The Fraternity Debate — 1868 to 1968!

The Fraternity Debate — 1868 to 1968!

by John Dirlam

Fraternities began to take root at Williams in 1833 with the arrival of Kappa Alpha, followed one year later by Sigma Phi.  By the time of the Civil War, four more fraternities had joined them in competing for students—-Chi Psi, Alpha Delta Phi, Delta Psi, and Delta Kappa Epsilon.  Approximately 50% of the 200 students were fraternity members.  The other 50% were split between the anti-fraternity society (Delta Upsilon-really!) and those who were unaffiliated (or “neutral”).

The first residential fraternity house on campus was built by Sigma Phi in 1857.  The buildings we know today as the old frat houses, however, were all built after the Civil War, as the fraternities became more prosperous.

In 1868 a group of Williams students petitioned the College to abolish “secret societies” (as fraternities were then known).   That same year Professor John Bascom (later President of the University of Wisconsin) delivered a sermon in the Chapel attacking fraternities.  Professor Bascom (as in Bascom House) had been a fraternity member himself at Williams, but that did not soften his attack on them.  He basically accused them of being 1) frivolous, 2) conformist, 3) anti-intellectual, and 4) prone to “mischief”, however defined.

Bascom’s sermon had little apparent effect on the Trustees, who rejected the student petition without much debate.  The stage was set for the transition of Williams from a “Christian college” to a “Gentleman’s college”, in the words of Professor Fred Rudolph, who taught many of us American History.

In the Gilded Age that followed, it is believed that some Williams fraternities enhanced the exclusivity and elitism of their membership process by “spotting” certain prep school seniors for pledging purposes before they became freshmen.  Once these students had been admitted to the College, and when they arrived by train at the Williamstown station (yes, one existed then!), they were taken directly to the fraternity house to begin the initiation process.  If true, this practice only reinforced the system of privilege that existed.

Almost 100 years later the Angevine Report of 1962 echoed the basic themes of Professor Bascom’s lecture.  That report led to the abolition of fraternities as residential units during our time at Williams and to their complete abolition on campus in 1970.

Only one fraternity (Phi Gamma Delta) refused to turn over its house to the College as part of the new arrangements.  The old Phi Gam house is now owned by the Town and serves as a municipal office building.  Most of the others serve as residential or classroom buildings.


Let’s Leap Forward to 1968!

Williams Web Team

Since it took Williams nearly one hundred years to abolish fraternities, it might be interesting to take a closer look at how this monumental change took place.

 The Report of the Committee on Review of Fraternity Questions, which quickly became called The Angevine Committee was named after its chair, Jay B. Angevine, ‘11, a distinguished attorney, member of the Williams Board of Trustees, and a member of Phi Gamma Delta.  His brothers, uncle, and father had also graduated from Williams. Here is a link to the entire Report.

On October 6, 1962, in measured but unequivocal terms The Williams College Board of Trustees responded to The Angevine Report by affirming, “After long consideration the Board has voted that the policy of the College is to provide housing, eating and social accommodations for the entire student body, and to authorize the Standing Committee to continue negotiations with fraternities and others and to proceed with plans for the provision of residential units, one or more of which should be available by the beginning of the next academic year.”  Click here for the Board’s reaction to the Angevine Committee.

The entire subject has been thoroughly investigated by Williams Professor of History and President John W. Chandler in his fascinating book, The Rise and Fall of Fraternities at Williams, published by the college in 2014.  Click here for a video of Chandler discussing his book.

Bearing in mind the historic and courageous nature of Williams’ decision to abolish fraternities, it is interesting to peruse the Williams College Oral History Project Abstracts, where faculty and administrators, as well as members of the Angevine Committee, recount their experiences with the decision  The actual interviews are only available at the Archives/Chapin Reading Room on campus.  But the Abstracts give tantalizing information about this momentous decision.   For instance, in a 1991 interview, Irwin Shainman, Professor of Music at Williams for 41 years, “speaks at length about fraternities and how destructive they were, yet asserts that Sawyer must have been shocked when the Committee on Review of Fraternity Questions (commonly called The Angevine Committee) came back with a unanimous decision to do away with them.”  Echoing Shainman’s statements, in his own 1991 interview, Frederick Rudolph ‘42 and Professor of History from 1951-82, and  “speaks at length about fraternity issues, speaking candidly about how and why they broke down and needed to be abolished.”

Lawrence Wikander ‘37 and College Librarian from 1968 through 1982, points out the prejudice against minorities and “speaks about what it was like to be in a fraternity in the 1930s.”  In his 2000 interview, Wikander “describes ‘hell week,’ and discusses how excluded some of the students felt, saying that the Jewish students had no idea when they arrived at Williams that they would be excluded from every social event except those at the Commons Club.  He also discusses how some fraternities excluded Catholic students.”

Similarly, in a 1997 interview, Whitney Stoddard ‘35, and Professor of Art History from 1938-82, “talks about being ‘father-confessor’ for his old fraternity, Phi Delta Theta, before fraternities were abolished.  He remembers the Williams chapter surrendering their charter in order to admit a Jewish member in 1960.  As a distinguished, tenured faculty member, Stoddard led the students in cheers as men from the national group tore the documents from the walls of the great room.”  After conscientiously breaking away from the national fraternity, the Williams contingent called themselves the “Phi Delts.”

Fittingly, in a 2002 interview, Robert Kozelka, who taught Mathematics at Williams from 1957 until 1988, “speaks about how supportive he was of the decision to abolish the fraternities.”  Then, no doubt drawing on his decades of experience teaching statistics, Kozelka postulates that admitting women ‘improved the intellectual climate about one thousand percent.”

For those even more curious about the the move away from fraternities at Williams, The Oral History Project Abstracts also include interviews with actual members of The Angevine Committee.

In a 1991 interview, Bruce Grinnell ‘62, a student member of The Angevine Committee, recalls being a junior and president of Alpha Delta Phi, and “being deeply upset by the way his fraternity treated a social member from North Korea, refusing him full membership when three members said they wouldn’t support him.  As a result Grinnell helped organize a series of campus discussions that uncovered a strong current of unhappiness with the effects of fraternities on college life.”  When the results of these meetings, known as the “Grinnell petition,” were submitted to President Phinney Baxter, he sent it back “without much reply.”  However, when Jack Sawyer became president in 1961, he recruited Grinnell to serve as one of two undergraduates on The Angevine Committee. 

In his 1992 interview, Robert Geniesse ‘51, who served on the Board of Trustees from 1974 until 1987, discusses his own role on The Angevine Committee.  As a member of Alpha Delta Phi (like Grinnell,’62), he admits that initially he was “against deferred rushing.”   But, after serving as an alumni member of The Angevine Committee, “he later changed his mind…and voted to abolish fraternities.”

In his 1992 interview, Ferdie Thun ‘30, who joined the Williams Board of Trustees in 1950 and retired from it in 1973, asserts “that the Board knew fraternities were problematic on several levels, but that Baxter was interested in maintaining the status quo.”  Thun goes on to talk about his own role on The Angevine Committee, stating that President Sawyer “did not appoint the committee members with any specific intentions, asserting that he chose people who he knew would look at the issue with an open mind.”  He goes on to conclude that “after abolishing fraternities and working to bring more people of color to campus, going coeducational was a concept that was easy to accept.”

Thun’s comments remind us that that Williams’ move to abolish fraternities was part of a major social and educational transformation, towards building a more inclusive college culture where all students, regardless of creed, culture, or gender would be welcome.





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