KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Conjure a mental picture of a college fraternity house and you might come up with the beer- and booze-soaked abode of the Deltas in “Animal House.”
But more fraternities are working to shed the popular image of being one big keg party — including the University of Kansas chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon, the house where 19-year-old freshman pledge Jason Wren drank himself to death after a night of binge drinking four years ago.
The SAE house, which last week held its fourth annual memorial seminar on alcohol abuse prevention, went dry this semester.
“That means no alcohol, no parties anywhere in the house at anytime,” said John Stacy, who advises the house as president of the chapter’s house corporation, Kansas Alpha Chapter of SAE House Corp.
Good luck with that, said Peter Smithhisler, president and CEO of the North-American Interfraternity Council, which has 5,500 member fraternities.
“It is not an easy task because it still is not the norm,” he said.
But it is a trend.
“There is a large movement nationwide, thanks in part to liability, risk management and common sense, to have fraternity houses go completely dry,” said Amy Long, who heads the advisory board of KU’s SAE chapter.
Smithhisler said many more fraternities “are substance-free than you might think.” He estimated the number at perhaps 20 percent of chapters nationwide.
Fifteen years ago, it was closer to zero.
In 2000, the national headquarters of Phi Delta Theta was one of the first to ban alcohol at all 157 of its fraternity houses across the country.
In the past decade, more national fraternity offices have prohibited members from having alcohol or drugs in their houses. Some fraternities ban alcohol in common areas but allow members who are at least 21 to have alcohol in their bedrooms. In those fraternities, parties with alcohol must be held at another venue.
The SAE house at KU had that policy. But keeping a big brother from sharing alcohol with an underage brother is hard to police. The new ban allows a member three alcohol violations before he’s kicked out of the house.
The KU fraternity has been working toward the new policy since Wren died March 8, 2009. His death was a springboard for the fraternity to join a campus discussion on the effects of alcohol abuse. The memorial seminar, part of that effort, is co-sponsored by the Delta Gamma sorority.
“Since going alcohol-free, we have seen it as a reason to better the house,” said Robert Abby, a junior and chairman of the Jason Wren initiative. “We are looking for higher GPAs and more philanthropy and community service.”
Abby acknowledged that it hasn’t been an easy thing for the fraternity brothers to do.
“It has definitely been an adjustment,” he said. “But when it came down to it, the guys all knew it was the right thing to do and the right time to do it.”
Of the 15 fraternity houses at KU, SAE is the second to go dry, behind Phi Delta Theta, which banned alcohol 13 years ago. All Panhellenic sororities that include housing at KU and nationwide are alcohol free.
The National Pan-Hellenic Council governing Black Greek organizations, citing “the alarming number of disastrous incidents in which alcohol and drugs play a part,” prohibits the sale or consumption of alcohol at all council-sponsored events.
At Kansas State University, nine of 19 fraternity houses are alcohol-free.
The move to prohibit alcohol at the SAE house at KU didn’t come down from the fraternity’s national office. Last fall, chapter members took the idea to their advisory board, which was put in place to help the fraternity weather the storm after Wren’s death.
He was found in his bed at the SAE house the afternoon after a night that began with him drinking with friends at a Mexican restaurant. When he returned home to the fraternity house that night, Wren drank more alcohol until he passed out in his bed. An autopsy indicated he’d died of alcohol poisoning.
Police and campus investigators found the fraternity had done nothing criminal to lead to Wren’s death. The fraternity settled out of court for an undisclosed amount in a civil lawsuit filed by Wren’s parents.
“We were in a hole four years ago,” Stacy said. “Our pledge class dropped significantly. We did nothing wrong, but Jason did die in our house and right or wrong, we had to go through the fallout.”
Stacy said that since SAE went dry, pledge class numbers have jumped this semester. He wouldn’t say how few pledges the fraternity had each of the past three years, but he said it has 31 pledges now. About 50 members live in the off-campus house, which has room for 65.
Stacy said he hopes other fraternity houses on the KU campus will follow SAE.
“I encourage going dry,” he said. “I think all fraternities ought to take a good look at the idea.”
To those fraternities resisting the wave toward alcohol prohibition, Stacy said, “sooner or later insurance companies are no longer going to insure this type of behavior, or they will make it so expensive no one will be able to afford it.”
No insurance, he said, no fraternity house.