Autumn arrived treacherously at fraternity row, the scent of scandal cutting through the air like leaf smoke. The fall 1990 semester at the University of Texas at Austin was barely a month old when a drunk nineteen-year-old member of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity fell off the roof of his frat house, plunging seventeen feet to his death. “God, it was terrible. He fell right over our Greek letters,” the Beta president, James Reid, told me, pointing to the “B Θ II” nailed to one of the great white pillars by the front door.
The weirdness was just beginning. When the Delta Delta Deltas (Tri Delts), one of the most popular sororities on campus, came to a party at the house of the prominent Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity, some of the frat members pulled the heads off live chickens and tossed the bodies through the hoops of their backyard basketball court. On another night, the Austin police drove up to the Pi Kappa Alpha (Pike) house to find a fraternity member, blindfolded and clad only in his boxer shorts, lying in the yard with his hands and legs tied. A group of about fifty other frat brothers were standing around him, shouting, “We’ve got an Aggie!” and were preparing to hoist to the roof of the house with ropes.
Soon frat news was filling the Daily Texan, the campus newspaper. The paper even ran a picture of the Sigma Chi yard after it had been decorated with various pieces of junk for a party. Spray-painted on the hood of a wrecked car was a poem: “Roses are red, orchids R black. I like my date, when she’s on her back.” On another piece of junk was an even blunter piece of graffiti: “F— Yer Date.” On campus, the outrage toward frats was building, especially among students who had not forgotten two incidents from the previous spring. First, the phrases “F— Coons” and “F— You Nigs Die” had been painted on an old car in the driveway of the Delta Tau Delta (Delt) house. That same weekend, the Phi Gamma Deltas (the Fijis) had passed out T-shirts with the image of a Sambo-like character dunking a basketball. Nearly a thousand students, who saw the Sambo figure as a demeaning racial slur, had staged a demonstration outside the Fiji house. “This is now the 1990’s,” the exasperated dean of students, Sharon Justice, told me. “Yet no matter what social changes we’ve gone through, the fraternities still act like they’re lost in time.”
Then, on the second weekend of November, the fraternity image suffered its most crippling blow. Word leaked of a vicious hazing—the physical, often brutal rituals that a pledge must endure before becoming an active member —that had taken place at the Sigma Nu house. Founded in 1886 and one of the university’s oldest and most distinguished fraternities—Lloyd Bentsen had been a member during his UT days—the 152-member fraternity was best known around campus for its spectacular Christmas decorations, including a large, well-lit Santa and a “Merry Christmas” sign on the roof of its house. But in the basement, just behind the fraternity’s party room, was a small secret room with a dirt floor, known as the Pit.
On November 10, some Sigma Nu alumni happened to be visiting the house. About two in the morning, the group called a junior premed student from Fort Worth who was a Sigma Nu pledge, and told him to come over. According to court affidavits, after he and at least three other pledges arrived, the actives and alumni hit him twenty times with a paddle and then took him to the Pit, where he was forced to do pushups. They pushed his face into the dirt floor while someone walked on his back. They used the claw end of a hammer to lead him around by the testicles. They poked him eight times in the stomach with a broom handle. They ordered him to run around the fraternity house while holding a large rock over his head. Using lighter fluid, someone set the crotch of his blue jeans on fire.
On Monday morning, the student’s mother received an anonymous phone call telling her that her son was “in trouble.” When she arrived in Austin, she found him hiding in a closet at his apartment, his buttocks and legs black with bruises. The traumatized young man said to his mother, “Don’t let any of the others know where I am. They’ll come kill me.” Fie left school and returned to Fort Worth. After his mother reported the incident, officials from the Sigma Nu national office quickly came to Austin, conducted a brief investigation, and then revoked the charter of the UT chapter. The university administration moved to expel or put on probation seven of the students involved in the hazing.
Within the insulated world of the University of Texas, where the most mundane of academic debates take on an apocalyptic tenor, the frat fight was becoming nothing less than a class war. Claiming that fraternities were “flaunting their disregard for the law,” Ken Oden, the Travis County attorney, pushed for a grand jury investigation, issuing subpoenas to all fraternity presidents and demanding that they hand over documents pertaining to any misconduct. The Daily Texan was full of vitriolic letters to the editor (“We need to attack that pesky Saddam Hussein with a special fighting force of our own. Answer: UT Greeks”). Student activists, always on the lookout for a good symbol of oppression, planned a huge campus protest, the kind of demonstration that hadn’t been seen at UT since the early seventies. For a couple of weeks, the student government offices resembled an anti-frat research center, as the non-Greek student leaders met late into the night, trying to break up a world they considered the embodiment of all socially destructive attitudes.
“They’re scrambling bad; everyone’s going for them,” exulted Jennifer Bowles, the leader of a campus anti-rape group, as she strode through the office in her Jesus sandals. “We’ve got them on the run.”
Incredibly, she was right. For once, UT’s fraternity row, college’s great bastion of masculinity, looked vulnerable. At each fraternity’s Monday-night chapter meeting, upperclassmen kept reassuring one another that the bad publicity would pass. They told their pledges that these sorts of things had happened before, that their archenemy, the Daily Texan (frat men solemnly refer to it as the Daily Toxin), was exaggerating the stories. Outsiders, they said, were always going to be resentful of the frat rat’s place in life, and that was just part of the territory that comes with being tapped as one of the elect.
Indeed, though fraternity men make up a small minority of the students at the University of Texas—of the 49,617 students, only 2,500 are members of the 28 social fraternities that now belong to the Interfraternity Council—they are probably the most visible culture of any group on campus. With their swashbuckling, grinning manner, their confident gait, their thick white T-shirts peeking out from the top of their starched button-down Ralph Laurens, they are like a tribal society. Their palatial fraternity houses, the size of Third World capitols, loom over the small duplexes and apartment complexes of the West Campus neighborhood. Their carefree parties, featuring some of the best black party bands in the South, are grandiose affairs that last long into the night. In November the Zeta Beta Taus spent more than $30,000 for their annual Pat O’Brien’s Weekend, turning their back yard into a huge replica of New Orleans’ Bourbon Street.
Well-bred, mostly upper-class white males who are making their first stylized steps into a life of privilege and power, they engage in activities that simultaneously titillate and befuddle—and sometimes frighten—those who will never be a part of that world. Though the fraternity system at UT certainly has spawned accomplished, civilized men—Walter Cronkite, for God’s sake, was a Chi Phi—it also has produced students with an apparent jubilance for unruliness and mayhem, a devotion to lust and liquor, and an intense social calendar full of planned frivolity. As if knowing that this will be the last time in their lives when no one will expect anything of them, before they must enter their father’s business or head off to get their MBA, they live their college days with a cheerful sense of irresponsibility. They punch one another in the arm and laugh loudly. They drive expensive cars. Beautiful women adore them. “Depending on which ones of us you look at,” James Reid, the Beta Theta Pi president, warned me when I first arrived on campus, “we can come across as either the greatest guys in the world or the world’s biggest jerks.”
Unfortunately, the fraternities at UT are notorious for coming across as the latter. Not only are they criticized for their general disregard for other students but their hazing activities have developed a national reputation. Since 1986, two young men have died in hazing-related incidents; since 1987 thirty students have been placed on probation or expelled for hazing. “Maybe there are other universities with worse fraternity systems, but I’m not aware of them,” says Eileen Stevens, whose organization, CHUCK (Committee to Halt Useless College Killings), is to fraternities what MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) is to drunk drivers. Since her own son died in a New York fraternity hazing incident in 1978, Stevens has traveled the country fighting for legislation and new school policies that will eliminate hazing and other violent acts by fraternities. “I’m sorry, but the University of Texas comes up time and again as a blatant, arrogant system,” she says. When UT’s own staff adviser to the fraternities and sororities, Sherri Sanders, goes to national Greek conferences, other advisers, she says, “always ask me about the ‘Texas mentality’ among the fraternities. They think fraternities here are so macho that they are practically impossible to control.”
Although a 1987 state anti-hazing law and heavy pressure from the UT administration seemingly had calmed the fraternities’ behavior, last fall they were at it again. A black Austin bus driver reported to the police that at least fifty SAEs had surrounded him and shouted racial insults. A mother anonymously reported that, as part of a Phi Delta Theta (Phi Delt) fraternity ritual, her son and other pledges were taken to a “retreat,” where they were beaten and shot at with shotgun pellets from a distance. After a woman complained about noise coming from parties at the Tau Kappa Epsilon house, she subsequently received eighty unsolicited magazine and merchandise orders, fraudulent pizza orders, and numerous harassing phone calls, which the police traced back to the frat house.
As the fall semester dragged on and the complaints continued to pile up, one could not help but wonder if the all-American frat boy was turning into the all-American hood.
On a cool November evening, I headed up a sidewalk to visit the Fijis, because of all the UT fraternities, they were considered one of the most extraordinary of the litter. Although all UT fraternities are chapters of well-known national fraternal organizations, within the UT frat world itself there is a distinct and sometimes harsh caste system. At the bottom are seven small fraternities, most of them organized within the past ten years, each with about twenty to sixty members. “We’re known as the geeks of the Greeks,” says Tarik Bakri, a senior who belongs to the fifty-member Pi Kappa Phi fraternity. “The bigger ones just look down at us and laugh and say we’re the guys who date the nerdy girls.” Not all of the small fraternities are lily-white: The Psi Upsilons are largely Asian American, and the Phi Kappa Thetas are largely Hispanic. There are also four black fraternities, composed of approximately fifty men total. The black frats, however, do not have houses, and they maintain their own governing body.
Then comes the middle group of fraternities, each having 70 to 120 members. Through the years, they have developed distinct reputations—the 74-member Phi Delt fraternity, for example, is known as the craziest group, putting on such events as a women’s mud-wrestling tournament. At the top of the frat world is the elite group, known as the Big Six—the Kappa Alphas (KAs), the SAEs, the Pikes, the Sigma Phi Epsilons, the Delts, and the Fijis. They are the classic, old-money fraternities, with up to 140 members and annual budgets that can hit $500,000. The kinds of guys who, in high school, were football stars or the most-popular figures among the in-group, Big Six men are considered prize dates for the 2,286 women in UT sororities. “You’re told early that those six are the cool ones to be with,” one member of a prominent sorority confided to me. “If you go out with an SAE, it’s considered pretty cool, not because of who he is, but because he’s an SAE.”
Not only is it rare for Big Six men to make friends outside the Greek system but also it’s rare for them to hang out with any other fraternity men except Big Six members. The largest fraternity on campus, Zeta Beta Tau, with 196 members, is not considered among the elite because it is predominantly Jewish. “Most Greeks really run in a separate world from them,” one fraternity president quietly told me, “except when we’re trying to wrangle an invitation to their great Pat O’Brien’s party.”
There is a certain intriguing sameness among Big Six men, one that derives from their lofty position in Greek circles and also because their lives are hammered out of remarkably similar environments. Early on, they became accustomed to the advantages of growing up wealthy. Although a scattering grew up among notable small-town families, the majority were raised in the bigger Texas cities. Many went to the same summer camps—such as Camp Longhorn, near Burnet—and graduated from such prominent high schools as Kinkaid and St. John’s in Houston, Highland Park and St. Mark’s in Dallas, and Alamo Heights in San Antonio.
The 128 Fijis were no different. All of their fathers—bankers, lawyers, oilmen, politicians—filled positions of trust and power within the Texas establishment, and instead of rebelling against their backgrounds, the Fijis I talked to urgently wanted to fit into that world. Already, they were deeply proud of what they had become: When I met James E. “Jeb” Brown II, a senior whose father is Buster Brown, the state senator from Lake Jackson, he was wearing a JEB monogram on his shirt, a JEB on his cowboy boots, and a JEB on his wallet.
These young men were very aware of whom one another’s fathers were and how much they were worth. For them, the lesson had been learned early: To make it as a man around here, one had to make money. As F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote about another generation of rich young men, they were dedicated “to the fear of poverty and the worship of success.” And so Fiji talk, as that at most fraternities, often dealt with status and influence. One sophomore was quick to point out that a major boulevard in my hometown of Wichita Falls had been named for his great-grandfather. Senior Steve Oldham, last year’s runner-up for the faculty-chosen student-of-the-year honor, told me that he occasionally babysat the children of UT’s president, William Cunningham.
Always known as the lookers, the sorority word for “good-looking guys,” the Fijis have made an indelible mark at UT. The chapter opened just three months after the university was founded, in 1883, and according to Fiji lore, the first student to own a car was a Fiji named H. J. Lutcher Stark, who later became a member of the UT Board of Regents. Today eminent alums are everywhere: Mike Andrews is a congressman from Houston, and Austin lawyer Shannon Ratliff recently served on the Board of Regents. “Because their alums are so powerful, Fijis have always considered themselves untouchable, a little better than the rest of us,” one rival frat president said.
It thus seemed fitting that the Fijis would own the grandest of all the UT fraternity houses, a glistening white two-story mansion on west Twenty-seventh Street with great Doric columns on its front and sides and even a separate party house in the back. As I stepped into the main house, I was astonished. The dark-purple-hued living room, with its overstuffed couches and black baby grand piano, looked like one of those roped-off formal rooms in a historical home. Across the foyer was an elegant billiard room with a trophy case that held awards from the fraternity’s monumental victories in intramural football. On the downstairs walls were Fiji group photographs from the past, one generation of wealth after another, young men who, regardless of the time, looked back at the camera with smiles that suggested they knew their way of life was ready-made for them. The opulence of the house was all the more amazing when I realized that it was operated and lived in by a bunch of guys 18 to 22 years old. A Fiji must pay $1,500 a semester in dues, plus $175 a month for a double room if he wants to live in the house (which accommodates about 28 Fijis at a time). Like most other fraternities, the Fijis have rules that require their members to eat their meals at the house and attend weekly meetings.
In a room off to the side, I noticed half a dozen young men were collapsed on couches in front of a big-screen television, engrossed in ESPN. Some wore baseball caps, a couple were dipping snuff, spitting into paper cups. All of them wore blue jeans and Roper boots, and their faces were impermeable as they gave me a quick glance before returning to the TV. From the dining room came the clattering sound of knives and forks, the last of the evening’s diners working over roast beef and potatoes. And then I heard a voice from the stairwell.
“What Jean-Paul Sartre is saying is that since there is no moral standard, whatever you choose is good. That, to me, breaks down all morality.”
I did a double-take. A tall, light-haired young man—the kind of fellow who, because of his good looks, is known as a bolt (fraternity parlance for “handsome”)—was sprawled on the stairs, talking existentialism with an earnest young frat brother in horn-rimmed glasses. The bolt’s name, I learned, was Curt Besselman, a senior philosophy and government major from Amarillo whose father, a lawyer, had played on the 1963 national championship Longhorn football team. “If there is no standard,” Besselman was saying thoughtfully, “then how do we determine the value of good?”
Thirty seconds inside the house, and I was suddenly face-to-face with the bizarre dual nature of fraternity life. Here, in this sublime setting, listening to a polished, obviously educated student, it was a little hard to believe that all those fraternity horror stories were true. Could fraternities at UT really be that incorrigible, nurturing behavior that borders on criminality?
“Oh, come on,” Besselman said to me later. “Everyone is trying to make us out to be the manufacturers of evil. They think we’re representative of some terrible white-male attitude in this country. People say the reason we’re rich is because our dads raped the environment. They all figure out a way to accuse us of the problems of South Africa. Give me a break. We’re just a bunch of twenty-year-old guys.”
Yet one assistant county attorney who was investigating frat problems had told me, “The Fijis are one of the worst.” The county attorney’s office, in fact, had been keeping track of the Fijis since one night in November 1989, when a Hispanic man and his two adult sons, resting in a van before going to work as part of a janitorial service in a downtown Austin bank building, were attacked by five or six young white males who had spent the evening at a Sixth Street bar. The men rocked the van and then beat up the father and his sons. The police caught two white men as they were fleeing the scene. Both were members of the Fiji fraternity. Ken Oden said that reports from eyewitnesses suggest that the other attackers were Fijis as well. Yet fraternity leaders had refused to cooperate in any way with the investigation. Oden called the incident an example of a fraternity’s “anti-social behavior.”
Apparently, no matter how decent frat men might seem as individuals, in a group they are more liable to lose control. One of the incidents Oden was investigating was a mud fight between Fijis in their yard, which sent two students to the Student Health Center, one for a possible ear infection, the other for a possible ruptured eardrum. Oden said that he suspected the mud fight was part of a hazing ritual.
He also was examining the misfortunes of an Austin doctor who has a home next door to the Fiji Lake Club, the fraternity’s Lake Austin property that has been the site of wild frat bashes, including the infamous Fiji Island party each summer. After complaining that partygoers from the Fiji Lake Club had broken into his house, smashed household items, broken his fences and windows, had sex on his property, tortured his dog, tried to steal his boat, and destroyed his mailbox, the doctor and his wife finally reached the breaking point. Ready to rid themselves of the anguish, they hired a lawyer last fall to demand that the Fijis buy their property. If not, the doctor said, he would file a nuisance suit and attempt to ban parties forever at the lake club. “It’s like having your house surrounded by Woodstock,” their attorney said.
John Young, the stocky, 22-year-old, no-nonsense president of the Fijis, said he didn’t believe the doctor’s allegations about the lake house. Young would tell reporters who called that if there were problems, it wasn’t the fraternity itself at fault but a few immature individuals who happened to belong to the fraternity. Angrily, he said it was unfair for the county attorney to subject all the fraternities to a “witch hunt” because of some isolated, mostly unproven events. As for the lake house parties, which are attended by a variety of students, who could say for sure that it was Fiji members who were causing the trouble?
When I first met John Young, I felt as if I had known him all my life: the prototypical determined, strong-handshaking son of monied Texas, occasionally brusque and never too revealing. Though born into privilege, he was taught early on to work for everything he had. His summers were spent on oil rigs or working construction. At Kinkaid School in Houston, he was a starter on both the football and the basketball teams. Before he even got to UT, Young was steeped in Fiji and UT traditions—his father, a Houston oilman, along with an uncle and a cousin, had been a Fiji, and his grandfather once served on the university’s Board of Regents. Young, however, had another side that he rarely showed even to his friends. In his room, among the piles of dirty clothes and beside the unmade bed (in all fairness, I never once saw a made-up bed at any fraternity house I visited) were manuscripts of short stories that he had written. “Oh, they’re stories about getting through life, confronting death, that sort of thing,” he said, a little embarrassed.
Young was one of those students who saw college not solely as a place to train for an occupation. A Plan II major (an honors program for liberal arts majors), he knew that he needed to expand his view of the world; as a result, he took two courses on racism. Like his frat brothers, he had grown up in an all-white community, gone to an all-white high school, and almost never saw blacks on the UT campus (blacks make up only 3 percent of the student body). The Fijis didn’t have any black members. The closest black friend many frat men would make at UT was the porter who works at the frat house. But even Young was not prepared for the racial controversy that had erupted over the Fiji T-shirt.
One evening last April, Young looked up from his dinner to find almost one thousand students and onlookers marching toward the Fiji house, chanting, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, racist frat boys have to go!” Young and the other Fijis stared through their windows, listening to black speakers with bullhorns demand that the Fijis come out to defend themselves. Some angry students in the crowd began yelling, “Burn the house down!”
The anger had quickly erupted during Round Up, a big party weekend held each spring at the university. The Fijis had organized a campuswide “Low Hoop Tournament” on its basketball court next to the house. The winners were given T-shirts that depicted the body of basketball star Michael Jordan. But his head had been replaced by the Fiji Man, a biglipped black man who was once a mascot of the fraternity before being banned by the national organization in the eighties. “It was like the minstrel tradition all over again,” said Brandon Powell, one of the black student organizers of the march. “It was sickening to think that we had been trying to do something with our lives and that others kept seeing us as a caricature.”
The Fijis could not believe that people would come stand in their yard to shout, “Smash the rich white bigot!” because of the T-shirt. “I have to admit I thought the T-shirt was sort of funny,” said Steve Oldham. “We weren’t trying to act malicious. We weren’t trying to be cynical. A lot of people in the fraternity absolutely had no idea that Sambo was offensive to black people.”
Or was that really the case? Jack Ratliff, a Fiji at UT in the late fifties and now a UT law school professor who led a 1987 university commission to study fraternity problems, told me that in some cases these racially insensitive acts were examples of a new kind of fraternity racebaiting. “The racially offensive comment,” he said, “has become to this generation of fraternity men what four-letter words used to be to mine. It makes you stand out. Part of the dynamics of a group of men like that is that some are always going to try to outdo the others, to call attention to themselves. The easiest way to do that now is with a racially insensitive act.”
Young, who had been out of town during Round Up, said that he would not have approved the T-shirt if he had seen it in time. Still, he maintained that it was grossly unfair to stereotype all frat men as racists. Instead of complaining about the Fijis, he said, the administration should clean up its own act by increasing its recruitment of minority students and faculty. The administration, however, suspended the Fijis for one year and required them to perform 1,200 hours of community service.
After the T-shirt episode, the long-dormant student activist movement at UT came roaring back. A few days after the march, for instance, when President William Cunningham tried to speak on the steps of the West Mall about the university’s intolerance of racism, he was shouted down by a couple of hundred students, who cried, “No more lies!” A stunned Cunningham abandoned the podium and retreated to his office.
“We’re not going to take this much longer!” was the war cry of Toni Luckett, a 22-year-old black feminist student and self-acknowledged lesbian who had been elected the new student body president last spring in a runoff that drew only 3,075 student voters (by election day most of the Greeks had already headed out of town for spring break). Luckett cared nothing about issues like campus parking or better health services. She demanded that the administration require all students to take courses on the culture of different ethnic groups. She called for more tenured black faculty and a separate African American student center. Her buzzword was “multiculturalism,” and her ultimate goal was to shift power away from white males, whether it be the white males who run the university or the white male writers whose literature is taught in English classes.
Needless to say, in the eyes of a typical frat man, Luckett was the Antichrist. She yelled at people. She wore her hair in thick dreadlocks. She liked women more than she liked men. “She scared these guys,” said Kevin McHargue, the editor of the Daily Texan. “She was strange and hostile, something they had never come across in their homes in Highland Park and River Oaks. And I think what they realized when they saw her was that even in an overwhelmingly white institute like UT, you can’t be sure you can stay in power. On some subliminal level, they realized this was a foreshadowing of what they were going to have to fight when they got older and entered the adult corporate world.”
A frat war is nothing new at the University of Texas. In the early 1900’s the Daily Texan was already after fraternities, labeling them “pretty little boys,” and in 1913 more than six hundred non-frat students (calling themselves barbs, short for barbarians) met to demand the ouster of all fraternities. They charged that the fraternities were so socially exclusive that during football games they would cheer only for fraternity football players. Even populist governor James Ferguson got in on the act in 1917, ridiculing the fraternities’ “stately mansions” while other students “live in crowded boarding houses and eat at what they call the Cafeteria, but which is in reality a soup house.”
Fraternities, which began cropping up at American universities in the 1820’s, were never created out of some pure desire for brotherly love. Wealthy, ambitious, socially oriented college men, then the biggest rebels on campus, needed a refuge from college faculties and administrators who thought college should be a period of self-abnegation, prayer, and study. To avoid prying eyes, these men created Greek-letter organizations, pledged themselves to secrecy, adopted some Masonic ritual techniques for their initiation ceremonies, and started living the good life. College historian Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz wrote in 1987: “The fraternity appealed because it captured and preserved the spirit of the revolts.”
In Texas, bills to abolish frats were presented in the Legislature in 1913, 1915, 1925, and 1929, but they all failed. It became common in that era to see UT pledges tied together and sent up and down Congress Avenue, picking up cigarette butts. That all seemed relatively silly until 1928, when, in a Delta Kappa Epsilon initiation, a sophomore football player named Nolte McElroy fainted and died after being forced to wear wet pajamas and crawl through two bedsprings that had been charged with electricity. The administration, already showing an embarrassing inability to control fraternities, ruled the death an accident. The fraternities, in a promise that they would repeat in some fashion for the next sixty years, pledged to eliminate “horseplay” from initiations.
By the fall of 1929, Greeks dominated UT life: Of the 5,400 students, 1,700 belonged to fraternities and sororities, and of the 42 elective student offices, 36 were held by fraternity members. The tension between Greeks and non-Greeks reached such a point that in the midthirties, non-Greek student politicians such as John Connally—whom the fraternities considered a small-town rube—created a group called the Independents. “To win anything back then, you had to organize against the fraternity clique,” recalls Connally, who won the race for student body president in 1936 against a frat man who was described in the Daily Texan as someone “who dances well and may be seen frequently at some of the nicer night spots.”
Back then, hazing was an accepted part of fraternity life. Its importance, theoretically, was to use verbal abuse and humiliating physical acts to temporarily strip away a pledge’s individual dignity in order to find dignity in the group. As a result, on winter evenings pledges would be taken on “rides” out of town, where they would be left naked to find their own way home. They would wear burlap shirts with strings of garlic around their necks to class. They had to participate in such games as the Barn Dance, in which they would crawl naked around the floor while actives shot raw lima beans from a slingshot at their bottoms. “I suppose we never got in trouble for any of it because no one was hurt or killed,” says noted movie producer and writer William D. Wittliff, a UT Kappa Sigma in the late fifties, who, like most old frat men, sheepishly recalls his hazing days only after great coaxing.
Fraternities remained strong until the late sixties, when anti-war demonstrations hit UT and social events were considered frivolous (fraternity rush, the period before the fall semester when non-frat men apply to join a fraternity, declined from 1,450 men in the mid-sixties to 600 in the early seventies). But by 1976, frat antics were back. The Phi Delt pledges were found by the police in the back of a U-Haul truck, covered with molasses and cornflakes. The Kappa Sigs were caught forcing their pledges to eat a concoction of raw eggs, jalapenos, Limburger cheese, and cod-liver oil. Members of the Texas Cowboys, an honor organization composed mostly of fraternity men, were caught using cattle prods on initiates. Even the honorary fraternity of the Longhorn band was suspended after burning several freshmen with dry ice in a mock-branding exercise.
The 1978 release of Animal House, the sex-crazed, car-crashing fraternity movie, didn’t help matters. It became a kind of training film for many frat men (the Zeta Psis continue to hold a party called Tribute to John Belushi). Perhaps it is apocryphal, but one story from the seventies about the Phi Delts is still told. The fraternity was attending a mixer with a sorority, but the young women, disgusted with the fraternity men’s smartass attitude, left the party early. The next day, the Phi Delts sent a box of doughnuts over to the sorority house as a way of apologizing. A few hours later, they sent over photographs of what they had done with those doughnuts: Their penises were sticking through the doughnut holes.
By the mid-eighties, fraternity life was out of control. The Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, once one of the most distinguished Greek groups on campus, was disbanded by its national organization after a pledge underwent surgery for an infection as a result of being locked in a room with twenty other pledges for 72 hours and pelted with raw eggs. In 1986, in a booze-sodden initiation rite, Phi Kappa Psi brothers had eighteen-year-old pledge Mark Seeburger drink more than half a bottle of rum (roughly twenty rum highballs) in less than two hours. He was then dragged back to his dorm room, where he died in his sleep from alcohol poisoning. A grand jury investigated Seeburger’s death but said it couldn’t indict anyone because the hazing law was too archaic.
A new anti-hazing law was passed by the Legislature in 1987, establishing fines of up to $10,000 and maximum two-year jail terms for those caught participating in a wide range of hazing events, from paddle swats to calisthenics to sleep deprivation. Fraternities called the law too harsh. Strictly interpreted, they said, it would mean that they would be breaking the law if they simply made their pledges stand in a line. They broke the law anyway. In 1988 a member of the Delts, Scott Phillips, was chased by two pledges who wanted to throw him into a swimming pool as part of an alleged hazing ritual. While trying to escape, Phillips fell off a cliff and was killed. A grand jury indicted the fraternity for hazing. In a plea bargain, the fraternity agreed to pay a $5,000 fine.
Travis County attorney Ken Oden, a UT graduate who never pledged a fraternity, figured hazing would vanish after the well-publicized Seeburger and Phillips deaths. But last fall he found that the vast majority of fraternities were still practicing hazing, and “small groups continued to glorify it.” Oden announced that he was investigating 23 cases of hazing and illegal activity that had occurred since September 1989, including one in which pledges were required to perform sex with prostitutes in front of a video camera. Every fraternity president I talked with assured me that his fraternity was no longer hazing (although each did say that he had heard rumors that other fraternities were still doing it).
To an outsider, hazing seems unbelievably absurd. But to a pledge-typically a freshman who has left home for the first time and wants desperately to fit in to this new kind of family, a brotherhood that promises a cliquish setting and masculine superiority, and great parties and lots of available women—hazing is not punishment, it’s a test of loyalty. It’s a rite of passage into a world of male bonding, where his fraternity brothers will be friends for life—groomsmen at his wedding, business partners (frat men are taught early the phrase “All things being equal, do bidness with your brother”), sympathetic listeners who will lend him their extra bedroom when he goes through his first divorce. When told that hazing rituals are an important part of the fraternity, a pledge will endure just about anything. Then, once he is accepted, he wants someone else to go through what he experienced as an outsider straining to get in. Many alumni, whose money keeps the houses and parties well provided, also push for the old hazing rituals. “It’s like child abuse. I’m not kidding,” says Mark Buffkin, the president of the Pikes. “You get hazed, so you want to haze. It’s a vicious cycle that you just have to break.”
Also, the custom is conducted in such secrecy that it is nearly impossible to catch unless someone gets hurt. Even then, fraternities deny everything. During the investigation of Mark Seeburger’s death, the grand jury was appalled by his fraternity brothers’ efforts to hide evidence. The Greeks are so fiercely self-protective that they cover up for one another. Last fall, when a university administrator visited the Tri Delt sorority, hoping to find someone to confirm details about the incident in which the SAEs pulled the heads off chickens, he couldn’t find a woman who would admit that she had been at the party. “There’s a conspiracy of silence that surrounds that Greek world out there, and it’s real,” says Dean of Students Sharon Justice.
If fraternities think they are untouchable, nestled in a protective cocoon, it’s because there is so little supervision of them. Though every fraternity has a local alumni adviser, he rarely is seen at the frat house except when the fraternity gets in trouble. Fraternity alums, fondly remembering their college days as some of the best times of their lives, typically will dismiss charges of fraternity wrongdoing as nothing more than “boys being boys.” Moreover, if executives from the national fraternity headquarters try to cut down on hazing in their UT chapters, the alumni will block them. “The alumni will simply stand up to the nationals and say, ‘If you interfere, we’re going to cut off our endowment,’ and that’s worth thousands of dollars,” says Dan Medlin, the director of UT’s Interfraternity Council. Medlin admits that when he goes to fraternities to ask them to set up such things as stricter alcohol regulations at parties, “they snicker behind my back.”
What’s more shocking is how the university administration goes out of its way not to control Greeks. Until two years ago, it didn’t have a Greek adviser. While other large universities set up party policies for their fraternities, even requiring frats to register the dates and times of their parties, the UT administration is wary of acting as a moral chaperon. Greek adviser Sherri Sanders says nothing can be done to control privately incorporated off-campus organizations like fraternities: “Right now, our ultimate penalty for such a group is to suspend it as a registered student organization, which means they can’t appear in the school annual or rent a room on campus or play intramurals for a year. And they just look at us and say, ‘So what?’ ”
The root of the problem seems to be the university’s fear of fraternities. Dean Justice openly acknowledges that if the university issues more regulations governing fraternity behavior, then the university will be more legally liable when one of those fraternities screws up. The Seeburger and Phillips families have filed separate lawsuits totaling $70 million against their sons’ fraternities, and the university is relieved not to be a part of either suit. But Ken Oden suggests that the university could be held liable precisely because it doesn’t do anything. “All the university has to do,” he says, “is devise rules that would punish bad frats by limiting their social functions with sororities. The easiest way, you know, to get at them is to keep them from flirting with the girls.”
As autumn wore on, the frats developed a rare unanimity. Usually their relationships are like uproarious Hatfield and McCoy rivalries—the Betas and Pikes regularly pelt each other’s home with rocks, as do the neighboring Kappa Sigs and SAEs, and the KAs and Delta Upsilons (DUs) have hated one another for years, ever since the KAs shot their cannon at the DUs’ house. But now they were united against Ken Oden. Every time Oden went before a judge to request more subpoena powers, at least eighteen attorneys, hired by different fraternities, would show up to fight him. One morning, in their tassled loafers and pin-striped suits, the Fijis’ John Young and other frat presidents came to the courtroom to watch Oden work. “We don’t intend to harass or embarrass these fraternities,” the bespectacled Oden cried to the judge in his high-pitched voice. “But the grand jury has the right to see what they are doing!”
Next to Oden was his tall blond assistant attorney, Cynthia Bell. “She’s a babe!” one frat president whispered. Several heads beside him nodded up and down.
It was, frankly, hard to believe that Oden was going to get them. “He just doesn’t have any evidence,” Young said to me in the courtroom. “It looks like he just wants to draw attention to himself, get some headlines.” The way Young scowled at Oden, it was obvious that Oden would never be Fiji material.
Throughout the fall, the fraternities had taken extra precautions to keep their noses clean. At a meeting of all fraternity pledge trainers at the Fiji house, one trainer said to the others, “Tell your pledges not to say anything. Nothing! Not even to their girlfriends. There are spies everywhere!” Rumors spread that pretty young female agents from the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission, disguised as coeds, were being sent to the frat parties to arrest some guys for the dreaded MIP (minor in possession of alcohol). There was a report that a local television station had hired black men to walk past frat houses while a camera crew filmed secretly from a distance to see if frat members would throw open their windows and call the men names.
The fraternities were determined not to let Oden ruin their autumn. Many of them were involved in projects to serve a Thanksgiving dinner to 1,200 of Austin’s homeless and to raise 13,000 cans of food for a Christmas food drive-service projects, by the way, that no other student organizations tried to accomplish. They read their own cheerful monthly newspaper, the Greek Gazette (“A group of new members from Sigma Alpha Epsilon helped to deliver all the Greek Directories to each sorority house. Thank you, gentlemen!”). And they threw theme parties as if to remind themselves of how different they were from everyone else. One fraternity had a Blue Collar Party, another a Jamaican Party (partygoers were asked to show up in blackface), and another held a Drag Worm Party, in which the men and their dates were to come dressed like Drag Worms, the nickname for the homeless people who walk up and down Guadalupe.
As usual, the frat men were obsessed with their relations with the opposite sex. They scoped out the sorority pledges and cheerfully traded stories back at the frat house about “skanks” (women who sleep around), GDIs (“goddam independents,” or non-sorority women), and “butt gods” (frat brothers who sleep with the bestlooking women). Their attitude toward women was no secret. One Chi Omega sorority member and campus Greek leader told me, “It’s pretty typical for guys at frat parties to get girls as drunk as possible and try to take advantage of them.” Yet it seemed hard to believe, with everything else going on, that this too would get them in trouble.
In the last week of November, however, a week after the Sigma Chis wrote the “F— Yer Date” slogan on a car, blue posters were nailed to trees around campus announcing a demonstration: “Speak Out Against Fraternity Violence.” The student activists, already savvy in the art of public relations, had scheduled a protest for a Wednesday afternoon at five-thirty, a perfect time for local television stations that might want to show a live shot on their six o’clock newscasts. The activists also promoted the demonstration with a press conference, telling reporters that fraternities were creating “a climate of fear.” Fraternity leaders quickly held their own press conference, apologizing for the offensive slogans and saying that any problem was caused by the “actions of a few.”
But joined together was an odd, powerful coalition of people who had decided that they were fed up with the frat man’s attitude: student minority groups, gay groups, pacifist groups, animal-rights groups, run-of-the-mill liberals, and a smattering of usually apolitical students. Though their demonstration was not exactly going to be Tiananmen Square, it would be, as one administrator told me later, “the tensest confrontation that’s been at UT in the last ten years.” More than seven hundred students showed up for the demonstration, about three hundred of them members of fraternities. The frat men stood in a cluster toward one side of the Main Mall, their hands in their pockets. Many Sigma Nus (members of the fraternity whose charter had just been revoked for hazing) were there, looking spiteful. The KAs were upfront, with insolent grins on their faces. The Fijis’ John Young was in the back, his arms folded, sensing disaster.
The protesters were a mixture of students, from goateed men wearing backpacks to women who could have been in sororities and pale, humorless figures who looked as if they had spent their lives in a library. One skinhead woman held a poster that read: “Dykes Against Frats!” Another poster read: “George Bush—Frat Boy!” The ubiquitous protesting history professor, Tom Philpott, showed up, as he has for almost every campus demonstration in the past fifteen years, alleging, without the slightest proof, that it was fraternity men who had knocked down the wooden shanty that had been erected on the West Mall to symbolize the oppression of blacks in South Africa.
On the top steps of the mall, the first speaker, Jennifer Bowles, the leader of Students United for Rape Elimination, began by shouting: “Roses are red, violets are black. When fraternities get violent, we fight back.”
The fraternity men, as if coached, were quick with a clever response. “Boo!” they hollered.
“I see we’ve bruised some egos of powerful men here,” Bowles said.
“What you need is a good man,” someone from the frat side shouted back. “I wish I was on top of the tower with a gun,” added another.
John Young stood silently, realizing that his frat men were turning into a mob, trying to impress one another with the most outrageous comment. To almost every statement Bowles made—that the spray-painted Sigma Chi slogans were “violence against women,” that fraternities “humiliate, degrade, and attack marginalized people”—the fraternity side would vehemently bellow, “Bullshit!” or “We’re innocent!” When the television cameras would swing their way, the guys would quickly switch gears, wave their hands, and shout, “Hi, Mom!”
Though it was certainly unfair to characterize the frat men as promoters of violence and racism and rape, any sympathy one might have felt for them was dispelled by the unbearably superior manner in which they shouted back at the speakers. When a speaker from one of the small fraternities asked men from the larger fraternities to come stand with him to show their support against fraternity violence, many in the crowd replied, “You’re a loser! You’re with a loser fraternity!” When a black student made the excellent point in his speech that frat guys really have no concept that they’re abusive “but are just the products of their environment, the white upper class that doesn’t teach them to respect women or people of color,” a Greek chorus shouted: “F— you!”
“Let us speak!” cried the protesters. The campus police circling the crowd started to look nervous. Then a raggedly dressed woman, standing on the steps next to a “Dead Men Don’t Rape” poster, raised a gun over her head. There were screams, gasps, a convergence of television cameras and police officers. The officers wrestled the woman to the ground and took what turned out to be a plastic water pistol out of her hand. “Don’t touch me!” she screamed. “What are you trying to do, touch my tits?”
“Wow, totally unbelievable!” said one frat guy, looking on with a big smile.
But the biggest fireworks were saved for student body president Toni Luckett. When she came to the microphone, the frats went wild, shouting such lines as “Hail, Almighty One,” “Shall we kneel and bow?” “You look like Whoopi Goldberg!” She stood there, tall, striking, her dreadlocks catching the light of the TV cameras. “What I see here are intense class divisions, race divisions, gender divisions!” she said. “And what I see you doing is trying to f— the rest of us up! I feel sorry for you, and I feel sorry for our country that must deal with you!”
The frat men were apoplectic. So stunned and angry that this woman would speak to them in such a way, they weren’t sure how to answer. Luckett soon had the crowd chanting, “Racist, sexist, anti-gay, UT frats, go away!” She stared down haughtily at the frat men. She gave them a smile. And astonishingly, they did not know how to respond. Strangely, at that very moment, it was as if they saw for the first time their particular place in the world—resented by people they would never fully appreciate, spoken to in a language they would not understand.
“Racist, sexist, anti-gay, UT frats, go away!”
At least a minute passed. The anti-frat chant continued, and the fraternity men seemed paralyzed. Finally, in desperation, they devised a protest chant of their own, the only one they could think of at the moment that spoke of their own tradition and power and status. The chant started hesitantly in the back of the group and then, like a surging wave, swept forward. Shoulder to shoulder, their heads tilted back, their arms in the air, and their hands making that odd, two-fingered sign of the Longhorn, the fraternity men of the University of Texas lifted their voices as one to repeat the old football victory cheer:
“Texas . . . Fight!”
Over and over, they shouted it out, convinced of the rightness of their cause: “Texas . . . Fight!”
A university administrator came to the microphone and asked everyone to disperse peacefully, his anxious voice barely cutting through the din. And though some students lingered on awhile to argue with one another, most did go home. There was the chance, after all, that they would be able to see themselves that night on the local ten o’clock news.
I caught up again with John Young on a Saturday night just before finals. The Fijis were holding their Christmas formal in the back party house, and it was definitely a scene. To the music of the obligatory black band, frat men, already in an alcoholic daze, bounced around the dance floor with the grace of crazed St. Bernards. The fetchingly dressed sorority women headed off to the bathrooms to talk about which of the guys were the drunkest and which were the best-looking. Two guys, glancing opposite ways, walked right into each other, yet with that ability that seems to reach its peak in college, they managed to keep the beers in their hands from spilling. Two others got in a brief angry wrestling match, but five minutes later were seen together by the bar, laughing hysterically.
Young watched the party from a distance. Because his term as Fiji president would end the following week, I wanted to ask him what he now felt about fraternity life. It had not been a great autumn to be a fraternity man. He had been plagued by Ken Oden and by reporters, he was still identified on campus as the guy whose fraternity had the Sambo T-shirt, and he remained a bit embarrassed by the scene at the anti-frat rally. Though Oden had not yet been able to get any indictments against the fraternities—their lawyers had slowed his investigation by fighting his requests to see any internal fraternity files—the university was preparing to establish a committee to determine how the administration could stop fraternity misconduct. Young thought the Fijis were behaving better and were in no danger of being prosecuted, but he didn’t seem to possess any of the jubilant spirit I would have expected at his big end-of-the-semester party. He hadn’t even found a date for the Christmas formal because he had been too preoccupied with other matters.
Young had told me that after this round of controversy, the fraternity system would never be the same. “There are some people who still think they are in an oasis when they join a fraternity here, that they can say or do anything they want, but I hope it isn’t going to work that way anymore,” he said. “We can be affected by so many outside forces now. Society is changing and different groups are emerging and we can’t disregard them. And I think that’s just fine.”
I wondered if Young had begun to sense that the fraternity system itself was a strange staging ground for adulthood, one that creates a sort of mystical devotion to insularity. In the end, it is impossible to come away from frat life without accruing great knowledge about snobbery, cruelty, and prejudice. One quickly learns how to hide doubt or confusion behind a wall of aggressiveness. Yet there is also, in someone that age, a clear desire to celebrate the first freedoms of adulthood. And why shouldn’t there be? For all its problems, the fraternity experience can’t simply be dismissed by someone like John Young. It gave him a whiff of power and responsibility, it taught him about devotion and camaraderie, it showed him a good time. At the least, it provided him the opportunity to learn to tap a beer from a keg without getting a large head of foam.
Later that night, at the height of the Fiji Christmas Formal, John Young stood near the dance floor, amid the smell of spilled beer and cigarette smoke and women’s perfume. He listened to the roar of approval from the couples at the end of each song, a half-smirk on his face. For a moment it seemed that this flood of sensations struck a poignancy in Young. Though, perhaps for the first time, Young was realizing it was time to move on with his life, to step away from this conventional, restricted world, he also knew that these were his people and he was theirs, for better or for worse. Then he saw me looking at him, and he shrugged his shoulders and gave me a sort of what-the-hell grin.
“You can’t tell me this isn’t fun,” he said.