Light on the Hill, Volume II

Miller, Russell


FRATERNITIES, SORORITIES, and other Greek-letter social organizations have always been a part of the Tufts undergraduate landscape, although they have never played the dominant role to be found in some Southern and Midwestern institutions. Their numbers, prosperity, and general welfare at Tufts tended to wax and wane, and they appeared and disappeared (or reappeared) over the years, reflecting everything from the state of the national economy to student and general societal attitudes.

The Tufts administration has exhibited, historically, an open stance regarding Greek-letter social organizations. In fact, the first alumnus of the institution to become president (Elmer H. Capen) was a charter member of Theta Delta Chi, the second fraternity to be established on campus. Leonard Carmichael, seventh president of Tufts and an alumnus (Class of 1921) was also a member of that fraternity. President John A. Cousens, a member of the Class of 1898, was a member of Delta Tau Delta. It was he who donated in 1924 the Cousens Loyalty Cup (actually a bronze miniature of Jumbo, the Tufts mascot). It was awarded (somewhat left-handedly) to the fraternity with the lowest number of failing grades in any one year. It was rotated among the fraternities for many years. A somewhat more positively worded fraternity award, the Trophy of Trophies, went to the fraternity with the best athletic record. Popular in the 1940s and 1950s, it was replaced in 1963 by the President's Award which included academic excellence and other extracurricular activities besides athletic prowess. Tufts also provided land and arranged mortgage financing for the construction of many of the houses as well as meeting places for the sororities.

The first Greek-letter social fraternity to arrive had been Zeta Psi, established on campus in 1855, only a year after the college opened. Almost the same could be said of sororities, the first of which (Alpha Delta Sigma) was organized only three years after Tufts had become coeducational in 1892. The maximum number of nationally


affiliated sororities at any one time was four: Alpha Xi Delta (1907), Alpha Omicron Pi (1908), Chi Omega (1910), and Sigma Kappa (1913). There was even a Panhellenic Association to coordinate their activities. President Cousens, a strong opponent of ethnic separatism on campus, was approached in 1922 by the president of Alpha Epsilon Phi regarding the possibility of establishing a sorority for Jewish women. He discouraged the idea on the ground that such an action "would not be a good thing for the College." None of the sororities had individual housing until 1976, when a reactivated Chi Omega occupied a former private residence on Packard Avenue owned by the university. Long before (in 1917), Alpha Omicron Pi had made an unsuccessful attempt to open their own house, but both the sorority and the total Jackson student body of only 115 were considered too small to make a house system practical. Even after the Jackson student body became larger the proportion of sorority members to total enrollment remained much smaller than for the men. One reason was undoubtedly the negative attitude of Edith Bush, Dean of Jackson College for more than twenty-five years (1925-1952). In 1929 she stated bluntly that sororities did not justify their existence. They would "before long find themselves among the childish things that present day students have put away." But the sororities continued to exist anyway, under the careful supervision of advisers drawn from faculty and staff. In a day when a double standard clearly existed, the fraternities did not require such maternal oversight. However, chaperones were required at fraternity social functions for many years until they rebelled at such paternalistic treatment.

The number of national fraternities with chapters at Tufts had grown to five by 1903. Tower Cross, the senior honorary society for men, had assumed the task of overseeing fraternity "rushing" each year, but in 1903 the Interfraternity Council was organized and took over the responsibility. An Alumni Interfraternity Council was organized in 1955, in a year which coincided with one of the high points in fraternity activity; they reached a maximum number of thirteen by that year. "Hell Week," a tradition associated with fraternity hazing for many years, by 1951 had been turned by some fraternities into "Help Week," a somewhat more constructive series of activities, and consisted of community and social service projects. One fraternity plastered and painted ten hospital rooms in the Somerville City Infirmary, while another held a Christmas party at an orphanage.

When Wessell (who was himself not a fraternity man) became president in 1953 there were nine fraternities and four sororities on


campus. Slightly more than 30 percent of the undergraduate men belonged to fraternities, although most of their houses had only limited residential facilities; 160 men lived in such quarters. A decade later the number of fraternities had risen to twelve, accommodating about 240 students with living facilities, and serving meals to about 600. As is the case with most organizations of their character, there were problems on occasion, from noisy parties and unsanitary kitchens to town-gown relations and the use and control of alcoholic beverages (and drugs by the late 196os). Fraternities sometimes found themselves on "social probation" for some infraction of the rules; this status curbed social activities and was usually effective, at least temporarily.

One matter which periodically concerned the faculty as well as the administration was comparatively low academic averages among fraternities. In 1958 the office of the Dean of Men compiled a chart showing the academic standings of fraternities which indicated that in 1955-56 over half of them fell below the all-men's average of 2.3 (C+). The situation seemed even worse by 1956-57, when nine of the twelve fraternities then in existence fell below the total average for men. Part of the difficulty was attributed to freshman rushing which, until 1956-57, occurred soon after school began in September and was believed to have a distinctly adverse effect on grade-point averages. An attempt was made to alleviate this problem by delaying freshman rushing until after mid-term examinations: i.e., until November. Another policy, which went into effect in 1957-58, was to require a minimum 2.00 ("C") average before a student could be pledged. Rush week was further delayed that year until the second semester, and eligiblity was refined in 1961-62 to require a 2.00 average for two consecutive terms after the first semester. These measures, strengthened by admonitions from the Dean of Men and the Interfraternity Council, had an immediate and salutary effect, for in 1959-60 the all-fraternity average of 2.39 exceeded the all-men's average of 2.23. The number of freshmen academically eligible for pledging went up from 58 percent to 67 percent between 1959 and 1965, but the number actually pledging dropped from 60 percent to less than 50 percent. The pendulum had swung away from fraternity popularity, and interest declined. Furthermore, dormitory living and university food services had increased in appeal. There were 269 bids offered by fraternities in 1965 but only 182 pledged. Talk had already been heard that the continued existence of fraternities on campus was doubtful.

Another contributing factor in the decline in fraternity patronage was undoubtedly a renewed effort to eliminate discriminatory


provisions in fraternity constitutions and practices. This became the most lively and sensitive issue involving fraternities in the 1950s and 1960s. The problem of race discrimination first attracted attention when the Tufts Student Council, which had a broad mandate to "control and regulate all matters concerning student life and activities," and which had been organized in 1924, recommended to the administration in 1955 that no fraternity that had a racially discriminatory clause in its national constitution should have a chapter at Tufts. The faculty Committee on Student Organizations (organized in 1952), to whom the matter was referred, concurred, and at first denied recognition to a new fraternity on this ground. The issue had been precipitated by the attempt of Theta Chi, then a local, to obtain recognition as a chapter of their national organization, which had a "gentlemen's agreement" excluding Negroes and Orientals.

After much consideration the committee adopted a policy which, in effect, established a double standard. Fraternities existing before 1955 that had restrictive provisions regarding race, religion, or national origin were allowed to remain undisturbed. However, any established after 1955 were to be recognized only if no such restrictions existed. The trustees approved the policy in 1955 of allowing no new fraternities or sororities on campus if they practiced restriction. The ruling apparently did not apply to sororities. One, recognized by the Committee on Student Organizations in 1956, excluded Negroes. It is quite possible that the committee was unaware of this restriction because it was an "understanding" rather than a constitutional provision. This half-way solution as to fraternities in no way satisfied those opposed to any discrimination whatever as a matter of principle, and in 1956 the Student Council called upon the trustees to announce their policy. This was strongly supported by the editor of the Tufts Weekly who took an unequivocal stand against discrimination of any kind and in any form.

The trustees, after considerable delay, announced their stand regarding racial discrimination after a meeting in April 1959. Their policy agreed with that of the administration. At their request, President Wessell relayed the text of the policy statement to the Student Council.

The trustees recognized the right of freedom of association, which meant that the members of any organization (including fraternities and sororities) were "the proper persons to determine who may and who may not be elected to organization membership." Tufts had "long demonstrated by its action that it does not believe in, nor practice, discrimination by reason of race, color, or creed." However,


that was the official stand of only one institution. It had no right to impose it on others. Any student organization had "an inherent right ... to prescribe its own qualifications for membership so long as they are not contrary to law." Although the trustees, as a matter of principle, were opposed to any such discrimination by fraternities, they were emphatic in their policy of demonstrating a hands-off attitude.

The controversy over discrimination in Greek-letter societies had a profound effect on the fate of sororities on campus. On the heels of the Supreme Court decision making segregation in public schools unconstitutional, the national office of Sigma Kappa withdrew the charter of the local chapter without any explanation except that it was "for the good of the sorority as a whole." The action took place without warning. Sigma Kappa was one of the oldest and largest sororities on the campus, established in 1913, with an undergraduate membership of 45 and 650 alumnae. It had become well-known for its community service activities; like its sister sororities, it provided scholarship aid for needy students.

Not having received any explanation for the national sorority's precipitate action, both the Tufts administration and members of the local chapter came to the conclusion that the "real reason" for the expulsion was racial discrimination. The national constitution had no clause barring any group, and in the spring of 1956 the local chapter had pledged two Negroes. That this was actually the reason for the action by the national headquarters was confirmed by a local delegate to the annual convention held earlier that year, who had been grilled at length about the fact that the chapter had pledged two Negroes, considered an unprecedented action. The chapter at Cornell University, which had also pledged a Negro, was accorded the same treatment as the one at Tufts. John Holmes, Tufts poet laureate, penned a poem in 1956 in honor of the sorority members at both Tufts and Cornell.

Katherine Jeffers was Dean of Jackson College in 1956. She had spent fifteen years of her professional life at two institutions in the South and was familiar with racial discrimination at first-hand. She outspokenly defended the presence of Negroes and and other minorities on the Tufts campus. She hoped that "we shall always have foreign students, Negro students, Jewish students, and those of Oriental background, mixed in with those who are regarded as 'long-time American' here at Jackson College." Even though she received a few letters critical of her viewpoint, Dean Jeffers was deluged with letters (from men as well as women) supporting her stand and condemning the action of the national sorority.


The students of the former sorority immediately formed a new local organization known as "Thalia" which lasted until 1960. It elected the same slate of officers that had been prepared for the sorority for 1956-57. The constitution of Thalia was promptly approved by the necessary campus authorities.

The expulsion of the Jackson sorority immediately attracted widespread national attention, with news items about the event in papers as widely separated geographically as New York City, Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Tampa, Florida. News of the revocation of the local charter so upset a member of the Massachusetts legislature that he called for a probe of the parent organization by the House Committee on Education. The committee considered the situation of sufficient seriousness and importance to broaden the inquiry by conducting an investigation into discrimination in both fraternities and sororities at all institutions of higher education in the state as well as at Tufts. The investigating committee had no more success than had the university in eliciting any kind of a response from the national headquarters. No reply was received to an invitation to send representatives to a public hearing. Dean Jeffers testified at the hearing and was without doubt gratified to hear the committee report, which found that the national sorority had "engaged in discriminatory action which cannot be condoned."

Their statewide investigation revealed that discriminatory clauses and practices were "widespread in the fraternity and sorority systems in Massachusetts." Only a few schools, including Amherst and Williams, had taken effective action to eliminate "such evils." Tufts was listed as one of the schools in which discrimination was permitted, with the handling of such matters left up to the students. The committee especially targeted the University of Massachusetts after it was revealed that four of the fraternities at the state's largest public institution had restrictive clauses in their national charters. As to the Sigma Kappa chapter there, the committee recommended immediate withdrawal from the parent organization. Private institutions such as Tufts were urged to take the necessary steps to bring about the elimination of remaining restrictive clauses and practices in fraternities and sororities on their campuses.

After almost half a century on the campus, all but one member of the Tufts chapter of the Alpha Xi Delta sorority voted in September 1956 to resign from the national sorority, presumably because of its discriminatory policies. Like the former Sigma Kappa sorority,


they immediately organized locally, choosing "Alethea" for their name.

The Tufts Weekly not only added its blessing to the voluntary action of the sorority but opined that the college did "not need sororities . . . their demise would be a genuine contribution to the emotional and educational development of the Jackson woman." The Panhellenic Council voted in 1958 not to reactivate Alpha Xi Delta, and two years later reaffirmed its decision in spite of some pressure from the alumnae of the defunct sorority.

The number of sororities on campus shrank steadily. By the time that Delta Zeta, the last national sorority to be represented on campus (organized in 1956) was deactivated in 1970, only one other (Chi Omega) remained. By 1972 it too had become defunct, but was resurrected in 1976. In 1960 it had donated a stone bench outside Goddard Chapel to mark the sorority's fiftieth anniversary at Tufts.

The debate over discrimination in fraternities became even more intense after 1961 than previously when the fact that Theta Chi and Delta Zeta were in violation of the non-discrimination principle was brought forcibly to public attention by the campus newspaper. The Interfraternity Council that year solicited, on a voluntary basis, information from each fraternity as to their practices. It was discovered that half of the fraternities at the national level (six of the twelve then on campus) still had restrictions of some type. Three of them had clauses written into their constitutions while three restricted by "gentlemen's agreements." Only one sorority (Delta Zeta) had any restriction, and that was by an "understanding" rather than a constitutional provision excluding Negroes (which the local chapter apparently did not challenge). Although the students had been apprised of the trustee policy statement of 1959 they requested in 1961 a faculty statement as well. Some of the undergraduates wished a review of the policy permitting fraternities established on campus before 1955 to retain any restrictive provisions or policies they might have. The faculty Committee on Student Organizations which reported to a special faculty meeting early in 1962 argued that the existence of any restrictions at all was both socially and morally indefensible and inconsistent with Tufts' historic philosophy and practices. At the same time, both fraternities and sororities were to continue at the institution, but without restrictive provisions. The strategy was to allow local organizations to determine membership policy and to bring pressure on their national officers to rid themselves of any restrictions that existed. If any were imposed at the local level the university would withdraw official recognition. The committee further recommended that each fraternity


and sorority make a public statement of their policies and be offered financial aid if a non-restrictive policy resulted in financial hardship. The committee further recommended that continuous monitoring be arranged. In brief, the committee wanted "direct action" rather than the cautious trustee statement of 1959.

By the time the committee's recommendations reached the faculty at the next special meeting in 1962 they had been worded in so much stronger and more uncompromising language that they provoked a lively and rather emotional exchange on the floor. After unequivocally stating that "considerations of race, religion, and national origin shall not be permissible grounds for policies of acceptance or exclusion of members in social fraternities and sororities at the University," a target date of September 1963 was to be established for compliance, with no extensions beyond September 1965. If compliance were not achieved, there would be no more pledging or initiating of new members by offending organizations. The same penalty was to be levied on those organizations which failed to make accurate and complete statements of their admissions policies each year.

One faculty member (an alumnus and loyal fraternity man), objected strenuously to what amounted to an ultimatum faced by fraternities and sororities that proved remiss or uncooperative in removing discriminatory clauses. It was, he said, a direct violation of the freedom of association recognized by the trustees and substituted compulsion for voluntarism. He challenged the accuracy of the statistics about the extent of fraternity discrimination and pointed out that there had been no consultation with either the Alumni Interfraternity Council or the Alumni Council. Not only the aggrieved faculty member, but others as well, questioned the faculty's authority to make such stipulations.

The arguments against adoption of the proposed faculty policy were sufficiently persuasive to result in no action at the time. The recommendations were referred back to the committee for further consideration. The Dean of Students, while defending the original committee report as "generally satisfactory," and commending the Interfraternity Council for its efforts, attempted to mollify those who objected by deploring the fact that some restrictive provisions still existed in fraternities at Tufts but expressed the hope that they would soon be removed. The university chaplain complained that the follow-up report and the dean's statement were too vague and too mildly worded to satisfy him and insisted that action concerning discrimination in fraternities was indeed a faculty prerogative. The original committee recommendations which had precipitated so much


controversy were then adopted by the faculty with only minor changes and their vote was reported to the trustees.

So much attention was being paid to the "fraternity question" that an ad hoc trustee Committee on Fraternities and Sororities had been created, and made its report to the full board in the fall of 1962. The trustees added nothing new to their 1959 statement of policy, and blamed much of the agitation over fraternity discrimination on "the extreme and impatient opinions" of a vocal minority, expressed through the columns of the undergraduate newspaper. Moderation was the watchword.

If the faculty recommendations against discrimination had not been disclosed (by a faculty member) to the college paper before the committee had an opportunity to consider the matter, nothing more need have been said or done. But the allegedly extreme statements made in the Weekly and the strong action taken by the faculty might have adversely affected one or more Tufts constituencies (especially the alumni). Further, the trustees disliked the idea of being pressured into taking some kind of action.

The trustees were gratified that, as of 1962, only two of the twelve fraternities still retained discriminatory clauses. In both cases the restrictions were in national constitutions. Alpha Tau Omega membership was limited to white, male Christians; Sigma Nu excluded Negroes and Orientals. The non-coercive policy followed by the administration and expressed in 1959 by the trustees had been completely vindicated, in their estimation. The trustees considered all but one of the faculty policies to be too extreme. The one that did have some merit was the requirement that every fraternity and sorority make public any policies of a discriminatory nature.

The entire trustee report was transmitted to the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, and the Alumni Interfraternity Council unanimously approved the trustee statement. In the fall of 1963 the trustees voted to withdraw recognition, if necessary, of the two fraternities which had offending policies, but set no deadline. Some students were unhappy that none had been set. So the Tufts Student Council informed the trustees that if the two fraternities had not taken the necessary action by September 1964, they would have to cease their affiliation with the national organization and either become locals or cease operation at the school entirely. Such drastic action was not necessary, however, for both fraternities had obtained waivers by 1964 from their respective national headquarters as to their restrictive provisions. A victory had finally been won, but at considerable expense. The fraternities had been put on the defensive to a greater extent than ever before.


Just as the battle over discrimination was coming to a close, the fraternities faced another set of problems: declining interest and loss of membership, social difficulties, and financial woes. Phi Epsilon Pi, a chapter of which had been established at Tufts in 1916, was forced to close in 1968. Their residence (on Winthrop Street in Medford) was renamed in honor of Russell L. Carpenter, a member of the Biology Department and an alumnus of the Class of 1924. The former fraternity house became for a time the headquarters of the Afro-American Cultural Center. Sigma Nu, occupying a former private residence leased from the university on Curtis Street in Somerville, was denied a loan in 1965 to construct a new and larger house because it was not considered a wise investment in view of declining fraternity membership and activity on the campus.

Then there were other difficulties besetting some fraternities. One was restricted in its social activities for most of a semester, while the activities of another were suspended completely for a month by its alumni (and with the encouragement of the dean) because of behavorial problems. Fraternities and sororities had declined to such a point that in 1968 the bylaws of the Alumni Council were amended to eliminate their standing committee which dealt with such matters. The situation for the fraternities had become so grim by 1970 that a letter was sent out to all fraternity alumni requesting financial assistance to keep them in operation. The letter blamed the sad state of fraternities at least in part on an unsympathetic administration. President Hallowell countered by saying that the real reason for the decline of fraternity life was "the present undergraduate culture." Such organizations met no bona fide social need.

The number of fraternities had dropped to eight in 1973 and several still operating were in financial difficulty. After the closing of the last sorority on campus (Chi Omega), an attempt was made by Delta Tau Delta to strengthen its faltering ranks by adopting in 1973 a "Little Sister" program - a policy subsequently followed by several other fraternities. Jackson students in Delta Tau Delta could have the opportunity "to experience the benefits of the Greek system." They were considered members of the Tufts chapter, and could take meals at the fraternity house, beginning the second term of their freshman year, as well as participate in the chapter's social and community service programs. The pendulum had swung again by the mid-1980s. In 1984-85 the number of fraternities had risen to eleven and sororities to two. The changing tenor of the times was illustrated by the reactivation of the Chi Omega sorority in 1976. It had been the last to leave the campus when that type of organization had gone out of style in the


1960s and early 1970s. Its revival was evidence of what appeared to be a return to traditional ways. It was that sorority which reestablished their long-standing practice of selling apples at football games. By the mid-1980s there were two more fraternities than the nine on campus in 1953, when Wessell had become president of Tufts. One, Kappa Alpha Psi, chartered at Tufts in 1975, appealed to minorities; a decade later it was still all-black.


[] Report of the Special Committee, House Document No. 2977, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1957.

  • Light on the Hill, the second volume of the history of Tufts University, was published in 1986, covering the years from 1952 to 1986. This doucument was created from the 1986 edition of Light on the Hill, Volume II.
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 Title Page
1. Setting the Stage for the Second Century
2. Long-Range Planning
3. Bricks and Mortar 1952-1967
4. The End of Theological Education at Tufts
5. Ever-Widening Curricula for Liberal Arts and Engineering
6. Jackson College: A Search for Identity
7. Defining the Role of the College of Special Studies
8. The Arts and Sciences Faculty I
9. The Arts and Sciences Faculty II
10. The Central Library
11. The Changing Character of the Student Body
12. Fraternities and Sororities at Tufts: A Cyclical History
13. A Beehive of Activity: From Trustees to Students
14. From Wessell to Hallowell
15. The Hallowell Administration: Years of Trial and Tribulation
16. The Hallowell Administration: Continued Trial and Tribulation
17. Educational Ventures, Successful and Otherwise
18. The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy
19. Medical and Dental Education I
20. Medical and Dental Education II
21. Taking Stock of the University in the 1960s and 1970s
22. The Mayer Administration: A Preliminary View
23. The Mayer Administration: Consolidation and Expansion