bit out of hand, and partygoers may overindulge on occasion, but that doesn't mean their houses should be shunned if they refuse to enlist in the dry brigade. With Scott Krueger's death in mind, one Delta Tau Delta brother likens the plight of booze-or-bust fraternities to President Clinton's predicament of late: "Most people think he's done a good job, but unfortunately it only takes one mistake to cover up all the good you've done."

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