The History of Greek Life
Published: Friday, October 29, 2010
Updated: Friday, October 29, 2010 13:10
After Colgate was founded in 1819, it existed only 37 years as a small, private, all-male institution before the first fraternity was chartered in 1856. This first fraternity was predated by other social organizations.
First, there were literary societies: Gamma Phi was founded prior to 1833 and Pi Delta probably originated in 1834.
According to Howard D. Williams' summary A History of Colgate University, "competition between them for members led to faculty intervention, with the result that both seem to have dissolved in 1840 when the Adelphian and Aeonian Societies came into existence."
These met in the attic story of the present East Hall and devoted weekly meetings to orations and readings of original work, on which the groups' elected critics passed judgment.
The fraternity movement grew out of these literary societies. In 1843 some students petitioned the faculty to let them form a secret society, but "the faculty informed them that, though they found nothing to disapprove in the avowed objectives and deemed the character of the petitioners sufficient assurance that they would hold to those objectives, they considered such an organization ‘inexpedient.' The fundamental objection was the feature of secrecy which the professors felt might be abused in the future and which "would constitute an undesirable distinction among the members of the Institution, and give pain to many of its patrons and friends," Williams wrote.
The University's Laws of 1853 solidified this, stipulating that students "shall form no organizations … except with the consent and under the direction of the faculty and … shall not become members of secret societies." Some students decided to go behind the administration's back and were initiated into Phi Upsilon at Hamilton College. But some students still sought a fraternity on the Colgate campus: with the help of a few associates Caleb H. Gallup, class of 1856, secretly petitioned Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) for a charter, which was granted by the parent chapter at Yale in March of 1856.
The new DKEs denied all knowledge of their organization, knowing that they faced expulsion if they were discovered. By the next fall, their existence was no longer a secret, and in December 1856 the faculty agreed that the rule against secret societies should be enforced and tried to convince the DKEs to disband. For several years DKEs found creative ways to avoid permanently disbanding, and continued to grow in strength and numbers. They operated alongside and within the Aeonian and Adelphian societies, which were still in existence. To counterbalance the influence of the DKEs a group of students formed an anti-secret society in November 1865, which received a charter as a chapter of Delta Upsilon (DU) the next year.
Establishment and Values
By 1894, each of the existing groups was living in its own house, the first of which was completed in 1882 by DU. Other fraternities in existence at the time were DKE, Beta Theta Pi (Beta), Phi Kappa Psi (Phi Psi) and Phi Gamma Delta (Phi Gam).
"Phi Psi built a house on the corner of Charles and East Pleasant streets which later became the University Infirmary. The Beta's (the former Adelphian Society, chartered in 1880) rented the old President's house in 1893 and the Phi Gams lived on Madison street," wrote Tim Mansfield, current director of Alumni Affairs and former Greek Advisor, in his manual on the history of Greek Life at Colgate.
By this point, the general opinion among faculty of the merit of fraternities had shifted.
"Though there were some who questioned the value of fraternities, especially because of the bitter rivalry among them which was occasionally to be found, they were generally held to be a highly desirable feature of campus life," Williams wrote.
Fratenities were seen to promote scholarship and intellectual interests, support high standards of discipline and develop courtesy and gentlemanly conduct. By 1894, approximately half of the University's student body was living in fraternity houses.
In the early 1900s, six Greek letter fraternity chapters were chartered, adding to the existing five: in 1912 Theta Chi, in 1916 Lamba Chi Alfa, in 1917 Alpha Tau Omega, Sigma Nu and Kappa Delta Rho, and finally in 1918 Phi Delta Theta (Phi Delta).
Many of these groups were started as non-Greek organizations before their charters were approved; for instance, the "Owl's Club" was founded in 1907, became Sigma Alpha in 1908 and was only chartered ten years later as Phi Delta. This increase in fraternities was meant to accommodate social, dining and residential needs of a growing student body.
In the 1920s and 30s fraternity life thrived at Colgate. Sigma Chi, chartered in 1930, and Phi Kappa Tau, chartered in 1937, were added to the mix, and nine of the original 11 fraternities were able to construct new houses with the help of alumni.
In 1928 Colgate alumni formed the Interfraternity Alumni Council under Frank M. Williams, class of 1895, to provide help to local chapters. In 1934 an investigation by a Trustee Committee was initiated due to issues with rushing and pledging procedures.
It concluded that rushing and pledging procedures should be deferred until the end of the first year due to the inability of fraternities to accommodate as many students as wished to be a part of Greek Life.
Counter-culture groups, bodies of non-fraternity men who had formed organizations to meet their own social needs, sprung up around the same time. In 1927 they established a permanent group known as the Colgate Commons Club under Edward M. Vinten, '28. It had exclusive use of the West Hall lounge.