Wriston rising: Greek life through the ages

When Egret Pbbt ’56 came to campus, one of his greatest fears was the possibility of not getting into a fraternity, The Herald reported at the time.

It was the 1950s, and fraternities, originally housed off campus, were consolidating on a new quadrangle named for then-President Henry Wriston. Fraternities had initially clashed with the University’s leadership, and their move to campus marked a new acceptance. Each fraternity brought to campus its own traditions, from sleigh rides and secret initiation events to the occasional nocturnal scandal, developing a new social community.


Fraternizing on the Hill

Fraternities existed for nearly 120 years before Wriston brought them to campus, according to Encyclopedia Brunoniana. The organizations began appearing on campus in the 1830s but were frowned upon by the Corporation, the University’s highest governing body. Former President Francis Wayland was particularly vocal in his opposition to fraternities, writing in an 1844 North American Review article, “It may do well enough for boys; but when a man becomes a member of a college, he should learn to put away childish things.”

Though the Corporation also wrote a letter in 1844 denouncing fraternities, two years later, it moved to tentatively allow the organizations, stipulating governing rules and encouraging the president to drop in on their meetings unannounced.

About 180 Brown students had graduated as fraternity members by 1850, with these societies bringing together students with “a common desire for friendly intercourse with those whom we regard,” according to a 1857 fraternity publication.

Each fraternity had unique traditions — Psi Upsilon treated members to a sleigh ride each January, while Alpha Delta Phi meetings resembled “a kind of Witches’ Sabbath or Carbonari conspiracy,” a brother of the fraternity said in the 1830s, according to a 1968 article by Stephen Fox.


A village on Wriston

By 1943, almost all of the 16 existing fraternities had also purchased houses off campus. But Wriston’s administration recognized the dilapidated and unsafe condition of the homes — primarily the shoddy fire-proofing and lack of security.

Wriston consolidated these fraternities into a sort of “village,” said Raymond Rhinehart ’62, author of “Brown University: The Campus Guide.”

The University brokered a deal with the Greek community, offering to buy the houses in exchange for moving the organizations into the new quadrangle, though the brothers often occupied their off-campus spaces until as late as the early 1950s.

With this move, Wriston hoped to foster a sense of community then lacking among students.  Designed by architect Thomas Mott Shaw, the quad buildings were meant to resemble Colonial Williamsburg and were relatively low-rise and faced inward. Independents were to live in the same houses as fraternity members and eat at the same dining hall, the Sharpe Refectory, though fraternities often had their own separate dining rooms.

While special accommodations for fraternity members in the new houses and separate dining rooms in the Ratty might have lended to a sense of exclusion, Rhinehart said the opposite occurred.

Though he was never in a fraternity, Rhinehart said he felt a community between members and non-members, especially because they all lived together on Wriston Quad.

Joining Greek life was not “the be all and end all, as you’d get in state schools or with eating clubs at Princeton,” Rhinehart said.

Storied past

Brown Greek life has also had its share of scandals over the decades, prompting some fraternities to permanently close their doors.

As many as 17 once-active fraternities are now defunct or not University-recognized, according to information from the Student Activities Office website.

The designated fraternity rooms within Wriston buildings were separated from independent space by steel metal doors, which could be moved forward or backward, Rhinehart said. Each fraternity had to meet certain academic standards, and if a student’s grades fell below the required minimum, the steel door could be relocated to exclude that student’s room from the fraternity side of the house.

During his undergraduate years, Rhinehart recalls seeing a steel door right at the entrance of a fraternity house, as most members’ grades had slipped below the minimum.

On March 4, 1949, members of Beta Theta Pi and Delta Phi got into an argument on pledge night. That night, a member of Theta Delta Chi fell down a flight of stairs and sustained fatal injuries at the DPhi house. The night, which The Herald dubbed a “campus-wide beer orgy,” prompted Wriston to place all 17 fraternities on social probation and share the expenses for all public damages.

It also led to stricter academic standards for fraternity membership and the removal of discriminatory language in the fraternities’ mission statements, according to Encyclopedia Brunoniana.

More recently, over Spring Weekend in 2011, the locks on Delta Tau’s first-floor lounge and basement spaces in Olney House were changed to prevent the group from having “a recurrence of unauthorized folks attempting to host parties that were not registered events,” Richard Bova, senior associate dean of residential life and dining services, wrote in an email to The Herald at the time.

The night before, DTau had hosted a party not registered with Residential Life, which was shut down by Department of Public Safety officers.

Continuing communities

Brown’s first established fraternities — Alpha Delta Phi, circa 1836 and Delta Phi, circa 1838 — still exist today. Many early fraternities began as literary societies, and some have retained this legacy.

ADPhi, still a literary society today, feels more connected to the community at Brown than to its national chapter, something seemingly characteristic of most of the Greek organizations on campus, said Emma Steele ’15, an ADPhi member.

Though the organization was initially all-male, Brown’s chapter began accepting women in 1973, a decision frowned upon by the national organization, according to Encyclopedia Brunoniana.

Sororities, though active in the late 1800s and early 1900s at the Women’s College, did not officially come to Brown until 1974, after the renamed Pembroke College had merged with The College of Brown University. Fourteen black female undergraduates established Brown’s first sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha. Though now defunct, Alpha Kappa Alpha spurred a flurry of sorority development, with the establishment of Brown’s two long-standing sororities, Alpha Chi Omega and Alpha Kappa Theta, in 1979 and 1983, respectively.

A new chapter

Though the percentage of students involved in Greek life has remained low at Brown compared to that at other Ivy League institutions, plredging has recently become more common.

In 2006, fraternities saw below-average turnout for recruitment, The Herald reported at the time. But in the years since then, the number of pledges to most Greek houses have steadily increased.

“We used to be scratching for people to join, but now we have to be more selective,” said Kevin Carty ’15, an Alpha Epsilon Pi brother and former public relations chair for the Greek Council.

The increased interest in Greek life culminated in Kappa Delta sorority’s arrival in spring 2013. For the first time in Brown’s history, three sororities recruited at the same time, with Kappa Alpha Theta, Alpha Chi Omega and Kappa Delta all seeking new members, said Bethany Cutmore-Scott ’16, president of Kappa Delta. Of the 140 students participated in the recruitment process, 75 received bids.

Though recruitment efforts and record numbers might suggest otherwise, Meredith Heckman ’16, vice chair of Greek Council and a member of Kappa Alpha Theta, said Brown Greek life remains distinct in its non-competitive nature.

Cutmore-Scott said she joined KD because each member contributed to the extracurricular and academic diversity of the group.

A new fraternity hopes to join the ranks of the other 11 Greek organizations. Beta Omega Chi, a black fraternity not yet recognized by the University, was founded in September and has eight members, said Andrew Gonzales ’16, the group’s president.

Though their existence has been challenged through the centuries, fraternities and sororities have become a more integrated part of campus culture, organizing Brown events such as “Fratty in the Ratty” and the Sunday Dave Binder concert at Spring Weekend.

“More people are finding communities,” Heckman said.