Housing: The abolition of the Greek system

For 129 years, until the 1960s, fraternities dominated the College’s social scene and residential life. Students lived, ate, studied, socialized and partied at the fraternity houses, forming close, cohesive groups.

“The house sat down to eat two meals [together daily],” said John Hyde ’56, who served as a dean of the College from 1962 until 1970. The fraternity members ate their lunch and dinner together daily in their own house, served by students receiving financial aid. Seniors and some juniors lived in their fraternity’s house, with the best room going to the president of the fraternity.

First-year life has not changed much since the 1960s, according to Hyde. Back then, frosh still lived in entries and had Junior Advisors (JAs), and the entire first-year class ate together in the Baxter North dining room.

In the spring of each year, first-years, sophomores and juniors would enter a housing lottery in groups of up to five students to determine living arrangements for the following year.

According to Steve Birrell ‘64, vice president for alumni relations and development, the sophomores with the best picks would pick into Currier Hall and Ebenezer Fitch House (then known as Berkshire Hall). The next best houses for sophomores were Fayerweather Hall and East College. These four buildings comprised what was referred to at the time as the Sophomore Quad.

Each fall, most sophomores took part in rushing for fraternity membership. Rushing was a complicated system designed by the students, said Hyde. During the rushing period, sophomores went around to the individual fraternity houses and met their members. Then, fraternity members invited students to pledge and join their fraternity. The sophomores could receive multiple invitations. Although rushing was a competitive process, in the later years, according to Hyde, “everybody who wanted to be in a fraternity could.”

Upperclassmen who were not fraternity members were called “non-affiliates.” Birrell said that the non-affiliates lived primarily in West College, but also in Morgan Hall. Like the fraternity members, the non-affiliates ate together daily in the Baxter South dining room.

Although “the College forbade fraternities from having exclusionary clauses,” many of the non-affiliates were Jews or ethnic minorities. However, one fraternity was expelled from its national organization for pledging Jews. Another fraternity continued to pledge African-Americans even after being asked to stop by its national organization.

As a result of the insular fraternity system, student life at Williams became very segregated. “Fraternities began to take on very distinct identities,” said Hyde. Members invited students like themselves to pledge, which thus created specific houses, such as the football house, hockey house, prep house, academic house and theater house.

“Houses had a very clear hierarchy,” said Hyde. He described how the group of students with the highest GPA was always the non-affiliates, followed by the “second round pledges,” students who did not receive invitations to pledge from their first choice.

The College became progressively more troubled by the segregation of the student body and continuously declining GPAs of the fraternity members, and decided to take action. The prohibition of first-year pledging and the 1952 building of Baxter Hall, a $1 million student center took the first step toward reducing the fraternities’ influence.

The fraternities’ decline continued throughout the 1950s, as the College forbade them from racially and religiously discriminating in selecting its members. The College also instituted a “total opportunity” policy, whereby every student wishing to join a fraternity would receive at least one invitation.

Soon, the College moved to abolish Greek life altogether. John Sawyer ’39, then-president of the College, said in an interview from the Oct. 12, 1962 issue of the Berkshire Eagle, “[The College] must free itself from some of the restrictive, divisive, distractive, disrupted patterns that have intruded upon it.”

The first direct blow to fraternities came on June 30, 1962, when the Trustees of the College accepted the recommendations of the Angevine Committee. This transferred the responsibility for housing and feeding students from the fraternities to the College and created a residential house system.

Led by longtime Trustee of the College Jay Angevine ’11, the Angevine Committee was composed of what Sawyer described as “men deep-rooted in Williams history and with extensive fraternity connections.” This committee held hearings, read testimony and worked throughout the 1961-1962 academic year to form their report.

As a result of this report, the College revoked its financial support of the fraternities beginning with the 1963-1964 academic year. Up until this point, the College had reimbursed the fraternities for the eating and living expenses of their students.

In 1962, around 680 students (60 percent of the 1,130-member student body) belonged to one of the 15 Greek letter fraternities on campus, and nearly half of the student body lived in fraternity houses. The College’s decision to stop funding fraternities sent shockwaves throughout the academic world. Articles appeared in publications such as Newsweek, the Herald Tribune, Christian Science Monitor and the St. Louis Post Dispatch, with headlines including “Death to Greeks,” in Newsweek, “Williams Dooms Frats,” in the Bridgeport Sunday Post and “Fraternities Under Fire” in the Cincinnati Inquirer. The Nov. 11, 1962 edition issue of the New York Times Sunday Magazine contained a 2,800-word feature on Williams’ switch from a fraternity-based to a residential life school.

The decision immediate impacted the campus, as sophomore fraternity rushing dropped 15 percent, and the fall of 1962 saw a drop of 40 students.

The decision of the Trustees to revoke funding was not well- received by the student body. On Friday, Sept. 19, 1962, 75 to 125 students rioted in front of President Saywer’s house. In addition, close to 560 students, 87 percent of the College’s fraternity membership and almost half of the student body, signed a petition in protest of the decision.

In the fall of 1962, however, the trustees of the oldest fraternity on campus, Kappa Alpha, agreed to transfer their house and lot to the College. Later that year, the Chi Psi fraternity pledged its cooperation to aid the College in implementing its new policy against fraternities.

Though the fraternities lost their College funding, six of them held out into the late 1960s. Historical records show that five of the six remaining fraternities included Theta Delta Chi, Delta Kappa Epsilon, Alpha Delta Phi, St. Anthony’s Hall, and Zeta Psi. But on Oct. 6, 1968, the Trustees voted to officially abolish fraternities, agreeing “to take the necessary steps to wind up fraternity activities here as soon as practical.” The Trustees allowed the current members to continue their fraternal associations until they graduated. However, they explicitly prohibited new members from being pledged.

Though the Trustees considered this decision as final, not all students accepted the demise of Greek life. Four fraternities lingered on into 1971, but, according to the March 16 issue of the Record, “they would be virtually unrecognizable to members of the powerful organizations that dominated life at Williams from the 1850’s until the early 1960’s.”

Gone were the traditions, rituals, and rushing of old. The Record wrote that “One TDX member said, ‘We are no more a fraternity in the fifties sense than the Drama club, the Rugby club or the Afro-American Society. There is no peanut butter up the ass, or 40-mile walks to nowhere, or heavy memorization under pressure.’”

With the graduation of the few remaining senior members in 1971, fraternities vanished from the face of the College.

In preparation for the switch to a residential house system from the fraternity system, the College formed several committees to discuss the issue, one of which was the Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL).

According to Hyde, there was a great suspicion of and reluctance to the change.

“I was one of a group that was called upon to design a new residential system,” said Hyde. “We had to find something to replace existing fraternity system, which housed and fed students.”

“[The] planning process was fun, implementation was not,” he added. “The academic communities were very conservative and uncomfortable with the change. Our greatest priority was to break down the stereotyping and balkanization of these [houses].”

Hyde said that the post-fraternity Williams residential house system was “based a lot on Yale.” Yale’s residential college system divides undergraduates up into one of 12 individual colleges. After their first year, most Yale students live and eat in their college, which also organizes extracurricular activities and other social events.

While the College still retained the first-year entry system, upperclassmen housing drastically changed. Under the new residential house system, students did not choose where they lived. According to Hyde, it was a pure, random lottery, without any fiddling for diversity.

After their first year, students selected four people for their “cluster” to enter the “inclusion,” the name for the first-year placement in upper class houses. “[This system] allowed for choice of close friends,” said Hyde.

First, student clusters were randomly assigned to a house. Under this new system, house membership still was very important, determining where a student ate and socialized (though the student did not necessarily live there).

The eight new upperclass housing clusters for the 1971-1972 academic year included: Greylock (including Gladden, Hopkins, Carter and Bryant); Berkspect (Berkshire, now Fitch, Currier, Prospect); Fort Hoosac (Fort Hoosac House, Agard, West, Dougherty); Spencer (Brooks, Spencer, West, with overflow in Mission Park); Perry (Perry, with overflow in Mission Park); Bascom (Bascom, West, with overflow in Mission Park); Wood (Wood, Garfield, West, with overflow in Mission Park); Tyler (Tyler, with overflow in Mission Park).

Once assigned to a house as a first-year, virtually all students remained within their house until graduation. Every spring, there was a separate room draw within the house to determine the rooming arrangements for the following year.

According to Hyde, the new residential housing system “absolutely transformed campus. It made freshman year a totally different experience.”

The new residential houses were built upon system of faculty, senior and alumni associates. Each house elected officers and a social chair. The associates and officers planned all kinds of activities for the house, using college funds. Some of the newer houses even had special apartments for the faculty associates to live.

“One of our concerns . . . was trying to preserve house unity and cohesion,” said Hyde.

Any individual student who was unhappy with his house could leave the house and join a random housing lottery. According to Hyde, the College worried that students would transfer out of houses and perpetuate the segregation of the student body. However, for the first few years, students made no transfer requests.

This new residential house system eliminated the non-affiliates – one of the main downsides of the old fraternity system. Every upper classman was now a member of a house, where they typically dined. House dining, an important aspect of the now-defunct fraternity system, remained very important to the new structure.

Though the house members typically ate together, the College was much less segregated than before as house membership was randomly determined and much interaction occurred between the houses, as evidenced in the high use of guest meal. “Guest meals because increasingly used and were very popular,” Hyde said.

However, under this new system, groups of students would still segregate themselves within the groups. In the spring of 1969, the Record reported that five residential houses submitted proposals to the Afro-American Society offering blocks of rooms to black students for the following academic year. In addition, this time period also saw massive expansion in terms of both the number of students and residential houses on campus. While there were only 1,130 students enrolled in 1962, the Williams student body grew to 1,518 in 1970 and expanded to 1,800 students a few years later after the advent of coeducation. In 1965, the four houses of the Greylock Quad added nearly 300 student rooms while 293 rooms were added by the completion of the four houses in Mission Park in 1971. Additionally, the College acquired the old Williams Inn (now the Cyrus M. Dodd House) and built Tyler Annex, which added 59 rooms and 42 rooms respectively.

With the influx of female first-years on campus in 1971, Sage Hall was designated as a first-year residence exclusively for women and East College and Fayerweather Halls became first-year dorms.