‘Bama Greeks in $202 million building boom despite racism controversy

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In this photo taken Oct. 26, 2013, guests and residents of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity gather on the lawn prior to an NCAA college football game in Tuscaloosa, Ala. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

by Jay Reeves
Associated Press Writer

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) – New multimillion-dollar mansions with white columns, wide balconies and grand foyers line the streets at the University of Alabama, and more are under construction to accommodate the school’s booming enrollment and record membership in Greek-letter groups.

But with the powerful Greek system embroiled in controversy over claims of racism and electioneering, some wonder whether the massive expansion serves only to consolidate their power.

Records provided to The Associated Press by the university show that Alabama’s Greek-letter social groups have undergone a $202 million building boom over the past decade that’s left the school with what one study say is the nation’s largest Greek system. Construction or expansion of about 30 houses is being financed by using public debt to provide loans that are repaid by private groups, university officials say.

The result is a public university campus dotted with palatial homes that provide desperately needed housing for thousands of students on a campus that’s spilling over its historic boundaries.

“I certainly think it’s a win-win for everyone,” said alumnae Jennifer Meehan of Gamma Phi Beta, which is building a $12 million, 40,000-square-foot home on a prime lot on a road named for legendary Crimson Tide football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.

Yet some worry that the construction of these mega-houses will only deepen what they see as a sense of entitlement among members whose college experience includes living in not a dormitory or ratty frat house, but a mansion.

“Are we building more infrastructure to create the same thought processes, the same sense of power and control as in the past?” said Francis Viselli, whose family once ran up against the power of the Greek structure at Alabama and lost.

School officials say Greek house construction is only a sliver of some $1.7 billion in building projects that have occurred as enrollment exploded from 20,333 students in 2003 to 34,852 this fall. The campus also is dotted with new dormitories, academic buildings and expanded athletics facilities.

But no U.S. university has undergone such quick growth within its fraternities and sororities as Alabama, said Greek housing expert Mari Ann Callais.

A study conducted last academic year by Phired Up Productions, a fraternity and sorority consulting company based in Carmel, Ind., ranked Alabama’s Greek system as the nation’s largest by membership. This year, the campus has more than 7,200 fraternity brothers and sorority sisters.

“I think of all the campuses, Alabama is the most unique,” said Callais, of Campuspeak, a Colorado-based company that provides speakers on higher education issues. “Alabama has really given an opportunity to these organizations to be able to build these large houses by the way they have positioned this.”

University statistics provided to The Associated Press show that it has constructed 11 houses since the boom began in 2005, and 10 more have been renovated and enlarged. Currently, 11 are being designed or built, including the mansion to be occupied by the Gamma Phi Beta sorority once it opens in 2015.

Meehan, a South Carolina attorney and president of the chapter’s housing corporation, said her group simply outgrew its 12,000-square-foot house as university enrollment increased and social organizations grew.

“We’ve had record numbers. We had the largest new-member class in the country,” Meehan said. “We really think this will be a home away from home.”

The oldest, most prestigious groups occupy prime locations on campus.

Delta Kappa Epsilon, established at Alabama in 1847, has a new, $5 million mansion across the street from Bryant-Denny Stadium, home of the top-ranked Alabama football team. Phi Mu – one of Alabama’s more prestigious sororities with a current home that resembles the White House – is planning what will be the university’s most expensive house with a projected cost of $13.6 million.

University spokeswoman Cathy Andreen said the house construction typically is financed through bonds sold by the university and repaid by Greek organizations through private housing corporations run by graduates. The university owns the land where the houses are built, but the groups own the structures once the debt is paid, she said.

Records from the Alabama Commission on Higher Education show that the Tuscaloosa campus had $661 million in bond debt as of Sept. 30, 2012, with $50 million due annually in payments. The university pays the bill with funding sources that include fraternities and sororities, which no other public university in the state reported doing, according to the report.

Other universities have used private and public debt to construct fraternity and sorority complexes called “Greek villages,” Callais said. But, she said, no other university recently has undertaken such a large construction surge using the same type of financing as Alabama.

Alabama’s Greek system has been plagued this fall by allegations of racism in recruitment by traditionally White sororities and by claims that Greeks wrongly helped sway the outcome of a city School Board election. A handful of Blacks have joined historically White sororities since administrators changed recruitment rules, and a judge is considering claims that Greeks improperly swayed the outcome in the board race won by a former student government president at ‘Bama.

Meanwhile, the university’s Faculty Senate has established a task force to look at issues including governance of the system, which has produced Alabama governors and U.S. senators through the decades.

Viselli, a critic of Alabama’s Greeks, said such a review has been needed for decades – and part of the reason is personal.

Viselli’s son, Joey Viselli, ran for student government president against a Greek-backed candidate in 1989 and lost. Francis Viselli said a group of fraternities and sororities boycotted his family-owned pizza restaurant as a result of the election challenge, costing him more than $400,000 in lost sales at the same time chain restaurants were moving into town.

Viselli closed his restaurant, and he still worries about the power of fraternities and sororities. He fears that the housing boom will only perpetuate a sense of entitlement among members.

“Are we nurturing and building this for the next generation?” Viselli said.

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