When Vincent Albanese joined Theta Chi at Lehigh University, he was looking to expand his network of friends.
He got much more. Through his fraternity experience, he found his major — industrial and systems engineering. He learned to lead. He helped his chapter raise thousands annually for cancer research. He even picked up running from a fraternity brother; the whole group bonded over it.
“This kid ran a marathon a few weeks ago and our entire chapter went, and was on the marathon route," said Albanese, 22, a senior from Oradell, N.J.
But Greek life is one that fewer Lehigh students are choosing. In spring 2015, fraternities claimed 983 members — roughly 37% of the male student body. By last spring, membership had fallen just shy of 660. Sorority membership fell, too, from 1,009, or 46% of the female student body, to 834.
The decrease in participation at the Bethlehem university, long known for its vibrant Greek life and large fraternity houses on the hill, follows the forced closure of four fraternities and one sorority since 2015 for offenses such as hazing and alcohol misuse. It also comes as the university last spring issued a 10-point plan to improve Greek life.
Greek life at a crossroads
The reasons for the decline are deeper than university-forced closures, students and administrators say.
An increasingly diverse student body, both geographically and socioeconomically, is choosing to get involved on campus in other ways, and traditional Greek groups haven’t figured out how to attract newcomers. In addition, parents and prospective students are becoming more cautious about fraternity membership and the liability that comes with it.
The death of sophomore pledge Tim Piazza at a booze-fueled fraternity party at Pennsylvania State University in 2017 resulted in criminal prosecutions and a lawsuit. Several other fraternity deaths and a national campaign by parents who lost children also have gained widespread attention.
Greek organizations carry insurance, but the policies can become void if students violate terms, explained Ricardo Hall, Lehigh’s vice president for student affairs.
“The persons on the hook are the families and their homeowners’ policies,” he said.
And the chapters contribute to the problem with cases of bad, sometimes dangerous, behavior.
“A lot of chapters keep shooting themselves in the foot,” said Albanese, president of Lehigh’s Interfraternity Council. “Someone told us no one cares how much money you raise if you’re going to keep making an absolute mess of social life.”
Nationally, the membership picture isn’t clear. The North American Interfraternity Conference didn’t have firm numbers for the last few years. Its most recent figure was about 384,000 from 2015-16.
Sorority membership, meanwhile, has been up over the last decade but has decreased in the last few years, according to the National Panhellenic Conference. More than 384,000 women participated in 2018-19, down from 411,242 in 2015-16.
Locally, Penn State, Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, and Bucknell University in Lewisburg also report declines in Greek membership. Temple University saw a drop in fraternity members but an increase in sorority membership.
At Penn State, 3,220 men were in fraternities in spring 2017, the semester Piazza died. Last spring, 2,285 men belonged. Sorority membership fell, too, from 3,727 to 3,060.
Penn State cracked down after Piazza’s death, suspending several groups, and has seen signs of progress, said Damon Sims, vice president of student affairs. Alcohol-related emergency-room visits by students fell from 691 in spring 2018 to 570 last spring, he said. Crime occurring at fraternities fell by nearly a third during the same period, he said, and noise violations and alcohol crimes in fraternity neighborhoods were down.
“But we are a long way from declaring success, and we are determined to stay the course,” Sims said.
Penn State on Tuesday announced that it had placed the Chi Phi fraternity on interim suspension after a 17-year-old male visiting from Erie died at an off-campus house allegedly occupied by fraternity members. The teen was found unresponsive at the house, which was not the official fraternity residence, the university said.
Elsewhere in the region, including at West Chester, Drexel, Widener, and the University of Delaware, Greek membership is up.
West Chester has added 10 chapters over the last five years, said Cara Jenkins, senior director of fraternity and sorority life. About 16% of the student body participates.
“They graduate at a higher rate,” Jenkins said. “Their GPAs are significantly higher than nonmembers. We think it adds to the cocurricular experience at West Chester."
Frat life, once a mainstay, at Lehigh
In their heyday in the 1980s, a decade after Lehigh had gone coed, fraternities once numbered 34.
“For Lehigh freshman men, the question used to be which house you’d be pledging, not whether,” alumnus Michael Smerconish, ’84, wrote in 2015.
Today, there are 14. Average chapter size has dipped from 57 to 50 for fraternities and from 110 to 102 for sororities. Albanese has noticed that fewer students arrive at Lehigh eager to join.
“And we’re not doing a good job attracting them,” he said.
On Lehigh’s campus this month, several students said they never considered it.
“Just not my thing,” quipped one.
Senior Jasmine Argueta, 21, of Reading, said she didn’t feel any affinity to Panhellenic sororities, which tend to be largely white.
“I didn’t think I’d have much in common,” said Argueta, whose parents were born in Guatemala.
She also didn’t want to pay membership dues or other costs associated with Greek life. Dues range from several hundred dollars a semester to almost $2,000.
Membership dues have increased with the cost of liability insurance, said Chloe Abshire, assistant dean of fraternity and sorority affairs.
Albanese said he attended a national fraternity conference in the last year where a “general negative stigma” about Greek life in the news was discussed.
“They kind of hit us with a slap of reality,” he said, telling members, “ ‘We’re not doing a good enough job of keeping people safe.’ ”
A conference member, he said, gave him a stern assessment: “ ‘Lehigh is just so stuck in the ’80s. You guys think you can do whatever you want and get away with it.’ ”
The same semester Piazza died after falling down stairs at the Penn State fraternity party, a Lehigh student drinking at a fraternity party fell down stairs and wound up in intensive care. Last year, a sorority was removed from campus after hazing that included a scavenger hunt involving alcohol, drugs, and sexual activity.
Albanese said that by the end of the year, he hopes to have all Lehigh fraternities following guidelines established by the national conference, such as keeping proper guest lists for parties and properly placing wrist bands on legal drinkers.
Some fraternities are in danger of losing their houses for failing to maintain 90% occupancy as Lehigh requires. Ten are below the required threshold this semester. If chapters remain below for three consecutive semesters, they lose the house in the fourth. Four fraternities face that danger this spring, Abshire said.
Hall emphasized that chapters have enough members to fill a house, but most seniors opt for the freedom of living off campus rather than in a Lehigh-owned fraternity house.
“The school controls the houses,” explained Matt Lieb, 20, a junior from Montana and member of Psi Upsilon fraternity. “That turns some people away.”
Albanese said some criticism of Greek life is fair, but critics fail to realize the good the organizations do.
“We’re not here saying ‘we don’t have any issues,’ ” agreed Morgan Gillies, a senior from Albany and president of Lehigh’s Panhellenic Council. “We’re aware of those issues, and we’re working to fix those issues.”
The university is trying to help, Abshire said. Lehigh has had a Greek life blog that mostly reported infractions and sanctions. It plans to put that information on a new conduct blog that lists all student groups. The Greek blog will highlight positives, she said.
Earlier this year, Lehigh announced the phase-in over several years of its plan to improve Greek life. It includes requiring live-in graduate advisers in houses, a new member education institute, a ban on hard alcohol, and an annual student-run “national summit on excellence and innovation in Greek life.”
“We want to cultivate a Greek life experience that is a healthy balance between academics, service, and social activity,” Hall said.
But what the university wants seems to some students like “a little too much,” Lieb said.
Matt Knowles, 19, a sophomore, agreed. He loves the camaraderie he found at Chi Phi. But Lehigh’s tougher approach has dampened spirits, he said. His fraternity was placed on “deferred dissolution” for this academic year because of infractions, including “irresponsible distribution of alcohol” and noise. One more infraction, he said, and the chapter will be gone.
“Morale is not high in this house," said Knowles, of Palo Alto, Calif. ”People are just too scared to mess up … and ruin this entire history."
Lehigh will be celebrating its 150th anniversary of Greek life in 2022. Whether its first fraternity will be around to take part is uncertain.
It’s Chi Phi, the same one Knowles belongs to today.