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.