Fraternity at Queen’s

The Medical House on King Street: after the AMS dismantled Psi Delta Psi in 1934, the former brothers were left without affiliation or secrets.
The Medical House on King Street: after the AMS dismantled Psi Delta Psi in 1934, the former brothers were left without affiliation or secrets.

Sal Vento is of Italian descent but he considers himself a Greek first and foremost. Some of his brothers have gone on to become US Senators, play in the NFL or create companies like Monster.com. His favourite colours are a lovely compliment of garnet and old gold; his chosen flower is the lily-of-the-valley. But don’t ask him to show you his special handshake or explain what the three letters on his sweater mean. They’re secret.

Vento’s a member of the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity, Wilfred Laurier University chapter. And Greeks (members of a Greek-lettered fraternity) like him have been looking at Queen’s with a mixture of pity and frustration. After all, while fraternities and sororities have long been a ubiquitous on-campus phenomena across the U.S. and Canada—UBC, Western, and Alberta immediately come to mind—our fair university hasn’t been so receptive: the AMS has had them banned 70 years ago.

So what exactly is it that Queen’s is missing? It depends on whom you believe. For the uninitiated, a fraternity is essentially a network of chapter groups made up of male university students (female fraternities are usually referred to as ‘sororities’). Like the boy scouts but with more drinking, fraternities are clubs where like-minded students can get together and engage in social, philanthropic and even academic pursuits with their fellow ‘brothers’. They network for jobs, help out in the community, and trade term papers. Often using Greek letters to conceal their ‘true’ name, fraternities rely a great deal on secrecy, rituals, symbols and oaths to keep themselves close and tightly knit.

And this is what Queen’s students found so threatening 70 years ago. In the December 1929 issue of the Queen’s Review, one student voiced fears that apparently paralleled those of much of the student body.

“Queen’s University is one large fraternity. Queens has perhaps the most homogenous group of students of any college in the country. There is no racial problem [and] wealthy students are few and far between… My well-considered fear is that fraternities on the campus would tend to set up a caste system that in the long run would injure the democratic traditions of Queens and perhaps endanger loyalty to the College as a whole,” he wrote.

In February 1934, with only two fraternities already on campus, the AMS amended its constitution to outlaw them completely and save the equality and solidarity they had worked so hard to achieve. This was a significant event for two major reasons. For one thing, it was rare to see such a majority of the student body banded together around one cause. For another, it was the student government that got the final say. Though Queen’s Senate also unofficially condemned the idea of fraternities, they made the decision to abide by and respect whatever ruling the AMS came up with.

Later, when it was found that the Medical students’ fraternity Psi Delta Phi had ignored the ban, the Senate and Board of Trustees again decided to let the AMS determine the Greeks’ fate. The 24 students were suspended from all school activities for a year and Coach Ted Reeve was given a hundred bucks to make up for the fact that he had just lost some of his best football players.

Though fraternities may be tolerated on other campuses, they still often evoke negative imagery. The popular perception of fraternities, rightly or wrongly, has to do more with their social aspects than their philanthropic or personal enrichment endeavours—many see them still as rich, white kids getting together and drinking in a melange of elitism, misogyny and arrogance.

Attending school at the University of Georgia, Ryan Mitchiner faces these sorts of stereotypes as a member of the Alpha Delta chapter of the Chi Psi fraternity. After more than a century of relatively peaceful co-existence with the school’s faculty and administration, his fraternity had its charter revoked in the spring of 1999 after one drunk brother fell down the stairs in an on-campus frat house and nearly died. A bad reputation was one thing, but the possibility of a student’s family suing the school for failure to maintain a safe environment was another thing entirely. Accusing the Alpha Deltas of trying to cover the incident up (a charge they vehemently deny), the school revoked their charter and confiscated their US$1.6-million house after its lease expired.

Alpha Delta is the third fraternity to be kicked off the U of G campus over the last three years.

“Greeks are both highly regarded and hated here,” Mitchiner explained. “There is tremendous Alumni support… [We] continually have a significantly higher GPA than non-Greeks [and] there is hardly a philanthropy in town we are not involved in but don’t let one of us fall down the stairs because all of the nay-sayers will exploit the hell out of this negative publicity and make us out to be a bunch of spoiled, irresponsible drunks.”

He’s right. It doesn’t require fraternity membership for someone to get drunk and hurt him or herself. Certainly even frat-free schools like Queen’s occasionally encounter similar incidents in residence. Still, everyone needs a scapegoat. But have they picked the right one?

There are approximately 70 international and national men’s fraternities and an additional 60 for women. Together, their membership totals 500,000 undergrads spread out among 7,000 chapters over 800 campuses between New Mexico and Alaska and everywhere in between. Generally speaking, these people are not slackers; they are not all party animals with wallets stuffed with monthly allowance from Mommy and Daddy. These are people who, believe it or not, succeed in academics and beyond. These are people who belong to the same fraternity as their father, and their father’s father and so on. It’s historical legacy mixed in with the promise of a vast social network to help you achieve all that you can. Out of North America’s 50 largest corporations, 43 are headed by Greeks. Out of the Fortune 500 executives, 85 per cent belong to a fraternity. Ditto for 75 per cent of all U.S. Congressmen and Senators, 85 per cent of all U.S. Supreme Court Justices, and 60 per cent of all U.S. Cabinet members since the turn of the last century. Joe Clark and Brian Mulroney are Greeks, so were Prime Ministers King and Pearson, along with almost every single U.S. president and vice-president since 1825.

The question is, are these people leaders because of the influence of fraternities? And more importantly, if the answer is ‘yes,’ should we really be keeping them off our campus?

Suggest that being in a fraternity has a negative impact on your studies or behaviour and Greeks are quick to point out that fraternity brothers have a 28 per cent higher rate of graduation than their unaffiliated friends. There are also the frequently-cited studies like the one at the University of Missouri study that argued that those in a fraternity are more involved on their campus and more financially successful after they graduate as compared to their unaffiliated peers.

The Greek life Vento experiences at Laurier is vastly different than the situation in Georgia. Due to its small size, his school lacks the number of fraternities of a place like Western, but its approach is revolutionary in Ontario. Rather than ignoring fraternities or clashing with them, the administration at Laurier have chosen to work with them.

In 1998, Dr. Fred Binding, a tenured professor in the psychology department, accepted the voluntary position of dean of Greek Life. Binding’s role is to serve as an advisor to the Greek Council—a group made up of members representing Laurier’s two fraternities and two sororities—and assist them in the operation of programs that are associated with frat life like the recruitment periods known as ‘rushes’. He also serves as their liaison to the school’s faculty and administration and ensures a constant dialogue. A fraternity brother himself, Binding knows what sort of prejudices his students face.

“[Alcohol abuse and non-stop partying] is so far from my experiences that it’s sort of amusing. Some fraternities and sororities have more social activities than others, and certainly over their history there are some individuals and individual chapters that have done idiotic things,” he argued, “but that’s quite different from what the system as a whole is all about. Fraternities and sororities could not have survived and had as many great people in them as they do if they were mostly barbarians.”

Fostering potential ‘barbarians’ was never the AMS’ concern, however. The decision to ban them here stemmed from concerns over loyalty and a reluctance to create any sort of cliquey elite class structure. It seems a bit silly, if not insulting, to suggest that Greeks will only associate with other Greeks, though. So even if Queen’s feared fraternities then, that does not necessarily mean they hold the same feelings now, almost three-quarters of a century later. According to Dean of Student Affairs Bob Crawford, one of the reasons the rule is still in place is because no one’s ever really come forward and attempted to challenge it.

If any steps were ever taken to lift the ban on fraternities, it wouldn’t be a decision made lightly, though. These are not glee clubs or casual organizations. With each member contribute annual dues of around $450, the fraternity is a multi-million dollar franchise where students don’t form chapters so much as they are subjected to paid consultants dropping in from a Dallas office to interview potential founders and pester officials to reveal their students’ GPAs to determine their worthiness.

Still, the fact that Queen’s student community has managed to survive without fraternities or sororities implies that if there is currently a void, then no one here seems to be noticing. It’s easy to dismiss these frats as out-dated (gender segregation in the twenty-first century?), silly or even cultish, but to do so is a disservice to all those who honestly find a sense of community and opportunity within them.

If fraternities do not belong at Queen’s, then, it’s not because of simplistic prejudices or paranoid fears of lost loyalty. It seems simply because the students at Queen’s don’t feel that they need them.

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