“It was like they were raised by wolves,” says Mike Stearns.
Stearns, an Ann Arbor financial planner and 1981 U-M grad, is secretary of the alumni group that owns the Sigma Chi fraternity house next to the Michigan Union. He is speaking of the student members who brought down the harshest punishment ever inflicted on a U-M fraternity.
In 2003, a Sigma Chi pledge suffered renal failure after he and other prospective members were forced to do calisthenics while deprived of sleep, food, and water. The semester before, Sigma Chi had sent two pledges to the hospital with alcohol poisoning, so the house was already on probation. After the second incident, every member living in the house was evicted, never to return. Then, after 125 years on campus, the chapter was disbanded by the national Sigma Chi organization.
Though Stearns says the pledge who suffered renal failure “was drinking in the bars with his buddies three weeks later,” the incident led to a lawsuit and an out-of-court settlement. Sigma Chi was suspended for five years, until the case was settled and the last members of the old chapter had left school. It was allowed to resume pledging in 2008, and this past fall, a new generation of Sigma Chis finally returned to their house–which now is officially alcohol-free.
Stearns favored making the house dry, because he was tired of fixing walls smashed by the previous residents–he calls them “feral Sigma Chis.” Another senior Sigma Chi, Jon Greenawalt, blames a breakdown in accountability–among the students, among the alumni who were supposed to keep them in line, and in society at large. As volunteer “Grand Praetor,” Greenawalt now sees to it that present and future Sigma Chis live within the rules.
When the revived chapter held its first rush in the fall of 2008, “our theme was, ‘Wait for the Best,'” Greenawalt says with a smile. “We weren’t going after the party guy.”
“We are not the stereotype,” says president Chris Mathews. “What we got were high-quality guys who didn’t need drinking as part of their shared living relationship.”
Sophomore Ben Landes, a math and physics major from Midland and an active Christian, says that while there are a lot of good guys in other fraternities, he was turned off by “the general demeanor of Greek life that I picked up” in other houses. “Without that means for partying in the house, it allows us to focus on other things,” Landes says. “We’re united by ambition. In a lot of clubs you join, people have similar interests….We are people with similar values.”
Landes is glad to leave the house’s history of beer pong binges in the past. Not only does a dry house keep people more focused, he points out, “We don’t have freshmen puking in our basement. We don’t find people passed out in corners of our house.”