Utah wants to revive slumping Greek scene
Conflict: Neighbors concerned about bad frat behavior
By Brian Maffly
On a pleasant September night last fall, a crew of fraternity pledges assembled behind the Sigma Chi chapter house, celebrating their admission to the University of Utah's oldest and most prestigious Greek-letter society.
Chapter leadership wanted them to do something fun together to build lasting bonds of brotherhood. Instead, according to neighbors, they marched naked across Butler Avenue and up an alley to the Chi Omega sorority, where they serenaded the sisters with loud hoots and taunts.
Neighbors were not amused. Todd Jenson was inside his Butler Avenue home when the sound of hollering drew him out.
"I saw a group of fully nude young men who had surrounded a young woman sorority member who had the unfortunate luck of being outside when they marched," Jenson says.
The one-block naked march, which spurred quick apologies from Sigma Chi's leaders, illustrates the much longer distance the U.'s 700-strong Greek community must travel to repair its tattered neighborhood relations.
For decades, neighbors in the tony neighborhood of Federal Heights have complained of noise, bad driving, vandalism, after-hours partying, trespassing, illegal parking, trash, disorderly behavior and alcohol use associated with fraternities and sororities lining 100 South and Wolcott streets.
It's not usual to see students passed out on lawns, trampling plants, breaking bottles or urinating in the street, says resident Beth Arnett, who was once assaulted by three female revelers she confronted in her backyard. Arnett and others would like to see the dwindling Greek community fade away, but U. administrators have a different future in mind.
Jay Wilgus, a young U. administrator hired last year to work under the dean of students, hopes to resuscitate Greek life, now only half its strength from its heyday in the 1980s.
"We're trying to create a dynamic, vibrant community where we build tomorrow's leaders from today's undergraduates," Wilgus says. "We want students spending time together. We know that increases the likelihood of graduating and increases their GPAs."
Wilgus recently won the U. trustees' blessing to craft a new strategic vision to grow Greek culture and elevate its role in campus life.
"A healthy Greek system has long-term benefits to the university," trustees chairman Randy Dryer says.
Fraternities have become conflated with alcohol abuse and hazing since the end of World War II, concedes Wilgus, himself a U. fraternity alumnus and a Greek Council co-president in 2000. Among the national organizations, there is a movement to achieve "values congruence," that is, shepherd chapters back in line with the ideals so proudly displayed on brochures and Web sites. National leadership is at the forefront of campaigns against hazing and alcohol, but problems persist at the local level. Last year, a Utah State University freshman died of alcohol poisoning after a pledging function.
Long-time Butler Avenue residents say the issues have not changed in half a century, although the trouble spots shift as chapter leadership changes. "They don't have adequate infrastructure to handle what they have now," says Arnett, an active voice in neighborhood relations. "We only see the tip of the iceberg, the part that goes on in public. What about what goes on in private? You see these kids get into their cars drunk and driving into the city."
Frustrated with the U.'s apparent unwillingness to take strong actions against repeated violations, she led efforts to establish the nascent Federal Heights Neighborhood Association, organized chiefly to address the frat issue.
"Right now things have been really troublesome," said Eric Jergensen, himself a Sigma Chi alumnus, who represents the neighborhood on the City Council. "Until we can create a neighborhood that is meaningful for everyone, I do not believe the city would approve more fraternities and sororities. If we are going to have the interface of these different housing uses, we had better find a way for them to be compatible."
After a long period of decline, Greek enrollment bottomed in 2005 and has been on the rise. Sixty students joined following last month's rush, Wilgus says. But in the past year, four chapters closed due to lack of interest, reducing the chapter numbers to 12, seven fraternities and five sororities. All but four frats are dry.
"We're in a good place to build," says Wilgus, who was trained in conflict resolution and mediation as a U. law student.
A string of community meetings is planned over the next nine months to articulate a new Greek mission. A strategic plan will help the community, officials say.
"They operate out of fear of what the university and the city are going to do to them," says Wilgus' boss, dean of students Barb Snyder. "We want the chapters to grow. We're here to help you make that happen."
Although the Sigma Chis' naked march "reeked of hazing," Wilgus says he is satisfied that it was not because the pledges initiated the stunt on their own and chapter leaders addressed it before U. officials got wind of it. But during a Sigma Chi party three months later, a police officer noticed members hauling an unresponsive, vomit-covered man down the back steps. The party-goer, a 22-year-old undergraduate who was not a Sigma Chi member, was taken to the hospital and later cited for public intoxication, according to police reports.
"That's not the Sigma Chi I know," Jergensen said. "Getting drunk as a skunk is not what Greek life is about. If that's what it's become, we do need to rethink the strategic vision for our Greek community."