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It's Now or Never for Fraternities to Go Dry

Guest Column Jim O'Donnell

Perhaps in an effort to distance themselves from the persistent Animal House stereotype of fraternities, many national fraternities have decided to go dry by 2000. Phi Delta Theta and Sigma Nu both pledged last year to go dry in three years; after their recent drinking death, Phi Gamma Delta followed suit, also planning to go dry by the turn of the millennium.

I am not debating the merits of fraternities' going dry. I am merely curious as to why it will take them three years to do so. It is not as if they've got a big puddle of beer they've got to clean up and it takes three years to do it.

One reason is that 2000 is a nice round number; it is more exciting to do something by the turn of the millennium than, say, 1998. A more likely reason, however, is that everyone presently in the fraternity will graduate before they will have to give up alcohol. I do not know the level of interaction between the national organization and each chapter, but I am sure there would be more of a protest if the alcohol policies actually affected current brothers. It is easy to make moral decisions when you are not affected by them.

What are the consequences of making policies effective in an organization whose membership changes completely every four years? It allows the current members to reap the benefits of making a politically correct decision without having to feel whatever pain is associated with that decision. In other words, a brother can say, "We don't really value alcohol; that's why we are going dry," while sipping beer out of the other side of his mouth.

If alcohol is agreed to be more trouble than it is worth, than this separation of decision and effect is undoubtedly a good thing. It allows the direction the fraternity as an organization to be unfettered by its members' shortcomings like, for instance, an attachment to alcohol.

However, this distance between decision and action also means that the decision-maker does not feel any truly negative consequences of the choices he makes. Politically correct does not mean correct. More than any other factor, social life is at the heart of the fraternities, and parties are at the core of social life. What is a fraternity party without alcohol? It is the gap between decision and consequence allows brothers to drive their fraternity off a social cliff and then bail out before their organization takes air.

If alcohol's benefits lie in attracting college students to parties, surely other mechanisms could be set up to achieve the same effect. MIT is the beacon of college social life in Boston; perhaps people would still go to fraternity parties regardless of the content of their beverages. If fraternities still retained their monopoly on social life, then their social functions still might be well-attended because they still will host the most attractive events. However, each fraternity acts independently of the others; as long as there are 25 other fraternities serving drinks, people will simply wait for those parties.

Of course, alcohol is not the only bond which fraternity members have with other college students. Closed parties are not as superficial as open ones and thus rely less on alcohol. However, many fraternity members meet other college students from other colleges. A pub night loses its allure without beer, and so that initial meeting will be less likely to happen. Consequently, any subsequent friendship that might result would never have a chance to blossom.

The delay in going dry reaches farther than just social life, affecting the very membership of fraternities. At a Residence and Orientation meeting for new pledges and their parents, Assistant Dean for Residence and Campus Activities and Adviser to Fraternities, Sororities, and Independent Living Groups Neal H. Dorow assured the parents that "MIT fraternities are different." What reason will they have to believe that now?

Many people believe that the death of the Louisiana State University pledge in August seriously hurt MIT's rush this year. After the death at MIT, the morbid question, "How can you guarantee that my son will survive pledging?" is undoubtedly lingering in the backs of parents' minds and will be next year for the next freshman class. The next three years before the new dormitory housing can allow changes in rush are critical; a fraternity could easily be wiped out in that time if it has three consecutive bad rushes. A mere promise to go dry will not convince the parents.

The three-year delay to go dry will handicap the social life of fraternities in the future and its membership as early as next year. It does not take three years to get through a keg; fraternities could go dry instantly. Fraternities should go dry now or not at all.

Jim O'Donnell is a member of the Class of 2000.