For Kansas University's 3,500 fraternity and sorority members, it can be a tough job undoing the "Animal House" image - particularly when the greek chapters keep landing in hot water.
"I don't think it's ever going to get to the point where people have the right impression of greek life, as long as people are out there misrepresenting what we're all about," said Jennifer King, president of Delta Sigma Theta sorority.
Many greeks prefer to be recognized for their focus on academics and public service. But the image of beer-saturated parties and tomfoolery remains.
"One of the things we tell members is, 'This is not something someone has done to us,'" said Laura Bauer, program director for fraternity and sorority life at KU. "We did this to ourselves."
Two houses, Phi Kappa Theta and Sigma Nu, have closed because of parties and hazing in the last year. Another, Kappa Sigma, is under investigation by its national chapter following a hazing allegation.
A group of Phi Kappa Theta's former pledges last week filed a lawsuit against the fraternity's alumni corporation, claiming the house's hazing practices included sexual harassment and psychological and verbal abuse.
It's hard to drive these incidents out of people's minds, Bauer said - especially with people familiar with the 1978 "Animal House" movie, with its raucous portrayal of greek life.
"You can't put an article in the paper about your service hours and expect that to combat the hazing allegations that came out before," she said. "You can't think positive things are going to cover up the negative things. Those are the ones that pop out in people's minds."
But some students still try.
In light of greek-related deaths at other schools, Bauer said there's been a push in recent years for chapters to return to their core values, trying to balance service and academics with the social aspects of greek life.
In spring 2005, greek students reported higher GPAs than the general student population, 3.13 for greeks, compared with 3.0 overall.
They hold food drives and raise funds for charities. The annual Rock Chalk Revue, a skit show performed by greek entities, raised $24,000 for United Way of Douglas County last year.
King and her sorority sisters are planning an AIDS awareness banquet Dec. 3 to raise money for the Douglas County AIDS project.
"We felt there was a need for our community, and there wasn't any AIDS banquet going on, so we decided to do it ourselves," King said. "It kind of sounds nerdy, but I get a rush helping people."
Trap of tradition
Sigma Nu was in the process of shedding its traditions when the national chapter shut its doors, its former president has said. The fraternity was working to end arbitrary rules such as requiring pledges to do everything that upperclassmen say, clean up messes and only use the bathroom closest to their room.
"KU is steeped in tradition, whether it be through the basketball program or walking down the hill (at commencement)," said Patrick Alderdice, CEO of Pennington and Company, a Lawrence firm that consults with greek chapters on fundraising, alumni relations and other issues. "I don't think the greek system is oblivious to that as well. I think they have a strong tradition, and I think sometimes some of those traditions need to go away when it comes to hazing."
Dealing with traditions in light of today's tough rules is a struggle, some said.
"Some traditions are worthwhile, and some are not good," said Scott Shorten, former Interfraternity Council president. "It becomes an issue of what traditions would be considered hazing and what would be considered unique (to the chapter)."
Figuring this out could be the key to their survival.
"Sometimes the greek system is like cancer surgery," Alderdice said. "Sometimes you have to cut a lot of the flesh to make sure the organization survives, and I think that's what we may be seeing right now."
Bauer said decades ago, things were "bad" and "crazy" in greek life. Still, she said, "Animal House" exaggerated the problem.
Shorten said fraternities have changed from being strictly social environments to understanding they are a part of the larger community.
Scott Ferguson, the Interfraternity Council's current president, said he and others would visit all of their chapters at the start of next semester to meet with their leaders and make sure they understand the rules and the consequences for breaking the rules.
He said he didn't plan on changing activities, but he wanted to work on improving greek life in the eyes of others.
"Right now the greek community has a poor image," Ferguson said. "I don't want to change the image. I want the image to be more accurate."
- 6News video: KU's fraternities, sororities fighting bad stereotypes (11-27-05)
- Former pledges allege hazing (11-18-05)
- Allegations investigated at KU fraternity (11-15-05)
- Greeks accentuate positive (11-05-05)
- 6News video: KU fraternity works to fight stereotypes (11-04-05) (9-10-05)
- Sigma Nu president: Appeal possible (9-13-05)
- Hazing incident closes fraternity (9-10-05)