The dive that a drunk Alexander Okano took into a shallow pool at Psi Upsilon house, paralyzing him from the chest down, helped spur reforms to Trinity College’s fraternity culture that faculty members applauded.
Alumni of Psi Upsilon and other fraternities are another story -- and, amid their complaints, Trinity President James Jones said yesterday that he would be leaving in 2014, a year earlier than planned. His statement came hours before a meeting of alumni and students who oppose Hartford, Connecticut-based Trinity’s mandate that fraternities and sororities go co-ed by September.
“We’re going to be pushing back,” Claude Brouillard, a real estate investor, said in April, urging students to join a new organization that threatens to challenge Trinity’s initiative in court. “There are a lot of parents and a lot of alumni who are mad, who are not going to be funding Trinity.”
Drinking, partying and even injuries and deaths have led to increased scrutiny of fraternities on many campuses, even as Greek life enjoys renewed popularity. Since 2005, 52 students died and six were paralyzed in incidents involving fraternities or their members nationwide, according to data compiled by Bloomberg from lawsuits, news accounts and interviews. Eight students died in both 2011 and 2012, the most fatalities in at least a decade.
Okano, then a 20-year-old junior at the college, broke his neck on Oct. 11, 2008, during Tropical, an annual blowout with live music, beer kegs and hundreds of revelers. He sued Trinity.
Last Oct. 17, 12 days after the college settled the case, its board announced sweeping changes to social life. Worried that Trinity’s party reputation and alcohol abuse were hurting its academic standing, trustees established a new housing system and required each fraternity and sorority to maintain a 3.2 grade-point average and go co-ed.
Since then, Trinity has been engulfed in a battle with some of its most active alumni donors. Many graduates who belong to fraternities, such as Hans Becherer, former chairman of Moline, Illinois-based Deere & Co., the world’s largest agricultural-equipment company, have stopped contributing. Trinity recently finished last in a competition with three rival New England colleges for donations from young alumni.
At last night’s meeting, Greg Lukianoff, executive director of Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, told more than 100 students to seek attention and encourage parents and alumni to stop donating to the college.
“Universities hate bad publicity,” Lukianoff said. “Make your case.”
In his retirement e-mail, Jones didn’t refer to the meeting or other concerns raised by alumni or students, saying instead that much of the work he set out to do has been completed or is under way. The college said in a statement that Jones, two years ago, “graciously accepted our request” to stay until 2015, three years after his original contract ended. Board Chairman Paul Raether, a partner at New York-based KKR & Co. and a member of Psi Upsilon, said yesterday that he would step down with Jones.
Reflecting his concern about fallout among fraternity alumni, Jones notified Trinity’s National Alumni Association Executive Committee April 29 that he was expecting Bloomberg News to publish an article about the college’s efforts to curb fraternities and the “potential impact on alumni giving.” He promised to let the association know about the article as soon as it was published.
Efforts to rein in Greek houses nationwide face formidable obstacles, from lost donations to potential litigation. They run into resistance not only from undergraduate members of local chapters, but also from the chapters’ increasingly prosperous national organizations and wealthy, well-connected alumni.
Fraternity and sorority alumni are more likely to give to their colleges and are larger lifetime donors than other graduates, according to a 2007 report by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, a Washington-based fundraisers’ group.
Antagonizing fraternity alumni, who are often as loyal to their chapter as to their school, may be especially dicey at a time of unpredictable market returns and pressure to restrain tuition increases, said Kris Kindelsperger, a senior consultant at Johnson Grossnicle and Associates, a Greenwood, Indiana-based fundraiser.
“The risk is that you alienate people in every generation, going back to the oldest generation” of alumni, said Kindelsperger.
Colby College in Waterville, Maine, and Denison University in Granville, Ohio, saw drop-offs in contributors after curbing frats. Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which barred fraternities from campus in the 1980s, reinstated them in 2004. One reason was that then-President John Fry “wanted the money,” said David Stameshkin, a former associate dean of students. Donations jumped from $11.3 million in 2004 to $16.4 million in 2007. Fry declined to comment.
Fraternities enjoyed an increase in membership to 327,260 in 2011 from 253,148 in 2005, according to the North-American Interfraternity Conference, a trade group. Even in the northeast, where Greek life had fallen out of favor, fraternity and sorority membership is on the rise at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire; Union College in Schenectady, New York; Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; and Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut.
Founded in 1823, Trinity has 2,200 students and a $57,580- per-year price tag. Trinity is renowned for its squash team, which has been national champion 14 of the past 15 years, and its pipeline to Wall Street. One in eight members of the classes of 2003 and 2004 was working as a financial manager or analyst last year, according to the college.
Trinity alumni include David Gottesman, a board member at Omaha, Nebraska-based Berkshire Hathaway Inc., and Peter Kraus, chairman of AllianceBernstein Holding LP in New York, along with journalist George Will and playwright Edward Albee. Fraternities like Alpha Delta Phi run networking events featuring graduates from Wall Street firms such as Piper Jaffray Cos., based in Minneapolis, and Royce Fund in New York.
While only 18 percent of Trinity’s students are in the Greek system, fraternities and sororities dominate the social life.
Alexander Okano, who grew up in Los Angeles, was captain of Trinity’s water polo team and a member of Psi Upsilon. The chapter regularly held parties in its basement on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. Alcohol left over from the parties would be imbibed later, a member, T.J. Tarca, later testified.
Alcohol was abundant at the Tropical bash, Psi Upsilon’s biggest party of the year. While only students legally old enough to drink were supposed to be given bracelets entitling them to beer, the chapter handed them out to under-age brothers too.
“People were drunk,” the chapter’s then-president, Joshua Biren, testified in a deposition. “Certainly dozens.”
For the party, fraternity pledges and a college buildings-and-grounds worker dug a pool less than four feet deep in the backyard. Okano had a blood alcohol content of .10 when he flung off his sunglasses and shirt, lunged into the pool head-first and cracked his vertebrae. Tarca saved his life by pulling him out of the pool.
“My arms and legs immediately went limp,” Okano said in a 2008 e-mail to friends that recounted how he was unable to lift his head from the water. “45 or so seconds later my world went black.”
After surgery and months of rehabilitation, Okano can walk and has recovered “very well,” his lawyer, Neil Sutton, said. Okano, who returned to Trinity and graduated in 2011, sued the college, the national fraternity and the chapter for creating a hazard.
The chapter paid $550,000 to settle, according to court records. Thomas Fox, Psi Upsilon’s executive director, declined to say how much his Indianapolis-based national paid. Okano, who had demanded $1.1 million from Trinity, reached a confidential settlement with the college.
Eighteen months after Okano’s injury, another Trinity student was seriously hurt at a fraternity. During an initiation period known as Hell Week in April 2010, the brothers at Sigma Nu told their three pledges not to leave the house except for classes, and ordered them to finish a keg of beer.
One pledge, Andrew Cappello, was kicked out of the house for using his mobile phone, according to his 2011 lawsuit in Superior Court in Hartford. Intoxicated, he fell down and suffered brain and spinal injuries. Fraternity members waited to seek help for fear the hazing would be exposed, according to the lawsuit. The college later banned Sigma Nu from campus and the fraternity parent suspended it.
Earlier that year, the chapter had received the national Sigma Nu award for outstanding recruitment strategies, according to Trinity’s student newspaper. R. Bradley Beacham, executive director of Lexington, Virginia-based Sigma Nu, declined to comment.
Cappello, who declined to comment, missed a year of school. He agreed to a confidential settlement with the chapter and five members on May 2, said his lawyer, John Houlihan.
Reflecting a national trend toward binge drinking, the number of Trinity students transported to hospitals because of excessive alcohol rose from about a dozen in fall 2009 to 40 two years later, according to Dean of Students Fred Alford.
Trinity’s rambunctious fraternity culture has affected its academic quality, some administrators and faculty members say.
“It’s very frustrating when a student says I can’t get a paper done on time, or I didn’t come to class, because I was pledging,” said philosophy professor Maurice Wade, adding emphasis to the last word. “We’d like for students to have the kind of social life outside the classroom that’s not wholly party-centric. And we’d like what happens at nights and weekends not be inconsistent with academic values.”
In 2004, when Jones took the helm, Trinity was 22nd of about 240 schools in U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of national liberal-arts colleges, which weighs financial resources, selectivity, alumni giving and other metrics.
Since then, test scores of entering freshmen have fallen, more students are transferring to other colleges, and growth of the school’s $422 million endowment has lagged. Burdened by “terrible” financial “negligence” of earlier administrators, Trinity must cut $6 million from a debt-laden budget, Gary Reger, a history professor, wrote in a December e-mail to colleagues after hearing a private presentation from Jones.
Today, U.S. News ranks Trinity 38th, second lowest in the New England Small College Athletic Conference, well behind fellow members Amherst, Williams and Wesleyan. Four of 11 NESCAC schools have fraternities.
In a 2011 paper on Trinity’s future, President Jones wrote that the school’s social life was too centered on a Greek system that selects members based on “economic privilege or physical appearance.” He called fraternities and sororities “the last remaining vestige of an anti-meritocratic structure on campus.”
Jones urged a renewed emphasis on academics and changes to social life. “If steps are not taken at Trinity, and in the not-too-distant future, I fervently believe that Trinity will be at risk,” wrote Jones, who declined to comment for this article.
A 2012 marketing study commissioned by Trinity reinforced Jones’s message. While the school has an established reputation in “affluent markets” for small classes and dedicated professors, its “hedonistic” culture and “lower levels of intellectual engagement” are a turnoff for the academically-oriented applicants it’s seeking, especially as competition for students intensifies, Baltimore-based Neustadt Creative Marketing found.
In January 2012, Trinity set new limits on the number of events with alcohol that student groups may host and the amount of alcohol that may be served. Then on Oct. 17, the board said it had adopted broader changes proposed by its committee on social community, including dramatic reform of fraternities and sororities.
Greek houses must start recruiting co-educational pledge classes, initiation periods are eliminated, and pledges must have at least a 3.0 grade point average in the prior semester. Each fraternity and sorority must draw at least 45 percent of its members from the opposite sex by Oct. 1, 2016.
Trinity must “stem the loss of students and avoid further slippage in our reputational standing” said the committee, which reported that fraternity members are more likely to drink and use drugs and have lower grades.
The board’s action outraged student and alumni members and national fraternities. An online petition urging the college to repeal the co-education mandate has garnered 4,380 signatures.
“My fraternity won’t exist,” said Sonjay Singh, president of the local Pi Kappa Alpha chapter. “We can’t accept girls” under the rules of the fraternity’s national parent.
Justin Buck, executive vice president of Pi Kappa Alpha, based in Memphis, Tennessee, backed Singh. “This mandate looks to establish barriers to the natural process by which people build friendships,” he wrote Jones in October.
Fraternity alumni attribute the college’s decline in rankings to other causes, including Hartford’s crime and poverty; a student suffered a near-fatal beating immediately outside of campus last year. They say that the committee’s finding that Greek students are academically inferior omitted better-performing chapters and that the college’s true aim is to acquire the chapter houses.
Fraternity alumni -- who are “somewhat more likely” than other graduates to donate to the college, according to a 2005 Trinity report -- retaliated by shutting their wallets. While the college waited until it had completed a six-year, $369 million campaign before announcing the co-education mandate, the initiative has hurt annual giving.
This year, Trinity lost by a three-to-one margin in March Madness, a race for donations from recent alumni against Bates, Colby and Connecticut colleges. In recent years, Trinity has won or come close. Separately, Trinity as of April 29 had raised only $5.9 million of the $9 million it seeks for fiscal 2013, which ends June 30.
“I’ve been contributing for many years; I’m not going to anymore,” said former Deere Chairman Becherer, a 1957 Trinity graduate and member of St. Anthony Hall, Trinity’s oldest and most exclusive fraternity. “It’s a very nice liberal view that Jimmy Jones is pushing -- that everybody is going to be happy in a new social organization. I think people like to join with similar-minded kids.”
David Hughes, a stock analyst, has also stopped giving. A 1987 alumnus and former president of St. Anthony Hall, Hughes met his wife, a sorority sister, at Trinity. His uncle, grandfather and great-grandfather were all members of “The Hall,” and he feels a kinship to them through his brotherhood.
“A great experience, to be accepted,” he said.
While she acknowledges that fundraising “took a dip” from the alumni protest, Mary Jo Keating, who as secretary of the college is the president’s deputy, said she is “pretty positive” that Trinity will meet its targets. Other colleges that reformed fraternity culture took a “hit but they’ve come back and they’re doing fine,” she said.
The leadership changes announced yesterday weren’t related to last night’s meeting, Keating said.
Robert Bibow, a London-based managing director at private equity firm Genii Capital, has formed the Foundation for Student Freedom of Association Inc., which plans to raise donations for a possible lawsuit claiming that Trinity’s plan violates its promise to honor students’ constitutional right of association.
“You are on the front lines,” Bibow told undergraduate fraternity and sorority members at an April meeting on campus, encouraging them to join his foundation. Trinity wants to “close down the fraternities and take their assets,” he said.
Fraternities are overreacting, Keating said. “If we wanted to get rid of them, we would have,” she said. They “are not viewed as the enemy.”
The alumni claim that Trinity wants to seize control of privately-owned fraternity houses is “crazy,” she said.
Fraternity alumni at Trinity are prepared for a long fight. At homecoming in November, they packed a meeting to complain about the co-educational decree.
“We are going to be moving ahead,” insisted Raether, the board chairman.
That spurred alumnus Henry Bruce, parent of a recent graduate, to invoke a line from the 1978 movie “Animal House,” in which John Belushi exhorts Delta House members to fight back.
“Over? Over? -- it’s not over until we say it’s over,” Bruce said.