The End Of An Era

BY RYAN BYRNES AND BRIAN RUDDOCK

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An era has ended at the University of Richmond.

The Supreme Executive Committee of Kappa Sigma voted on Monday to withdraw the charter of the fraternity’s Beta Beta chapter, ending its 114-year existence on the Richmond campus. The committee’s decision was “a result of the recent behavior of the Chapter over the course of the past three years that has resulted in the Chapter violating the policies of the Kappa Sigma Fraternity and the University of Richmond,” according to a letter that was emailed to chapter alumni on Wednesday morning. Specifically, the decision stems from the chapter’s failure to adhere to stricter “trustee guidelines” and sanctions enacted during the past 18 months; an influx of complaints to the chapter’s alumni advisors from members of both the on- and off-campus community; and an increasingly deteriorating relationship with the university administration.

Rather than punishment for any one particular infraction, the decision to revoke the charter is more a measure of last resort for a chapter that seemed to leave its university and its national fraternity with no suitable alternative. “They simply have lost confidence in the chapter,” the fraternity’s Executive Director said of Richmond on Tuesday evening. At the fraternity’s national headquarters – located in nearby Charlottesville, Va. – there is a sense that the chapter was given repeated opportunities to clean up its act in recent years, but the committee saw little to suggest that the necessary adjustments were being made. ”You would hope that they would learn, but it appears the behavior just continued,” the Executive Director said. “People have really sort of had enough. We need to take a break.” Should the committee’s decision stand, the chapter would be permitted to return to the Richmond campus no earlier than the spring semester of 2016.

Word was delivered with much regret and received with much dismay. Here are the thoughts of two Beta Beta brothers of the Class of 2008 as they reflect on the unfortunate news out of Virginia. 

Brian: My first reaction to this news was to spew out profanity, loudly, in front of several coworkers. I couldn’t help it. Outside of my immediate family, no institution has had such a positive and measured impact on my life. My experiences as a brother in the Beta Beta chapter were invaluable. To know that it may cease to exist offends a selfish, sentimental part of me. Something that I truly love is gone.

Looking outward, I feel a deep sense of regret that other young men won’t be able to have what I have. It’s tragic. There’s a saying in the fraternity that “brotherhood is for life.” At 20, I assumed it was just another throwaway phrase without much meaning. Yet the longer I’ve been out of college, the more true the saying becomes.

Ryan: It’s not uncommon to hear one speak of their college experience as the “golden years” of one’s life. Irrespective of university or social standing, all have a freedom available to them during those four years that allows them to build relationships that long outlive any semester or undergraduate curriculum. My experience as a Beta Beta is a microcosm of the bonds I was grateful to build as a product of that freedom.

It is ironic that I received a letter notifying me of the chapter’s charter revocation on the same day that my law school hosted a swearing-in ceremony for those who recently passed the New Jersey bar examination. As one prestigious association opened its doors to a lifetime of great opportunity, I could not help but be sad for the current and future Richmond students who might now have the doors of Beta Beta opportunity closed on them.

Brian: Beta Beta was not a stereotypical fraternity. Ensconced in a university staffed by elite academics and wealthy students (annual tuition was well north of $40,000 by the time we graduated and has continued to climb), the fraternity was an embodiment of collectivism and inclusiveness. We were as diverse a group of college students as you could find. There were sons of Fortune 500 executives who had never worked a day in their lives; there were also brothers on financial aid, working multiple on-campus jobs to make ends meet. Some brothers partied five nights a week, and others went to church five times a week. An outside observer would – and sometimes did – wonder how we all got along.

There was just a sense that we had a great thing going, and the brothers were committed to maintaining it. This manifested itself in both unspoken codes of conduct (intra-fraternal disputes were shockingly rare) and formal processes. Pledging in particular was designed to deliberately build discipline and appreciation while bringing everyone, pledges and brothers alike, closer together. We often heard stories about freshmen in one fraternity despising the guys the year above them. For a Beta Beta, this was unimaginable. Eight years later, I still keep in touch with brothers who were seniors during my freshman year, and many of my best friends are years younger.

Ryan: Like many aspects of Richmond, the university’s Greek life system is unique when compared with other collegiate institutions. Fraternity executive committees regularly meet and communicate with administrative officials. Accountability is paramount. On-campus “lodges” serve as each fraternity’s quasi-private haven, yet are also heavily regulated by the university. Therefore, in order to survive, a fraternity’s desire for debauchery must be tempered with a reasonable respect for the rules. Beta Beta was able to successfully strike this delicate balance for decades, even while other campus fraternities faltered under the scrutiny of an increasingly strict administration.

The result was a group of young men that demonstrated the “work hard, play hard” mentality of the Richmond student body as well as any group on campus. While I cannot speak to the century’s worth of brothers to come before me, I can attest that the seven classes of Beta Betas that my college experience overlapped with carried the chapter’s strong legacy to each corner of the campus – from the business school to the science hall, from the Richmond College government chambers to the office of the campus newspaper. And when our respective academic and extra-curricular activities were attended to, and we gathered at our lodge or an on-campus apartment, there was no shortage of fun to be had.

Brian: Ironically, the onerous rule set added to the fun. Routine parties required extensive planning and coordination, and this in turn forced us to bond more. I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing Greek life at many other universities (Michigan, South Carolina, U.Va and Ohio State to name a few). I wouldn’t trade the Beta Beta version for any.

The big schools had the great football and the tailgates, but we more than made up for it with traditions like Lobsterfest. With nothing more than a Wiffle Ball set, a stereo and a few cases of beer, we established one of the most whimsical and heavily anticipated social events of the year. We’d meet every Friday and Saturday afternoon for hours-long D-Hall brunches, sitting 20 to a table rehashing stories over mediocre food. The city nightlife was a joke, and we preferred each others’ company to drinks we couldn’t afford in bars we felt out of place in. We had a hell of a time, to be certain, and I’m glad that some stories will remain secret. But we were very careful not to overstep our bounds. Self-policing kept us in good standing.

Ryan: College eventually ended, but the value of being a Beta Beta has continued long after I submitted my last dues check or attended my final undergraduate lodge party. Whether searching for a couch to sleep on during a cross-country road trip or a ticket to an out-of-town Yankees game, generosity from a fellow brother has never been more than an e-mail away. I recently sent a professional inquiry to a network of chapter alumni and, within minutes (literally), was put in touch with a Beta Beta 25 years my senior who was able to provide assistance.

Rather than fade into darkness like so many of those college nights have done, the relationships I have built with many in the chapter have remained strong.  From weddings to wakes, formal occasions to casual Sunday football, Beta Beta has remained a constant, something spoken of in the present tense rather than the past. And while I do not expect any of my relationships to change with this week’s news, it is certainly unfortunate to think that a chapter that has meant so much to so many may soon close for a period and perhaps change forever.

Brian: The formality and structure provided by the fraternity instilled a sense of loyalty that I’ll never forget. As a young man, it’s tough to move away from selfish impulses or have much of a sense of duty. Yet to this day, when we hear of a brother in need, there’s not so much a thought process as there is a reflex: you drop what you’re doing and help them. A native Ohioan with few roots in the tri-state area where I currently reside, I’ve never felt homesick. Rather, every local brother’s family has treated me like their own. I still talk to and seek advice from my Beta Beta “big brother.” When there was a shooting outside of my office in Midtown, my phone and Facebook account didn’t stop buzzing with inquiries from brothers making sure I was OK.

This sort of thing doesn’t just happen. It’s the result of years of hard work, with class after class cultivating a set of values and working to maintain them. In an increasingly complicated world with lots of uncertainties, I shudder to think where I’d be without this rock in my life.

Ryan: It’s difficult to know exactly how Beta Beta arrived where it did this week. As recently as 2006, brothers referred to the chapter as living through its Golden Era. Perhaps the demise began from within, with bad foresight paired with bad fortune leading to a departure from the path to the good of the order. Perhaps outside forces accelerated the downfall, with enough allegations made against the chapter – some true, some false – to overshadow the positive actions that brothers continued to do. Perhaps this is just one small example of a larger trend, the death of fraternities as we have come to know them in a litigious world full of universities and institutions looking to limit any potential liabilities.

Yet somehow, here we are. Outside of campus, I have no doubt that the bonds of Beta Beta will remain as strong as ever. But it is quite sad to think that a university with such a strong history will lose such a storied piece of its past. As for the present, the losses are numerous. A generation of Richmond College students will lose not only a Saturday night social option, but a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a part of something that is bigger than themselves. Fellow fraternities will lose not only a competitor in fun and in sport, but a fierce ally in Greek relations with the university. And up there on New Fraternity Row, at the second shack on the left, a Kappa Sigma lodge will lose its purpose. It will be leased to some other campus organization or, worse, to no one at all. After decades of mud and beers, blood and tears, song and dance, laughter and chants, that lodge will be occupied solely by the most unwanted of guests: silence.

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A New Golden Age For Law Students?

BY RYAN BYRNES

The number of individuals sitting for the LSAT has dropped consistently for two years. Enrollment at law schools for fall 2012 is nine percent less than it was one year ago and 16 percent lower than it was in fall 2010. Tuitions remain at all-time highs while post-graduate employment demand remains stagnant-at-best.

Empirical evidence suggests that, in today’s economy, law school is not a prudent investment of one’s time and money. But for those most qualified to enter the legal profession, there’s no better time to cash in on the opportunity to be a law student.

According to a Kaplan study released two weeks ago, more than half of the ABA-accredited schools surveyed said they reduced the size of their 2012 entering class. Further, nearly 80 percent of those schools indicated that they will have smaller 1L classes by the fall of 2013 than they did last year.

Though there will be fewer seats left vacant for prospective students, those who ultimately receive one may have an easier time paying for the privilege to sit there. In fact, 47 percent of schools said they increased the amount of financial aid available to students for the 2012-2013 school year. Additionally, 41 percent said they were able to maintain their 2011-2012 levels of aid.

Of course, being admitted into law school is only one part of the transaction. While schools do not necessarily have a duty to help students pay for their education, institutions should feel a responsibility to make the law school experience worth the hefty price tag it carries. As students continue to have difficulty securing post-graduate legal employment, this responsibility has only received greater scrutiny.

After decades of course loads stocked with six semester’s worth of lectures, fact patterns and the Socratic method, schools have recently realized that their curriculum must adjust with the times in order to even begin to justify the cost of tuition. The Kaplan study revealed that 68 percent of schools have revamped their curriculum to make their students more “practice ready.” An additional five percent plan to implement such changes, while another nine percent said they are considering doing so.

These changes include providing students with more opportunities to partake in practical programs, such as clinics. Schools have also taken steps to allow students to specialize in a specific area of law, perhaps enabling them to develop a competitive edge over their eventual competition in the job market.

While the effectiveness of such programs and the impact they have on the value of graduates in the eyes of employers remain to be seen, the widespread adjustments reflected in the survey suggest schools are finally taking some steps toward change prospective students can believe in.

“Our survey shows that law schools are taking much-needed action to better prepare new lawyers for the changing job landscape, while at the same time accepting fewer students, as they know jobs will not be easy to come by,” said Jeff Thomas, director of pre-law programs at Kaplan. The survey drew its data from phone interviews with admissions officers from 123 of the nation’s 202 ABA-accredited law schools. The information was collected between August and September 2012.

So while law schools across the country continue to buckle their belts by reducing the size of 1L classes and, in turn, churning out fewer graduates, the opportunity for those qualified enough for admission is perhaps greater than ever. Fewer admissions slots will allow schools to maintain – or even increase – their selectivity, breeding very competitive first-year classes. Those students will often be applying for financial aid that is at least equal to – if not greater – than the amount available to larger numbers of students in earlier years. In turn, 1L classes may be smaller and more intimate than what has become customary in overwhelmingly large lecture halls. During 2L and 3L years, students are less likely to be stuck passing time behind their laptops and more likely to be engaged in a clinical program or a practicum course more aligned with their post-graduate interests.

The legal job market continues to struggle. In June, a NALP survey revealed that employment rates for the class of 2011 were the worst in 18 years. Last year, as other sectors trickle back to respectability, the legal services market – along with other “white collar” fields like finance and insurance – continued to shed jobs. The law market has shown few signs of improvement, though – as one law school dean wrote in a recent editorial – the outlook tends to be distorted by an overemphasis on “first jobs” rather than the opportunities a legal education presents over the span of a career.

It is important to remember that law schools can only do so much to improve the larger economic climate, and the schools are primarily a business. Universities generally consider law schools for-profit institutions, and students who believe they are suited to enter the legal market should incur some cost in order to take that chance. But in the long-term, the changes schools are making should improve the current situation to the extent possible: reducing the seats available so that only the most qualified applicants are granted admission, and updating the in-school requirements to best reflect the industry’s post-school expectations.

Unsurprisingly, not every school is on-board with the downsizing. In June, an associate dean of Cooley Law School told the Wall Street Journal that the school’s “mission is inclusiveness” and that the institution wasn’t “interested in reducing the size of its entering class on the basis of the perceived benefit to society.” In perhaps related news, the same school’s dean recently questioned whether his institution’s 2012 Michigan bar passage rate of 51 percent was “for real.”

But the Kaplan survey suggests that most schools are getting the message. The legal job market is changing with the times, and the education preparing individuals for that market is finally showing signs of changing along with it. It may be late, but it is better than never. For the average person, it is probably true that law school is not a wise use of time and money. But for the right person, there’s no better time to apply than now.