Special Reports

Alumni mentors can make a difference

TKE Chapter Adviser Bill Nickerson stands outside the fraternity house Friday, Mar. 19, 2010. CDT/Michelle Bixby
TKE Chapter Adviser Bill Nickerson stands outside the fraternity house Friday, Mar. 19, 2010. CDT/Michelle Bixby

What do you do when an organization important to you is in trouble? An organization that provided learning and leadership opportunities while you were in college. The source of your lifelong friendships and links to all the good things in your life.

I’m talking about my college fraternity, Tau Kappa Epsilon, which happens to be across the street from my home. When serious trouble put that at risk, I decided I had to try to help. But how?

I knew it was something I couldn’t do alone, and that I couldn’t force anyone to help. It had to come from the heart. I knew that regular presence was critical. I knew that it wasn’t going to be easy or quick and I knew there would be setbacks. But like most things that we try, I really didn’t know how hard it would be. Why should the community care?

Our community is talking about the extreme drinking problem at Penn State and other universities. Much of college life does involve alcohol and always has. I think it always will unless we reinstitute Prohibition, and that didn’t work very well the first time. Kids enter college getting their first taste of freedom. They take the opportunity to experiment, hopefully at minimal, but always at some, risk.

Fraternities are often viewed as the cause of the problem, but I believe the Greek system needs to and can be part of the solution. Fraternities are a hub of college social activity. At Penn State, we have incredible facilities. My community would not have the character it does without these stately buildings.

Young men with potential

The Greek system produces disproportionate representation in leadership of society, including all but three U.S. presidents since 1825 and a number of Penn State trustees. Greeks have extraordinary loyalty to their organizations and to the university and show it in many ways.

Fraternities are subject to scrutiny and control that other housing alternatives don’t enjoy. Penn State’s Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life is engaged with students on a daily basis and sets high standards. The Interfraternity Council provides self-governance and exerts a very positive influence, especially recently. Our national organizations are always watching and impose strict standards.

Somewhat uniquely, most of State College’s fraternities are in primarily owner-occupied residential neighborhoods and they are held accountable to be good neighbors. Then there are Greek alumni who, like I do, have incredible affection for their chapters and high expectations for their younger brothers.

The Greeks are trying to respond in a positive way. The IFC dramatically improved its social policy this year, restricting (but not yet enough) the number of party nights and forcing a new level of accountability on its member fraternities. I’m part of a group of alumni advisers who facilitated a community discussion in January on the extreme drinking problem. We all have to work together.

So what happened in my case? I stuck my toe in water of involvement around 2000 after living next door for seven years. I was willing to participate, but did not want to make a long-term commitment. I worked with my fraternity’s alumni board members, then all remote and all relatively recent graduates. During that time, I met the actives and recognized that there was something worth saving. I was slowly getting more engaged and trying to bring on my friends.

New mentors

In spring 2005, I agreed to take on the role of chapter adviser, a position that had been in the hands of an out-of-town brother for many years, probably the most important adult player in keeping a fraternity working smoothly. Our chapter house had degraded physically and in spirit dramatically. Our traditions and rituals were lost. Many alumni who visited the house were disappointed, even shocked, and said they’d never come back.

Some of these men and their wives met at the house in the early 1950s. At least one such brother held his wedding reception there. Membership was below a financial break-even point. I invited all alumni living within 50 miles of State College to visit the house to brainstorm. The turnout wasn’t spectacular, but it was enough and allowed us later to form a core group of committed local brothers from the ’60s and ’70s.

Moving forward

In spring 2006 we had accumulated five points under the borough housing permit suspension process and received a warning. Then the former board allowed six individuals to live in the house that summer. Numerous individual infractions and property-care violations added six points and suddenly made us one of two fraternities whose rental permit was revoked in fall 2006. Shutting down the house without any revenue would have been disastrous. We likely would not have recovered. This event was a call to action among alumni brothers. What did we do?

We worked with the actives. We had two fundamental choices: One was to shut the house down and start over, which in many ways would have been the simplest solution. Several other houses have used this to good result, but it creates a very difficult financial situation and potential property deterioration. The other option was to work with the core of good guys and restore the chapter. The local alumni and their friends chose this alternative.

We collected all of our resources, including the skills of about 1,000 alumni. We created a set of self-imposed sanctions and presented them to the borough, the university and our national fraternity. Our solution imposed strict probation and no parties and required many positive activities, such as monthly speakers, alcohol education and community service.

We were able to negotiate a legal consent agreement with the support of the borough manager and police chief and avoided closure. The next year was very hard on the actives, but quite a learning experience that required their complete commitment. How did my fraternity respond?

New leadership emerged among the actives and they accepted responsibility for their actions and paid the price, as I hoped they would. We completely fulfilled the terms of the consent agreement and were reinstated 12 months later. Since then we’ve seen a steady rise in academic grades and membership.

The quality of brothers has substantially improved and we are much more engaged in campus activities and leadership, including IFC and Thon. We have much more community involvement and volunteerism and better neighborhood relations.

Our alumni have responded by donating to a major capital campaign to improve the chapter house. We have the best active/ alumni relations in many, many years, and we’re all proud of where we are.

But we know this is a work in progress and that we cannot rest on our laurels. Like every fraternity, we are one major mistake away from disaster or oblivion.

Enter the now infamous State Patty’s Day.

An uncertain future

It was a bad idea when it started and it only gets worse as time goes on. Though it is only 4 years old, in undergraduate history that is forever and makes it a tradition.

Unfortunately, our choirboys made a mistake. Despite long talks and commitments, they decided to host a “triad” that Friday night. They did almost everything right and were properly registered and monitored, but three young men from another fraternity were surprised to find themselves interacting with borough police in our parking lot in the early morning hours.

We don’t know what happens now.

In the short corporate memory of any campus organization there must be periodic pain. We have a completely new crew every four years. Only three brothers now live in the house who also lived there in fall 2006 when the consent agreement began. This short corporate memory is both good and bad. The good is that bad apples move out. The bad is that we need to relearn and relive our past lessons over and over.

Society is not static — different kids arrive at Penn State every year, and those of us involved in the Greek system see that clearly. The rituals and traditions of the fraternity system are intended to instill in all of our members a common set of lifelong values. It is why we stay engaged. So what?

Instead of a vacant property in my neighborhood, we have cultivated a group of developing leaders; protected a valuable property, contributing to the character of my neighborhood; created opportunities for generations of young men to build lifelong friendships; provided alumni with a chapter they can be proud of; and we worked with the borough to establish a positive example of what can be accomplished through joint effort.

So far, our decision to work with the actives and keep the doors open seems like a good one. But only time will tell what happens to our chapter and the Greek system. We, like all of its alumni, are committed to a bright future for Penn State, our community and our chapters. Let’s all work together to make that future a reality.

Bill Nickerson is the chapter adviser for Pi Chapter of Tau Kappa Epsilon in the Highlands neighborhood of State College and a close neighbor to six fraternities, including TKE.