Recently, Dartmouth College changed its policy towards fraternities, requiring them to allow both females and males to join. Other colleges that have made the same decision have found that the fraternity structure is usually dissolved as a result. Fraternities at Dartmouth have expressed dismay with the decision, and have acknowledged that Dartmouth’s social life is sure to encounter massive changes.
Williams’ fraternities were abolished by student vote in the 1960s, before women were admitted. Four decades later, admissions brochures and alumni tout Williams’ non-Greek social scene as an asset. But is the social structure really what students expected when they arrived at Williams, and what the booklets promised? Do students feel that a kind of fraternity structure exists, even though it is not explained in such terms? Where do students find these kinds of structures?
Lloyd Nimetz ’01considered the absence of fraternities when he applied to Williams, and was surprised with the reality of Williams’ social life. “I thought the social scene wouldn’t be as selectively group oriented as it is,” he explains.
“I think that I have an interesting perspective,” he continues, “because I tried to be in a sports team, but it ended up not working out. I realized it’s really easy to fit in when you’re on a sports team, and a lot harder when you’re not.”
Kristy Ellis ’01 agrees that students usually consider sports teams, more than other groups, subject to fraternity-type influences. “There is a perception that teams are like frats in their exclusivity, although that may not be true.”
Ellis adds, “I think you definitely notice it in the row houses, too. There are team identites, and teams throw parties. But at any campus, people will find sub-identities.”
Yng-Ru Chen ’00, a former member of the crew team, thinks social life is “frat influenced, but I don’t think it has a frat structure.” She also points out an important difference in the party policies of Williams and fraternity schools: “Usually, sports teams’ parties, like most parties, open up after a while.”
Jenny Powers ’99 mentioned that it may be more difficult for a student on a sports team to comment on exclusivity. “It’s hard to say, because I do play sports, so I’ve never seen the non-athlete viewpoint. Most of my social life is based on the team, though.”
Dan Bubb ’01 also cautions about oversimplification and generalization. “In order to compare Williams to ‘frat schools,’” Bubb explains, “first you need to define ‘frat life.’ Since Williams doesn’t have any frats, I don’t think I could define frats accurately.”
Besides mentioning sports teams and their private parties, students also invoke the house president as a symbol of past frat days. House presidents seem to serve a purpose similar to the “social director” in the fraternity structure.
The image of large, loud keg parties are also an intrinsic part of “frat culture.” Yet Chen comments, “I went to a frat party at Tufts, but it was a lame frat, and it wasn’t fun at all.” Furthermore, Bubb added, large quantities of alcohol may be a part of any party, and not necessarily a fraternity party.
Kristy Ellis ’01 remembers her decision to come to Williams, and what influenced it. “I considered the absence of fraternities and sororities here, actually. It came down to Williams, Amherst, and Dartmouth. A big part of what put Dartmouth out of the picture was the frat system.”
Not all students, however, considered the fraternity aspect in deciding: Powers, for instance, felt that the social scene was not as important to her as other aspects of the school were.
Nimetz added that the stigma attached to fraternities may be undue. “I have a friend who goes to Emory, and is very similar to me. We both didn’t think that frats would be right for us, but he decided to join one there, and loves it.”
Ellis also concurred, noting that fraternities were not necessarily detrimental. “I talked to friends who said that fraternities and sororities weren’t so exclusive,” she said.
In fact, many sororities and fraternities require their members to complete community service or raise money for causes. Some of them also value high marks in classes, with a baseline GPA as a requirement for membership.
Yet, Ellis added, “It did seem that people were characterized and defined by their affiliations. A group mentality was there â€“ here, you can have multiple identities.”
Nimetz, too, saw fraternities as offering a secure identity to its members, and realized the estrangement that some might feel if they were not involved. Chen remembered looking through college guides and reading that if over 20 percent of the student body were members of fraternities or sororites, that signaled a relatively high involvement level. These numbers seem to present fraternitiy life in another light – as the minority, not popular, culture.
Fraternities and sororites are meant to function as a tool for identification and self-definition. Nimetz mentions the regional situation as one of the reasons that Williams’social life has gone on without claiming official frat life. “Williams isn’t as isolating as a larger university would be,” he says. “Your comfort level depends on how secure you are with your friends and yourself.”
“I definitely agree,” he added, “that here, sports teams do seem to functionally replace fraternities in the Greek system.”