The responses to my post on the Phoenix prompted me to dig up additional information on the history of fraternities at Middlebury.
Perhaps the most substantive issue at play here concerns the right of free association, which is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Why, the question goes, should Middlebury students be prohibited from associating with a particular group of people? And at what point does such an association, if it is single-gendered, become recognizable as a fraternity or sorority?
Interestingly, this issue came up in the lawsuit that DKE brought against the College in 1993. In arguing for its right to exist on campus, the fraternity invoked First Amendment rights. The Addison Superior Court dismissed this claim, arguing the College is a private institution, rather than a “state actor,” and had made “a valid and permissible decision to create an academic environment that would eliminate gender based distinctions that have historically limited a woman’s opportunity to develop her individual talents and participate more fully in a free and open society.” The notion of a free and open society is important in this context, and I will return to it shortly. But first it’s worth noting that the Court also rejected the idea that the College had suppressed the plaintiffs’ free speech rights:
The actions of the college in developing its policy that campus social organizations cannot exclude women based on gender, and in enforcing that policy with respect to the fraternities, is not analogous to forbidding the expression of political or other thought. Plaintiffs are free to debate issues including the wisdom of the current college policy, but they may not form a social organization, affiliated with the college, which excludes women because of their gender.
Several points to tease out:
- Presumably, the same logic the court used to turn aside fraternities also applies to sororities. There may be good reasons—based on political/historical factors—to allow women to form all-female social organizations, but the court opinion does not allow that entitlement. Neither does the College Handbook.
- The prohibition focuses on “social organizations,” not sports teams or singing groups, which have demonstrable educational purposes. The argument here is that exclusionary social practices can damage the educational atmosphere at the College.
- The last sentence suggests that a group does not need a house or visible resources to form an exclusionary, single-gender organization that would be at odds with College policy. “Affiliation” with the College is enough. As some fraternities took their activities underground in the early 90s, Community Council debated this issue, and concluded that fraternity members who used College resources (like the telephone system) to hold clandestine meetings were in violation of College rules.
Today, as in 1993, the College highly prizes its ability to educate students so they can participate fully in “a free and open society.” Moreover, one could argue that freedom and openness are essential to a liberal arts education and that in eliminating fraternities, the College judged that their existence interfered with the institution’s mission. The same argument could be brought to bear on underground fraternities and sororities—that is, social organizations that meet in secret, maintain an exclusive membership, initiate (perhaps haze) their members, and follow other practices associated with fraternities.
Six years ago, there was a flare-up at Williams College over the existence of secret fraternities. With some students angry about the existence of these exclusive organizations and Handbook sanctions that included suspension and expulsion, the administration decided to go slow. Instead of threatening discipline and pushing the organizations “more underground,” they asked the members to come forward so they could be given amnesty.
Despite efforts to treat a challenging problem in an upfront, pragmatic manner, this approach was not entirely successful, as some students accused the Williams administration of treating the offending fraternity with kid gloves.
How then should the College treat complaints about underground fraternities or sororities here at Middlebury?