Volume 92, Issue 14

Friday, September 25, 1998

it was sugar


Greek mythology or fact of frats?

Tom Baumgartner/Gazette

HOPSCOTCH ANYONE? It's the fraternity and sorority walk of fame – they've left their mark, albeit temporary, on the Concrete Beach to entice potential rushers.

By Ciara Rickard
Gazette Staff

A toga, a BMW, a variety of grooming products and an attitude – everything you need to join a fraternity, right? Well, not really.

Members of fraternities say such stereotypes have been fostered and fueled by the media, particularly in the United States, for years. Animal House is not reality, according to Jason Shoemaker, President of the Inter-fraternity Council. He says the reality of Western fraternities is much more down to earth and civilized.

"There are aspects of that but it's not what it's about," Shoemaker says. "It's more about brotherhood, getting to know people, about making lifelong friends, business contacts and hopefully doing stuff for the community, doing stuff for charity – doing stuff that helps other people out."

What draws in many and repels others is the infamous reputation which accompanies virtually every fraternity, regardless of their activities. "In first year, my image of fraternities wasn't good – I was not interested in the least," says Dave Weaver, a second-year combined honours political science and economics student who is now rushing Beta Theta Pi. "But after seeing some of my buddies and seeing what a good time they had, I changed my mind. I thought it was an elite little group but it's not like that at all."

The fraternity life contains elements of the common perception of wild parties and strange initiations but it is still a far cry from commonly held stereotypes.

"A lot of the media stuff, particularly in the States, doesn't help our image," says Shoemaker. "You can't fault the media for reporting when someone died at a fraternity party, but has that ever happened at Western? Not to my knowledge. Has that ever happened in Canada? Not to my knowledge.

"We get a lot of our negative stereotypes from US movies, TV and the US way of life in fraternities. In terms of what's happening up here, it's not like that image at all," he adds.

Mike Craig, rush chairman for Beta Theta Pi, concurs on this point, saying there's little truth to the common perception of fraternities. He too, believed the stereotypes before he joined, but admits now they are largely fictional.

"I can't lie – a lot of [stereotypes] are true – but a lot of guys are totally down to Earth," Craig says. "There are a lot of stereotypes and there is that element present, but people take that stereotype too far. Other than that it's really great. They stress school coming first – they all said that if anyone else had had a course before that they could help you with it. I've met such a diverse group of people – you become a very close group because you're all working together towards the same goals."

The university administration concurs with the view that fraternities are fairly well-behaved and don't really reflect poorly on the university. In fact, they've hardly had to address the issue in past years.

"I don't think we feel one way or the other about it," says Greg Moran, VP-academic at Western. "The fact that I haven't had any reason to direct my attention to them is probably a good sign – there haven't been any problems. Everything has been quiet as far as I know."

Fraternity houses around the community have generally caused few problems for surrounding residents, says Sgt. John O'Flaherty of the London police. Apart from the occasional noise complaint during their parties, there haven't been any big problems, he says.

"We have occasional interaction with members of frats on an individual basis, but we don't have any ongoing issues or problems with them," says Inspector Bob Earle of the University Police Department. "In fact, we've had some very positive experiences with fraternities on campus with projects they've done," he adds.

Many of the positive aspects are consistently ignored by the public and media which has learnedto the negative images associated with fraternities, Shoemaker says. The reality is that the brotherhoods do partake in philanthropic activities and contribute more than a good party to the community.

"Community and charity work is something we're trying to emphasize," he says. "I will say that some are more committed than others and that's one thing we'd like to change, but there are some fraternities that do more than any other club on campus," he adds.

Whether or not the wild antics and initiations do go on is known only to those who experience it – after all, frats have also been known for their secrecy. Regardless of the true goals of fraternities, their perceived image is going to attract a certain type of individual and these are the characters who often are responsible for perpetuating the stereotypes.

"It's like Saugeen's reputation – you hear all this terrible stuff, but I lived there and it was nothing like the rumours – on a Wednesday night you could shoot a cannonball down the hall and not hit anyone. It was a reputation that probably started in the '60s and is carried on by only a few people," says Dave Mason, VP-social for Beta Theta Pi.

"Probably the worst thing about fraternities is that they don't let everybody in," he says.

There are, occasionally, incidents within the system which promote the bad image and linger until the next negative fraternity occurrence. Last year, for example, on Nov. 24, two alumni and two pledges of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity left a dead sheep on the doorstep of the Sigma Pi fraternity house as part of an initiation prank. This incident caused a huge uproar and has left a stain on the system's already marred reputation. The DKE fraternity was suspended by the IFC a couple of months later.

"It has been dealt with. I can't imagine something like that ever happening again and it was very embarrassing. But it was one group and unfortunately most people look at that as the general actions of a fraternity or the general feelings of what a fraternity is," Shoemaker explains.

"I think we get dumped on for what one bad group does – it's unfortunate to the great frats that we do have, that do a lot of great charity work and do a lot of great things on campus that one group can tarnish the entire image."

As for hazing and pressure to drink and carry out various dares, there are "zero tolerance" policies in place which make that type of activity very risky for fraternities. "We realize the repercussions of hazing so we're a lot more intelligent about initiation [than in the US]. There are rushing factions set up and if they're violated people are penalized," Shoemaker explains .

Fraternities have not been problematic to the university, though they do contribute to Western's image. This can be seen as both positive and negative depending on the perspective from which it is regarded, says Peter Hill, University Students' Council VP-campus affairs.

"The USC takes a neutral position on fraternities. We don't embrace them and we don't push them away. Ten per cent of the student body are members – that's a good chunk of the student population to consider," Hill says.

"I personally believe that frats don't behave in the Animal House way that's advertised in pop culture. More attention is focused on them at the times when things go wrong rather than when there is a positive event to report on," Hill adds.

The fraternities would like to reverse their bad reputation and let people know about all the good things they have to offer to both members and the community.

"[The IFC's job] is getting the info out to the people that have negative stereotypes so that we can help break them down by showing what we actually have done," Shoemaker says. "I have no problem with bad press when bad things are done – my only problem is when the good stuff is ignored."

To Contact The Focus Department: gazette.focus@julian.uwo.ca

Copyright The Gazette 1998