If the death knell was tolling for fraternities nationally, at Colby it was heard faintly, if at all. Associations with athletic teams and other groups kept fraternities at the center of Colby social life. Indeed, some 80 percent of the College's current trustees and trustees emeriti who are Colby alumni were members of either fraternities or sororities.
Frats provided vital elements of the college experience: community service on and off campus, a network of future business contacts, and irreplaceable lifelong friendships. "It was the most fun I ever had," said Ben Lowry '85, a Portland, Maine, lawyer and member of Delta Upsilon (DU). "Getting to know people and living with a bunch of guys--that developed a bond between us that is not being developed now."
Members of Delta Upsilon and guests are shown at a mixer at the fraternity house in the 1950s.
The social impact was not limited to fraternity brothers. One or more fraternities were hosts to campus-wide parties nearly every weekend. Two- to three-hundred students would pack into a frat house, make their way to the keg and socialize. Some students stayed long enough to check out the scene; others stayed into the early morning hours. "It was loud, the smell of beer was strong, you had to yell to talk," Lowry remembers. "Everyone would be dancing in the living room. . . . Everyone was having a good time. It was a lot of people drinking a lot of beer."
And all that beer, while an accepted part of the social scene, by the early 1980s was leading to problems: fraternity houses in disrepair, poor academic performance, men hurling inappropriate comments at women as they passed frat row. "You had to walk a gauntlet to get to the library or the student unions," said Jane Eklund '81. "They would drop nets on women; they would throw water balloons. There would be catcalls. It could be kind of uncomfortable."
Admissions steered campus tours away from frat row so prospective students wouldn't be subjected to heckling--or see the mess left after parties (which, fraternity members point out, was created by everyone who attended). Administrators in charge of discipline often found themselves dealing with fraternities. "[Fraternity members] brought me all my business," said Earl Smith, Colby's retired dean of the College and long the dean of students.
But it wasn't just excessive partying that spelled doom for Greek life, Smith and other administrators say. Declining membership, sub-par grade-point averages, a need for more variety in the College's social life, and a push for gender equity campus-wide all played roles. "[Fraternities] offered nothing to the residential-life system that couldn't be provided by the College," Smith said. And yet, he acknowledged, "Fraternities were an important part of the experience at Colby. There were going to be hurt feelings" if they were closed.
Fraternity members refuted the Animal House stereotype at the time, and they still do. Said Lloyd Benson '73, a public relations executive in Massachusetts and member of Lambda Chi Alpha: "The most invigorating intellectual conversations I've had to date were in that [frat] house. It's easy to pigeonhole people into categories and that becomes very convenient."
Fraternity members also dispute that frats were exclusive. They say members came from all walks of life and that there was a fraternity for everyone at Colby. "In any type of social environment, especially in a college, people tend to form social groups," said David Rosenberg '84, a former DU president. "Even if you didn't belong to a frat and lived in a dorm, you had your own group of friends. Is that elitist?"
But, real or perceived, that exclusivity troubled outsiders in the frats' final years. Fraternities excluded women as well as certain men, and they were insular enclaves with their own norms, some alumni and administrators say. Did those kinds of organizations belong at a liberal arts school that was supposed to be broadening horizons? Did fraternities fit into the College's liberal arts mission?
"No," said most faculty members, with 75 percent in one campus poll saying frats should go. Although the vast majority of students--75 percent in a similar vote--favored keeping fraternities, a vocal group did not. Some of these students began taking action. Eklund, currently an editor at the Monadnock Ledger
in New Hampshire, said she and a few friends began wearing "no fraternity" buttons and writing opinion pieces for the Echo
in her senior year. Her group met with Cotter to make its case.
"One [reason] was, at Colby, unlike at most schools, the frats were right on campus," Eklund said. "They had some of the best housing--and it was provided by the College. They had these nice double rooms with living rooms downstairs. I know some of them were trashed at the time, but I knew they would clean up pretty nicely. They were small, intimate housing situations that weren't available to other people."