The End

The End

Divisive demise of Colby's fraternities was the end of a tradition and the beginning of a new era.

By Julia Hanauer-Milne

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."
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  • On June 20, 2006, Robert Morrison wrote:
    It is rude and ignorant to use the term "frat" to generalize all greek letter organizations. The beer guzzling and hazing "frats" project an image that fraternities should not have to share.

  • On June 29, 2006, Robert J. Ryan wrote:
    As a fraternity member, and '81 Graduate, I recall being quite dismayed at the news and the fact that no options were presented in public and to Alumni. I believe that it has injured, in some cases irrevocably, the ability to reconnect with certain graduates, both in fund raising activities and in loyalty to the school, at least in the graduates from my era.

  • On June 29, 2006, Paul Harrington ATO '74 wrote:
    "We want there to be a sense of belonging to the College as a whole," Adams said. "There are other places and ways of finding that." I hope this is true. During my last visit to Colby a few years back I noticed more "special interest" and ethnic specific rooms throughout the student union. More segregation and isolation than I experienced at Colby. We didn't have those in the early seventies when I was a student and Treasurer of ATO. Granted we threw some outrageous parties, but everyone was welcome! We also did a lot of community work, especially with the local Boy's Club as most of us ATO's were on the swim team then. I can tell you when I meet up with a brother ATO today it feels like 30 years fade away. And there was just as strong a bond when I was a trustee for the new chapter here at URI. I doubt those types of bonds are formed today. It was interesting that this article appeared at the same time as President Adams plea for financial support. I admit, I make a very small donation to count towards the 50% participation. But I make a more generous donation to ATO! You will have a hard time convincing me Colby is a better place without fraternity and sorority presence on campus. And the so called negative aspects (beer guzzling parties etc) still go on, only off campus in private residences where kids get back to campus behind the wheel, instead of a stumbling walk back to their dorm. Out of sight out of mind.

  • On July 28, 2006, Chad Frederick wrote:
    Rude and ignorant? As a modern student, everything I've heard about frats and seen in the popular culture points to "hazing and beer guzzling". Can you tell me more about the fraternities of the old days?

  • On August 18, 2006, Nicholas Snyder '05 wrote:
    Many students chose Colby specifically for the fact that there were no longer fraternities. In a school of its size having groups such as fraternities can act as a divisive force. It is too bad that alumni have been alienated by these actions but a new and different Colby has emerged. If fraternities were still in existence would we be ranked as high as we are with news organizations and named a ,new ivy?Š Would students from international origin still be as interested in the Colby experience? Yes, new and different groups have been created that have filled some of the gaps, and to a returning alumni it might seem as though these new groups promote division. But in truth, they give students an outlet to express their beliefs, in a way a fraternity never could. Joining one of these groups allows a student a voice, but it does not have to be their only voice, they can join as many groups, as many factions as necessary to truly express themselves. And they get to choose, they do not have to be chosen. What makes Colby such an amazing institution is that each student has the ability to choose their own path, whether it is through groups, academics, or athletics, everyone finds their own way, without having to follow the path set out by others.

  • On October 2, 2006, Paul Harrington ATO '74 wrote:
    This is in response to Chad Frederick's and Nicholas Snyder's question and comments above. It's not surprising that all you've seen portrayed is the hazing, beer guzzling, Animal House mentality of Fraternities and Sororities. Face it, good, nice, well behaved just doesn't sell! Would you pay ten bucks to see a movie about straight A students doing nothing but charity work? I don't think so. So while many of the things you refer to did occur, some with disastrous results on some campuses by the way, there was a tremendous amount of good to come out of Fraternities and Sororities. When I joined ATO in the Spring of 1971, the chapter like many on campus, was in trouble. Two years later we had done a good enough job of turning things around membership wise and academically that two alumni paid off the house mortgage in full. Not something they would do if it was all hazing & beer guzzling parties. I won't deny those things went on, though our hazing did not include anything that we brothers would not do ourselves. And by the way it was all in FUN! A person joined a Fraternity or Sorority because they had a common bond with the members, not because they were "chosen". Many of those revolved around athletics; ATO was the swimmers, Lambda Chi was football, DKE was hockey (though they had a swimmer too) and so on. You didn't have to join a Fraternity because you were on a team, or part of any group, but you sure might have the desire. Just because you did, you weren't giving up your individuality. In many ways you had a safe place to express it. You could belong to as many organizations as you wanted. Many ATO chapters even had a group of ATO Sisters on campus, so we weren't even totally gender biased. The friendships I have formed, and common bonds with all ATO brothers extend beyond Colby and have lasted a lifetime. I don't know many Dana, or Woodman people who say the same thing. I learned more about living, working and playing together being a member of ATO and living in that house than I ever did from any classroom. Colby was an exclusive, highly ranked little Ivy school then, just as it is now. You will have a hard time convincing me that the social atmosphere is more inclusive today, with all the special interest separation, than it was back then. You think it's better, because you never had the chance to experience it yourself. You only get to read what others have to sensationalize. Talk about taking away your choice! If you want more, keep asking!