Historical perspective on abolishing the fraternities

When College Council President Donald Gardner ’57 wrote a criticism of fraternities in the 1956 Commencement Issue of the Record, he spurred a debate that ultimately led to the demise of the Greek system at Williams. Over the next decade, college administrators, professors, students and alumni became engaged in an ongoing struggle to determine the path of Williams’ social structure.

Fraternities had been present at the College since students gained a Kappa Alpha charter from the Union chapter in 1834. In an essay in the 1939 Gulielmensian, a student wrote, “Today, when the fraternity system is firmly entrenched in Williams College. . .it is difficult to realize that the social system of secret societies has not always been as strong nor as fully accepted as now, that it has had its precarious moments, that there has been strong objection to it.” The writer goes on to state confidently that “the fraternity system has grown at Williams as in most colleges into a strong position of permanence.”

Less than two decades later, it became evident that that “permanence” was in fact a transitory condition. In the late ’50s, the fraternity influence on Williams’ campus was rather pervasive, though it had evolved past most of the ritual and secrecy. Students lived, ate and socialized within their respective “houses.” This distinct fragmentation of an already small community was largely regarded as detrimental to the College.

Excluding freshmen, who were not permitted to participate, 95 percent of the student body were accepted into fraternities. Gardner argued that these numbers augmented the stigma associated with not belonging to a fraternity.

He spoke in favor of “total opportunity” for all students, rather than the system of selectivity and exclusion. He claimed that with the growing size of the individual fraternities, conventions based on refusing membership to pledges who received a “blackball” from a single brother had become outdated. “Arguments against total opportunity do not defend freedom to choose, but rather freedom to reject, their brothers’ friends or potential friends.” He also criticized fraternities for discrimination and their tendency to foster apathy among students. He argued that admittance to a fraternity was viewed as an end in itself and that students became complacent once they achieved that goal. He called for either greater selectivity, to reduce numbers of frat members, or an immediate end to the fraternity system.

The debate was resumed in the spring of 1959, when the Record published excerpts from a Gargoyle Committee report in which the group questioned the role of fraternities at Williams. The group came to the conclusion that the primary goal of the College was that of intellectual enhancement of its students. While fraternities did not necessarily thwart this process, neither did they encourage it. They argued that because the fraternities were “purely social” in nature, “they are at variance, or at least not in accord, with the primary purpose of the Williams education.” In a scarcely veiled threat to the future of fraternities, the committee called for fraternities to recognize and fulfill not only their social responsibility to the students, but also their intellectual one.

Predictably, fraternities did not respond to these recommendations, and their validity continued to come under attack. In 1962, the Record dedicated the entire front page of its September 10 “Rushing Issue” to the growing fraternity debate. The cornerstone of the issue was a report produced by the Angevine Committee, which stated that “fraternities at Williams have come to exercise a disproportionate role in undergraduate life, and as a result the primary educational purposes of the College are not being fully realized.” The report also conceded that there could remain on campus a place for social clubs, if housing and providing meals were not included in their role. The Record published an editorial on the subject which dodged the issue and did little more than congratulate the boldness of the committee, whether or not their cause was valid.

Rush that fall proceeded as usual, with no adjustment in response to the report. Frat presidents issued statements of disapproval, but indicated varying levels of intent to comply with the recommendations of the committee. Kappa Alpha was the only fraternity that responded immediately, with plans to donate their house to the College and to build a smaller house devoted only to social endeavors.

Students responded to the attack on the fraternity system with a midnight demonstration in front of the President’s house. Approximately 100 people came out, but the protest gained little momentum, because the group lacked any organization or unity.

The following week, the Record responded to the events in a more pointed editorial. They asserted their support of the College in whatever course it chose to take, over the support of any component parts. While they supported the basic conclusions of the Angevine Report, they also defended the anxiety of the students, saying that the students were just expressing an understandable fear of abandoning the current social structure that was working. The piece included this rather backhanded praise of the fraternity system: “The present system seems as humane as possible within the context of institutionalized selectivity, and probably few lasting, deep hurts are inflicted.” Soon it was determined, though, that such a “context” had no place on Williams’ campus.

In March of 1963, multiple committees met in two separate meetings and determined that the College would begin a schedule of transitioning out of the fraternity system. Surprisingly, it was decided that fraternities would be permitted a small amount of influence over social clubs, with housing being turned over to the College. Concurrent to these changes were considerations about how to prepare the campus residential system for the advent of women at the College.

The decision to abolish the frat house structure of the campus led to further plans for construction on campus. Referred to as “The New Williams,” construction projects were conceived almost immediately and scheduled to begin that very spring. Baxter Hall was the archetype for the restructured campus. It was intended to bring together students of all classes for meals and other activities, without affiliation with any smaller group organization.

Over five years later, six fraternities remained on campus and the trustees formally asked them “to take the necessary steps to wind up fraternity activities here as soon as practical.” They allowed members to maintain their groups until they all graduated, but they were prohibited from bringing in new members. The trustees said that they had been pleased with the general trend of development since the fraternities began disappearing and that they would like to see the culmination of that process. They cited the irrelevance of the fraternity structure on a modern campus. “Such constructive purposes as these organizations historically served in earlier decades, reflected in their 19th century origins in isolated country colleges, with spare, rigid curricula and almost total lack of amenities for student life – can now be served in more relevant and appropriate ways.”

These new demands were met with mumbling about a possible lawsuit. The national officials of Theta Delta Chi consulted with lawyers and began to pursue Constitutional grounds on which to challenge the College’s stance. Fraternity presidents on campus, though, expressed a lack of true support for the cause. They claimed loyalty to the College that would supercede any plans to initiate a conflict.

By 1971, fraternity influence on campus had dwindled to a virtually nonexistent presence.
Any fraternity affiliations were nominal only, and functioned purely as social groups and only five to ten percent of students belonged. Membership was based on personal referrals and there was no rush process.

Today, the legacy of the fraternity has left us with little more than goat room legends and a feeling of disdain towards the system. It is important to realize, though, that the fraternity system shaped much of Williams’ history, right through the very recent past.