The Frat Facts

Music blares loudly from a stereo hastily set up in the center of a room. From the speakers drone the usual assortment of top 40 songs, the volume so loud that only the tune not words are barely recognizable. Beside the nimbly engineered sound system is a keg of beer, the contents of which had mostly been consumed by the partygoers. Four males stand in the corner of the room, clad only in their boxers and a white shirt with “Pledge” inscribed in permanent marker. In each of their right hands is an empty red cup, ostensibly once filled with beer.

“Pledges hit the beer bong!” exclaimed a twenty something man child from the opposite end of the room, raising the device above his head as he finished the sentence. He was dressed in a faded grey t-shirt and jeans. The shirt was already stained with beer; the Greek symbols of delta and pi were christened with a splotch of cheap lager.

Upon hearing the call, the pledges filed towards him all eager to be one of the recipients of the device. Other party farers gathered around them, boorishly encouraging the scantily clad pledges to drink.

Jonathan Lerner, president of the Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEpi) chapter at UBC, would dismiss such a scene such as the one described as a product of Hollywood, a work of fiction in its entirety.

“It’s important to know that Fraternities and Sororities are nothing like what you see in American movies” remarks Lerner.

AEpi holds the distinction of being the largest fraternity in Canada, there are 141 chapters in North America and Israel. Though the fraternity is nominally Jewish it is non discriminatory meaning that it is open to all who are willing to embrace its purpose and values. When students at SFU voted to reverse the school’s ban on Fraternities and Sororities, AEpi expressed interest in expanding.

If a fraternity were to colonize SFU, it would mark the end of a tradition that has made this university unique for most of its existence as the prohibition of fraternities is deeply rooted in the history of SFU. As a result the Greek system is a foreign concept to many students. It would be safe to say that their knowledge of frats is comprised of what is depicted in film.

Hollywood has created an archetypal image of the post-secondary experience: it begins with the stress of the SAT and getting into the right “college” (University is a rare parlance), then continues on campus with the alcohol fuelled and sexual escapades, concluding with the realization that one must move on after four years of said experience. Hollywood has attempted to dry hump this near Monomyth for all its worth; any movie in the teen college comedy will incorporate such elements. As a result first-year students have a certain expectation of the University experience, and many are disappointed when they face the reality of ‘rez life’ – parties require paperwork, and most forms of debauchery will land a fine from the morality police housing staff. As a result, the usual gripe from students is that SFU lacks any sort of vibrant campus atmosphere – the term ‘campus life’ being a misnomer.

The term ‘commuter campus’ is generally applied as a pejorative; it would be listed as an undesirable characteristic of a university. SFU somewhat has this notoriety and students complain that it is a handicap for a vibrant campus life. Unbeknownst to most, however, this was a product of the original vision of SFU. As documented in the book Radical Campus: The Making of Simon Fraser University Gordon Shrum, the founder of SFU and first chancellor, envisioned the university as a ‘commuter campus’, a residence community was a mere afterthought. Students were to come to school in the morning and leave in the afternoon. Although residences were eventually built, they were not centric to the campus atmosphere in comparison to established schools such as UBC.

A residence community eventually grew at SFU, though it matured differently than at other Universities. SFU was a ‘radical campus’; described as ‘Berkley North’, things simply happened differently here.

An example of this can be found in the botched “panty raid” of July 1966. The panty raid was a staple of the mid 20th century University campus. These raids involved dozens of males breaking into a female dormitory at night with the intention of stealing underwear and causing commotion. Some viewed the motivation for such raids as a protest against curfews and the barring of men from women’s dormitories, others viewed it merely as a prank to cause a ruckus. According to Radical Campus, the purpose of the SFU raid was likely the latter. SFU’s student body didn’t think very highly of the prank, most viewing it as an exhibition of immaturity. It was described as an “anachronism at SFU”, something not welcome at this radical campus.

The “panty raid” was not the only campus convention to be viewed with disdain at SFU. Before SFU opened a number of fraternities contacted the administration as they were interested in colonizing (expanding, equivalent to opening up a franchise) the campus. In October 1965 the fraternity Delta Epsilon went as far as signing up 40 members and acquiring housing by renting out Ceperley Mansion – which is not the Burnaby Art Gallery.

While the administration initially had no objections with fraternities on campus, it decided to put the issue to a referendum the following March. Students came out en masse to vote against the motion. A month later the ‘no fraternity’ motion was solidified by the University senate. The Delta Sigma Phi fraternity tried to colonize in 1966, and again in 1967 though both attempts were unsuccessful.

Fraternities were an established campus tradition; they were a hallmark of many older American universities. An ideological clash was bound to take place on campus: SFU’s students strongly affirmed that they were against importing such an establishment – the campus culture just wasn’t there. Fraternities and Sororities remained banned at SFU until 2008 when the question was put to the ballot as part of the September referendum.

The September 2008 referendum is the legacy of former SFSS President Joe Paling, a political mastermind and controversial campus character. While a student health insurance plan was the highlight of the referendum, also on the ballot was the question of whether the ban on Fraternities and Sororities should be rescinded. Students voted 57 percent in favour of the motion, in what Paling described as a “soft mandate”. Frats were officially allowed at SFU.

Because I had never been to a Fraternity or a Sorority house, an essential part of the research for writing this article would be to actually go to one of these houses. The president of AEpi, Jonathon Lerner, was happy to arrange such passage as a way to give SFU an opportunity to explore the Greek system.

I met Lerner in the Student Union Building of UBC, and from there we began to walk to the Greek village (all of the Frat and Sorority houses are situated in one quarter of the campus)at UBC. Along the way Lerner began to explain the Greek system.

At UBC there are 9 Frats and 7 Sororities. With the exception of AEpi, each Frat has their own house in the Greek village and the Sororities are all housed within one large building. Each Frat has its own unique theme: sports, academics, and leadership are examples of what some frats emphasize. Frats are not governed by a Student Union, such as the AMS (SFSS equivalent at UBC). The Interfraternity Council takes on role of governing body and liaison with the University administration. In addition, each Fraternity has a separate governing head office they must report to.

In order to join a Fraternity or Sorority, the candidate, called the pledge, must follow a particular set of rules and rituals to gain membership. The recruitment process begins during the first few weeks of a term with ‘rush week’. As Lerner explains, rush week is a structured procedure where potential members can learn about each fraternity and prove that they would be valued members of the fraternity. After rush week is over the fraternity executives decide which potential members they will accept into their fold. Formal offers are extended during bids day.

Bids day takes place in a room in the Students Union Building. Each Fraternity and Sorority has a table set up, on these tables are envelopes with the names of bids on them. According to Lerner, when a Fraternity or Sorority offers a bid to a perspective pledge – an offer of membership to a budding frat brother – the rush committee has decided that the individual is of the calibre of character that would make them benefit to the Greek system: the relationship must be mutually advantageous for the individual to be permitted membership. The next stage of the process is the initiation, or “pledge”.

Part of the negative stigma of the Greek system comes from the initiation ritual a member must go through in order to be a pledge. A handful of stories have come from American schools where these initiation rituals have had a sadistic twist to them. While the exact initiation ritual is a secret, Lerner made it quite clear that it is more mundane than expected. In the case of AEpi Pledges will spend a few evenings in a classroom learning about the history and governance of the fraternity, and later do team building exercises with other perspective members. When they actually pledge, or are sworn in, to the fraternity the ceremony has little in common with what is seen in Hollywood movies, there is no hazing involved in the ritual whatsoever.

We finally arrive at UBC’s Greek Village. It is situated across from the Thunderbird Arena, and behind the RCMP station (the placement of the latter was probably intentional). As it is the eve of the Olympics, most of the Frat houses are empty because they will be used to house security personnel and officials during the games. We are still able to go inside one and take a look.

When I entered the house I was quite surprised, to say the least. The building is modern and well taken care of, it looks nicer in side then Mctaggart-Cowan hall or Shell House. Considering the inhabitants are all males, the interior is shockingly clean. It looks nothing like Ceperley mansion, home of SFU’s short lived Fraternity or Delta Tau Chi, as seen in Animal House. There are no empty beer cans or liquor bottles lying about, nor is there any sort of odour: be it sweat, mold, or pot.

Each floor is laid out to be inherently sociable. There are no enclosures: the kitchen, dining room, and living room are all open in order to facilitate a strong social community. An important part of the Greek life is the strong communal bonds built between members of the fraternity, and the layout of the building certainly optimizes this. It is believed that in order to have an enriching university experience, one focus on being social with their peers in addition to mastering academia.

I can’t help but contrast this to the campus atmosphere at SFU. When it was determined that SFU would be a commuter campus, there was substantial debate on if it would provide the most enriching university experience for students. An established Greek system would likely help to quell the chronic anti-social behaviour of the student body, but the likely hood of such expansion is minimal.

Modern Fraternities and Sororities in Canada are controlled chaos; the stigma that they have is the result of a handful of American chapters and Hollywood. The Keggar at the Frathouse is about as rare as a party in SFU’s residences. Any sort of event involving liquor is catered out – handled by professional bar staff, and in accordance with BC liquor law. Every Frat or Sorority house has substantial liability insurance in case things go awry, though Lerner can’t recall the last time there has been a serious incident.