I’ve been a Chi Phi since a week after I arrived on campus in the fall of 1972. I can honestly say that ever since then, Chi Phi has been the central institution of my life. It is the source of my greatest friendships, my strength in times of trouble, the avenue through which I’ve enjoyed a cornucopia of inter-generational relationships, and the organization to which I give the most back, currently taking my turn to serve as president of our house corporation.
Because the Greek system at MIT is so strong, I know that I’m not unique in any of this. But since some of the fraternities are less well supported by their alumni than others — and because undergraduates at even well supported groups sometimes forget what role we play — I thought I’d share a few thoughts about some of the responsibilities a fraternity house corporation carries in keeping their chapters healthy, thriving, and out of trouble.
We expect a lot from our undergraduate brothers, and we give them as much freedom as we can to run their own affairs. That’s how they learn self-reliance and leadership. It’s also how they outgrow their helicopter parents as well as the college administrators increasingly taking on nanny duties thanks to our hyper-litigious times.
Because we’ve been there, we know that the college years are a time of unprecedented opportunities for experimentation guided by a still-immature sense of how to balance risks and rewards. Many of those risks could impact not just personal safety, but also the continued existence of an institution our alumni have labored to preserve for more than a century. In those cases, the house corporation has a strong duty to set boundaries.
No, you can’t rent a mechanical riding bull to entertain freshman during Rush Week. Yes, I understand the salesman told you they have insurance. No, you haven’t the foggiest idea what kind of litigation nightmare would ensue if a freshman got thrown from that thing and ended up a quadriplegic. Yes, I understand you’ll have to change your plans at the last minute. No, I couldn’t have told you sooner because I just found out about it. Think of something else.
That wasn’t so hard, was it? Someone has to help the adult brain struggling to emerge from every college student’s head gain mastery over the teen brain still sloshing around inside. Think about what might go wrong. Think about the consequences, not just to you but to your brothers as well as our cherished institution. I know what you are contemplating sounds like fun, but is it really worth it?
Each fall I give my four Bs lecture to the incoming pledge class — Brotherhood, Behavior, Booze, and … Coeds. I speak to them not as an administrator, not as a parent, but as an older brother. Sure, they’ve been taught to “Just Say No” since they were eight. They’ve taken all the online alcohol, hazing, and sexual harassment courses required by the national organization and by MIT. And they’ve memorized exactly which phrases they need to repeat to appease any authority figure lecturing them. All of that is fine. But what I care about is whether they really know how to handle themselves when they decide against our advice to break the rules.
I don’t preach “Just Say No.” I preach “Real Men Hold Their Liquor.” I don’t preach abstinence. I preach moderation and consideration of others. When discussing alcohol I give concrete tips about pacing, food, and hydration, about keeping count and setting limits in advance, about recognizing the warning signs of overconsumption in themselves and others, and about the dangers of excessive pre-gaming compared to the far less risky approach of taking a hidden nip. (Would you rather risk puking on your shoes and being rushed to the hospital for alcohol poisoning or having your $3 plastic hip flask confiscated?) I encourage beginners to stick to beer, and do my best to discourage the idiotic practice of taking shots instead of sipping a mixed drink. And I urge them to look out for their brothers, especially if one of them is overcome by his teen brain’s miscalculation of risk.
These are practical lessons we all have to learn but are never taught because … who is supposed to do the teaching? I give them my cellphone number and tell them not to hesitate to call me any time of the day or night if they need help.
But I end with a warning. Woe be to any of you who brings shame upon our house! Remember shame? It’s so very out of fashion these days. I remind them of the incredible investment generations of brothers have made in building our chapter’s reputation, and how that can all be destroyed in one thoughtless moment. I remind them that for four years they are honored guests in our house, but after graduating they will become co-owners, taking their turn looking after younger brothers to come.
And I remind them that though they may think otherwise, they are not immortal. Having lost my older son his senior year at Stanford over a foolish and fatal risk-reward decision, I know. I can only wish he had been a fraternity man with some older brothers around to help him think things through.