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Rumblings have reached the spires of Old Chapel that a secret sorority is afoot on campus.  Administrators have received anonymous tips from students, identifying the women associated with the sorority, and expressing unease with the group’s exclusive ways.  The sorority is reportedly called the Phoenix, named, apparently, for the mythological bird that rises from a bed of ashes to be reborn and fly again.  We know better than to treat such reports as truth, but where there is smoke there may be fire, and so we’re prepared, if necessary, to sound the alarm bell.

Middlebury’s thinking about such organizations is quite explicit.  According to the online Handbook, College policy “prohibits student participation in or affiliation with single-gender fraternities or sororities.”  There are any number of reasons for this policy, but the most concrete rationale may be found in the history of fraternities at the College.  This is a complicated subject, and I have only a sliver of personal experience with it since my first year at Middlebury—1990 to 1991—was the last year of the fraternity system, which had been abolished by a vote of the Board of Trustees shortly before I arrived.  The chief problem with the fraternities is that they gave men primary control of highly desirable social space at a time when the drinking age had just been elevated to twenty-one and access to alcohol-oriented parties was limited.  Sound familiar?   Anyway, the catalyzing event for the demise of the fraternities took place in front of DU—now Parton Health Center—when fraternity brothers dangled a female manikin from a window, with a nasty expression scrawled upon the body.  This episode seemed to epitomize the gender inequities associated with the fraternities, and paved the way to the co-ed social house system we have today.

All of which makes this so-called rebirth of sorority culture a bit ironic.  We hear talk from time to time about the underground movements of DKE, but the idea that a sorority may now be enforcing a code of social exclusivity is a bit disconcerting.

The complexity of this issue is suggested by the title of the Handbook section that prohibits students from affiliating with fraternities or sororities: “Freedom of Association.”   Needless to say, this phrase highlights the rights and principles that lie behind an individual’s choice to join an organization.  However, the College places limits on this freedom to choose, and the courts have generally stood behind the right of private educational institutions to do so.  For instance, in 1991, DKE took Middlebury to court, arguing—after the College outlawed fraternities—that they had a right to exist on campus.  Ultimately, the court ruled in the College’s favor.

Where all this concern about the Phoenix group is headed is unclear, but I would like to invite comments from students who have an opinion about whether or how this new group and others like it are affecting social life at Middlebury.

13 Responses to “Phoenix Rising . . . . Or Falling?”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Calling Santayana: apparently, those who cannot remember the frats of the past are doomed to repeat them.

  2. Anonymous says:

    “We know better than to treat such reports as truth, but where there is smoke there may be fire, and so we’re prepared, if necessary, to sound the alarm bell.”
    There was fire coming from the biomass facility yesterday.

  3. Deirdre Henderson, parent says:

    Tim,
    I see your post has not attracted a lot of student reaction. I hope you will not mind an inquiry from a parent. I find myself somewhat confused. Middlebury banished national fraternities and sororities some time ago. I gather from your blog that it also banished fraternity- and sorority-like organizations, whatever they might be. Presumably, Middlebury also upholds “freedom of association,” which encompasses both the right to associate with whom one pleases as well as the right not to associate with others one does not particularly like. Where, then, does one draw the line between freedom of association and an improper sorority-like organization? Surely freedom of association covers the right to have a social network of like-minded friends, even if it is single-gendered and what others might think snobby and elitist. Otherwise, what does freedom of association mean? What is the definition of an “organization” and what are the indicia of an improper sorority-like organization? And if Middlebury objected to sororities and fraternities because of social exclusivity, what rationale justifies organizations that provide social activities for students of certain identity groups? I find that these are difficult questions that seem to put the college in treacherous waters.

  4. [...] this should be on the 2013 Challenge tour. Overall, a good history but whither DKE and the Zoo and Phoenix? How about next week The Campus covers those underground [...]

  5. Anonymous says:

    I echo Deirdre’s concerns. While of course the College does not have to provide funding and meeting space for organizations that do not promote the vision that the school, as a private institution, wishes to enhance, it would seem bizarre indeed to argue that the College has a right to interfere with students affiliational choices beyond College borders. For instance, what about female-only law and business mentorship groups (for instance, 85 Broads)? Or, what about student members of the Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts. Moreover, all of the examples I just cited truly fit the category of formal organizations. If “the Phoenix” is indeed just an organization of a group of friends, who might plan dinners together, etc, then the College’s right to interfere with that is even more difficult to see. The ramifications of the College’s apparent position here are more than a little startling.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I’m confused, and a little alarmed by the sexist tone of this piece. Prof Spears writes that he hears rumblings of DKE’s underground movements (presumably the same rumblings taking place about this “Phoenix” group now), but writes that “the idea that a sorority may now be enforcing a code of social exclusivity is a bit disconcerting.” I take this sentence to be an admission by Spears that rumors of all-male groups have not prompted the same instinct of investigation that Spears appears to feel vis a vis this alleged female group. I very much fail to see how the rumored existence of all-female groups proves more disconcerting than the rumored existence of all-male groups, given that the very reason Prof Spears identifies for banning the Greek system was the misogynistic actions of an all-male fraternity. If anything, the incident Spears describes seems to suggest a need for all-female networking groups.

  7. Cole Moore Odell says:

    I was a student at Middlebury College during the phaseout of nationally-affiliated fraternities. I heard the arguments on both sides, knew many people in the frats and transitional, co-ed “social houses”, attended functions hosted by the embryonic version of the Commons, and once, stopped by an underground DKE party held in a rented off-campus warehouse. I lived through the war that Ms. Henderson and the two (?) Anons seemingly would like to re-fight 17 years later. Perhaps that’s inevitable, given the ongoing student rollover. Perpetual re-explanation may be the price the College has to pay for asserting its right to centralize and guide social planning.

    It has always been my impression that while the College was certainly motivated to alleviate the negative social consequences of the frats, they were also genuinely interested in *creating* (and admittedly, shaping and controlling) a positive social network that provided a greater diversity of choices outside the very limiting, alcohol-based, externally-controlled frameworks of the fraternity system.

    The fact is that the College is a private institution, and the courts have determined the school’s specific right to limit and shape permissible association among its students. There is no absolute right to freedom of association for Middlebury students; it’s spelled out in the handbook that Prof. Spears links to. You can argue with it, try to repeal it, or choose not to go to Middlebury, but you can’t pretend the policy isn’t in place, and that it hasn’t been affirmed by the courts. What seems “bizarre indeed” is at this point a matter of settled law reaching back many years. Your opposing, pro-fraternity viewpoint still exists, and can still be voiced, but it lost.

    Also, I take issue with Anon 2’s characterization of Prof. Spears’ post as sexist. DKE has been in a cold war with the College for the better part of two decades. They’ve met in court; DKE was banned, and Midd’s right to do so affirmed. I’m sorry to use a military metaphor because it encourages a spirit of confrontation, but in that matter the trenches were dug across well-marked battle lines long ago.

    The rise of a new single-gender organization, male or female, is a cause for new concern, because it may mean that questions thought settled are still active, and that some students may be finding new ways to violate school policy. It’s like the difference between the Russians moving warheads from one border to another and North Korea. (There I go again.) The idea that an all-female “networking group” is a reasonable balanced solution to an all male group at a college that wants neither, is what’s “truly bizarre” to me.

  8. Cole Moore Odell says:

    That is, the difference between the Russians shuffling warheads and North Korea testing a guided missle. It has nothing to do with the gender, and everything to do with the direction of the threat. “Phoenix” represents pushback from current students finding new models of prohibited assembly, whereas DKE was handed its hat when all of the alleged Phoenix members were in diapers or in utero.

  9. Anonymous says:

    The sexism in the situation is clear. As Mr. Odell points out, rumors of underground fraternities have existed since the current students were “in diapers.” For decades, the College has not actively pursued investigating or eradicating them. For the College, by contrast, to take a prompt interest in similarly unsubstantiated rumors of a girls group, indicates an undeniable double standard. While the College was willing to turn the other cheek and let “boys be boys”, they seek to turn this alleged female group into a scapegoat … and they ironically justify this by the need to eradicate the double standards inherent in a fraternity culture.

  10. Tim Spears says:

    A couple of responses to the comments posted above:

    Perhaps I should have been clearer about the “rumors” that have come in about Phoenix. They were specific complaints about how the group is functioning on campus. One of the “tips” was an anonymous email, and included a list of students affiliated with the group. Another came through more personal channels, but without any mention of particular students. Both of these messages, however, highlighted the negative effect this group is having on campus (especially on some women).

    As I say above, we should be wary about treating these reports as the confirmed “truth.” On the other hand, I don’t think we can simply dismiss or ignore these concerns. At the very least, we should bring the issue into the light and explain the College’s policy on single-gender organizations and history behind the policy. Which is what I did in my post (in roughly 500 words).

    The suggestion that my post is sexist is an interesting effort to reshuffle the gender issues at stake here. To repeat, from my perspective, it is strange to receive complaints about an all-female organization that echo criticisms made in the late 1980s of the fraternity system. As for the objection that the College is now targeting this all-female group while giving the DKEs of the world a pass, well, I have not received any specific complaints about underground fraternities. If and when we do, these reports will be given equal attention.

    The question about voluntary association and its relation to college organizations is complicated, and I will try to address that in a subsequent post.

    The more general question I would ask some of the commentators above is this: do you believe that Middlebury should rethink its policy on single-gender social organizations, and reestablish the tradition of fraternities and sororities on campus?

  11. Anonymous says:

    As Dean Spears stated in a previous post, college policy “prohibits student participation in or affiliation with single-gender fraternities or sororities.” Even if the alleged “sorority” exists, this “sorority” doesn’t seem to fit the definition of a fraternal organization that is referred to in the handbook. As far as I am aware, there is no national organization called the Phoenix; and therefore, no national affiliations that would make it illegal on campus.

    Even with some slight clarifications, I am wondering what exactly these complaints are. Middlebury’s job should be to provide a first-rate education, while also providing a safe atmosphere for its students. Middlebury shouldn’t be responsible for coddling people’s insecurities. I apologize for my lack of sensitivity, but feeling excluded from a made-up club seems so juvenile. I think Middlebury students are way more logical than this. As long as this group, club, “secret sorority” doesn’t physically harm anyone, vandalize school property, or take any extreme stances on race, religion, homosexuality, etc., I don’t see a problem with it.

    Based on what you said in your most recent post, it seems that the college is aware that DKE exists, and that the reason why the college hasn’t targeted them is because there haven’t been significant complaints, despite the fact that it is illegal and violates the handbook. However, this female organization is being brought into the spotlight because of a few complaints about exclusivity? You say that “if and when” the school receives complaints, that the administration will treat DKE the same way it is treating this situation. But even when comparing the illegality of DKE against complaints of the exclusivity of a group that cannot even be defined as a sorority, it still doesn’t add up. I’m only reiterating someone else’s point because I don’t feel that the answer provided is sufficient. Does the school endorse illegal activity, as long as everyone else is ok with it?

    To answer your most recent question, I do not believe the school should have the power to reestablish the tradition of fraternities or sororities. If the student body wants this, they should be able to vote on it. However, I do think the administration should drop their hard line stance against fraternal organizations and provide approval and support, should there be a strong voice for its revival.

  12. Sarah says:

    Tim: I am still confused on this issue. Is the Phoenix using college funding to operate? Are they organizing official meetings by going through CCAL or a Commons Office?

    I do not understand why single gender socialization–assuming its not funded by the college, not endorsed by the College, and not scheduled through a campus office–is a problem. I consider myself an equal opportunity friend, but there are times when I would really prefer to hang out with my core group of female friends (I also recognize the need for men to socialize exclusively with other men from time to time). Certainly, my friends and I do not give ourselves an official title, which perhaps sets these “Phoenix” women apart (unless you also want to consider groups like the Ya-Ya Sisterhood or the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants). But I have heard of mixed-gender groups of students organizing socially apart from what is already officially recognized by the College and giving themselves special titles.

    Maybe I’ve missed something altogether, but I do not see how the “Phoenix” women are doing anything different from what students already do on their own, aside from giving themselves a name.

  13. Anonymous says:

    My concern, Dean Spears, is that it seems that perhaps no one has “sounded the alarm,” or taken any sort of action for that matter (ie. writing a blog post) with regards to the “rumblings” surrounding DKE because of their extensive, influential alumni network. Presumably, some of DKE’s alumns include some of the most notable graduates and most generous donors, so it’s hard to imagine the college taking action that might anger them. If a blind eye is being turned to DKE and possibly other fraternities operating underground, it is confusing and, frankly, alarming that a female organization of a similar makeup but without the official alumni backing is being so swiftly and thoroughly targeted. If an email with a list of names and a complaint is truly the only thing differentiating these two situations, I can imagine a number of people would be willing to produce this for you.

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