Last week the national chapter of the Delta Phi fraternity sent a letter to President of the College Harry C. Payne asking Williams College to “join with it in fashioning a new fraternity and sorority system.”
The whole question of the reinstitution of fraternities and sororities at Williams arose as a result of a section of the Higher Education Amendments of 1998, which was signed into law on October 7, 1998. The section of the law which is under review reads as follows: “It is the sense of Congress that no student attending an institution of higher education on a full- or part-time basis should, on the basis of participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination or official sanction under any education program, activity, or division of the institution directly or indirectly receiving financial assistance under this Act, whether or not such program, activity, or division is sponsored or officially sanctioned by the institution.”
While Stu Gittelman, the national director of Delta Phi, believes the amendment nullifies the College’s ban on fraternities, college attorney Jeff Jones, of the Boston law firm Palmer & Dodge, disagrees, noting that there is no force of law behind the congressional resolution.
“This part of the law is a sense of Congress resolution,” Jones said. “Sense of Congress resolutions have no force of law behind them. They do not entail enforceable rights nor do they impose penalties.”
President of the College Harry Payne opined that Delta Phi is simply trying to make a political statement.
“This is not a law, it is a way for the fraternities to make a political statement,” Payne said. “This type of legislation has been in the hopper for about five years now. Williams has the legal right and the educational and moral obligation to ban fraternities on campus.”
However, Gittelman said Delta Phi simply hopes to establish a partnership with Williams College.
“It’s really important that this all be seen as an offer of partnership as opposed to the way it is playing out in other schools like Bowdoin, Middlebury and Colby,” Gittelman said.
Other fraternities have been in touch with Bowdoin, Middlebury and Colby, and demanded that they must accept fraternities at their schools. Currently, all three schools do not allow fraternities on campus.
“I realize that it’s been a long time since Williams has had frats and there will be a lot of people who don’t like them,” Gittelman said. “We want to address these concerns.”
Gittelman added that he is “certain” that there are students at Williams who would like to be in Delta Phi, but he would not comment on whether or not he had been in touch with Williams students.
However, he did say the current Williams College policy makes it difficult to discuss fraternities.
Payne said Williams will not re-instate the fraternity system, or introduce sororities.
“It was student members of fraternities who decided in 1962 that fraternities should be abolished,” Payne said. “At that time they believed that fraternities did not serve our purposes as an educational institution. And Williams has absolutely thrived since 1962, and part of that thriving has to do with the College’s visionary decision to abolish fraternities.”
Payne met with four student leaders and some faculty members on Friday to discuss the issue.
College Council Co-president Kate Ervin ’99, who attended the meeting, said Payne put forth the issue and then solicited feedback.
“President Payne introduced the letter and made it clear to us that it was misphrased â€“ meaning that the wording of the letter makes you think that it is now the law that Williams has to accept fraternities,” she said.
“President Payne then asked us what our feelings were on the issue and we were all against the idea of having fraternities or sororities on campus,” she added.
Jonathan Kravis ’99, the president of the Gargoyle Society, also attended the meeting. He is strongly opposed to the fraternity/sorority system.
“We have a certain practice and mission as a residential college,” Kravis said. “Fraternities do not go along with this practice.”
Kravis added, “I’ve spoken to countless students and one of the main reasons they came to Williams was because we do not have fraternities. Students make the choice not to join fraternities when they choose to go to Williams.”
According to Kravis, the last time the issue of fraternities came up on campus was when the Williams Free Press took up the debate a few years ago.
“That was a time when the Free Press would just throw out positions to see how they sounded,” he said.
Ervin said participants at the meeting also discussed whether or not there are currently organizations on campus which might be seen as similar to fraternities.
“We discussed, for example the BSU and the Gargoyle Society, but we felt that there were many reasons that these two groups are different animals from fraternities,” she said. “In all, we ended the meeting feeling that we were on sure footing on both legal and educational grounds.”
According to Gittelman, the Supreme Court case Healy v. James declared that college students have the same constitutional rights as everyone else. He believes there is no reason this decision does not apply to private colleges as well. About 180 years ago a case involving Dartmouth College upheld private colleges’ right to bar fraternities.
“Before October 7 barring fraternities seemed to be allowed. But it is not the case anymore,” Gittelman said.
Gittelman used a civil libertarian line of thinking: “What else can a private college do if it can bar freedom of speech and association? Could they ban interracial couples? This is an issue of personal freedom. Should students have to forfeit their rights?” he said.
However, Fairleigh S. Dickinson, Jr. Professor of Political Science Timothy Cook said most of the above statements represent empty rhetoric.
“A ‘sense of Congress’ resolution is a handy substitute for getting something actually passed,” he said. “It is a prime example of what the political scientist David Mayhew called ‘position-taking.’ All it does is say this is what we think today. It has absolutely no legal implication (though the bureaucracy might pay attention to it if it referred to them). And presumably people don’t pay a whole lot of attention to it when they vote on it, apart from it being a motherhood issue of one sort or another or a way to please a powerful person (in this case, Bob Livingston).” Representative Livingston, the next Speaker of the House, was one of the bill’s main supporters.
Cook continued, “Naturally, the fraternities want to make it sound as though it were law. That is why they phrase it that way, as if by doing so they would put the fear of God into Williams’s administration.”
Director of Public Affair Jim Kolsesar noted that in the 1960s, when fraternities were abolished from campus, Williams did not face any court challenges. He also noted that students who come to Williams often mention the absence of fraternities as one of the reasons that they chose the school.