Picture a Greek college organization. Toga parties, humiliating pledge processes and “Animal House” scenes came rushing to mind, didn’t they?
For those who are not a part of Greek life — and maybe some who are — that assumption probably seems fairly accurate.
“If you’re not in a Greek organization, that’s all you hear. That’s the giant misconception, that you just join to get blacked-out drunk and hopefully not die, or get hazed,” said David Armstrong, president of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity at Fresno State.
According to a report by The Economist, there has been at least one alcohol or hazing-related death each year in the United States between 1969 and 2017. Forty of these deaths occurred in the past decade alone.
“It’s been a crazy, terrible streak, and it can all be attributed to alcohol. My whole take on it is that there are always going to be bad apples. Some people just don’t know how to control themselves around these substances,” Armstrong said.
Armstrong is a junior at Fresno State. Before holding his current leadership position with Sigma Phi Epsilon — otherwise known as “Sig Ep” — he was vice president of programming and the fraternity’s communications chair.
Sig Ep is one of 11 fraternities belonging to the Inter-Fraternity Council (IFC) at Fresno State. The purpose of these organizations is to promote brotherhood, community involvement and provide a network to college students.
Back in 2012, there was one more fraternity on that list — Theta Chi.
The Theta Chi chapter at Fresno State was suspended by its national governing board and recognition was removed by the university following the death of 18-year-old Philip Dhanens.
Two weeks into his freshman year, Dhanens accepted a bid to Theta Chi. On Aug. 31, 2012, Dhanens’ pledge class was locked in a room and instructed that it would not be allowed to leave until the pledges finished multiple bottles of liquor.
Dhanens died in the hospital the following day after alcohol poisoning led to swelling in his brain. Two members faced jail time for his death.
Dhanens’ death was the second alcohol-related death to ever occur in a Greek organization at Fresno State.
In 2006, a 19-year-old student died of alcohol poisoning at a Phi Gamma Delta party. The fraternity was banned for five years and has not been re-established at the university.
Fresno State has since adopted a zero-tolerance hazing policy. This policy requires new members to sign the Fresno State Fraternity and Sorority Life Hazing Statement prohibiting all kinds of hazing activities. Under Matt’s Law, adopted in 2005, members may even face felony charges for partaking in any form of the act that results in severe damage — either physical or emotional.
The community and service that these organizations provide to students and charities is increasingly being overshadowed by the media’s vast coverage of these untimely deaths.
These stories are sparking buzz among parents and administrators alike — controversy that could ultimately end Greek life if changes are not made.
At the home of the Bulldogs, Sig Ep is the fraternity ready to make that change its leaders say. In the fall of 2018, the men of Sigma Phi Epsilon did the socially unthinkable — they passed a bylaw banning all drug and alcohol-related substances in common areas.
In essence, the implementation of this bylaw bans the presence of alcohol in any open settings of the house — dining room, chapter room and any other common areas where parties most often take place Armstrong said. Alcohol may only be possessed by those members who are of legal age and must be kept to the bedrooms of brothers who are 21 and older.
By 2020, the entire house — bedrooms included — will be deemed completely substance-free.
“What’s funny about Sig Ep, they’ve always been proactive in leading the way for all fraternities. Sig Ep nationally was the first fraternity to desegregate and allow a black man to join the fraternity. They are the first fraternity to allow a homosexual member to join, and we’re the first fraternity to propose a substance-free bylaw through our chapter facilities,” Armstrong said.
And leading the way, they are.
Sig Ep may be the only fraternity to enforce a substance-free policy this year, but by the fall of 2020, all IFC fraternities will be restricted to possessing substances with 15 percent or less alcohol content. By 2022, every single IFC organization will be completely substance-free.
That’s right, “dry” fraternity houses across the nation.
“I think they [the bylaws] are necessary,” said Alexander Cardenas, a brother of Sigma Phi Epsilon. “It will help prevent any hazing. It will be good in the long run. It will help outside people see that we’re not just about partying.”
Cardenas is a junior at Fresno State and has seen first-hand the impact of the new policies on his fraternity.
“At first, it will cause the numbers to go down because when people come to college they think Greek life means partying,” Cardenas said. “But eventually, it will start looking way better, and I think a lot more people who go to college will want to join.”
While Sig Ep’s new bylaw presented new challenges during recruitment and planning social events, members said the fraternity has actually seen a positive impact on both aspects.
“We’ve definitely had to make adaptations,” Armstrong said.
When recruiting, the men have been straight-forward with potential new members about their rules and expectations. This has helped them to sort though candidates and find those individuals who are interested in their organization for the right reasons.
“There’s a lot of hype of the Total Frat Move, and Barstool, and Old Row and all those social media hypes about fraternities, and the misconception that they’re just about partying,” Armstrong said. “So what we’ve tried to focus on is getting guys to join because they want to better themselves. They want a community of people to lead them to a successful life.”
Cardenas said that rather than having a negative impact on numbers, Sig Ep has seen higher retainment this year.
While in 2017, the house had at least five men leave, all but two men from its fall 2018 pledge class remain. With a smaller emphasis on drinking and more focus on scholarship and their virtues, more members are there to get involved on campus, form relationships and develop their leadership skills.
By being the first to implement these new substance-free policies, Sig Ep has an advantage over other houses, he said.
Not only are they improving their membership experience, but when it comes time for the rest of the Greek system to go “dry,” Sig Ep will already have had these rules in effect for two years. The members said their house will have a better grasp on how to draw in members with aspects that do not include drinking and wild parties.
Armstrong said they have already made an impression on interested students by proving how a substance-free house is actually a better atmosphere.
“When you come into Sig Ep’s house, you’re not going to have to worry about it being completely dirty or trashed just because there’s consistent drinking and partying going on. It’s going to be less of a party house and more of a home,” he said.
This particular advantage of the new policy is leading fraternities and sororities to become far more similar, which could likely lead to less foul play. Of the 81 victims who fell to hazing-related deaths in the United States since 1970, only six were females.
This statistic relates very closely to the fact that sororities do not allow alcohol on their property, leaders say.
“If the house were to burn down and they were to find a bottle of alcohol or anything, we would not get any insurance money. We would be done,” said Annika Atsma, vice president of social standards for the Delta Gamma chapter at Fresno State.
Atsma’s duties are similar to those of a vice president. She enforces the bylaws, runs Honor Board hearings and holds the women of her house accountable for their actions, both good and bad.
Each semester, Atsma conducts a presentation during one of Delta Gamma’s Monday night meetings to bring awareness to hazing and substance abuse. She invites speakers to come talk to the girls and present them with real-life scenarios, so that they know to think twice about their actions and are aware of the proper steps in case of an emergency.
“Especially for new members who come out of high school and come here, they really don’t know their limits. These presentations help educate them,” said Dahnelynn McKay, president of Delta Gamma.
Before assuming the role of president, McKay held Atsma’s position.
In addition to the presentations at meeting, McKay said new members are required to fulfill a new member education process before being initiated. This process is conducted by a member who is elected as new member educator, who explains the zero-tolerance hazing policy, along with the house rules and values.
When McKay joined Delta Gamma three years ago, the sorority was on report to region, meaning its retainment rate of members was dropping, and the sorority’s executive offices were watching the chapter very closely.
Like Sig Ep, Delta Gamma altered its bylaws to help drive its organization toward a brighter future.
“We now have a higher GPA requirement for women who are going through recruitment and trying to get into the house,” McKay said. “We expect more out of them now. We’re no longer recruiting those who have a lower GPA, just so when girls get here they know what we expect of them, and it’s definitely going in the right direction.”
Previously, women going through recruitment needed a high school GPA of 3.0 or higher to receive a bid from Delta Gamma and needed to maintain a 2.45 in college. With the new bylaws, women must have a 3.5 or higher to join and must maintain a 2.75 at the university.
The sorority has since been taken off of report to region and, after only one year with the new policies, obtained the highest overall GPA of any other social sorority at Fresno State. The sorority also recruited its largest pledge class since the fall of 2015 this school year.
Delta Gamma has set aside a portion of its budget for academic scholarships, to drive and support their members.
During McKay’s and Atsma’s few years with the chapter, the house’s reputation has improved and has drawn in members who are seeking more out of Greek life than parties.
“There is a social aspect to it, but as Delta Gammas, that’s not our focus. We’re focused on sisterhood and service,” said Atsma.
Like all Greek organizations, Delta Gamma and Sig Ep have their own philanthropic initiatives. The service and fundraising they do for the community is their leading priority, after academics.
Between the 9 million Greek life students across the nation, these organizations raise millions of dollars for various charities.
According to DeltaGamma.org, the sorority raised just short of $800,000 for charity as a national organization. According to SigEp.org, the fraternity raised nearly $4.5 million nationwide for charity.
Armstrong hopes that these numbers will increasingly become more publicized than the dark side of Greek life that the media is so accustomed to, he said.
“You just see what you hear in the news. The news never puts anything positive out there,” he said.
As the leading man of his fraternity, Armstrong has put continuous effort into reforming the reputation that surrounds Greek life, at least here at Fresno State.
In November 2018, Armstrong was able to partner with the local minor league baseball team, the Fresno Grizzlies, to hold a toy drive for the Boys and Girls Club.
The event brought in 130 toys and raised $1,500 for the local organization and was broadcast on Great Day for Fox 26 KMPH. The event was attended by campus administrators, Associated Students, Inc., and other groups from Fresno State, including the Fresno State Dance Team.
“It was great to get the community involved,” Armstrong said.
A few weeks ago, the fraternity hosted a tailgate at its house with children of all ages from the Boys and Girls Club, in which they played games, ate hot dogs and later escorted them to the Fresno State baseball game against the University of the Pacific. City Councilman Paul Caprioglio, District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp and Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer all came to show their support.
Armstrong said the event gave their new members a personal experience to help draw a connection between the men and their philanthropy and helped to show them why they are there.
With conscious efforts to make adaptations, Greek organizations at Fresno State are working to bring life back to the local Greek system. By reforming their scholastic standards and prioritizing service, these houses are attracting a more ambitious demographic and instilling higher values, they said.
In order to improve the public opinion and eliminate the hazing culture that has been associated with them for so many years, they are first striving to improve from within.
“What we’ve been trying to do on our part, is shine a better light in the public eye on Greek organizations so that it’s not just the whole ‘partying’ thing,” Armstrong said. “So that when you see fraternities being publicized, it’s not for something negative.”