Inside the Colleges That Killed Frats for Good

Fraternities are back in the news; some schools killed them off years ago, and are all the better for it. Pictured, the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity at the University of Alabama. Dave Martin/AP

A crudely battered female mannequin dangled from a Middlebury College frat balcony in early May of 1988. Doused in blood-tinted paint and flashing a sexually charged slur, the gross spectacle appeared during a toga party at Delta Upsilon, the jock fraternity — and there it remained the following day, an ugly blight on the Vermont college’s idyllic campus, until a dean intervened. Students gawked but mostly carried on. It was the school’s small group of feminists who alerted the news crews up north in Burlington.

When Cole Moore Odell arrived as a freshman in the Fall of 1989, the story still hung fresh in the air. “The mannequin-out-the-window incident was kind of famous on campus when we got there,” he said a quarter of a century later. “It could be argued that [by supporting the school’s fraternities] you are at least tacitly approving that in a way.”

At Middlebury, the mannequin was an emblem of the unchecked influence six fraternities had exerted over campus life for generations — and it marked the beginning of the end. Later that month, Middlebury president Olin Robison declared it “a point beyond which our tolerance cannot and must not be stretched” and placed Delta Upsilon under suspension for a full year. By January of 1990, the Board of Trustees insisted that the frats integrate women, presumably forfeiting their national affiliations in the process, or dissolve. A year later, the school’s fraternities had been officially abolished, several of them swept up into a new decade’s system of coed “social houses.”

Perhaps, as Caitlin Flanagan argues in The Atlantic’s March cover story, “fraternities are now mightier than the colleges and universities that host them.” Perhaps, armed with their sordid hazing rituals and sexist customs, they have hardened into unassailable American institutions, clutching in a stranglehold grip those schools and administrators who dare question their formidable rule. Perhaps nothing can be done.

Perhaps. But not so at Middlebury, or the handful of elite Northeastern colleges that took similar steps, both before and after, to tweak the gender gap in the Greek sphere. At Middlebury, the system came shakily — if not neatly — undone. And twenty-something years later, the college isn’t looking back with regret.

“We’re pleased that Middlebury decided some time ago to make our residential life system inclusive of all students,” said Shirley Collado, Dean of the College. “I think that Middlebury is stronger and more diverse.”

* * *

As colossal institutional overhauls go, this one didn’t occur overnight.

The transition, Collado said, was set in motion a decade or so prior, when in early 1979 the Board of Trustees voted to conclude the long-running tradition of fraternity dining. At the time, Hal Findlay, class of  1980, told The Middlebury Campus he wasn’t sure if frats could “survive” sans in-house dining; the controversy would carry well into 1981.

Drama struck further when, in 1986, Vermont raised the drinking age to 21, rendering illegal the booze-fueled hijinks frats had long taken for granted. Then, the mannequin episode, and then, in late 1989, a task force study concluded “the narrowly defined, fraternity-dominated social life on campus is incompatible with our vision of the future.”

The Board of Trustees made the call, unanimously, the following month. Single-sex social organizations would be no more at Middlebury. A newly formed residential system was set in place in 1991, sorting Middlebury first-years into one of five coed “living-learning” communities.

Meanwhile, some frats managed to morph into social houses; others dissolved. The reaction wasn’t entirely cordial on the part of the houses.

“There was one group of brothers at Delta Kappa Epsilon who totally trashed the house,” recalled a librarian who asked not to be named. “They took the bannister off the staircase railing, they broke holes in the walls, they broke windows — because they were just so angry. It cost the college a whole lot to put that building back into shape to be used again.”

Banned from their own house, DKE brothers waged a fruitless legal battle, claiming their right to association, and they eventually burrowed underground, risking suspension to meet at a secret off-campus warehouse. The New York Times caught on to the trend in 1994. Odell made it to one such party, which he described as “an uncomfortable gathering in a giant empty box motivated more by a spirit of resistance than enjoyment.” The four-year student turnover squashed any lingering anger over the ban, however, and if underground frats exist on campus today, students say they exert little if any influence on the social sphere.

But let’s rewind. Of the 11 elite campuses that make up the New England Small College Athletic Conference, Middlebury was not the first — and wouldn’t be the last — to wage a public war on the testosterone-fueled institutions that had ruled campus decades before their administrators had first worn diapers. The prestigious Williams College, perched on 450 acres in scenic northwestern Massachusetts, led the charge a generation prior.

John Chandler joined the faculty in 1955, became dean of the faculty and then president of the school in 1973, and has completed a book manuscript on the subject of frats. He had a front-row view. And at 90, he might be the only former faculty member alive to tell the full story.

The frat crisis, he told Newsweek, actually dates back to World War II. Before the war, fraternities ruled the campus, their houses populated by the affluent, well-bred graduates of Exeter, Andover, Deerfield, and so forth. Then came the war veterans, who hailed from more modest backgrounds.

“The war veterans looked upon this as ‘Mickey Mouse,’ as a waste of time, and furthermore they didn't like the whole caste system,” Chandler said. “There was a tremendous amount of status consciousness about fraternities.”

Discrimination played a role there, too. Not against women — Williams was all-male at the time. But, Chandler said, “there remained the system of blackballing and secret agreements between some fraternities and their national bodies to exclude blacks and Jews.” When one frat, Sigma Phi, opted to admit black students, its pledge class fell by almost half. “It was essentially a caste system based on socioeconomic status as perceived by students,” Chandler said.

In the fall of 1961, a committee was formed to examine concerns about the influence of frats on social life. Fraternities, it concluded, had compromised “the primary educational purposes of the College.” A year later, the Board of Trustees set in motion the transition away from the system.

“The anger among alumni and students was ferocious for about two years, two-and-a-half years,” Chandler recalled. But soon after, “the decision was made to admit women, the ability to raise money went way up, alienated alumni who had been the victim of the fraternity system came back to the college, and the standing of Williams academically rose.”

Underground fraternities would pop up across the border in Vermont during Chandler’s presidency, but students were weary. “I had a lot of anxious students coming to see me, saying, ‘Are fraternities returning to Williams? I came because there were no fraternities.’”

The former president recognized that Williams had been ahead of the curve. He pointed to Hamilton College, where he previously served as president, as a school that botched its Greek reforms, opting to maintain frats and sororities but ban their members from dining or living together. (Hamilton declined to comment on these policies when reached via email.) Colby College, he said, which sits six hours north in the tundras of Maine, followed Williams’ lead nicely. The school was wrapping up its transition period just as Middlebury’s was heating up.

According to Cal Mackenzie, who has been a Professor of Government at Colby since 1978, the war on frats began in 1979 with the arrival of President William R. Cotter, who had attended Harvard and thus had no experience with fraternities.

“The leadup to it went on for years,” Mackenzie recalled. “How much longer can we put up with this terrible, uncivilized behavior? The trouble with undergraduate life is just when you think you’ve cured the problem, those guys go and a new bunch of guys come.”

There was no single nail in the coffin. But the central issue was alcohol.

“The collective behavior fueled by alcohol frequently got out of hand,” he said. “There was a lot of antisocial activity, a lot of it targeting women. Name-calling when women would walk by, that sort of thing that young men do when they’ve had too much to drink. There were women on campus who wouldn’t walk by fraternity houses.”

In 1983, Cotter appointed a Trustee Commission, which included alumni, students, and faculty. The commission held hearings on campus, spoke to alumni around the country, reviewed the conditions of fraternities, and, in early 1984, voted unanimously to eliminate the system. The frats were incensed by the news. “They had a bonfire that night and burned up some of their own furniture on fraternity row,” Mackenzie said.

Douglas Terp, a member of the Class of 1984 and current Vice President for Administration, served on that commission. He was also in a fraternity. Unsurprisingly, he lost some friends.

“The term [traitor] has been applied a few times,” he said. But he stood by the vote. “If you have roughly a third of the campus in all-male housing that can self-select, you’ve already set up a little bit of a conflict on gender. Not having that seems to be an improvement from the start.”

Terp looked back on his own fraternity days with equal doses of affection and scorn. “Our sort of anthem was Animal House,” he recalled. “That was the greatest movie of all time as far as we were concerned.”

There wasn’t a coed replacement to be pumped into being, either. As at Middlebury and Williams, some frats ventured underground. But on campus, at least, Greek life came to a close, despite the efforts of the five frats who filed suit in an eleventh-hour bid to block the new policy. According to Earl Smith, a professor who served as secretary of the commission, the number of women in campus leadership positions swiftly rose.

Fifteen years later and fifty miles south, Bowdoin College would join the club.

* * *

So, were the chronicles of abuse and social violence that led these schools to axe frats so much worse than what goes on in frat houses today, the sordid tales detailed in The Atlantic and Rolling Stone? Let’s return to the Green Mountain State.

It’s difficult, as might be expected, to pinpoint the precise ills that led Middlebury College to take the radical path it took. Media coverage from those years mentions most of the usual suspects: worrisome hazing rituals, out-of-control alcohol abuse, sexism. Odell stressed that the school was equally interested in creating new spaces — hence the slightly Hogwartsian commons system, which sprung up in 1991, grouping students into one of five “living-learning communities.”

“I think that Middlebury had a dual interest in effectively banishing the fraternities,” he said. “They created a potentially safer, certainly more egalitarian campus [with the commons].”

What isn’t much in question, however, is that gender relations on campus were especially fraught at the tail end of the fraternity era — and that the mannequin episode served as a tipping point.

That incident prompted the formation of a Special Committee on Attitudes Toward Gender, which spent the next three semesters surveying the campus and determining recommendations for President Olin Clyde Robison. The committee’s report, rife with tales of sexual harassment and a pervasive “anti-feminism feeling among the male members of Middlebury,” reads like a portrait of a New England college limping its way through the Eisenhower era— not a dispatch from the dawn of the nineties.

“I can't tell you how many times I have walked past fraternity houses and heard comments about what I am wearing, my body or my sexual ability in bed,” a senior woman wrote. Another student reported, “A female friend recently told me that she had been flashed the night before at a party. Apparently a group of males surrounded her and one of them flashed her.” That woman never bothered reporting the act.

Comments from the male students are no less telling. “A lot of times I sit with my friends and we comment on girls as they walk by — make jokes, that sort of thing,” one guy admitted. Another student argued that “people who are extreme radicals that blow everything out of proportion just to prove their point ask to be harassed.”

And harassed they were. The survey found that eight percent of male students and 22 percent of females reported having been sexually harassed at the school. Probably more, as “it was evident that a substantially higher number of students had experienced harassment yet did not label the experience as sexual harassment.” Meanwhile, another 17 percent of female respondents said they’d been forced to engage in sexual activity against their will on a date, and eight percent said they’d considered leaving Middlebury because of sexism.

The report’s authors recognized fraternities as a hub for these sorts of tensions. But if they regarded the total overhaul of the system as a likely or even plausible solution, they didn’t say.

Decades later, a librarian conceded that sexual misconduct remains a major issue on Middlebury’s campus, as it is on virtually any campus. Last spring, 23 students submitted poems and stories describing their experiences with sexual violence for an awareness event titled “It Happens Here.” But, she said, “there’s a greater awareness of it than there was,” and rape culture is no longer facilitated by a guys-first Greek presence.

“I’d say that the misogyny sometimes associated with fraternities has disappeared,” she reflected. “The social houses don't have things like [the mannequin incident]; none of that has happened. It's a different culture among young women and men than it was 20 years ago. They grow up doing things together in groups.”

An alumna who graduated in the late 1990s, who asked not to be identified by name discussing sexual assault, said “there were guys that were entitled enough to think that they were entitled to whatever they wanted and there were definitely some guys that I stayed away from.” But the social houses were not the locus of such misconduct, she said. “They really did take the whole comradery, brother/sister thing pretty seriously, so it seemed like they, for the most part, looked out for and took care of each other.”

And while a four-year turnover by its nature precludes much sense of institutional memory, students today seem pretty sure the college is better off for the change.

“I think Middlebury student culture is a lot more balanced and inclusive than it would be with the presence of Greek life,” wrote Luke Whelan, who graduated this past December, in an email. “The people who would be in frats and sororities are still there for sure, but they don't dominate the social scene.” Whelan was a member of The Mill, a social house largely associated with hipsters and which Whelan says fosters community “without the exclusivity and entitlement associated with frats.”

Those social houses, one of which is substance-free, “are more diverse than they have ever been in the broadest sense,” said Shirley Collado, a professor of Psychology and Dean of the College. “I don't think that they are comparable [with frats] at all.”

Others who’ve passed through the coed system, like Daniel Roberts, a Fortune Magazine writer who graduated in 2009, have viewed them differently.

“They're just like frats, except that they happen to be coed,” said Roberts, who recalled tour guides boasting about the lack of frats as a selling point. But that makes for a huge difference, he acknowledged. “The social houses, much more than I understand frats and other houses to be, are very welcoming and inclusive.”

And when they begin acting like the frats of old, the administration steps in as aggressively as it did then.

A series of substance violations and two alleged sexual assault cases, for instance, landed social house Alpha Delta Phi on probation for the entire 2006-2007 academic year. ADP morphed into Delta House, which was finally disbanded after further violations last May. Whelan said the school’s sensitivity about its Greek-stained past and “micromanaging” of the social scene, including a vaguely Kafkaesque party-registering system, was a point of frustration among students — but not one worth trading for frats.

Colby, similarly, hasn’t looked back on its fraternity years with particular fondness.

“There are redeeming qualities of fraternities, I'm sure, but there's nothing that can't be replicated in different ways,” said Earl Smith. “It certainly was a better place for women, and a better place all around, I think.”

Cal Mackenzie recalled the year directly after the school banned fraternities, when he became Vice President for Development and, in the course of those duties, moseyed around courting alumni for cash. Many were upset — but came around to the decision with little resistance.

“Life is much better,” he said. “Women can go wherever they want to go. The social life at Colby is much healthier than it used to be.”

But, with a pang of sadness, he regretted that the romantic fraternity culture of the 1950s and ‘60s had been a casualty of the eighties’ Animal House ethos — and the subsequent abolition era.

“When I was a fraternity member in the ‘60s, we wore coats and ties to dinner every night. There were interfraternity debates, there was an interfraternity sing…” He broke off. “But it was a much more civilized lifestyle in the ‘60s. That changed for a lot of reasons.”

It’s changing, still.

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