A century ago there was a concerted effort in at least three states – Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin – to ban Greek-letter organizations from some or all institutions in those states. These campaigns are but a few of the efforts which have been made against Greek-letter organizations in the history of the American college fraternity system.
John L. Kind, Delta Tau Delta, who spent eight years as its National Treasurer, was then a faculty member at Wisconsin. He wrote about the fraternity situation in one of the first issues of Banta’s Greek Exchange, “An investigation of the regulation of fraternities made by the writer in 1909 showed that there were restrictions in eight of the 53 colleges and universities examined. In the fall of 1912 a similar inquiry revealed the fact that restrictions had been placed upon fraternities in 36 of the 57 institutions investigated. So it is evident that the college fraternity has not been overlooked in the desire for reform that is manifesting itself. Everybody knows that we are living in a period of great unrest: trust legislation, rate regulation, tariff revision, etc. The fraternity question as agitated at present is simply another phase of the movement. When investigation and reform begin, the fever spreads from big to little interests. It is in the air and many catch it. A mere suggestion and something is started.”
In 1909, the Wisconsin State Legislature passed a resolution providing for an investigation of Greek-letter fraternities. A substitute organization that would promote greater democracy among the students of the university was sought. The University of Wisconsin faculty led the investigation and, “a voluminous report was rendered demonstrating that, whatever might be the faults of the fraternity system, the good points outweighed the objectionable features.” The Legislature accepted this report in 1911.
The history of the anti-fraternity movement in Wisconsin, according to Kind, was “not essentially different from the development in other states. In the shape in which it comes before the legislature, it is the culmination of a brawl between two classes of students. The fraternity men were in the power in student affairs, the non-fraternity men arose and smote them, and the fight was on, and a few individuals thought their grievance of sufficient importance to bring it before the august law-makers of the state who then squandered oceans of time and much of the state’s money quibbling over student affairs, – all to no purpose.”
In Kind’s opinion, the fraternity men “were merely interested in student affairs at a time when the general student public was apathetic. We must not mistake the result for a cause. The, majority of the students are as a rule indifferent, uninterested, unless someone starts a fight. Everyone will run to see a dog fight. As soon as a few non-fraternity students hoisted the flag of agitation, many gathered around the standard of opposition, and the fraternity-non-fraternity line was drawn, – the fight was on.”
The “opposition to the fraternities which had for some time been rumbling behind the clouds broke loose one fine day, when the public press featured the following head lines on December 16, 1912: ‘Non-Fraternity Movement Crystallized, Wisconsin Commoners Organize and Expect 500 Charter Members, Bar Fraternity Men From Membership’. This seems to be the climax of the movement that was started the preceding summer with the foundation of the Daily News in opposition to the Daily Cardinal, the official student daily. Many of the members of the Daily News staff were charter members of the ‘Commoners’. It was announced that ‘in addition to the general idea of promoting democracy the purposes of the society are, according to the preamble and constitution, to work for the best interests of self-supporting students to maintain better social conditions and to provide for that equality of opportunity so essential to democracy and by which alone merit and ability may receive their proper and just recognition’. But the doors of this organization which was to work for the general good of the university, were closed at the outset against fraternity members. If the movement was sincerely promoted for the general welfare of the students of the university as a whole, why exclude from the work any particular class of students? If it was felt that the fraternities have special opportunities that the non-fraternity students do not enjoy, why not seek to give the non-fraternity students similar or equal advantages without trying to wage a campaign against the fraternities? Or is it always necessary, in work that others have done?”
On January 28, 1913, the Daily News had above its fold “BILL KILLS FRATERNITIES.” The story went on to say that Assemblyman Douglas Anderson introduced a bill to abolish of fraternities in all state institutions of higher education.
The “Commoners,” according to Kind “went up in a rush like a rocket, burst with a loud report, and spent its force in its first shot, accomplishing nothing except to leave behind a string of stars who scintillated for a time around the proposer of the anti-fraternity bill; for it is a noteworthy fact that the co-workers of Assemblyman Anderson are honorary charter members of the ‘Commoners’. In fact, they were his chief advisers and principal supporters and abettors.”
Anderson, “in a moment of false inspiration, off his guard,” admitted his motivation. On the morning of the final discussion and vote, a colleague stated that Anderson had been a disgruntled student who was now trying to have “a law enacted for the sole purpose of wreaking vengeance on an element of students who had not recognized him when in college.” Anderson hesitated, “felt for an answer, then admitted that he was disgruntled, and with the defense that any organization that made students disgruntled should be abolished.” Another colleague rose and said, “I have tried all along to believe in the sincerity of Mr. Anderson in proposing this measure for the good of the university. He now admits that his motive is one of personal disgruntlement, dissatisfaction, and a desire for revenge”. The bill did not pass.
Kind noted that while Anderson referred to the fraternities as “the privileged class,” Kind noted that he himself knew the situation personally and had been “unable to find anyone who can cite a single privilege that the fraternities have received from either the state or the university. The fraternities ask for no privileges except the modest one of being allowed to lead healthy, mutually helpful lives. On the other hand, the fraternities, thanks to the zealous labors and sacrifice of their actives and especially their alumni, help solve the difficult problems of housing and feeding hundreds of students, at no expense to the state. The fraternity houses are the only dormitories that the male students have at the University of Wisconsin. Fraternity houses are well regulated, rooming houses are not regulated at all. The Student Interests Committee spends nearly all its energy in further regulation of these already well regulated groups. It has done nothing effective for the comfort of the non-fraternity students. The fraternity system with the fraternity houses is not the cause but the result of bad conditions. Fraternities have developed to fill that large gap between the students’ needs and the failure of the university to provide for the comfort of the boys and girls who crowd out halls of learning. Fraternities bridge over effectively that big chasm between the home that has been left behind and that chaos which faces the homesick student who must his fortune in unattractive rooms without close friends and helpful associates and association. By the thousands we entice young men and women to our famous university – and then leave them at the mercy of hundreds of rooming and boarding housekeepers, who chuck them away in dark, often unsanitary rooms, serve them poor grub and demand exorbitant prices. Ask the university medical advisers about the comparative conditions in fraternity and rooming houses. They have seen things, – they know. What we need is more fraternity houses, dormitories and a commons. Until the state does its duty, let us not play the part of the iconoclast!”
Kind pondered what the banning of Greek-letter organizations would bring for it was the “most vital, most practical question that can be asked. The fraternity houses exist, and Mr. Anderson himself suggested that they be used to house students. Since they could and would still be used to house students and feed students, why should not the same students who occupy them now continue in residence? If they did what would prevent them from filling vacant place with other young men of their choice? These men would not be initiated into any mysteries, they would not be made members of a Greek-letter fraternity, to be sure, but they would live and associate immediately with each other then as now, and so where would the shaking up in the bag of democracy be, that Mr. Anderson wanted to administer? It would simply mean to the casual observer wiping the Greek letters off the front door. But the real effect would be of much greater importance. The ties that bind a group of young, inexperienced men and women to a responsible, supervising national government would be broken. The feeling of pride in and responsibility to a great, dignified organization of national membership would be lost, all the local disadvantages that our opponents point out would be augmented. It is always better ‘to look before you leap.’”
(c) Fran Becque, www.fraternityhistory.com, 2013. All Rights Reserved.