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Crimson White Online

February 02, 2006

Door not yet open in frats

Recruitment process might be stifling fraternity integration


story image 1 Aaron Harris (left), a sophomore majoring in operations management and public relations, stands with his fraternity brother Tyler Zinder, a sophomore majoring in finance, in front of the Lamda Sigma Phi house Wednesday afternoon.
CW/ Elliot Knight

By Lori Creel and Nick Beadle
The Crimson White


This is the second in a four-part series about greek integration at the Capstone.


Aaron Harris is uncommon in the UA greek system: He's a black member of a traditionally white fraternity.


But Harris, a sophomore majoring in operations management and public relations, is in Lambda Sigma Phi Christian fraternity, a house not surrounded by a strong race barrier. It accepted its first black member, Calvin Johnson, in 2001, before it joined the Interfraternity Council, the umbrella organization of the traditionally white fraternities.

When a black student was accepted to a traditionally white sorority for the first time in August 2003, then-IFC President Brad Wilson said the sororities had set the tone for the integration of the University's white fraternities.

"The door's been opened; it's opened for everybody," he said.

Since then, fraternity membership has surged from 1,156 to 1,775 active members - with 575 new members this past fall alone.

But that "door" to integration has barely been cracked. Why?

Some say a recruitment system that revolves on word-of-mouth and connections is not likely to create opportunities for blacks to rush white fraternities. Others say it comes down to the basic differences between whites and blacks.

Harris said he doesn't think members of the white fraternities are racist, but the alumni who support them may still hold racist ideas.

"I don't have a problem with it not being integrated," he said, "but when it does start to be integrated, that would be a great day."

A 'huge barrier'

Most UA fraternities recruit new members informally through activities during the spring and summer. IFC President Wes Spencer, a member of Pi Kappa Alpha, said it's usually as simple as fraternity leadership asking freshmen to come up with a list of people they know from high school that would fit in with the fraternity.

The more formal recruitment conducted a few weeks into the fall semester, called open rush, is mainly used to fill the few scant openings fraternities have left in their fall pledge classes, Spencer said.

This is a stark contrast to the heavily regulated pageantry of fall sorority rush. UA Associate Dean of Students Todd Borst said the main stipulation on informal recruitment activities is they cannot involve alcohol.

"Fraternities can extend a bid at any time they want. Their recruitment has a 24/7, 365 days a year attitude," Borst said.

This who-knows-who system can lead to some students being predestined to join a house.

Ben Thurber, a freshman majoring in business, said he knew a long time ago that he would pledge Delta Kappa Epsilon.

"Some fraternities are just a continuation of home-town country clubs," Thurber said.

"You kind of pull people that you grew up knowing from back at home," said Kyle Hamilton, a freshman majoring in mechanical engineering and a member of Theta Chi, regarding recruiting. "You pull people that you hung out with more."

David Roskos-Ewoldsen, a UA psychology professor, said a lack of structured recruiting could be a "huge barrier" to fraternity integration.

"A lot of things are going to go on in an informal setting," he said. "Who are they most likely to talk about [recruiting]? They're most likely to talk about other whites."

Roskos-Ewoldsen said though a fraternity member may come from a racially diverse high school, he is unlikely to challenge the status quo. He said members will not bring in prospective pledges unless they fit the house so they don't risk losing the benefits and group identification that comes with being in a fraternity.

"I'm not going to blow that once I'm already in it," he said.

A change in recruitment tactics has worked for at least one SEC school. At the University of Arkansas, the number of fraternity pledges was dwindling two years ago, said Scott Walter, the school's associate dean of students.

This year, for the first time since the 1970s, five black students joined traditionally white fraternities, and the number of students rushing tripled in two years, he said.

The key difference is that Arkansas moved rush back to five weeks into the fall semester, he said.

With fraternities already set in the pledge classes the first week of the semester, "you had to know somebody from high school or already know enough about the system" to get into it, he said.

Delaying rush gave many more men the chance to consider going greek, including more minorities, he said.

"By opening it up, we made it more accessible," Walter said.

Walter said he works with the fraternities to make sure more students from all over campus, including minorities, know about their events and have the chance to participate. It's not that white fraternities were trying to exclude anyone, he said.

"It's more like something they never thought of," he said.

Walter said it's important for fraternities to be conscious of trying to include different groups of people and to be able to have "open and honest conversations" about race.

Rush activities at the Capstone were delayed until two weeks into the school year when former UA President Andrew Sorensen pushed back sorority rush in 2000 to encourage more student involvement and catalyze integration.

Borst said open fraternity rush remains delayed because it does stir up more student involvement. Though most fraternities fill out their ranks informally, they tend to hang onto a few spots for open rush, he said.

With UA enrollment planned to surge in the coming years, Spencer said they hope that a recruitment database first used last year will even the playing field for recruits, particularly out-of-state students, who may have had trouble getting in because they are out of the loop. Fraternities will send out information on recruitment activities to incoming students in the database.

Incoming students interested in joining a fraternity can enter their information into the system at The form does not ask for prospective pledges to indicate their race, Spencer said, and all incoming men will be mailed information about the database.

Borst said increased out-of-state recruiting and enrollment at the Capstone will likely change the makeup of the University's fraternities.

"As the organizations become more diverse in where their membership's from, [their recruits] are going to become diverse as well," he said.

Inherent differences?

Some fraternity members blame society, not the greek system, for greek segregation.

Arthur Brown, a member of traditionally black Alpha Phi Alpha and president of UA National Pan-Hellenic Council, said people naturally congregate toward people they identify with socially and physically.

"Why do we choose to go to separate churches?" he asked. "People are just more comfortable around people they look like."

Thurber said people sometimes have the wrong impression of fraternities. He said his fraternity is just one factor in his life, and he has a lot of different friends outside the fraternity.

When students go into the greek system, they don't seek an all-white fraternity, he said. Thurber said they look for a good fraternity with a decent reputation, often a house in which they know someone from home. He said if an interracial fraternity was already here and had a long tradition, it would do fine.

"It's just the way it happens," he said.

Hamilton said the greek system may not be more integrated because of feelings held over from the Jim Crow era.

"We still are in the South," he said. "Most things are gone, but some people do have problems. If you grew up not liking a certain group of people, you probably wouldn't want them to be in a group you're joining."

Hamilton said the older fraternities have segregated themselves, and it would be unlikely that one black person would want to join a fraternity of 140 whites or vice versa even if most other people wouldn't have a problem with it.

More diverse than meets the eye?

Borst said there are "several" fraternities that have minority members - the University and the IFC just doesn't collect data tracking their presence.

Borst said he knows minorities are there from personal experience, and that UA officials only statistically break down the greek system by gender.

"If I'm speaking at a chapter or things of that nature, they'll tell you and it's noticeable that [a minority] presence is there," he said. "That's really how we know."

He said officials do not ask greeks for information about their race, religion and other similar characteristics despite regular concerns about the group's racial makeup.

"I wouldn't necessarily say it's something that's never come up, it's just a statistic we've never decided to keep or track," Borst said. "You could do a cross-analysis of everything, we just haven't done it."

But, Spencer said, "It's probably something that we definitely need to look into in [tracking] in the future."

Though there are not statistics, traditionally white fraternity members do befriend minorities and accept some non-white members.

Grady Tissington, a junior majoring in finance and a member of Beta Theta Pi fraternity, said he decided to go through open rush to look at all the different fraternities even though he really liked Beta and knew some people in the fraternity.

Tissington, who is Korean, said he has good friends throughout the greek community, and he has never been treated differently because of his ethnicity. He said his pledge brothers are his best friends.

"I've never been looked at as Korean or different: I've just been a friend," he said.

Tissington participated in the rush committee for Beta Theta Pi and has been the fraternity's social chairman for two years. He said he hasn't seen any blacks come through open rush, but he didn't know why.

"I don't think anybody is closed-minded," he said.

But implicit barriers discourage integration.

Steven Davenport, a junior majoring in marketing and a member of Pi Kappa Phi fraternity, said his roommate, who is Hispanic, often hangs out with the fraternity and comes to all of their events.

But to his dismay, Davenport said his roommate hasn't tried to join the Pi Kappa Phi, and fraternity members have asked other people they haven't known as long as his roommate to join, but never asked his roommate.

He said integrating the fraternities would be a good idea, but it's difficult to change people's minds.

"It would be a good thing, but they don't want to take the initiative," he said.

Lambda Sigma Phi, the Christian fraternity, has had one dinner gathering with Alpha Phi Alpha, a traditionally black house. Tim Milner, last year's Lambda Sigma Phi president, said they hope to make the dinner a tradition every semester.

But he said though it's common for them to go to each other's parties, they don't spend more time with members of Alpha Phi Alpha than they would with any other fraternity. People wouldn't be likely to find them hanging out watching television in the fraternity house next door, he said.

Curtis Helton, a senior majoring in English and the only white member of the traditionally black Phi Beta Sigma fraternity, said white and black people hanging out together at a party doesn't necessarily mean race problems don't exist.

Helton said he has been at the white fraternities' band parties with members of his fraternity and heard racial slurs from the white fraternity members.

"Anytime within a party environment, we can all get along," he said. "Anybody can go into a room and party together, but is there a friendship or any relationship past that?"

He said he decided to join Phi Beta Sigma because he was friends with two people who joined, and he liked that the fraternity was built around community service.

What fraternity you join also has to do with class and background, and the way you were raised, he said.

"Integration is about more than just race," he said.




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