(Note: This article was first published in the Sept. 21, 1983, issue of PAW.)
In 1860, when the members of Princeton’s banned fraternity Phi Kappa Sigma wanted to have their group photograph taken, they had to meet secretly in the town cemetery. In 1984, the more than 100 undergraduates and graduate students affiliated with the four fraternities and one sorority that have formed at the university during the past year will have their group photographs taken in a studio and published in the Bric-a-Brac.
The action, or inaction, taken by the university’s trustees last April, declining to give official recognition to fraternities and sororities at Princeton, also had the effect of repealing President John Maclean’s 1855 resolution requiring students to pledge that they would not join any secret society. The university’s general counsel, Thomas H. Wright Jr. ’62, acknowledged, “It is not the university’s intention to conduct a ‘witch hunt’ against students who choose to join fraternities or sororities – in that respect the situation will continue just as it has.” This places the Greek letter organizations on about the same footing as the eating clubs, which similarly have not sought university recognition.
Just as the Inter-Club Council is so recognized, however, the Council for Interest in Greek Letter Societies was accorded official status by Nassau Hall last year. This body has not only undertaken to interpret the purpose and program of fraternities and sororities to students, alumni, faculty, and administrators, but it has also explained the Princeton situation to representatives of the national organizations which have expressed interest in forming chapters at the university.
Moreover, inspired in part by the National Interfraternity Conference’s pronouncements against hazing, the Princeton group has formulated a six-point declaration on nonseparatism (see below). Some observers think this “Princeton plan” could be applicable at a growing number of community colleges and state university extensions where there is no separate Greek housing. In fact, some national fraternity executives are interested in this form of expansion, which is really a return to the mode of operation that fraternities employed a century ago, functioning as small friendship groups.
Of the Greek letter organizations at Princeton today, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, the only one not to have had a chapter here back in the 1800s, is now the largest with more than 30 members. Zeta Psi rechartered its Omicron Chapter (1850-82) last spring, now known as Omicron Epsilon, by initiating 13 students, and has since doubled its membership. Kappa Alpha Theta, the sorority, began at the same time and has 27 members returning this fall. Theta Delta Chi, which was restarted with 17, will get its original charter (1863-67) back at a special banquet in November. Phi Kappa Sigma (1853-81) is currently rebuilding after losing its leadership to graduation last spring.
DESPITE the university’s official ban against Greek letter societies, in the last century a surprising number of Princetonians had fraternity associations. Most are now forgotten but among them were President Woodrow Wilson 1879 (Phi Kappa Psi), Graduate School Dean Andrew Fleming West 1874 (Beta Theta Pi), and Triangle Club founder Booth Tarkington 1893 (Sigma Chi). Two alumni even rose to the national presidency of their fraternities: Dr. Woolsey Johnson 1860, Grand Alpha of Phi Kappa Sigma; and Orville S. Brumbeck 1877, Grand Consul of Sigma Chi, which also claimed Grover Cleveland, a Princeton trustee.
With sons and daughters of Old Nassau once again attending the national conventions and leadership schools of their fraternities and sororities, Princetonians are entering the mainstream of college life that finds the Greek system represented on 632 campuses in the U.S. and Canada. Some 250,000 men and 200,000 women belong to 7,600 chapters with 5 million living alumni who annually contribute more than $10 million and 2 million hours of volunteer time to philanthropic causes. Some 26 governors, 162 congressmen, and 52 senators, as well as the President and Vice President of the U.S. are fraternity members.
In the mid-19th century, when Whig and Clio grew too large to provide intimate fellowship, the Princeton campus was fertile soil for fraternities, whose chapters encompassed members of both halls as brothers and reached to neighboring colleges as well. This fall the university’s 2,300 underclassmen will be divided among five residential colleges (along with a handful of upperclassmen). One consequence of the new system, many observers feel, will be diminished contact between underclassmen and upperclassmen, as well as between members of the different colleges.
As for the upperclass system, about 70 percent of last year’s sophomores opted to sign in at the eight open clubs or bicker at the five selective ones. Even so, Open Club Council President George Hawkins ’83 announced that he would propose that all the open clubs limit their section size to about 90 in order to even out disparities among the memberships of the various clubs. While the number of clubs has declined from 17 in the 1950s, when the student body was about two-thirds as large, the membership of the average club has nearly doubled. “We need to garner more than the 60-70 percent of each class that we do now. The break-even point of all the clubs is rising,” observed Inter-Club Council President Neil Grasso ’83 last spring.
Thanks in part to interaction between upperclassmen and underclassmen in the fraternities, 96 percent of their sophomores elected to join eating clubs last year. Several fraternity members have also served as club officers. The chapters are emerging as groups which cross barriers between residential colleges and eating clubs, and which offer an intimacy that the larger groups cannot. An “elder brother or sister” who is already providing instructions in fraternity lore is ideally situated to give academic assistance as well. And within each chapter’s circle of friends, contacts can be made with the likes of President Bowen (Sigma Chi), Carlos Baker (*40) (Theta Delta Chi), George Gallup (SAE), or even James Baker '52 (Phi Delta Theta).
To help further town-gown interaction and sensitivity to Princeton’s residential traditions, an alumni advisory Graduate Council for Greek Letter Societies is being formed. Speaking to issues not addressed by the Committee on Undergraduate Residential Life, it has already issued its first newsletter under the title of BICEPS (Brotherhood and Inter-Class Cooperation Entering Princeton Speedily).
“I have thought for some time that what ‘the best old place of all’ really needs is fraternities. The Princeton of today – for good or ill – is a tough, competitive, frequently frightening, occasionally lonely place. A great university like ours can too easily lose some of the human qualities of lesser institutions. But what a difference fraternities could make! Functioning as they did in the 19th century, these ‘new’ groups could leave to the eating clubs and residential colleges the job of providing meals and most socializing, while concentrating on informal academic inquiry, social service, and that oft misunderstood quality: brotherhood.”
– R. BRUCE MYERS JR. ’79 (Kappa Sigma)
Declaration on Nonseparatism
Princeton students since 1824 have par ticipated in at least 15 Greek letter societies without separating themselves from their classmates. To reaffirm that 158-year-old position, we assert that:
1. We aspire to no housing or eating arrangements which would separate members of Greek letter societies from fellow students in underclass residential colleges or upperclass eating clubs.
2. We reaffirm Greek letter societies as one of many ways of linking freshmen with seniors and juniors with sophomores and encourage our members to engage in extracurricular activities on the Princeton campus.
3. We view cultivation of the intellect through small-group interaction with fellow members and outside speakers as an object of associated effort.
4. We affirm brotherhood/sisterhood of kindred spirits without regard to race, creed, class, national origin, or physical handicap.
5. We reject hazing in any form as dehumanizing, contrary to true fraternal principles and the law, and prohibited by the national organizations with which we are affiliated.
6. We commit ourselves to the service of not only our fellow students but also the surrounding community.
– Council for Interest in Greek Letter Societies