Sustaining MIT’s fraternities

Alumni need to take a practical approach to ensuring safety

I’ve been a Chi Phi since a week after I arrived on campus in the fall of 1972. I can honestly say that ever since then, Chi Phi has been the central institution of my life. It is the source of my greatest friendships, my strength in times of trouble, the avenue through which I’ve enjoyed a cornucopia of inter-generational relationships, and the organization to which I give the most back, currently taking my turn to serve as president of our house corporation.

Because the Greek system at MIT is so strong, I know that I’m not unique in any of this. But since some of the fraternities are less well supported by their alumni than others — and because undergraduates at even well supported groups sometimes forget what role we play — I thought I’d share a few thoughts about some of the responsibilities a fraternity house corporation carries in keeping their chapters healthy, thriving, and out of trouble.

We expect a lot from our undergraduate brothers, and we give them as much freedom as we can to run their own affairs. That’s how they learn self-reliance and leadership. It’s also how they outgrow their helicopter parents as well as the college administrators increasingly taking on nanny duties thanks to our hyper-litigious times.

Because we’ve been there, we know that the college years are a time of unprecedented opportunities for experimentation guided by a still-immature sense of how to balance risks and rewards. Many of those risks could impact not just personal safety, but also the continued existence of an institution our alumni have labored to preserve for more than a century. In those cases, the house corporation has a strong duty to set boundaries.

No, you can’t rent a mechanical riding bull to entertain freshman during Rush Week. Yes, I understand the salesman told you they have insurance. No, you haven’t the foggiest idea what kind of litigation nightmare would ensue if a freshman got thrown from that thing and ended up a quadriplegic. Yes, I understand you’ll have to change your plans at the last minute. No, I couldn’t have told you sooner because I just found out about it. Think of something else.

That wasn’t so hard, was it? Someone has to help the adult brain struggling to emerge from every college student’s head gain mastery over the teen brain still sloshing around inside. Think about what might go wrong. Think about the consequences, not just to you but to your brothers as well as our cherished institution. I know what you are contemplating sounds like fun, but is it really worth it?

Each fall I give my four Bs lecture to the incoming pledge class ­— Brotherhood, Behavior, Booze, and … Coeds. I speak to them not as an administrator, not as a parent, but as an older brother. Sure, they’ve been taught to “Just Say No” since they were eight. They’ve taken all the online alcohol, hazing, and sexual harassment courses required by the national organization and by MIT. And they’ve memorized exactly which phrases they need to repeat to appease any authority figure lecturing them. All of that is fine. But what I care about is whether they really know how to handle themselves when they decide against our advice to break the rules.

I don’t preach “Just Say No.” I preach “Real Men Hold Their Liquor.” I don’t preach abstinence. I preach moderation and consideration of others. When discussing alcohol I give concrete tips about pacing, food, and hydration, about keeping count and setting limits in advance, about recognizing the warning signs of overconsumption in themselves and others, and about the dangers of excessive pre-gaming compared to the far less risky approach of taking a hidden nip. (Would you rather risk puking on your shoes and being rushed to the hospital for alcohol poisoning or having your $3 plastic hip flask confiscated?) I encourage beginners to stick to beer, and do my best to discourage the idiotic practice of taking shots instead of sipping a mixed drink. And I urge them to look out for their brothers, especially if one of them is overcome by his teen brain’s miscalculation of risk.

These are practical lessons we all have to learn but are never taught because … who is supposed to do the teaching? I give them my cellphone number and tell them not to hesitate to call me any time of the day or night if they need help.

But I end with a warning. Woe be to any of you who brings shame upon our house! Remember shame? It’s so very out of fashion these days. I remind them of the incredible investment generations of brothers have made in building our chapter’s reputation, and how that can all be destroyed in one thoughtless moment. I remind them that for four years they are honored guests in our house, but after graduating they will become co-owners, taking their turn looking after younger brothers to come.

And I remind them that though they may think otherwise, they are not immortal. Having lost my older son his senior year at Stanford over a foolish and fatal risk-reward decision, I know. I can only wish he had been a fraternity man with some older brothers around to help him think things through.

Bill Frezza ’76 is a Boston-based venture capitalist and a contributing columnist for Forbes, the Huffington Post, and Bio-IT World.

Anonymous almost 11 years ago

Who on earth asked you to teach my kid anything? Please stay out of my duties especially if you are teaching moderation in all things. That is woefully inadequate and out of your sphere! Stick to training your own children.

A almost 11 years ago

1 - Presumably, your "kid" asked him to, if he's a member of Chi Phi.

Presumably your son or daughter attends a university (instead of remaining at home to be schooled by you) because they have decided that there are other people they can learn from, beyond their parents. Everything from how to do physics, to how to lead a well balanced, responsible life.

If your "kid" chooses to enter the FSILG system because they are attracted to the ability to take responsibility for running their own house and own affairs, and also are attracted to the mentorship of generations of alums in making the transition to this kind of responsibility and adulthood, then why don't you take up fears about their listening to Bill Frezza et al's advice with them? Let them know directly that you think they shouldn't learn anything from anyone but you?

Perhaps it has escaped your notice that your "kid" is now an adult?

Anonymous almost 11 years ago

Thankfully he isn't a middle of the road, not standing for any principles/values and is an actual mature adult. Bill Frezza and his "non" advice and everything in moderation is exactly what is wrong with this entire article. The fact that you don't understand this is just sad.

A almost 11 years ago

The fact that I read your comment, and responded to the content of it, is sad? You originally got angry that anyone else might teach your "kid" anything, because that is supposedly only your job. Direct quotes: "Who on earth asked you to teach my kid anything? Please stay out of my duties..." and "Stick to training your own children." I was responding to these aspects of your comment.

That you're also angry at the content of Frezza's message (of moderation) doesn't change the fact that the original comment reads like you're applying for the Helicopter Parent of the Year award.

Chip Hifrat almost 11 years ago

Bill Frezza is dead wrong.

The mechanical bull was a genius idea! Those poor kids were robbed of a tremendous opportunity to explore the culture of the american west with their brothers. Bill must be one of those over-regulating big government types!

Anonymous almost 11 years ago

#1 and #3's kids are going to get knocked up or knock somebody up.

Adam R. almost 11 years ago

Seconding #6. Telling a bunch of undergrads "Thou shalt NOT do any of the things!" from a position on high isn't actually going to stop them from screwing up. Instead, it means that then they do screw up (which, statistically speaking, is probably going to happen at least once or twice)they're far more likely to do things with serious consequences for themselves or those around them (i.e. knocking someone up because they can't be arsed to use a condom, winding up in the ER with alcohol poisoning because ten Jagerbombs sounded like a good idea at the time, and so on.)

The point of providing a "when/how to go outside the rules" talk is twofold; there are in fact times when sticking to the letter of a given policy does more harm than good and people should be taught to spot those times and do what they think is right. Furthermore, in cases where people are breaking the rules out of curiosity or for lulz, if they're taught how to stay within the boundaries dictated by common sense and personal responsibility then the worst they'll end up with is a nasty headache and a strong desire not to do it again, and after a few such incidents they will most likely develop into mature, responsible adults.

This philosophy is supported by a number of peer-reviewed studies regarding abstinence-only education and teen pregnancy, such as the one accessible here: http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0024658

Anonymous almost 11 years ago

Frezza's statement of the 4Bs is most definitely not LGBTQ friendly. Fraternities should also teach acceptance, and by telling a young questioning man a statement as such they may feel that their living group is not accepting of their sexual orientation.

Anonymous almost 11 years ago

It's not friendly to women either. We make up half the undergraduates and we're more than just the 4th B.

A almost 11 years ago

9 - Many of us are also probably less than thrilled to be referred to as "bitches."

Bill Frezza almost 11 years ago

Number 8 - I don't feel it's my place to discuss religion, politics, or sexual orientation when I address the pledge class in my official capacity as house corporation president. That being said, I can assure you that Chi Phi is both diverse and accepting with respect to these parameters. I treasure my relationships with my gay brothers just as strongly as I do with my straight brothers.

Numbers 9 and 10 - B stands for "babes" not "bitches." And my talk focuses on one and only one issue, and that is the risk that drunk coeds represent to both the fraternity and to individual brothers who fail to observe some very basic rules of self preservation when dealing with them. Although the house maintains a strict policy of never serving alcohol to underaged students nearly 100 of our alcohol related incidents over the past ten years have been related to female students who "pregame" themselves into unconsciousness. I have personally witnessed 95 pound teenage girls standing in line to get into a house party chugging from a bottle of vodka. This outrageously risky behavior is not under our control, and yet the minute they walk in the door these walking time bombs become our responsibility. The burden on the house risk managers, who must maintain an incredible state of vigilance, is enormous. Unfairly enough, visibly drunk coeds become our responsibility even when we don't even let them in the door. Case in point was a young lady denied entry who passed out on the curb several years ago, for whom we called medical transport. Even though she never set foot in the house and was never served a drop of anything to drink, we got dinged for it. So please, don't be so quick to judge without knowing the facts. Every fraternity house corporation president lives in mortal fear of drunk coeds and the havoc they can wreak should an incident escalate to the point of litigation.

Bill Frezza almost 11 years ago

100 percent, not 100 incidents. Don't know why the percent sign got dropped.

A almost 11 years ago

Bill - I'm the same "A" that was defending you above to the helicopter parent. I also am acquainted with Chi Phi and know that it is historically gay-friendly, since even before it was 'cool,' but I agree with #9 that your language is needlessly marginalizing towards women and others.

Your article made many valid points, and personally I think it is very important that we start having this conversation on campus. I'm also a house corporation president, and am well-acquainted with the many unfair ways groups of students are held accountable for outsiders' behavior. In fact, in all contexts in which I work at MIT, the #1 problem in risk management is not the members of a given house or dorm, but rather the people from outside the house who are not a member of the community, but are drawn to making trouble in others' homes instead of their own. It is a nearly intractable problem without going on full-scale lockdown at all times. And I fear we are attempting to turn MIT's living spaces into prisons in the misguided pursuit of removing all risk, when removing risk from life is impossible. Far better to have the conversation in the way you are having it, one that recognizes that students will take risks, and helping them learn to navigate these risks in a much more responsible manner than they might otherwise.

Where I am involved on campus, our problems are quite similar, but not along gendered lines. So my challenge to you: why talk about this in terms of "coeds" (this language wrt women is also outdated and kind of marginalizing) and vodka, when you can draw more people into this conversation - people who are apt to agree with you - by framing the problem in more general terms?

Bill Frezza almost 11 years ago

A Thank you for your note. But I must say I feel marginalized by being accused of marginalizing people because I use language that was totally acceptable in my day that has now become politically incorrect. This kind of ageism is deeply troubling. And here I was just getting over my shame in being falsely accused of being homophobic. My inability to keep up with the language police that control campus speech is one of the reasons I generally avoid engaging in campus speech.

We happened to have a Wellesley student as a houseguest last night and I asked her if the word coed made her feel marginalized. After saying that it didnt offend her at all she stopped and performed a fascinating analysis on why she should be offended because the word coed is derived from a male-centric definition of college education.

Now I see that you use the word woman in your speech. According to etymology online woman (n.) is from the late Old English wimman (plural wimmen), literally "woman-man," alteration of wifman (plural wifmen), a compound of wif "woman" (see wife) man "human being" (in Old English used in reference to both sexes; see man (n.)). Cf. Dutch vrouwmens "wife," literally "woman-man. Since this is clearly derived from a male-centric definition of humanity it should be as equally marginalizing as the word coed. Perhaps the word female would work better? Oh, wait. Nevermind.

And now we have succeed in taking a discussion of the risks that drunk students of the XX chromosome persuasion pose to fraternities and turned it into a teachable moment of why people like me run away screaming when asked to get more deeply involved in campus conversation. :)


AW almost 11 years ago

To Mr. Frezza:

You are not being marginalized if you are asked to stop referring to women in a belittling/othering way. You are simply being held to the same standards as everyone else in terms of respect towards ones fellow humans. If you would rather run away screaming than help promote an inclusive environment at MIT where people feel respected regardless of gender identity or sexual orientation, then by all means, stay away.

Back in your day, being disrespectful towards people of different gender identities and sexual orientations was much more societally condoned. That does not mean it was ever right. What is happening now is simply society trying to align itself with what should always have been.

But even if your privilege has been grandfathered in by virtue of your age, you are educating men of today, who do not have such a privilege. If you cannot keep up the society that men of today have to navigate, you are not fit to educate men of today.

You claim to feel shame about being falsely accused of being homophobic. It is a misconception that the world is divided into homophobic people and non-homophobic people. People who ordinarily behave in non-homophobic ways may still do homophobic actions now and then. Its called messing up. But when someone points out that youre doing something homophobic, rather than feel shame and yell at them for accusing you of a homophobe, you should take it as a learning opportunity to improve yourself as an ally to the QUILTBAG community. Listen to why people think your action is homophobic, and make changes accordingly.

Youre right in your mention of the etymology of the word women that patriarchy is deeply entrenched in our society. Science and tech has been traditionally a field hostile to women, and it still is today. But theres no reason we cant try. Rather than running away screaming, listen. Don't ask "will this offend you"; ask us what we prefer to be referred to as, and abide by the response. Its not all that hard.

Speaking of listening, I will now say that your line risks that drunk students of the XX chromosome persuasion pose to fraternities" troubles me for two reasons. One, because people who identify as women do not necessarily have XX chromosomes, and not all people with XX chromosomes identify as women.Two, what risks are you saying that drunk students of the XX chromosome persuasion pose to fraternities that drunk non-fraternity members of any chromosomal persuasion dont?

XY and proud almost 11 years ago


Bill, we of the People of Other Letters (POOLs) community find it troubling that you have an opinion that is different from our own. We know our morality is infallible and would ask you to kindly excuse yourself from debate because you are obviously a woman-hating, gay-bashing, uber-masculine, selfish old white man (which is not racist because you are an old white man).

Could you imagine if people really talked like that?


Babe in Insurance almost 11 years ago

This politically correct talk is getting a little rediculous. There are so many things wrong with this conversation. Instead of focusing on whether or not he was politically correct, why not focus on the point of the article. First and foremost, Bill, I applaud you and the the point you are trying to get through. Let's all cut the political stuff and take it as it is - female, babe, whatever you refer to us, someone will take offense. You people can't tell me that you sit and talk with your friends like this constantly correcting them and the terms that they use. Don't you just let it roll off your back and try to pay attention to the person's main focus?

I work in the insurance industry that works with greek organizations... In my personal oppinion, if the kids are going to drink, they need to know the warning signs of alcohol poisoning and/or how to prevent it...wouldn't you rather have that than them lie to your face, say they don't drink and then turn around and play drinking games and end up dead?

The point of this article is so that the brothers(or sisters) do not do anything to destroy what has been built up for decades.

One incident can close a chapter down for good and cause jail time and lives ruined; not to mention the cost of defense attorneys and then settlements for the national organization.

At least he is being proactive and not reactive.

And yes, the bull riding is a BAD idea!

Anonymous almost 11 years ago

Some people take themselves so seriously that they overlook the fact that Bill Frezza is a VOLUNTEER to the MIT community who is GIVING his TIME and MONEY and benefit of his EXPERIENCE to MIT undergraduates in the hope that they will enjoy some of the good experiences he had at Chi Phi and perhaps avoid some mistakes. He is also a good sport willing to mix it up with campus opinion, and has at least as much right to do so as any other member of the MIT community!

Anonymous almost 11 years ago

Bill has his heart in the right place. He is a father grieving having lost his son as a result of a poor decision. He wants to provide MIT students with a more risk-conscious perspective so that they and their parents are less likely to suffer similar tragedies.

The truth is that all of us need to practice sound risk management. As an alum and an MIT Educational Counselor, I do not invite high school students to my home or any other private area for interviews. Instead, I meet them at a Starbucks to reduce my personal risk. I'm afraid of potential liability from having sober unknown kids of my gender in my home - imagine the even greater liability that would result if they were both drunk and of the opposite gender. Bill is right, and so is the LGBT community on this board - it is essential for us to not expose ourselves to unnecessary liability resulting from strangers (of either gender) entering our homes.

Bill, thank you for writing such a thoughtful piece and for serving the MIT community.