73-yr-old Montclair local gives all GLOs a bad name
Fun-loving frat finds university isn't laughing
Sunday, November 17, 2002
By BRIAN KLADKO
Members of the Phi Alpha Psi Senate fraternity at Montclair State University. (DANIELLE P. RICHARDS/THE RECORD)
This story is one of those cases of life imitating art - assuming that "National Lampoon's Animal House" qualifies as art.
Instead of Faber College, the plot unfolds at Montclair State University. The role of the ne'er-do-well fraternity, Delta Upsilon, is played by the guys at Phi Alpha Psi Senate - fun-loving, popular, but a bit too contrarian for their own good.
And, just like the 1978 film, the showdown between the fraternity and the university involves a crude, inflammatory performance at the annual homecoming parade.
But, this being real life, the officials at Montclair State aren't laughing. Phi Alpha Psi Senate, known simply as Senate, has gone far beyond "double secret probation" - they have been kicked off campus.
"Your degrading, demeaning, insulting, and disgusting portrayal of violence and intolerance on Saturday clearly demonstrated that your organization has no interest in being part of the values which this institution seeks to demonstrate and instill in its students," Montclair State Vice President Karen Pennington wrote in a letter to the fraternity after last month's homecoming.
The story, however, doesn't end there. The Student Government Association is considering stripping the fraternity of its charter - signaling an end to Senate's illustrious 73-year history.
Did anyone say "to-ga"?
Most university administrators quietly tolerate Greek life, recognizing that for some students, it's a crucial part of the college social scene. Although some fraternities are havens for underage drinking, and sometimes get into trouble for their hazing rituals, administrators rarely go so far as permanently banning a fraternity from campus.
At Montclair State, where less than 10 percent of full-time undergraduates belong to a fraternity or sorority, Senate is the second fraternity to run afoul of the administration this year. The university suspended Theta Xi last spring for a hazing incident in which pledges stole street signs, including "one-way" and directional signs, from surrounding neighborhoods.
Senate, the second-oldest student organization on campus, has evolved - or devolved, depending on your perspective - from its origins as an intellectual clique devoted to discussions of literature and theater. Back then, it included many officers of student government, hence its name. Several Senate alumni have campus buildings named in their honor.
Somewhere along the line, however, the fraternity took on a wholly different character. It adopted the symbol for anarchy - the letter "A" enclosed by a circle - and the motto, "Don't let education interfere with college."
"College is supposed to be the best time of your life," says Senate's vice president, Bryan Padula, a junior from Little Falls. "You might as well enjoy it."
Senate, like all fraternities at Montclair State, doesn't have an official house where all or most brothers live. A handful of Senate's 25 members rent an off-campus, ramshackle structure that serves as the fraternity's unofficial gathering place - and, of course, Party Central.
On Monday night, they celebrated the initiation of female pledges into one of Montclair State's sororities. The party broke up around 6 a.m., and several brothers were still sleeping it off by noon.
One newly inducted pledge was passed out on the couch, buried under large pillows. Red plastic cups littered the floor, and the place reeked of stale beer.
Brothers have been known to ride kegs down the staircase, and engage in spirited games of "beer pong," which involves a pingpong table, a pingpong ball, and many cups of beer. Senate is the reigning champion in an unofficial inter-fraternity competition called "Kill-A-Keg": a race to see which seven-man team will be the first to empty an eight-gallon keg.
"In 18 years, we've won it 16, and been uncontested twice," says Senate's president, John Zuccarello, who wants to be a history teacher.
Senate also has a record of pushing the boundaries of campus respectability. At a university-sponsored orientation session last year, they brought an empty keg - a trophy from the Kill-A-Keg competition - to their display table.
But homecoming has proven to be the biggest source of trouble for Senate.
A few years ago, when the theme was "Wide World of Sports," their performance focused on the seamier side of sports: O.J. Simpson, Marv Albert, and Mike Tyson. At the conclusion of the skit, they trashed their backdrop and damaged the gymnasium floor.
The fraternity was banned from last year's parade because of its performance the year before, in which someone set something on fire, says Dean of Students Helen Matusow-Ayres.
"They had informally promised us that this was going to be different, that they were really trying to come back and make a good impression," Matusow-Ayres says. "And it was really disappointing that they went to their old behavior."
The theme for this year's homecoming, on Oct. 19, was "Broadway," with each group performing a song-and-dance routine in front of the president's home.
Senate's skit involved a chorus line of guys in drag, a cheesy singer in a white tuxedo, and various villains: the Unabomber, O.J. Simpson (again), Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and the Washington, D.C.-area sniper. Each one tried and failed to kill the singer, instead killing members of the chorus line.
Ultimately, the mission is accomplished by the Senate's symbol, the Ape - a guy dressed in a gorilla suit. The skit was supposed to portray Senate saving the world from a horrible Broadway performance, but it also had a deeper message, Zuccarello says.
"They're asking us to sing and dance and put on a show about Broadway, and there's all these bad things happening in this country, to Americans," he says. "We're trying to make people talk about it. And if it means that people are going to yell at us, and they criticize us, good. We're starting a debate. Basically, we're starting the thought process."
Whether it was sophomoric humor or deceptively clever political theater, university administrators did not appreciate the skit's violent overtones, especially with the sniper killings still dominating the news. But the finale was what really did Senate in.
The brother in the ape suit, using a baseball bat, began pulverizing a computer monitor that was meant as a prop for the Unabomber. The ape made quick work of it, in what appeared to be an unscripted, unintended homage to John Belushi's guitar-smashing scene in "Animal House."
Then, to make matters worse, the ape led the brothers in the "Ape Cheer" - mostly grunts, with some profanity mixed in.
A shard of glass from the computer hit the foot of a student watching the performance, according to a report filed with the university police. But the student didn't file a criminal complaint, and probably didn't receive any medical attention, said Police Chief Paul Cell.
"If someone got hurt, it wasn't our intention," Zuccarello says.
Still, the Student Government Association's president, Chris Fitzpatrick, decided the possible injury to a spectator couldn't be ignored, because the SGA granted Senate's charter, as it does with all student organizations.
"We're liable for this person's injuries, and we have to take necessary corrective action to make sure, a) it doesn't happen again, and b) that we're not held responsible," Fitzpatrick said. Besides, he said, there is little point in preserving Senate's charter if the university administration won't let the group do anything on campus.
But Fitzpatrick also said the university went too far. Before the SGA holds its hearing Dec. 6, he hopes to persuade administrators to suspend Senate, but not ban it forever.
Senate remains defiant. The brother who smashed the computer and led the profanity-laden chant remains a member, although he will likely be excluded from certain Senate events, Zuccarello says. And Senate is still holding parties. Whatever the university and student government decide, they can't take that away.
"Everyone respects us," says Antonio Vassilatos, a junior from Secaucus. "We're on good terms with almost every fraternity. People don't have parties when they know we're having a party. They know where the fun is."
Brian Kladko's e-mail address is kladko@northjersey