UM's Greek system sees renewal
By BETSY COHEN
MISSOULA - The 21st century has not been kind to the University of Montana's 103-year-old Greek system.In the past seven years, two fraternity houses have not only closed their doors because of membership woes, they've been bulldozed into oblivion.
Until recently, many of the remaining Greek houses have been nearly empty and increasingly in need of remodeling or at least significant repairs. Greek life at UM appeared to be on the brink extinction.
While no one can point to any one reason for the decline, those close to UM's Greek houses acknowledge the brotherhoods and sisterhoods lost their way from their chapters' founding purposes: to build leaders, to achieve academic excellence, to create community, to give back to their college and chapter, to serve the greater good.
In the absence of tangible proof of those ideals and with increasing problems of underage drinking, fights and run-ins with local police, stereotypes emerged.
Now UM's four sororities and five fraternities are working to shed the party-ghost of decades past and embrace more noble ideals, said Emily Yaksitch, the university's Greek life adviser.As Greek adviser for the past 2 1/2 years, she's outlasted two of her predecessors by at least one year, and has watched her mentoring and the hard work of students slowly begin to pay off.
"We are definitely in a revamping stage, and revamping our image of the past decade or more by getting to the roots of why our chapters were founded," Yaksitch said. "These organizations have long, distinguished traditions, and I think the current members recognize the honor of continuing that legacy.
"On Tuesday, the ages-old tradition of bringing new members into the fraternity system will begin. What used to be called Rush Week is now being called Recruitment Week.
The name change signifies a philosophical shift within UM's Greek community. At Sigma Phi Epsilon that transition is under way, said Derek Duncan, a member and vice president of communications for the fraternity.
The change was more than a nice idea; it was a matter of survival.
"About two years ago, we ran into challenges - the people in the house weren't very mature and were not a good fit with the organization," he said. "The house was in disarray, the leadership not great, and our national leadership said something had to happen, things had to change. It was a real wake-up call for the house.
"Given clear marching orders, about half of the fraternity's membership left, leaving about a dozen people to rebuild.
In 2006, the house recruited 16 members and was beginning to bounce back when two other warnings came from national leaders: Bring up your chapter's grade point average and get 25 people to live in the fraternity's 12,000-square-foot house to help pay the bills, or the doors will be shut for good.
Sigma Phi Epsilon's rebirth began in earnest, and fundamental changes in how they did business began to take place, Duncan said.
The house no longer takes pledges. When someone wants to join, they are a member immediately without a testing period. Traditions and core values of the chapter are passed on in stages, and in a new program called The Balanced Man. Each member commits to a physical fitness and wellness program, and participates in extracurricular education beyond the classroom, such as learning about art.
Each house member is required to post his personal and academic goals on his door for all to see and read.Becoming a member of the Greek system is not about joining a private club that defines who you are or what you are, said Colin Boyle, president of Sigma Phi Epsilon.
"It's a catalyst. It's a platform to help people become more engaged with campus and the community."As proof, Boyle said most of UM's fraternity and sorority members are far more than the Greek letters they are affiliated with, they are also UM Advocates, Grizzly athletes, peer advisers, members of UM's student government, and students who take an active leadership role in their field of study.
Last year, UM's Greeks donated more than $15,000 to nonprofit organizations, most of which are based in Missoula.Yaksitch said UM's Greek life is on track for success. Membership has stabilized, many houses have invested in their properties and made renovations, all have committed to alcohol-free recruitment week activities, and each house has dedicated itself to promoting its core values in a new flexible system.
"I really do think today's students are much more natural leaders and understand their actions impact others," Yaksitch said. "Their motto this year is to recruit somebody better than yourself."I like that, it tells me they are accepting responsibility and that's the difference from my perspective from nearly three years ago to now."
UM's Greek system sees renewal