Little Three frats rise, fall: College Greek-life abolition

Last spring, Amherst’s trustees voted to ban all participation in fraternities. Amherst had already banned on-campus greek life in 1984, but off-campus fraternities remained. Association with a specific frat, Psi Upsilon, was prohibited in 2010, and the ban was extended on July 1, 2014, to all off-campus fraternities following the high-profile mishandling of a student sexual assault case in the fall of 2012.

A few months ago, Wesleyan made a series of changes to its rules governing fraternities after the hospitalization of a student who fell out of a window of the Beta Theta Pi house on September 7th. After a series of sexual assault cases involving the fraternity, the administration first made the chapter off-limits for the academic year. Subsequently, it was ruled that all fraternities at Wesleyan are now required to be co-educational, and first-years are prohibited from pledging.

With our two Little Three sister schools struggling with Greek life, it’s worth taking a look at the history of its abolition at the College. The College’s story was not without blemishes: In 2003, it was discovered that the fraternity St. Anthony Hall (also known as the Vermont Literary Society and former owner of the building that now houses the Center for Developmental Economics) had been meeting in secret for half a century, after fraternities were abolished in the ’60s. But for the most part, the story is a relatively smooth one. What lessons can be taken from the College’s experience?

In The Rise and Fall of Fraternities at Williams College, published last spring, former President of the College John Chandler describes Greek life’s arrival at the College as something of an accident. The College, seeking a chapter of Phi Beta Kappa, was offered Kappa Alpha as somewhat of a concession prize by Union College in 1833. President of the College Edward Griffin, who was unaware that Kappa Alpha was a fraternity, “assumed that Kappa Alpha must be similar to Phi Beta Kappa,” which he had belonged to at Yale, and admitted the organization. The initial growth of fraternities was slow, but their relationship with the College would eventually prove to be tumultuous.

In the 19th century, fraternities were viewed by many as a challenge to proper Protestant lifestyles. During the Haystack Prayer Meeting of 1806 – a major starting point of the Protestant missionary movement – fraternities were seen as houses of sin, where gambling, drinking and cursing ran rampant. Albert Hopkins, brother of President of the College Mark Hopkins, saw them as part of a “contest for the soul of Williams,” Chandler wrote.

It was only late in that century that participation in fraternities exploded. From 1881 to 1934 the number of fraternities increased from six to 15, and, under President of the College Harry Garfield, a series of failed attempts to curb their influence on campus life were undertaken. “In 1909, soon after, he encouraged the formation of the Commons Club for non-fraternity members,” with living quarters and a dining hall in the brand new Currier Hall. He also set a ceiling on fraternity membership at 75 percent of the class, which had the inadvertent effect of making it more exclusive. The next College president, Tyler Dennett, worried that exclusion from fraternities would produce “a colony of lost souls.”

Furthermore, “both the fraternities and the Commons Club refused to admit any members from the very small population of black students,” which contributed to a period from 1931 to the end of World War II with no black students at Williams. Enrollment of black students was rare – the first black student graduated in 1889, and some classes in the 1920s had up to three black students.

World War II could have provided an out, as the number of civilian, and consequently fraternity-affiliated, students declined precipitously. The GI Bill, which fostered the enrollment of veterans post-WWII, resulted in less interest in Greek life. “Vets were older and much more experienced than most students, and had wives and children. They thought it was ridiculous,” Chandler said.

Chandler arrived at the College as a faculty member in 1955, just after Baxter Hall was opened. He became a faculty advisor to Phi Gamma, and he recounts the College’s strange social structures. “Fraternities gave great parties for faculty,” he said, but they “were like embassies of foreign, sovereign powers. Deans couldn’t just go in and sort things out. Even police would go not to the Dean but to fraternity presidents.” He compared advising Phi Gamma to being “an attorney for the mafia.”

The next decade saw further desperate actions. In 1957, fraternities self-imposed Total Opportunity, a system for ensuring every student would get a bid. At the same time, it was revealed that three fraternities had agreements with their national bodies explicitly banning black students, and two had the same policy for Jewish students. Billy Boyd, in the class of 1963, was the first black student to pledge with a fraternity at the College.

Together with Morris Kaplan ’63, who was a leader in another partial attempt to reform fraternities (that attempt involved making them genuinely academic societies), Robert Seidman ’63 and Bruce Grinnell ’62 began holding midnight meetings to determine how to end fraternities at the College in response to a racist incident at Seidman and Grinnell’s fraternity. The group that met included other fraternity officers, Gargoyles, Junior Advisors and prominent figures in both athletic and religious life on campus. Grinnell was a fraternity president and the College’s starting quarterback. The group drafted the Grinnell Petition, which called for a “committee to investigate the social system.” When the new President, Jack Sawyer ’39, arrived that fall, it was waiting on his desk.

According to Seidman, the group behind the Grinnell Petition was “hoping for them to be completely abolished.” He asked, “Why has the college abdicated its duties?” Members of the group got into verbal confrontations with pro-fraternity students. “I would have duked it up with anyone,” Seidman said.

In the spring of 1957, a similar group, the Committee of 22 had called for the end of Greek Life. President of the College James Baxter and the Record had rejected the idea, largely due to costs. By 1961 the evidence against fraternities was substantial, and the new president and the group had the credentials to make a serious move. “Sawyer was thought to be conservative,” said Chandler. “To the trustees, the Gargoyles name meant the most,” said Seidman. “Most of them were Gargoyles.”

Sawyer, who was himself president of a fraternity while at Williams, convened a committee under Jay Angevine ’11. By the fall of 1962, the trustees had voted through the committee’s recommendation “for the college to assume full responsibility for the housing and feeding of all students.” Building new dorms and dining halls would be a significant expenditure, but the decision amounted to a de facto death sentence for fraternities at Williams, which depended on their role in housing students for funding: of the three upper classes, 94 percent of students dined in fraternity houses and 44 percent of students lived in them.

There was major opposition from the alumni association; some alumni declared a boycott of donations to the College. Many students opposed the decision. “There were student protests in front of the president’s house,” said Chandler. However, the Gargoyles, College Council, the Record and other student groups supported the decision. Faculty members were overwhelmingly behind the change. In 1968, the trustees declared the end of all fraternity activity. As we discovered in 2003, it was not a full success, but the era of Greek life’s stranglehold over College life was complete.

Seidman argues that the key to the College’s success was that the internal push that came from the students. “The College realized it had a problem and tried to ameliorate it early on, internally. It has to come from the students, from the leaders of the students.” The end of fraternities at Williams is seen as a major stepping-stone to the beginning of coeducation in 1970, two years after the final prohibition of Greek activities. “Coeducation was not on my mind,” said Seidman, “but for the faculty, the trustees and Sawyer, it was. 1200 boys and no girls was unreal.”

For Chandler, the “bedrock rationale for abolishing fraternities [was] educational considerations. The system created enclaves that obstructed association with non-members. That stops free exchange of ideas between peers, which is the primary goal of a residential college.” Chandler remembers seeing alumni at reunions discovering classmates they had been completely isolated from because of fraternities. However, he says coeducation was “a secondary driver. It came up right behind fraternities.”