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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?

4 Responses to “Further (Historical) Observations on Fraternities and Sororities”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Regardless of what direction the College is going in, the rules today state that no such thing is allowed on campus. Therefore, the parties involved should be penalized in some way or another. The issue at stake is the secrecy of these institutions. No law states that you are not allowed to associate yourself with a specific group and plan parties, etc. But pledging and acting like a built up group on Campus, letting everyone know who you are associated with except for the administration portrays disruptive behavior to the cohesive community and should not be overlooked.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I’m still a little confused as to how the College would have “jurisdiction” (not sure if that’s the correct term) to take action against a group that does not appear to be depending on College recognition, funds, support, etc. for existence. The explanation of the DKE case seems to make sense: it does not unduly restrict someone’s right to association to refuse a group official college affiliation. And, of course, affiliation can exist wihout a physical structure like a house. However, it seems undeniably different – and much more problematic – for the College to attempt to punish (? – not sure if that is the College’s aim… though the commentor above me seems to advocate that – an oddly juvenile attitude that is problematic for a different reason) someone for doing something that has nothing to do with the College, and seems to be legal in every other way. Towards the end of your comment about association, you talk about trying to action against DKE on the grounds that they had used College telephones. While that is solely a technicality, at least a technicality existed there to justify, and restrain, the College’s authority to act. I’m assuming, however, that in a cell phone age, there may legitimately be zero use of College resources at play in this case. In that case, what business is it of the school what (legal) activities student partake in without college aid, and off of college property? If the College’s only interest is the hurt feelings of some of its students, the school would be better served to invest in self-esteem building programs to help those who feel “excluded” develop a more adult mentality about such things.

  3. Anonymous says:

    You attempt to differentiate between social organizations and other college-sponsored clubs by suggesting that “social organizations” do not provide an educational purpose like a sports team or singing group. However, similar to sports teams and singing groups, “social organizations” can also have “demonstrable educational purposes” as well. Many fraternities and sororities make it a point to contribute to their local communities by doing community service. Something like volunteering at a soup kitchen or at a dog pound is just as “educational” as partaking in a sports team or singing group.

  4. Anonymous says:

    in secret? I don’t see any particular reason why these societies shouldn’t be able to be out in the open. I would highly doubt they hold secret meetings at dog pound.

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