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The following remarks were given at the bicentennial celebration of the American college fraternity at the 1976 NIC Annual Meeting in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Fraternities are uniquely American. Although European schools have clubs and societies, nothing parallel to the American fraternity system exists elsewhere.
The first fraternity was begun at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, on December 5, 1776, when a group of students formed a secret society which they called Phi Beta Kappa, after the first initials of their Greek motto: "Love of wisdom, the guide of life." Phi Beta Kappa existed as a social group for the first 50 years of its life, and chapters were established at other schools, including Harvard, Yale and Dartmouth. It did not become the scholastic honor society we know today until after the anti-Masonic and anti-secret-society agitation of the 1820s.
But Phi Beta Kappa set the tone and instituted many of the characteristics which are considered "typical" of fraternities: a Greek-letter name, a Greek motto, an oath of secrecy, a badge, a ritual, a seal and a secret grip or handshake. (Undoubtedly the Greek motto and Greek name arose from the fact that all these students studied Greek as an academic requirement.)
Other groups that were founded shortly thereafter emulated the characteristics of Phi Beta Kappa in most respects, and fraternity chapters were established at many of our early colleges. Of the 63 men's fraternities that are now members of the National Interfraternity Conference, 36 were founded in the 19th century.
Education in the 18th and 19th centuries was rigid, structured and dogmatic. Fraternities filled a need in the lives of these young students by providing friendships and recreation. Although clubs, particularly literary societies, flourished at this time, most of them were too large and too specialized to provide variety and to foster close friendships.
When young women were finally admitted to what had previously been all-male colleges, they too wanted "something of their own." Consequently, after the Civil War several women's fraternities appeared within a few months of each other. I.C. Sorosis (coined from the Latin word "soror" meaning "sister") was patterned after the men's groups and was established at Monmouth College in Illinois on April 28, 1867. It later took the name Pi Beta Phi, after the initials of its secret motto. Kappa Kappa Gamma followed I.C. Sorosis at Monmouth in March 1870, but Kappa Alpha Theta was founded as the first Greek-lettered woman's fraternity on January 27, 1870, at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana. At about the same time, and without any prior knowledge of the existence of the others, Alpha Phi was founded at Syracuse University in New York in September 1872, and Delta Gamma was founded at Lewis School in Mississippi in December 1873. All of these groups were incorporated as "women's fraternities," because at that time the word "sorority" did not exist. This term was created for Gamma Phi Beta in 1874 because their advisor, a professor of Latin at Syracuse University, thought the term "fraternity" ill-advised for a group of young ladies.
By the turn of the century, ten women's fraternities had established themselves as national groups, and in 1902 they organized what is now called the National Panhellenic Conference. Today the conference has 26 member groups.
In 1909, 26 men's groups founded the National Interfraternity Conference, and it now has a membership of 63 general fraternities. Not all of these fraternities are designated by Greek names, exceptions being Acacia, FarmHouse and Triangle.
In 1930, eight national Greek-letter sororities and fraternities united to form the National Pan-Hellenic Council. Five of these traditionally black groups were founded at Howard University: Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority in 1908, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority in 1913, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority in 1913, Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity in 1914 and Omega Psi Phi Fraternity in 1911. The remaining sorority in the council, Sigma Gamma Rho, was founded in Indianapolis in 1922 and granted its first collegiate charter at Butler University in 1929. Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity was founded at Indiana University in 1911, and the oldest NPHC fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, was founded at Cornell in 1906.
American fraternities were created as social organizations, and they retain this characteristic to the present day. Even the so-called "professional" societies, which select their members from a particular discipline, have a distinct social function.
But in the middle of the 19th century, a change occurred on the American campus that caused fraternities to acquire a secondary characteristic: the fraternity house. Because of many factors and circumstances (most of them economical), a number of schools were unable to maintain housing for their students. Consequently, campuses were ringed with boarding houses where students secured their own lodging and meals.
By this time many chapters had grown too large to meet in a student's room and had started renting halls. And in 1854, at the University of Michigan, Chi Psi built a 20- by 14-foot log cabin in which to hold its meetings.
So the students' reaction to this double need - for meeting rooms and for living quarters - was to lease, and finally to build their own homes. Thus evolved the fraternity house and the substitution of the word "house" for the word "chapter," as in, "What house do you belong to?" This expression is common today even on campuses where there are no housed chapters.
The effects of going into the housing business has been many and varied. Owning and maintaining property required the cooperation of the alumni and alumnae, many of whom in the past had simply graduated and disappeared. Now they become involved with the management of the chapters, which indirectly benefited the colleges by keeping alumni and alumnae interested in the school. Likewise, private ownership of these houses relieved many schools of the financial burden of building dormitories. In fact, this willingness on the part of sororities and fraternities to assume responsibility for housing has gradually led to many arrangements on the part of the institutions, such as "leased land" agreements, whereby the school owns the land and the fraternity constructs the building.
But the change from being a group the "met" together to being a group that "lived" together was a real turning point in the fraternity movement. It altered the entire concept of fraternity - with all its advantages and disadvantages. It strengthened unity, discipline, activities and friendships. On some campuses the fraternities fostered the extracurricular activities, such as athletics, the newspaper, homecoming and school dances. Many colleges concerned themselves solely with the educational process and took no responsibility for the other facets of student life.
It is estimated at present that only 60 to 70 percent of our fraternities and sororities live in their own houses - either leased or owned. The rest have lodges or suites or rent meeting rooms. But the spirit of unity engendered by the "house " concept is evident even with unhoused chapters.
From the earliest days of the fraternity movement, rivalry among the groups to pledge members led to excesses in "rushing" practices, and finally to charges of exclusiveness and snobbery, resulting in several legal disputes regarding the right of fraternities to exist. Beginning in the late 1870s, several schools passed anti-fraternity rulings and some state legislatures prohibited fraternities in state institutions. Litigation, in various forms, has persisted to the present time, although the charges have gradually shifted from "secret societies" to "discrimination."
Beginning at the close of World War II, when fraternities experienced a decided rise in popularity, many educators expressed the opinion that restrictions in membership based on race, color or creed had no place on the campus. As private organizations, fraternities maintained their right to select their own members, but several federal commissions and acts of Congress threatened fraternal rights, and the campus upheavals of the 1960s led to a serious decline in fraternity membership. Although Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibiting sex discrimination in the schools was amended in 1974 to exempt membership practices of social fraternities, many schools demanded that discrimination based on race, color or creed be discontinued if the fraternity were allowed to remain on the campus. Many groups founded along religious beliefs were adversely affected by these demands. Nevertheless, such restrictions have been eliminated, although membership selection is still the privilege of the individual chapters.
The "national" character of fraternities (and many of them are "international" with chapters in Canada) evolved gradually. Before the Civil War, as a rule chapters were independent and did as they pleased. In fact, it was common for a chapter at one school to establish a chapter at another school and not even bother to inform the rest of the fraternity. But gradually authority for the "government" of the groups was vested in convention - usually a type of reunion - and one chapter would be designated as the "Grand" or "Presiding" chapter, to be responsible for information. Sometime in the 1870s fraternities began to elect national officers, a practice imitated from their beginning by the sororities. After the turn of the century, one by one the groups established national offices. Many now own their own buildings.
Although sororities patterned themselves after fraternities, and their structure is parallel, there are tremendous differences between sororities and fraternities. And, yes, it begins with differences between the sexes.
Men's fraternities, generally, have followed a "laissez-faire" or "free enterprise" philosophy. The national organization tends to allow the chapters to run their own affairs as much as possible. The national offices are run by paid professionals who supervise a staff of paid professionals who oversee the chapters. There are, of course, volunteer advisors to the chapters and volunteer house corporation boards, but the men's groups do not have a tradition of constant supervision which characterizes the typical sorority chapter.
Sororities are managed with a somewhat "maternal" philosophy. Each chapter has a board of alumnae advisors - all volunteers - that supervises the chapters and is directly responsible to the national organization. The national officers, also volunteers, supervise the various departments of the sorority.
There is not a "fault" on either side: it is merely the difference between the men's philosophy and the women's. When the National Panhellenic Conference was formed in 1902, the first thing the ladies did was draw up agreements - practical statements of fair play - that no one would belong to more than one group, that a pledge was binding for a specified period, that no one would be pledged before she was enrolled in college, and so on. The men's groups had no such agreements and felt no need for such strict observances.
Fraternities and sororities were created by students to fill a void in their lives - to foster friendships, to encourage sociability, to provide an outlet for free expression. Few students looked upon them then - or look upon them now - as agents for philanthropy, as instruments for self-improvement or as training in leadership. And yet that is what they have become through the friendships, the sociability and the free expression. Because a student must attain a satisfactory academic average before initiation, attention to scholarship is emphasized. The chapter provides an excellent laboratory for leadership training because chapter affairs demand responsibility.
Currently all groups are going through a period of intense self-appraisal. All associations connected with fraternity management - NIC, NPC, FEA, NPHC and AFA among them - are demanding an end to hazing and irresponsible social behavior. Although this will not be achieved overnight signs of improvement are evident. Some colleges and universities have threatened to eliminate the fraternity system. Some have already done so. And many national groups have expelled or put on probation chapters that have not observed proper standards.
But these young people are human beings, and the human animal has always sought companionship, preferably with those who are congenial. If the fraternity system were eliminated today, tomorrow something would rise to take its place. And it would rise without 200 years of tradition to mold it, without strong national organizations to supervise it and without the intense loyalties which have perpetuated fraternities.
The American college and university would be bereft of one of its most unique institutions - the fraternity - which has grown and developed by the side of American education.
Those of us who listened to Betty Mullins Jones deliver this speech at the bi-centennial celebration of fraternity / sorority life in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1976, were, as always, enthralled by her wit, her dry sense of humor, and the thoroughness with which she researched the history of our fraternity / sorority heritage. To attempt to add to this overview seems almost blasphemous.
However, in the intervening twenty-five years, new initiatives to address continuing problems and a changing culture with increased expectations from society in general have subsequently impacted our fraternity / sorority community.
Perhaps the biggest change has been the introduction of risk management and liability concepts. While fraternities and, to a lesser extent, sororities continued to serve as the primary social outlet on many campuses, the resulting property damage, injuries, and fatalities took their toll when juries began awarding millions of dollars to an increasing litigious society. Fraternities and sororities found it ever more difficult to obtain insurance, and the result was the establishment of the Fraternity Insurance Purchasing Group (FIPG), a group of fraternities that joined together to form a clearinghouse for information on risk management and liability insurance. In short order, the risk management guidelines of FIPG were adopted by most other inter/national organizations, and a new culture of liability awareness emerged in fraternity / sorority life. (A sign of the constant change in this area, FIPG has since changed its focus and name to Fraternal Information and Programming Group.) Substance-free housing initiatives and shortened new member programs are direct results of the increased role that risk management plays in fraternity / sorority management. Education of chapter members and alumni/ae is a continuing commitment of the general headquarters and the campus fraternity / sorority advisors.
Another development in the fraternity / sorority world has been the emergence of ethnic fraternities and sororities and their umbrella organizations. Although integration and interaction remain primary goals of our organizations, students themselves have acted on their need for cultural identity by establishing Latino/a, Asian, Native American, and other specifically-identified groups. One result of this process has been the founding of overall governing bodies (e.g., The National Association of Latino Fraternal Organizations, Inc. known as NALFO).
Perhaps the most significant change in sororities has been the adoption of "no frills" recruitment guidelines initiated by the National Panhellenic Conference. In keeping with the change in student culture and the needs of entering freshmen, sororities now meet and greet potential new members by making a significant effort to get acquainted through conversation, as opposed to entertaining them with songs and skits.
As in every facet of life, "politically correct" terminology has become important. We no longer "rush" our new members; they are recruited. Rushees have become potential members. Rush parties are recruitment events. Pledge trainers are obsolete; we have new member educators who begin a series of program activities to educate the newest members of our chapters throughout their college careers. We refer to fraternities and sororities, rather than "Greeks," because some of our groups do not use Greek letters.
Our way of doing business has also changed to meet student expectations. No more keggers or open punch bowls (the impact of "club" or "designer" drugs continues to increase). No more "ton of sand dumped into the basement for a luau" mentality. No more co-sponsored events in "wet" fraternity houses. "Fraternities [and sororities] are struggling with old stereotypes and new problems. Hazing and alcohol abuse have put the system under strain. Aging housing, emphasis on academic performance and a wave of time-taxed students working to keep up with college costs have added stress," according to the Columbus Dispatch.
So how will we answer the ultimate question regarding the survival of fraternities and sororities in the coming decades? Just as Betty Mullins Jones did in her speech twenty-five years ago. As members of the fraternity / sorority world gathered in Williamsburg to recognize the founding of Phi Beta Kappa, the first fraternal organization, in 1776, Betty stated: ".young people are human beings, and the human animal has always sought companionship, preferably with those who are congenial. If the fraternity system were eliminated today, tomorrow something would rise to take its place. And it would rise without 200 years of tradition to mold it, without strong national organizations to supervise it, and without the intense loyalties which have perpetuated fraternities."
Yes, indeed fraternities and sororities will survive.
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