Bring Back the Old Frats

If national fraternity organizations had the standards they did decades ago, Greek life would be great again. Gene J. Puskar/AP

Believe it or not, there was a time when fraternities were the safest party option on campus.

For the majority of 1972 to 1975, I could be found in one of two places: sitting through lectures—in Forum halls and science buildings at Pennsylvania State University—or hanging out with my fraternity brothers at Phi Sigma Kappa, where I was president in 1975. In those heady days of the early '70s—when the nation's youth were still on a figurative (and literal) high from the social revolution of the preceding decade—PSU fraternities, and perhaps fraternities in general, were a strange amalgam of tradition and experimentation. There was a standing respect for the chivalry of the 1950s, as well as a desire on the part of nascent young adults to experience the "free love" of the late '60s. Gone were the flower girls with their tie-dyed T-shirts and faded bellbottoms, replaced by the first generation of women to push aggressively into the workforce. And the first generation of men to know and love them.

Even 40 years ago, Penn State, like many schools, offered the same four essential ways to meet friends, and/or members of the opposite sex: in class, through extracurriculars, at bars or at fraternity socials. Class and extracurriculars were natural but limiting, and meeting people at bars was as weird and as fraught with insanity as it is today. Frat socials, by comparison, were ideal. A frat would formally invite one sorority a week to come to the house on a Friday or Saturday evening. There would be a local garage band or a DJ. There would be snacks, soft drinks and a keg of beer. We would all circulate and hopefully join together to dance and talk (I met my future wife at such a function). But throughout these gatherings was a pervasive respect: for those of the opposite sex and for anyone of differing anything. Especially in a college town like State College, frats provided a tried and true means of socializing in a safe environment. Abuse was not tolerated. Racism was, at least in our microcosm, not a subject of controversy.

Which isn't to say we didn't party. There would be an occasional local news story about drunken behavior resulting in a fraternity brother's arrest, and we certainly earned our noise citations from the neighbors. But the frat wasn't supposed to be an amphitheater for obscenity, substance abuse and lewdness; it was supposed to temper those inclinations with structure. My biggest claim to fame was the "Zone Club," whose members had to maintain a 3.0 grade point average and finish their studying by 10:30 p.m. At 10:30, we'd hole up in one room, smoke weed (no drinking), listen to music, laugh and talk. At midnight we'd watch a rerun ofThe Twilight Zone, and then we'd go to bed. I credit this part of fraternal life for my good grades and my greatest friendships.

Sure, then as now, we boys were thinking about sex more than our female counterparts. But in all the fraternities with which I was familiar at the time, taking advantage of a girl was considered both morally wrong and socially disingenuous. Wooing of the fairer sex came with finesse, not force. Wooing meant consent. There had to be consent.

If the moral high didn't do the trick, the rules from National did. Phi Sig required at least a 2.5 GPA to stay in the house; study groups proliferated on everything from physics to English. The house received free beer on Friday and Saturday nights, but it was strictly forbidden to take it off the property. And while it was definitely the '70s—marijuana, some hard liquor, some harder drugs—all of these things were frowned upon in the frat if used to excess.

Phi Sig had a big middle-age alumnus who lived and worked in State College. He was short of stature and very bald, and his nickname was "Bear," which gives you some indication of his presence and sense of command over the house. Bear was our formal representative from National. He dropped by whenever he wished, at any hour of any day. If a brother seriously crossed the line, house officers would meet, discuss punishment and call Bear if it was bad enough. (We had pre-law brothers, so "bad enough" meant anything that could cause legal action.) Bear had the final word, period. A handful of guys were booted from Phi Sig during my tenure, and overall the presence of National loomed large. My experience was that girls preferred to party at fraternities because of the rules we had established, and because of the standards National held us to.

I'm sickened and broken-hearted over the recent events concerning fraternity misbehavior, both at Penn State and elsewhere. I can't understand why the national organizations haven't monitored day-to-day activities as they did in the past. I can't help but feel that they're just collecting their dues and covering their eyes. If standards and expectations like those I experienced were reinstituted, I think much of this behavior would be curtailed. Fraternities were not established as places to party, be ignorant and act inappropriately. They were established for young men of like mind to live together and support one another in academics, social endeavors, and in learning how the structure and discipline learned in the frat brotherhood will aid you for the rest of your life.

Mark Bindrim graduated from Penn State in 1975. He is a retired health and addictions counselor and is also Newsweek Managing Editor Kira Bindrim's father.

Bring Back the Old Frats | Opinion