Fraternities Arrive on Campus
The Board of Trustees of Lafayette College opposed the Greek letter fraternities when, in 1857, they were first known to exist on campus. Why? Was it their secrecy? Secret Societies played a role on the campus of Lafayette College from its earliest beginnings, indeed even from before its beginning. According to David B. Skillman, our authority on the first century of the College,1 the first secret societies, the Washington and the Franklin Literary Societies had their origins at the Germantown Labor Academy. Their members came to Easton with the first president of the College, Dr.George Junkin, and held meetings even before classes started in May of 1832.
If there were any grumbling objections to the presence of these early secret societies on campus these mutterings were muted. The Literary Societies performed many important functions for the college. They provided library facilities and books; they brought the English language and English literature to their members; they provided extracurricular activities for a community of students housed first in a farm house on the south shore of the Lehigh River and then in the College Edifice on the bluff north of the city of Easton. However exalted their names, Washington and Franklin, or how noble their literary mission, they were secret societies. They had passwords for entry; their meetings were secret; their extensive minutes were opened to nobody but members. Rivalry for membership was intensive and competitions between them were as serious as any sports rivalry of later years. But they convened on campus, in the College Edifice, under paternalistic eyes.
Why then should the appearance of new secret societies carrying Greek letter titles rather than the names of distinguished citizens of our past, chapters of national Greek letter fraternities, cause alarm? Of course there was the national identification. The local student chapter would be part of and under instructions, possibly at variance with College regulations, from the headquarters of a national organization run by some unknown figures not connected with the College. The tie to the society would be a lifelong commitment–like a competing religion. To what degree would this link undermine the college’s organizational structure and its control by the Presbyterian Church? By 1857 most of the trustees were clergymen nominated by the Presbyterian Synod of Philadelphia and would have their own prejudices against secret semi-religious organizations. The faculty joined in their prejudices. Despite its official attitudes toward the consumption of alcohol, in 1858 it refused to authorize the formation of a local branch of the Sons of Temperance because of its national affiliation and a suspicion (probably well-grounded) that it was a coverup for who knew what.2
Perhaps a more significant reason for the college’s disapproval was the assumption on the part of the students themselves that fraternities would not be accepted too graciously. These societies were founded in a spirit of rebellion against a strict disciplinarianism that treated the young men as boys, a pedagogical system that taught them mainly Latin and Greek in as dull a way possible–recitation–and offered little if anything else except chapel and church services. At Lafayette they all–students and the families of the faculty and president–lived under one roof, the College Edifice–not an exciting environment.
When the first fraternities appeared on American campuses and began to form national organizations with chapters at other colleges it was but a matter of time before they would appear at Lafayette. The first two chapters, Phi Kappa Sigma in 1853 and Delta Kappa Epsilon in 1855, organized surreptitiously and obtained charters from their national organizations secretly. When the seniors in 1857 offered to print the annual college catalog because the college could not afford to do it, they included the insignias of the two fraternities on the last page. The faculty and trustees were not amused.
The presence of such secret societies on American college campuses when the first ones were formed earlier in the century was not itself a secret. Each of them, each in its turn, considered itself a renewal of the individualistic spirit and of certain ideals of nobility, dignity and service. But it would seem that at Lafayette neither faculty nor trustees had taken official cognizance of the presence of the fraternities on their campus before this incident. The Class of 1857 was a rambunctious one, all of the members having to sign a pledge to obey college rules and to swear off drinking alcoholic beverages if they wanted to graduate. The faculty and Board assumed these two new secret societies were responsible for the disorders of the year.
The solution in 1857 to the problem of the presence of secret societies was one to which the trustees were accustomed. They ordered that each new student upon matriculation sign a pledge that he would not join any secret society, and swear before graduation that he had not broken his oath. The faculty prevailed upon the board to drop the second provision. The requirement was published in the catalogs for the next two years. The instructions read:
By a resolution of the Board of Trustees every Student is required to sign a pledge that, during his College course, he will have no connection with any secret society without previous permission of the Faculty.3
Few students if any seem to have signed it. One student possibly as a trial balloon deliberately petitioned the faculty for permission to join the DEKEs. He was turned down.
For about a decade the college vacillated between enforcement and abandonment of the pledge. When it was being enforced the college blamed disorders on “resistance to college authority.” When it was not being enforced student disorders were recognized as no more than manifestations of “gross sin.”
Approximately half the students continued to join these secret societies, and new chapters augmented the list: Zeta Psi in 1858, a short-lived chapter of Iota Alpha Kappa in 1863, Theta Delta Chi and Sigma Chi in 1867. They still maintained secrecy, meeting in rooms downtown, and continued to protest the pledge whenever efforts were made to enforce it.
A renewed effort in the academic year 1866-67 on the part of the trustees and faculty to enforce the pledge precipitated a crisis. Students organized several days of disorder over the Independence Day holiday 1867. For three days all sorts of mischief were perpetrated on campus. The President himself was mobbed. Some twelve students were punished.
Although both faculty and trustees blamed the disorders on the “secret societies,” they seem to have realized that pressing the pledge was not going to remove them. The Board, while urging students not to join secret societies because of “their evil influences,” did allow those who, or those whose parents, protested the pledge not to sign it. As an additional precaution the trustees rearranged the college calendar to place Independence Day in the summer vacation rather than in the academic year.
The pledge requirement in effect was dropped. No actions were taken against the secret societies. Their numbers increased. Two new chapters appeared in 1869–Phi Kappa Psi and another short lived one, Upsilon Beta. The brothers began to live in groups of adjoining rooms in the new residence halls along what would become “Dorm Row,” began eating together in eating clubs and visited their downtown quarters openly. But the adversarial relationship based on rebellion on the part of the students and on suspicion and distrust by both faculty members and trustees, had been allowed to become almost a traditional norm of relationship between the college and the fraternity.
Inevitably, following currents in the mainstream of American college life, fraternities began to wish to build their own chapter houses. The first petition was submitted in 1891, followed by several more. It took almost a decade for the Board to make up its mind. First it wanted to know what the experiences were elsewhere where chapter houses had been built; then they wanted to wait until they discovered the wishes of the new President, Dr. Ethelbert Warfield, who was inaugurated 1891. Then there were questions about construction standards and financial control and of course the morals of the students.
At the time the college was facing an ever more acute housing shortage. The last student residence hall built had been East Hall in 1874, to meet a housing shortage on the expanding campus. By 1900 the same situation recurred. Enrollment in 1873-1874 was 280. In 1900-1901 it reached 372. College President Dr. Warfield, according to Skillman, saw the solution to the housing shortage in the fraternity chapter house.4
The Board appointed a Fraternity House Committee. Its members were, except for President Warfield, all Lafayette graduates–and all fraternity men.5 Policies governing quality of construction and financing were formulated and approved October 25, 1900. The Board shifted from reluctantly allowing houses to be built on campus, or contiguous thereto, to encouraging the fraternities to build and even offering to help finance construction. (See Appendix IA a-k and o-z.) The college did not have to concern itself with student housing except for modernizing and maintaining existing structures, “Dorm Row” and East Hall and parts of South College, until 1924, when Easton Hall was built, and 1931, when Gates Hall replaced East Hall. Of course the fraternities would be subject to the same rules of deportment that governed the students in college residence halls, and the specific point was made that there would be “no liquors, women of immoral character or gambling” in the chapter houses.6
1. See David B. Skillman, Biography of a College, (Easton 1932) two volumes, Vol I pp. 69-72.
2. Faculty Meeting Minutes June 1, 1858 p. 189-190: “That the petition of Mr. Galt to join the DKE Soc. and that of Mr. Williamson to start a Division of the Sons of Temperance in the College be not granted.”
3. Catalogue of the Officers and Students of Lafayette College, for the Year 1858-9, Easton Pa. p. 13
The Board action, July 27, 1857, read:
That the Faculty require each student to sign a Pledge that during his connection with the college he will not join any secret society, now existing or that may hereafter be organized. And that upon graduation it be necessary in order thereto to sign a Paper that he has not broken his pledge, this Resolution to be put into force upon the commencement of the next term.
4. Skillman, op. cit. II, p. 149.
5. They were C. B. Adamson, class of 1877 Theta Delta Chi; W. Shaefer, 1878 DKE; E. M. Green, E. M. 1883, Phi Kappa Psi; Mc. C. Radcliffe, 1883 Phi Delta Theta; and a later addition W. Kirpatrick, 1863 Zeta Psi.
6. Minutes of the Board, October 25, 1900, p. 355:
“The building shall be for the exclusive use of bona fide students of the College.
“Servants employed in and about the building shall be approved by the Inspector of Buildings.
“No liquors, women of immoral character or gambling shall be permitted in the building at any time, and the Fraternity shall engage to make and enforce this as a ‘house rule.’
“The number of persons occupying any building as a dormitory shall be agreed upon before its erection, and no greater number shall occupy it without special permission and any person or persons in excess of the agreed number shall pay the regular assessed rent.”