Their Rise to Prominence
From the time fraternities began to build their own houses on campus until the 1960’s, these “secret societies” dominated the extracurricular and social life of the Lafayette College campus. Freshmen were invited–“rushed”–to join even before arriving, sometimes right down at the Lehigh Valley Railroad Station when they first got to Easton. The fraternities established an Interfraternity Council (IFC) in 1916 to bring some order to the rushing anarchy. The main objective was to give the entering freshman an opportunity to make some comparative judgments about these fraternal groups before joining one.
At the time the IFC was formed twelve national fraternities had chapters at Lafayette. Of these nine–Phi Kappa Psi, DEKE, Zeta Psi, DU, Theta Delta Chi, Phi Delta Theta, Chi Phi, Delta Tau Delta and Phi Gamma Delta — had built palatial residences on campus and one, Sigma Nu, was housed in an elegant mansion contiguous to the campus. By 1940 seven more chapters of national fraternities had been added, making a total of nineteen. Of these only one, KDR, was housed in a palace on campus. The remainder rented college housing on or close to the campus, or purchased homes several blocks away, none measuring up in elegance to the original fraternity palaces.7
By 1930’s, rushing (today we call it ‘affiliation’) took place officially during the first weeks of classes, followed by a pledge period that lasted usually until the beginning of the second semester. IFC made almost annual adjustments in the Rushing Agreement, endorsed by all the fraternities, but the basic formula–freshmen rushing at the beginning of the first semester of the freshman year. To assure a level playing field the Rushing Agreements in time included a requirement that the prospective fraternity man visit a minimum number of houses of which some had to be off-campus, not just the palatial mansions on campus.
The only decent living and dining quarters available for the Lafayette student were in the fraternity houses. If for no other reason, the majority of Freshmen pledged and were initiated into a Greek letter fraternity or into a local club which intended to “go national” when the Board of Trustees would give it approval. In the 1930’s, for example, the number of fraternity men each year averaged about 60%. In 1959–the last year of first semester rushing–67.5% of the freshmen (351) pledged fraternities. 76% (or 398) had indicated a wish to join a fraternity, but 47 were rejected by the fraternity of their choice.
Some few students did not become fraternity men because they did not want to. Some did not bother to register a fraternity preference because they knew they would not qualify under the discriminatory criteria written into most national fraternity charters specifying that brothers be white, Christian and in some cases Protestant. Other students did not join a fraternity, even though they had registered a preference, because they were not invited to. The “blackball” was in common use. Rather than majority rule, all it took was for one brother to vote “No”–secretly–to prevent a candidate from being accepted as a Pledge. In some fraternities national headquarters reviewed the Pledge prior to initiation and could “black ball” an “undesirable.”8
If a student did not join a fraternity he lived off campus after his freshman year or in not the most elegant housing along “Dorm Row” or East Hall until Gates Hall was built in 1930. He had no choice but to take his meals in some eatery or eating club off campus until 1934 when the College provided an inadequate facility, College Inn in Martien Hall. For a time the Inn was in the basement of Brainerd (now Hogg) Hall, also substandard. And he remained an Independent, difficult to organize into any sort of social or political group to join the campus fun. Although the Independent may have felt represented politically in the Student Council when it was formed in 1922, fraternity men, half the council membership, dominated it. And this governing body had no control anyway over the Interfraternity Council.
All extracurricular life was provided by the fraternities individually and collectively. The Brainerd Society, an evangelical group which almost all students supported, provided a reading room in Brainerd Hall with some newspapers and magazines, for a time a bowling alley, and some social activities like tea dances. It too was dominated by the fraternities. The college provided no extracurricular life, except intercollegiate and some intramural athletics, the Choir and Glee club, and a Little Theatre–and of course daily and Sunday chapel. The fraternities controlled all student publications and the various departmental and hobby clubs. Although each class held an annual dance with a big-name band–the Freshman Dance, the Sophomore Cotillion, the Junior Prom and the Senior Assembly–the great social affairs were the Fall and Spring Interfraternity Balls organized by the IFC. The fraternities graciously allowed the Independents to have a booth at these dances if they could arrange for one.
Joining a fraternity meant a lot more than securing bed, board and sociability in a palatial home for one’s four undergraduate years. The Greek letters signified certain noble ideals. The initiation ceremony introduced the new brother to a lifelong commitment to those ideals and not only to his fellow undergraduate brothers but to all lifelong brothers in the chapter, to the national and all brothers of all other chapters. The secret handshake, code words, sometimes a branding, and the rituals accompanying chapter meetings were reminders of these commitments. One just did not turn in his card and walk away from the brotherhood upon graduation–in theory at least.
The rise of the fraternity system to dominance was almost inevitable the day the Board of Trustees, despite its decades of suspicion of “secret societies,” realized that fraternity houses would relieve it of responsibility for housing students other than freshmen or for feeding any of them. Practicality prevailed over principle and prejudice. While the college still suspected the “secrecy” of the Greek system and the faculty always had reservations about its academic climate, the institution accepted the two most seriously obnoxious features of national fraternities. The discriminatory clauses in their Constitutions and their “Black Ball” practices seemed not to have bothered either trustees or faculty. The college admitted few students who were not white Protestants and only a rare Afro-American, Asian, or other ethnic or racial minority.
In addition to providing room and board, the fraternities came to provide other services for the college. Before an active fulltime Alumni Secretary was appointed in 1928 to do the job, it was the fraternities who kept their respective alumni actively interested in the College. Many alumni on Alumni Reunion Weekend were more likely to come back to meet their brothers at the chapter house than to meet the other members of their class. When the Board of Trustees authorized alumni trustees in 1889, those appointed were all too frequently fraternity alumni, thus adding sentiment to practicality as a foundation for Board support for fraternity houses and the fraternity social system.
Managing a mansion housing thirty to forty young men is no easy task. The College itself, aside from deportment and academic achievement of the individual student, was concerned only with the outward appearance of chapter houses and the moneys owed the college. The Dean of the College in the late 1920’s, Dr. Donald H. Prentice, commented favorably on the laissez-faire nature of the relationship between the college and the fraternities:
It has been the policy of the administration of Lafayette for many years to permit the fraternities virtual autonomy of government provided only that they conducted fraternity affairs in conformity with college rules and in a spirit of co-operation. The results have been very gratifying.9
However, all was not as rosy with fraternity management as he suggested. Guidance was necessary and had to be sought elsewhere. At one point Dean Prentice himself proposed the introduction of house mothers. A fraternity’s national headquarters made inspection tours and lent guidance in financial management, ritual and the meaning of association with the particular Greek letters of the brotherhood. A faculty advisor was of varying usefulness. But the active chapter depended mainly and heavily upon the alumni brothers who incorporated to build, purchase or rent the house and sublease it to the undergraduates. The alumni corporation lent guidance and kept an eye on financial management, on housekeeping, on the condition of the building and on the brotherhood. This support was indispensable.
At times, efforts were made to make this alumni support, guidance, and control over the active chapters more effective. In 1933 an Alumni Interfraternity Council, organized under the initiative of the Alumni Secretary Joseph E. Bell ’28 to help undergraduate chapters do at least some cooperative buying, was shortlived. Under the initiative of College President Dr. Ralph C. Hutchison, the Fraternity Council was created in 1945. Its immediate purpose was to help the fraternities get back on their feet after World War II. Dr. Hutchison also envisioned that all fraternity matters–including such purely undergraduate matters as interfraternity dances–would come under its jurisdiction. It was composed of four groups: the fraternity presidents, fraternity alumni representatives, the members of the faculty Committee on Student Organizations and the College administration, namely President Hutchison himself. This would have ended the state of salutary neglect that Dean Prentice had praised. It was dissolved in 1948 because the undergraduate chapter presidents objected to the loss of the independence the chapters had once enjoyed, a voting procedure that placed them always in a minority position. Furthermore the faculty refused to delegate what authority it had over fraternities to its Committee on Student Organization.
The independence of the fraternities from the interference of the College administration in their affairs had evolved out of the nature of the relationship between college and fraternities when they first appeared–a feeling of suspicion on the one hand and resentment on the other which was not dissipated when fraternities built their own houses. And the fraternity alumni corporations tended to help foster an adversarial relationship between the undergraduates and the college.
The trustees’ main concern, however, was with fraternity finances as they affected college finances and the number of available student living units. The Alumni trustees on the Board were invariably fraternity men who rarely, if ever, questioned the discriminatory policies and practices and had no reason to do so during the heyday of the fraternity in American college life. In the 1930’s during the Great Depression when the individual fraternity was as hard hit as the college community as a whole, the trustees’ Fraternity House Committee was helpful at least in limiting the number of fraternity houses.
In May of 1930 when three local fraternities asked for permission to join national fraternities, the Board postponed action. Did we not have enough fraternities?10 One, Sphinx, dropped out. The second, Elms, was granted permission without further question within less than a year, January 1931 and became Theta Xi.11 The third, Towers, the Jewish local fraternity, was subject to study and further delay. In 1940 almost a decade later and only after it submitted a second petition the Board of Trustees granted it permission to go national as Pi Lambda Phi, a non-sectarian, predominantly Jewish, national fraternity.12 The rationale for the delay–the concern of the Board lest too many chapters be created and rushing become too competitive–was, in this instance, specious. The Board, at that time, did resolve that no more national fraternities be approved.13 The figure remained at nineteen.
As ever, as at any college, occasional student activities disturbed the relatively peaceful campus calm. There is little record that fraternity groups as such were responsible for misbehavior or that any individual chapter accumulated such a record that the college or the national chapter or headquarters had to take action against it. During national Prohibition the campus was probably no drier than ever. Over big football weekends recent graduates were as responsible for the excessive consumption of alcohol as any undergraduate group. Even after Prohibition was repealed in 1933 and more bars began to appear in fraternity basements or under their side porches, the college, still officially dry, experienced no serious on-campus drinking problem except at football games. Student activities that were disturbing were usually some type of conflict between freshmen and sophomores, either organized, such as the pajama parades, or spontaneous, such as altercations after successful football games, or hazing.
Whatever the outward calm, in the fraternity the freshman in his dink or beanie was held in low esteem both as a freshman and as a pledge. The faculty was convinced that early rushing interfered with academics. Hazing incidents at times caught the official eye and ear when physical abuse was too extreme. But it is the contention of this writer based on his undergraduate experience in the early 1930’s that in the fraternity house the seniors held a controlling hand and prevented serious excesses. The freshman found his role models among his senior fraternity brothers, one of whom was actually assigned to him as a house father. Using seniors as his models he learned from the very beginning of his undergraduate career to develop the appropriate equilibrium between his academic activities and his social and extracurricular life or else failed to survive.
During World War II a Post-War Planning Committee, in a report prepared for the College, expressed the hope that what evils it was assumed existed in the fraternity system would not be revived along with the return to normal life. The two main concerns expressed were with early rushing and what was considered to be an anti-academic atmosphere in the fraternities. But full active college life was restored in the academic year 1945-46 with such suddenness–the College needed the living space the fraternity houses provided–that no reform had a chance.
A few changes with impact on fraternity life occurred during the administration of Dr. Ralph Cooper Hutchison (1945-1957). One innovation was the introduction of non-greek letter living groups. Soles Hall was first in 1948, then Watson Hall in 1949 and Kirby house in 1950. Others were planned. President Hutchison envisioned a campus on which all students would belong to living groups, either ‘Greek’ or otherwise. Some fraternity men feared that these three facilities offering alternative living arrangements would also offer some competition. But after the subsidence of the veteran bulge and the demolition of the temporary housing for married veterans, the college settled down with a planned student size of 1500. The nineteen fraternities experienced no serious competition from the so-called “social dorms.” Outside these twenty two living groups, a not too viable alternative life style tempted few “Independents.”
Changes took place in rushing practices. Little consideration could be given to the idea of sophomore rushing, or even second-semester freshman rushing, because there were no adequate eating facilities outside the fraternity houses. Without resolving the question of eating facilities for freshmen during the first weeks of the semester, the Faculty and Interfraternity Council agreed on a plan to delay rushing until the last weekend of October. In 1949 it was tried out. (See Appendix II.) The council was ironing out wrinkles in the plan for the next year when Dr. Hutchison announced his plan to end freshmen residence halls.14 All accommodations would be integrated, housing all four classes. This announcement created a crisis. Dr. Hutchison withdrew the plan.
Aside from these few changes (the new living groups and the postponement of rushing to a few weeks into the first semester) fraternity life in the 1950’s seems to have settled down into the pre-War routine. The campus was as it had been from its beginning–a “dry” campus where, since the days of the veteran, if not earlier, beer flowed freely. The freshman as a fraternity pledge was still considered a lower form of life and some of the indignities could reach hazing stage. The faculty was still concerned about academics and was as suspicious of the Greek system as ever. The trustees’ Fraternity House Committee carried on as it had, concerned with the financial relationship between the college and the houses, the growing age of the structures and nothing much more. Otherwise, the fraternity alumni on the Board accepted the system with little question. The remaining trustees seemed to have been indifferent to any thing about the fraternities beyond their utility as providers of student housing. Everything was to change.
7. In the 1960’s four of these–Theta Chi, Theta Xi, Sigma Chi and Kappa Sigma–built a fraternity complex along Sullivan Lane, not on but close to the campus and in no way matching the elegance of the original nine on campus. The others were considering following suit when everything, as we shall, see changed.
8. In 1961 the Dean Charles C. Cole distributed a questionnaire to the various fraternities with chapters at Lafayette asking about discriminatory rules and practices. Here are some samples of the kind of “clauses” that existed (the fraternities cited have been kept anonymous):
Fraternity A “One of the attributes of moral character required is that a member must be firm in moral principles as taught by the Christian religion. The Ritual … is based on such principles and contains a Christian prayer.”
Fraternity B “No person shall be eligible to membership … who is not a bona fide white, male student.”
Fraternity C “Members must be MEN, free born and of free ancestry, and without Negro blood, and have the character and bearing of gentlemen” and “No chapter shall henceforth pledge or initiate any man of Chinese, Japanese or any other Oriental blood or descent.”
9. Bulletin of Lafayette College, Annual Reports, 1928-29, Report of the Dean, p. 8.
10. Minutes of the Board, May 1, 1930, p. 292.
11. Minutes of the Board, January 8, 1931 p. 306.
12. Minutes of the Board, Jan 4, 1940 p. 530.
In the local Chapter of Pi Lambda Phi, succeeding generations of brothers heard the report that only pressure on the part of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) brought the College around to accepting a Jewish National Fraternity. The story of the actions and reactions of trustees and administrative officers to the proposition that there be a chapter of a national Jewish fraternity on campus is a sorry one.
13. loc cit
14. At the time all freshmen lived in either South College or in Easton Hall built in 1924.