Fraternities on the Rocks

Article excerpt

JEW ENDURING INSTITUTIONS -- and certainly no collegiate institutions -- are as quintessentially American as the Greek letter fraternities and sororities. It was in 1776, emblematically enough, that the first such society, Phi Beta Kappa, was founded at the College of William and Mary. Founded chiefly to provide a forum for debate and discussion, Phi Beta Kappa was primarily concerned with enhancing the scholarship of its members. In this the organization was typical of the first fraternities, most of which were founded as literary societies.

The first fraternity in the sense that the word is now used was the Kappa Alpha Society, founded at Union College in 1825 and still in existence today. Like-minded chapters, such as Delta Chi and Sigma Phi, soon followed suit, as did corollary societies for women, sororities. These began forming on campuses in the mid-nineteenth century, mostly as places where women -- who were often banned from the public meeting areas of colleges -- could retreat.

Neither fraternities nor sororities, of course, have remained static for these 200-plus years; as living institutions, all have changed with the times. Still, it is striking that these particular forms of Americana continue to deliver much the same benefits to members today as they have since their founding -- the provision of a cozier, more intimate setting in which to share ideas, build lasting friendships, and acquire nurture and support from a continuous set of peers in a world that is, for most students, their first experience of life lived separately from their families.

The deep loyalty felt by generations of Greek system alumni is one kind of testimony to the enduring appeal of fraternities and sororities. The numbers also speak to the same point. Despite some attrition during the past decade, more than two centuries after that first Phi Beta Kappa meeting, there remain 67 national fraternities and 26 national sororities -- in all, almost a million collegiate members in over 8,000 chapters across the country.

Yet despite their unique place in American collegiate history, despite even their demonstrated success in serving the interests of their membership, fraternities and sororities today are under siege as never before by administrators across the country. To be sure, campus authorities have clashed with the Greek system at other points in history. In the mid-nineteenth century, for example, schools like Monmouth College forced their Greek societies to close down for reasons similar to what is today decried as "discrimination" and "elitism." Phi Beta Kappa, to take another example, eventually evolved into its present form of scholarly society as a response to public criticism of its secrecy. And there is no denying, either, that anti-intellectual practices at some chapters and houses, notably drinking, have given many an administrator a perfect pretext for cracking down.

Even so, there is also something new afoot in the longstanding power struggle between administrators and Greeks. For one thing, college and university administrators are far more ambitious about what is happening outside the lecture halls than they used to be. Throughout the 1990s, they have shown a marked and increasing interest in extracurricular activities or "residential life," of which the attempt to control fraternity and sorority life is but one example.

Even more interesting, though, is the largely unnoticed fact that the antipathy many administrators feel toward Greek life has a political dimension too. Fraternities and sororities, both of which tout the benefits of single-sex housing, directly contradict the widespread, politically "enlightened" view that all such distinctions ought to be obliterated. But the ideological differences between Greek members in general and campus administrators in general go deeper than merely the single-sex issue. It is a gap that suggests we should take a closer look at the ongoing attempt to eradicate fraternities and sororities as over two centuries of history have known them. …