Frats find a friend in Facebook
College Greek system making comeback via social-networking website
By Jason Blevins, The Denver Post
BOULDER - Fraternity and sorority membership at Colorado's two largest universities and at schools across the nation is stronger than it has been in years, a revival traced squarely to Facebook.
"Facebook is a culture-changer. It has totally changed the game," said Royal Carson, a University of Colorado sophomore and president of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. His fraternity has grown from 24 members in 2005 to 92 now, including 31 Facebook-savvy pledges from last fall's rush.
"We have to take advantage of that kind of technology, and it is working for us."
Membership in fraternities at CU is up 65 percent since just before their fall 2005 rush. Sorority membership at CU is up 50 percent since 2007. And the Greek community at Colorado State University has grown 45 percent since 2005.
In 2005, Greek life on Colorado campuses was withering. High-profile drinking deaths in September 2004 hastened the decline. In a three-week span that month, 19-year-old CU student and Chi Psi pledge Lynn "Gordie" Bailey and 19-year-old Colorado State University sophomore Samantha Spady were found dead in fraternity houses, killed by alcohol poisoning.
School officials cracked down.
At CU, all 15 fraternities left the university's fold, choosing not to follow the school's mandate to end recruitment of first-semester freshmen. Fraternities at CU are no longer mentioned anywhere in university literature or websites. The university sent letters to all incoming students in the summer of 2005 and 2006 urging parents to be wary of fraternities because they refused to follow the school's recruitment rules.
A year after Bailey's pledge-related death, CU's fraternities dwindled to 660 members before fall recruitment. Without the university's list of incoming students, fraternities saw their growth potential founder.
"In that fall of 2005, people were wondering if we were going to live or die," said Marc Stine, a "Greek advocate" employed by Boulder's Interfraternity Council, which represents all 15 Boulder fraternities.
Today, Boulder fraternities have 1,092 members.
Top recruiting tool
Stine surveyed the newest round of pledges. Not one had seen the full-page ad in the Colorado Daily newspaper urging students to check out fraternities during rush week. No one noticed the back page the fraternities bought in the parent-orientation guide. No one mentioned seeing the pop-up ads on the university's website. Almost all had studied their fraternity's Facebook pages or fraternity members' pages, Stine said.
And when a Facebooking freshman joins a fraternity, he typically brings along a network of friends who will be watching his experience online.
"Facebook is our No. 1 recruitment tool," said Stine, a retired high school principal who averages 750 text messages a month keeping in touch with fraternity leaders. "That's how kids gather info now."
Brett Forrest wasn't big on fraternities when he arrived at CU two years ago. He was pals with fraternity members but wasn't convinced it was for him.
After a year of watching the Facebooked fun of his friends, his mind changed. The camaraderie, the snowboarding and camping trips, the philanthropy all looked appealing.
Today the sophomore film and anthropology student is president of the pledge class for Pi Kappa Alpha, or Pike, a longtime CU fraternity that had its house closed last summer by Boulder officials because of a host of health violations.
"Their Facebook page really gave me insight into what I was getting into," Forrest said. "Rushing a frat without a house, you don't know what it's going to be like."
When the Pike fraternity lost its longtime house - which will reopen this summer after a year of renovations - members built an online home on Facebook. Last fall, the fraternity hosted 22 pledges, more than double the 2007 fall rush.
Sororities at CU also are thriving, with almost 1,500 members, compared with a little more than 1,000 in 2007. Online networking became more essential to sororities last year after the university stopped sharing addresses of incoming students.
Personal touch has its place
While Facebook is important, it does not replace personal contact, said Natalie Smithson, head of public relations for the CU Panhellenic Council, which is part of the university and oversees the nine sororities in Boulder.
"We feel taking the time to get to know and talk to a potential new member is a better way for our organization," Smithson said.
At Colorado State University, membership in the 21 fraternities and 14 sororities was 958 in 2005 and reached 1,395 in 2008.
Only two years ago, fraternity brothers spent days calling freshmen, searching for new members.
"Half the time they would say no," said Chris Millson, a senior at CSU and recruiting chair for Tau Kappa Epsilon. "Now we invite them to join our Facebook page. Then they learn about us, and we can see who they are too, and we can really focus on guys who each person in the house can relate to."
Facebook also gives fraternities and sororities the opportunity to change preconceptions of Greek life. Gone are the photos of drunken parties. In their place are pictures of study groups, formal parties, camping trips, climbing excursions and philanthropic work.
"It's cool to be able to put up a page that shows we are not crazy party animals," said CSU's Jon Morris, president of the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity.
"I think there has been attitude change across the Greek system. Not long ago we saw membership drop off, and no one wanted to be a part of it anymore. It really forced us to push our values and involvement on campus and our academic values and our work in the community. Without Facebook, we'd struggle to share that."
Colorado's Greek growth is mirrored nationally. Fraternity membership has reached 350,000 undergrads at 800 campuses, nearing the peak membership of 375,000 in the late 1980s. Membership in sororities is nearing a decade high of 250,000 in 2,956 chapters.
"If you don't have a digital presence, you are going to be left in the dust," said Pete Smithhisler, president and chief executive of the North American Interfraternity Conference.(emphasis added - ed.)
"A strong digital presence - and I think all fraternities today are pretty conscious of their online world - is sharing the truth about fraternities and helping to break some of the myths."