Record Interview: John Hyde ’56, former dean

John Hyde ’56, originally class of 1952, attended Williams at two different points as an undergraduate, interupted by service in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War. He completed his graduate work at the University of Minnesota and Harvard. Hyde returned to the College in 1959 to teach European history. In the 1960s, he became dean of the freshmen year. After his tenure as dean, he returned to teaching, from which he retired two years ago.

Hyde was one the individuals involved in the transition from fraternities to a residential house system. “I was one of the people who was asked to design the new residential house program at the time of the adoption of the Angevine report,” he said.

So can you tell me a little bit about the housing system before the Angevine report?

The fraternity system worked as follows. The freshmen year was as you have now: they lived separately in the quad, and ate in Baxter Hall. That had been in existence less than ten years. Then, in the beginning of your sophomore year, because you couldn’t continue to eat in Baxter Hall, there took place what was called fraternity rushing. And this was to determine what fraternity organization you would be a member of, where you would eat and socialize for the rest of your time at the college. Rushing involved a complicated procedure and rules. The sophomores would, on a schedule, go from fraternity to fraternity and there would be conversations and talks with members of the house. As a result of this process, members of fraternities would extend invitations to sophomores to join a particular fraternity. You, as an individual, might receive five invitations, or you might only receive one, and that was that. There was at this time, what was called, total opportunity. So that in the event that you had not received an invitation, you were then given an opportunity to join a fraternity. So everyone could join a fraternity.

About what percentage of students joined fraternities?

Of upperclassmen, I would think probably 80 percent, a significant majority. But you could decide not to join a fraternity, or you could join a fraternity, and if you didn’t like it, drop out. And you became what was called a non-affiliate. That was a separate organization that had a lounge in Baxter Hall and ate upstairs in the bowed are of the Dining Hall.

What brought about the Angevine report?

So fraternities got typed. There were jock fraternities; there was the cap and bells fraternity; there was the party fraternity. And they would look for people like themselves. There was a hierarchy: there were strong fraternities that got everyone they bid, and there were weak fraternities that had trouble filling the space. Among the strongest fraternities, a group of students were very angry. . .

A very popular person had been blackballed as a member, coming into a fraternity. These guys [the protesters] were campus leaders, and jocks, who were very upset. So they drafted a petition, for the student. What they really wanted to do was abolish rushing. . .they thought the rushing system was badly flawed. And that was submitted to the trustees, and so the new president appointed a very distinguished committee to study the fraternity system, and they studied it at length. But it [the Angevine report thing] came into being because of something undergraduates did, undergraduate leaders, undergraduate athletes, all people you would think of as being big fraternity people, and that made it in a very different context. This wasn’t something the faculty or the trustees just said. “That’s what we’re going to do.” So they decided unanimously by the committee, and unanimously by the trustees, that the college would assume responsibility for housing and feeding the students. At that moment, the fraternities technically continued to exist, but they could not house and feed students.

So you were on the committee designing the new residential system after that decision?

Yes, and certain things happened that made it easier. Almost all fraternities gave their properties to the college, so you had the same housing arrangements you had before. So when our committee designed the new system, we looked to the old system, to see what were its flaws, and how we would correct them, and to its strengths. The greatest flaw was rushing and the dividing of the campus. We didn’t feel like we were taking advantage of this wonderful college and its student body if we divided you all up as if you were a university. So we decided that the best way was to leave in place the freshmen dorms. But in your sophomore year, instead of rushing, you would have a lottery system. . .. The next freshman class was under the new system. It removed from freshmen year something you all would never understand: the uncertainty and the fear [associated with the rush].

I would like to talk a bit more about the College in transition. How smoothly did that work out as far as the switchover, and how much backlash was there?

In terms of the mechanics of the system, it worked very smoothly. The backlash and the complaints were fairly predictable. We had much more backlash from alumni, who felt the college was deserting what they considered the important part of their years. For the undergraduates, you still had two classes that had come in under the fraternity system, and they were unhappy. So there were a lot of verbal criticisms; it was really unpleasant. Many of the alumni were very upset. . . Strangely enough in terms of the alumni fund, a few people came back on board. So there was a very positive spin as well as a very negative spin.

What was the reaction once there was a new student body?

The rule about change on campuses, is that if change takes place while you’re here, you’re probably not going to like it. But every freshmen class that comes in after you’ve made the change sees it as what has always been here. . . In three years you have a totally new student body and the issue is gone.

Could you talk a little bit more about the atmosphere of the College being all male, and how is tied into the social and house system. How much activity was on versus off campus?

There was much less partying on campus then your generation. There was always a house party in the fall, winter and spring. During the week, there were no parties. . . Most of the time during week if you wanted a date or anything like that you’d go; you’d take a road-trip. So, social life focused on a house but it was somewhat limited, certainly by today’s standards.

I think part of what [the CUL] is trying to reinstate with a new system is more of a sense of house identity, and I think they’re looking a lot to old models for some guidance. Do you have any thoughts on how our modern campus could work on some of those same goals?

You have to design some sort of system, because I think the natural instinct of students is to say “I want to room with people like me.” That’s perfectly understandable. I think there has to be some system which requires diversity. . .Its going to be harder, and I think you try to think up ways that students like, that have students come together in ways that they enjoy. House guest meals are one way. Just make it for the house, not for anyone coming. Just think of ways that you all will enjoy, and that will take some imagination.

Do you think it’s still possible to work well as a campus with some of the different structures [Mission, Greylock, etc.] we have as housing now?

I think what makes it work well as a campus is first of all, the freshmen experience. You get to know a wide range of people. Then we break you up, but you know people all over campus. And so that is very helpful. Even under the fraternity system that was helpful. When you invited fellow students to guest meals, usually it was your roommate from freshmen year.

Could you talk a little bit more about the differences as far as the diversity of the student body when you were a Dean, working out this housing system and today?

The obvious thing you don’t have to mention is the growing size of the student body, and its diversity both in terms of gender, sexual preference, race. . .Now there’s a much broader range in terms of types of schools and families represented. The Dean’s Office reflects it; the faculty reflects it. . . So the diversity does have a balkanizing effect that you have to be careful of. You become in some ways more sensitive. . .. We never went to theme housing because in that way it would have been like a fraternity.

To wrap things up, do you have any advice to the CUL and student body as far as being in a time of transition for residential systems?

My advice would be, that I have listened enough at the last meeting to be able to say that the present housing system is in shambles. You are much in the same position we were, of having to put something together. . .I think the hardest job will be trying to compose some kind of method of ensuring diversity with houses. . .The most important challenge is the business of cohesion and unity of belonging to a house. Give it something to make this appealing, not a punishment.

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