"It was the best thing we ever did," said Dave Westol, former executive director of Theta Chi. "You may have five knuckleheads who won't join, and the five who replace them" will stay out of trouble.
Theta Chi membership stood at 5,911 in 1998, when the fraternity voted to go alcohol-free. By 2003, when the ban took effect, it had fallen to 5,126. Westol left in 2006, with membership down to 4,664. In 2010, the national board abandoned the policy. With drinking permitted, membership has rebounded to about 6,700 today.
Declining membership played no role in reversing the alcohol-free policy, Theta Chi Executive Director Michael Mayer said in an email.
Philip Dhanens died of alcohol poisoning after he and other freshmen were locked in a room last August at a Theta Chi chapter at Fresno State University in California until they finished bottles of vodka and tequila.
The national fraternity should have monitored the local chapter more closely, said his mother, Diane Dhanens. She and her husband filed a lawsuit this month against the national fraternity and the chapter.
Fraternity leaders say, "'We'll let you wear Theta Chi,'" she said. "But when something bad happens, 'We're out of here.'"
Theta Chi said in a statement that it revoked the charter of the Fresno State chapter and that it has "strict guidelines prohibiting underage alcohol consumption."
Some national fraternities have segregated assets to avoid liability in high-profile cases. Based in Evanston, Ill., where its headquarters contains a priceless collection of stained-glass Tiffany windows, Sigma Alpha Epsilon has been associated with eight deaths since 2005, the most of any fraternity. Most recently, University of Idaho freshman Joseph Wiederrick, who had been drinking at an SAE party on a Saturday night in January, got lost on his way back to his dorm. The 18- year-old wandered at least five miles, stumbled off an embankment, and froze to death under a bridge.