“The Limits of Reform from Within — A Brash Idea from Undergraduates Turns into Reality” by Dee Gardner ’57 is the first in our series of essays by members of the class of 1957. Read the whole thing. See here for more background on the elimination of fraternities at Williams.


Arriving on campus in the fall of 1953, we found that the new student union Baxter Hall was not finished. We survived food fights in the old Currier Hall dining addition, had verbal battles between Williams and Sage Halls, and began to develop new friendships. Deferred rushing, we were told, was designed to ease our transition to campus, by not being rushed immediately and therefore to foster stronger class and college spirit. And these goals were largely met. It was soon clear that deferred rushing had three perhaps unforeseen consequences: 1) that both the frosh and the fraternities had a whole year to look over and rank each other, which led to more stratification of the houses, 2) that taking the freshmen out of the houses increased the economic pressure to take more sophomores, which was easy for the strong houses, and hard for the weaker ones, and 3) as a consequence of the above, the size of the non-fraternity group, was reduced, which increased the stigma of rejection for some, although many were quite happy with the diversity and friendships enjoyed as independents.

Sometime in our first year, a number of us became interested in the idea of trying to force the fraternities to take all of us or none of us in the next Fall rushing. But as the year progressed, curiosity about the Greek world overcame our naive idealism, and just about everyone signed up for rushing in the fall. Once members of fraternities, we hoped we could work from within to achieve “Total Opportunity”, whereby all houses would agree to take one of the last remaining students who did not received a bid in the regular round of rushing. The time-honored practice of “3 chops” equaling a “blackball” had to be overcome. Discriminatory clauses in fraternity charters were also cited.

By the fall of 1956 a number of us began to feel that Williams would be a better college without fraternities. We objected to the time and energy wasted in rushing meetings, decisions based on superficial criteria, the mickey-mouse of pledge period hazing, and the overall effect of the divisions and stereotypes fostered by the system. We asserted: “We are certain that fraternities are doomed at Williams, and that our plan, which will be described more fully later, will become a reality.”

A small group of seniors and juniors, later dubbed “The Terrible Twenty-two,” deliberated for the year, and came up with a plan to disband the fraternities and to use the houses as college-owned residential units. President Baxter made it clear that our proposal had no chance to be accepted by the Trustees. And, he was, of course, right.

The campus was also pretty upset with us. I did get one more chance to put our criticism and call for reform in perspective when as Commencement Class Speaker I explained that our goal was to make Williams an even better college.

In 1961, another student petition, authored by Bruce Grinnell ’62 and other student leaders, called for the end of selectivity in the assignment of students to the houses. A counter petition advocated continued evolution from within. After a year of investigation and deliberation, the Committee headed by Jay B. Angevine ’11, concluded that the fraternities had exercised “a disproportionate role” in campus life, and called for the College to provide housing, dining and social facilities for all undergraduates. The Board of Trustees agreed unanimously with the Angevine Committee recommendations. President Jack Sawyer ’39 invited me back to the campus to help implement the very program that we, as brash undergraduates, had proposed five years before. I was staff assistant and secretary to the Standing Committee of the Board, chaired by Ted Banks ’28, which was charged with the task of planning the “new Williams,” and dealing with the fraternities, alumni, and students in the transition. For seven years, I helped administer the change and ended up as dean of student affairs.

The year 1962-63 was the first critical year in the transition. There was organized opposition among some alumni, who threatened to withhold their support if the College didn’t change its mind. Naturally the majority of fraternity members opposed the change, and contrived some clever protest demonstrations. But key undergraduate leaders in the senior class of 1963 were incredibly helpful in voicing their “support of the future.” Many students volunteered to join planning committees which helped them see the possibilities in the residential houses. They volunteered to join the first two houses, and provided leadership for the new houses (Spencer, Perry, Wood, etc) “sponsored” by the fraternities who made their properties available to the College. As the Standing Committee negotiated with the fraternity corporations, it was clear that the overwhelming majority of Williams alumni were more loyal to the College than to their fraternities, and this fact made this major change possible.

Our aim was to preserve the best features of the fraternity system–the small group living and dining and social life, self government and intramurals, without the negative features of rushing, pledging and stratification by social group. We tried to bring the academic and the residential life closer together to enhance the overall educational experience. Philip Hoff ’48, former Governor of Vermont, told me years later that he thought this was most important educational decision in making Williams the top-rated liberal arts college it is today. Many women alumnae and faculty members have said that having no more fraternities made the transition to co-education much smoother than at other colleges.

In my Commencement address as Class Speaker I said something to the effect that because we were guinea pigs as the first class to go through deferred rushing, that we should be more understanding of future changes on campus. Now fifty years later the College is again addressing issues in their residential housing. The Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL), including several student members, recommended a “cluster” of federated housing with an “anchor house” as the social center. This new neighborhood should foster more interchange among classes, and a greater sense of community. Students are again formulating a new order on campus to make a great Williams even better. And Baxter Hall, where we ate in our first year at Williams, has been replaced by a new and better student center for the 21st century campus.

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