The History of Greek Life

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.

The Beginning

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.

Greek Life Goes Co-Ed

1970 saw the first women admitted to Col­gate in the first-year class and housed in Univer­sity residence halls. Women-interest housing be­gan to emerge with initiatives such as the Frances Payne Bolton House in 1976, an upperclassmen residence “established to provide functions and activities centering on women’s programs and in­terests,” as it is written in the chronology.

In 1978, the Phi Psi fraternity added women residents to the third floor of their house, who participated in the boarding and social but not the fraternal aspects of the organization. In 1982, a chapter of Gamma Phi Beta (Gamma Phi) was chartered at Colgate, making it the first sorority on campus, followed by four others: Kappa Alpha Theta (Theta) in 1988, Kappa Kappa Gamma (Kappa) in 1989, followed by Pi Beta Phi (Pi Phi) and Alpha Chi Omega.

Pi Phi resigned in 1992 due to a growing inability to attract new members; they received only seven that year. Alpha Chi Omega voted to relinquish their national charter as Delta Delta Delta (Tri Delta) was chartered in 1996.

There were then four active so­rorities on campus until the fall of 2008; on October 1 of that year an article by Geoff Guenther in the Maroon-News explained that “Col­gate’s chapter of Kappa Alpha Theta has received a four-year suspension in response to an incident of alco­hol-related hazing that occurred on September 16.”

The reduced number of sororities raised concern for over-crowded classes in the subsequent year’s recruitment.

In Recent History

In 1989, a Special Committee on Residential Life submitted a report including resolutions voted on by fac­ulty concerning Greek Life to the Col­gate University Board of Trustees. This document reported, “The Faculty of Colgate University recommends that the fraternity and sorority system be abolished by the beginning of the aca­demic year 1994-5”. It cited that “the history of fraternities at Colgate reveals a persistent and pervasive pattern of vi­olations of the rules of the University,” and that such organizations “challenge the principals of an open liberal arts education, and foster an environ­ment antithetical to the values and aspirations of the University.”

A drastic change was finally put into motion by the administration in 2003, as part of University President Rebecca Chopp’s new Residential Ed­ucation Program based on the research and recommendations of yet another task force that studied Colgate’s cam­pus culture. Though it currently stands that the school owns each of the nine active sorority and fraternity houses on campus, “All of these houses used to be owned by alumni corporations of each organization,” Mansfield explained.

Part of Chopp’s plan was to have the University buy Greek Life hous­es and try to integrate and regulate the community to ensure it was not separate from the rest of campus life at Colgate.

This task force was put together for many reasons, one of which being the tragic one-car alcohol-related crash on Oak Drive on No­vember 11, 2000 which took four lives and sent one student to jail for vehicular manslaughter.

“The car accident, among other things, inspired the creation of a task force to examine campus cul­ture, particularly with regards to alcohol. But this reexamination was also due to factors such as the transition between presidents and the creation of a larger mission statement,” Mansfield said.

“It would have been really easy to consider the outcome of the fraternities differently. It would have been easy to say ‘let’s shut them down.’ The idea of buying the houses and trying to strengthen the system was a bold commitment, and an en­dorsement of the alumni voice and interest,” Mansfield said.

Part of the motive for preserving Greek Life at Colgate is the rich tra­dition it has on campus.

“A big part of coming to Colgate is that it’s a place that has a very rich residential life, and this of course includes Greek Life,” Associate Vice President and Dean of Students Scott C. Brown said. “I think, in general, [Greek Life] has always been a very important feature of Colgate.”

The University’s recent purchase of Greek houses was met with resis­tance by several groups, however; of the nine fraternities and four sorori­ties on campus, only DKE refused to sell. DKE was thereby forced to discontinue its Colgate chapter. Other alumni corporations did sell back, but stated later that they felt they had been unjustly manipulated. Kappa Delta Rho (KDR) and Alpha Tau Omega (ATO) had already been suspended when the sale of Greek Houses was made mandatory.

A website for a group called Students and Alumni for Colgate, found at the URL, ex­plains that in response to what they refer to as Colgate’s coercive land-grab scheme, “Alumni mem­bers of Phi Delta Theta, and Beta Theta Pi filed separate derivative complaints against Colgate Uni­versity in U.S. Supreme Court, State of New York and County of Madison, in protest of the forced sale of their private properties un­der threats of economic duress by the alumni boards of directors.”

To credit the success of the University’s buy-back plan, Man­sfield points to the fact that once its fraternity corporation saw that chapters were still being allowed to run somewhat autonomously on campus, “ATO eventually did sell back a few years down the line with the specification of re­quested occupancy of an active fraternity.” Following this speci­fication, Phi Tau moved into the old ATO house.

Many Colgate students carry around urban myths about Greek Life on the Colgate campus. But who can blame them?

Students stay on campus over a four-year period, and are only involved in Greek Life directly for three years at most. Thus, students’ opinions of the progression and pace of Greek Life development can remain skewed.

Compared to over 150 years of water under the bridge for Col­gate’s Greek Life system, four years does not amount to very much.