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Fraternities must adapt to survive

NOBODY should be surprised that the Inter-Fraternity Council sent a letter to Dean of Students Penny Rue last week, requesting that she open negotiations with them about moving formal rush back to the fall. Once the decision to move rush to the spring was made back in 1998, this attempt to change the situation became inevitable. The fraternities on Grounds cannot survive if formal rush remains in the spring. Unfortunately, rush probably will not be moved unless the fraternities change their nature, perhaps substantially. The fraternities will not survive unless they adapt themselves to this reality.

IFC President Wes Kaupinen has cited several dilemmas facing fraternities due to the movement of rush, but they all boil down to this: fewer pledges.

The number of new pledges decreased dramatically last year during the first year of spring-only rush. Fewer pledges means fewer members to pay the dues that financially support the fraternities. Furthermore, if they don't join until their second semester, students are only paying fraternities three-and-a-half years of dues, not a full four, increasing the financial damage.

Fewer pledges also means that not as many people are living in the houses. Fraternities rely on house residents not only to maintain the atmosphere of the house, but also to pay a significant portion of the upkeep. Without people living in the houses, both the atmosphere and the physical structure may collapse. These are the kind of "concrete negative effects" to which Kaupinen referred early in his letter to Dean Rue.

How are decreased pledging and spring-only rush related? One way is simple exposure to social alternatives. Without the "easy way out" of pledging a fraternity in the first semester at school, first-year students have to look for other social outlets. As one might expect, some students found that these outlets were rewarding enough in themselves that joining a fraternity was no longer necessary.

Also, some students may find that they have less time deeper into the academic year than at the beginning. They may be further affected by their academic experiences in the first semester. Having had to deal with papers and exams already, some first-year students may conclude that pledging and doing schoolwork simultaneously would be too much.

Regardless of the specific reason, it seems clear that the move to spring rush was a significant factor contributing to the decrease in the number of pledges. For the fraternities to survive, those numbers have to come up, and that, most likely, will require a return to fall rush.

That return probably will not happen if things remain as they now stand. Beyond simply keeping the Greek system alive, Dean Rue has little incentive to move rush back to the fall. Rue has the weight of a community decision to fight if she wants to change the rush date, and that's something that probably won't happen while Rue is still in her first year here. In this situation, sticking with the status quo becomes the default option.

If Rue won't change the policy, the fraternities must start making their own changes. A first step might be to accept the proposal that former Dean of Students Robert T. Canevari was trying to impose at the time rush was moved -- a ban on fraternity-bought alcohol. Such a proposal is now before the national Pan-Hellenic Council, and may well be accepted by that body. If that happens, this will be a moot point. But the IFC could gain favor by taking the step before it has to. Decreasing the role of alcohol in fraternal life would likely improve the standing of Greek organizations in the eyes of the Office of the Dean of Students, and make the administration more amenable to accommodating them on the issue of fall rush.

This, of course, would mean a departure from the traditional sorts of activities that fraternities sponsor. All-night keggers will have to become a thing of the past. That's a cost that will have to be dealt with -- but ultimately the goal of fraternal organizations is to promote close friendships, not alcoholism. Losing the ability to drink beer in a fraternity-sanctioned setting is not too high a price to pay to ensure that the organizations survive.

Another useful change would be a decrease in the time commitment required to join a fraternity. This, like a change in alcohol policy, is a departure from the traditional way fraternities are run. Pledging, particularly in the infamous "Hell Week" tradition, takes a large time commitment. Taking steps to reduce that not only will make moving rush to the fall more appealing to the administration, it will make pledging a more attractive option for students trying to cope with coursework.

Both of these changes would make fall rush a more desirable option for the administration. They would, of course, also force some alteration in the roles of fraternities. Ultimately, however, those changes have to be made in order to ensure the continued survival of the Greek system.

(Sparky Clarkson's column appears Tuesdays in The Cavalier Daily.)

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