Archives reveal motivations behind fraternity ban of ’62

Many people know the tale of how the Perry Goat Room supposedly got its name, and a few have even heard of the locked doors in the basement of the Center for Development Economics, a former fraternity house, to which even administrators don’t have the key. Rumors aside there is one thing we know for certain: Fraternities were abolished long before our time. But how that abolition came to be was a lot more controversial than most people are aware.

At the time of its elimination in 1962, the fraternity system fed 94 percent and housed 44 percent of upperclassmen and was deep-rooted in the College community, having been around for 129 years. The student body’s overwhelming participation in Greek life was a source of contention for the administration, who felt that the College’s ultimate purpose, namely to educate its students, was being undermined by the disproportionate role the 15 frats played in their lives.

At first glance these statistics are startling. But the College of the ’60s was radically different from the College today. The entry system was already in place, although residential and dining plans were not. Those days, College owned-and-operated housing, feeding and social facilities did not exist like they did in a handful of its peer institutions. The complete transfer of responsibility from fraternities to the College would have a strong impact on campus since, until that point, non-academic life centered around Greek life.

In the years immediately before their eradication, many policies were enacted to help suppress fraternities’ dominance on campus. These included delaying rush to sophomore year, banning discriminatory clauses in admission to a fraternity and instituting a program which guaranteed offer of membership by at least one fraternity to whomever wished to go Greek. The predecessor to Baxter Hall, the Paresky Center’s first floor lounge, was first constructed in an effort to unite Greek and non-Greek students, as the freshman center, dining hall and student union were included in the complex.

The College’s actions were in vain, however, and the administration felt that too many resources were being spent on fixing a system corrupted beyond repair. Students were also dissatisfied – about fifty of them signed a petition calling for change in the system. In response, the College reviewed the situation, publishing the “Statement of the Board of Trustees and Report of the Committee on Review of Fraternity Questions” in the summer of 1962 – known as the Angevine Committee Report. “In its investigation,” the report read, “the committee’s chief concern has been the educational process at Williams, a process not limited to classroom, laboratory and library, but including every possible stimulus and opportunity for creative and critical thinking and the development of sound individual values. Long continued delegation to the fraternities by the College of a large part of its responsibility … is a major cause of many existing conditions which are harmful to the educational purpose of the college; and early steps should be taken by the College to re-assume this responsibility and integrate these functions into the life of the College, where they properly belong.”

The fall of the same year, the Board of Trustees signed the resolution and voted to “provide housing, eating and social accommodations for the entire student body” reported the Record (“Board: Implementation to Proceed,” Oct. 10, 1962). And with that the Greek reign was put to an end at the College … but not without a fight.

Thirty or so disgruntled alumni formed the “Palmendo Alumni Committee” and wrote the College a telegram expressing anger that they were not solicited in the negotiations. The Committee felt the issue was very important to all alumni and suggested a one-year waiting period with which they could participate in the evaluation. The Board of Trustees did not take them up on their suggestion.

Fraternity brothers attending the College at the time also fought against the abolition. The College Archives and Special Collections article on the subject reports, “In addition to debates and heated exchanges in the Record, there were angrier confrontations, such as a rowdy late-night demonstration in front of the President’s House. This particular incident was reproved by fellow students who felt that the protest did more harm than good, undermining the very system that the mob was attempting to preserve.” Shortly after the release of the Angevine Committee Report, some fraternity chapters banded together to publish a counterargument containing additional information and alternative views on the fraternity system, but the abolition took place regardless.

The Record took a stance as well, but one that backed the new regulation. Though some members of the editorial board were in favor of the system, when the resolution was passed, they were behind it. “The time has passed for bickering; the time has come for constructive planning of the new social system … We hope that every interested student will contribute his opinions, for only in this way, can we, as undergraduates, preserve and foster the values which we feel are important. The task ahead is a highly challenging and exciting one, and one that will mean much for the future. We hope that all members of the Williams family will contribute to its solution.” (“Hail … And Farewell,” Oct. 10, 1962).

The road to fraternities’ abolition was a rocky one and reactions to their end were mixed. “I think that if you had a vote tomorrow, most of the students would endorse the status quo, but there’s definitely a sense of something being wrong with the social system. Student opinion is split,” the then Record editor John Kifner ’63 told Harvard’s newspaper, The Crimson (“Williams College Bans Fraternities; Student Reaction to Decision Mixed,” Oct. 15, 1962). For many Ephs today, however, the absence of fraternities is one reason why they chose to attend the College. Although we often regale each other with the glorious history of the College, many of us would much rather hear the stories of times past than live at a time when they were a reality. Now what did you say happened in the Perry Goat Room?