Chapter houses shift responsibilities throughout the years

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In years past, when a pipe leaked in a Lehigh fraternity chapter house, the active members would have to fix it themselves or get quotes from an outside contractor for the work and discuss it with their alumni board.

Nowadays, the chapter leadership would contact Lehigh’s Residence Services and put in a work order to have the issue resolved.

This change does not come from a change in ownership of the houses, but in a change of the financial management of the houses, said Ozzie Breiner, the director of Residential Services.

“(The chapter houses) were already owned by the university via the deed transfers,” Breiner said in an email. “Two exceptions to this were Chi Psi and Theta Chi. These fraternities had not completed lease transfers so the university technically had to purchase the houses from the alumni. Chi Psi was purchased in 2003 and Theta Chi in 2012.”

Chapter houses on the Hill in Sayre Park were built between the early 1900s through the 1960s and 1970s. In the 1950s, the university created a development program to help the 16 remaining off-campus fraternities build chapter houses and move on campus.

“With a few exceptions, most of the fraternities were built with the fraternity alumni organizations raising half the money for construction and the university funding the other half,” Breiner said. “It was understood that the fraternities built under that arrangement would have a Quitclaim Deed as part of the arrangement which transferred ownership to the university.”

Breiner explained that Lehigh originally allowed the fraternities to manage their own houses financially.

“Each house was its own cost center—the university charged each fraternity a rent figure to cover maintenance, custodial, grounds etc. but the chapters set their room rates. That led to houses not having sufficient funds to address deferred maintenance items and consequently, the houses were falling into disrepair.”

While some chapters had difficulty keeping up with major repairs, others were able to maintain the houses and saw merit in the undergraduates and alumni working together on house upkeep.

“All house duties, repairs or improvements that were something that undergraduates were capable of, they did,” said Gary Tilles, ’67, the alumni president of Theta Chi.

“If the work required outside contractors, the undergraduates would go out and get bids, then the alumni would review them and approve and make the payments,” he said. “We always felt like it was a tremendous learning experience because the kids eventually would be home owners and be managing property and doing these things.”

Tilles said that the chapter always maintained it in a safe manner and that the building was under code. He said Theta Chi was one of the first Greek houses that installed sprinklers.

“In the year 2000, we did a major renovation and part of that was putting in sprinklers,” he said. “It cost $250,000, more than the cost to originally build the building.

However, not all chapters were able to maintain their houses as such. In 2004-2005 as part of the Strengthening Greek Life Initiative, the university took financial control of chapter houses in order to standardize billing and ensure that students were living in safe houses.

Tim Wilkinson, the senior assistant dean of students and the director of the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs, said that the first few years of financial management transfer had a lot of trepidation from active members and alumni.

“Urban legend is that members of the board of trustees were touring the chapter houses and one had to walk outside because they were so nauseous,” Wilkinson said.

Breiner said after the financial management piece was taken over by Lehigh in 2004-2005, there were large-scale renovations done to each house to get them up to a residence hall standard. This included replacing flooring, painting and addressing heating and electrical systems.

“When moms move their sons and daughters in in August, (the chapter houses) are clean and maintained, have security systems and everything is up to code, not unlike first-year residence halls,” he said.

In 2003, the alumni of Chi Psi asked the university to take control of the house because the house was in need of major renovation, Breiner said. No money was exchanged in that arrangement. Wilkinson said that Chi Psi members lived in Warren Square at that point because of the house’s condition.

Another renovation that occurred years ago was that all wood burning fireplaces in the houses were converted to gas for safety reasons. Wilkinson said that members of Delta Tau Delta once cut down a tree and tried to put it in their fireplace.

“Because of how Lehigh is socially constructed, students don’t realize there is a lot of freedom when it comes to facilities,” Wilkinson said. “(Students) think about accreditation and reflection, a majority of our students understand that and respect it. But is it ever OK to pee in your stairwell? (Students say) it’s tradition, no its really not, and if it is, we have a bigger problem.”

Vinicius Aguiar, the former president of Theta Chi and the education chairman of the Interfraternity Council, said that the university renovations and maintenance of the chapter house have helped the chapter.

“Stewardship comes a lot from the environment that you are in,” Aguiar said. “As new members, we noticed lots of minor things and bigger things involved in facility upkeep that discouraged people from it being clean, like plates and food being left out. The biggest transition was coming in as a sophomore in the fall of 2013, everything was completely new and it was our duty to keep it up. Everything is held to a different standard.”

Aguiar said that the university completely gutted and renovated the house. The top floor bathroom of the chapter house only had one functioning shower of the three in the bathroom because water would leak to the first floor bathroom.

He also said that the change in facilities management to the university has helped the chapter focus on other aspects of the chapter house and chapter life. Study tables were purchased for the chapter room and members now have an additional space to study. The bar in their former party room was removed and that space could be reimagined.

“(It gave the) chapter a chance to reassess and define chapter culture moving on,” Aguiar said. “How you furnish a space and set it up says a lot about how it is going to be in the future. If the purpose is just drinking, a party room is all it is going to be good for. If it is functional and recreational, it encourages people to come together in way that not just drinking that is a positive thing to change about the culture.”

Breiner said that the system of governance and maintenance Lehigh has with its chapter houses is held as a standard by other universities.

“We are a system where other fraternity systems come to learn about,” Breiner said. “We have done many things that other campuses wish they could do. As far as facilities management, I would put our system up against anybody’s in that regard.”

Breiner also said that it has allowed the university to focus on other aspects of Greek life.

“Fifteen or 20 years ago, when there was a Greek Alumni Council meeting it was about 70 percent facilities-oriented issues, now it is 5 percent, if that,” he said. “All of the harder issues are being addressed now, like hazing, inclusion, privilege, recruitment, those are much more difficult than getting a building fixed or maintained.”

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