“Deferred Rushing: The Beginning of the End of Fraternities,” by Henry Bass ’57 completes our series of 1957 reunion essays. Special thanks to Henry for supporting this project and for putting me in contact with the other authors.
The class of 1957 was the first class at Williams under deferred fraternity rushing and the first class to dine together as freshman in Baxter Hall. However, Baxter Hall was not ready for us when school opened. We had to eat together in a crude temporary addition to Currier Hall until spring. But we didn’t have to choose a frat before beginning the school year, as Williams freshman had done for many years.
The construction of Baxter Hall as a place for freshman and nonaffiliated upperclassmen came about after the Garfield Club had forced the issue by dissolving in 1952 under the leadership of its president, Harold Kahn ’52. By a vote of 160 to 32, the club condemned the college for its failure “to rectify a social system which we consider archaic, intolerable, undemocratic and not in accordance with the liberal traditions of Williams College.” The college could no longer just dump guys who didn’t make a frat into the Garfield Club.
And fortunately for those of us who arrived as freshman in the fall of 1953, we had a whole year before we had to go through fraternity rushing. This was especially fortunate for me. I had grown up in small-town Kentucky, and I don’t think I would have been able to cope with rushing just after getting off the train and seeing Williamstown for the first time in September 1953. I had been recruited by telephone and had never seen the place before. I decided not to return a week early for fraternity rushing our sophomore year, and instead to join the “Turkey Coop,” as we called ourselves after the dissolution of the Garfield Club. I do not know how many others skipped rushing, or dropped out after seeing fraternities were not for them, or joined us because the frats rejected them. No one asked or cared.
Our class owes a tremendous debt of gratitude to the members of the Garfield Club who made life easier for us and subsequent incoming classes of students, whether or not they joined fraternities. As freshmen, when we ate together, we made friends — friends we kept for four years whether they joined frats or not. By the time we were seniors, Williams was beginning to feel like a real college community. Our senior year a group of 22 students under the leadership of our class president, Dee Gardner, even wrote a letter to President Baxter and the trustees calling on Williams to move beyond fraternities to a college buyout of the fraternity houses.
Moreover, with freshman no longer in frats the college put fraternities under serious financial pressure by reducing the pool of students available for recruitment by 25%. Fraternities were soon forced to take almost everyone who wanted to join. And in September 1957, just after we left, total opportunity was achieved. In a second round of rushing, the fraternities divided up the final 14 students who wanted to join. Total opportunity, the most ambitious goal the Garfield Club had when it dissolved, was achieved in only five years.
In accepting deferred rushing, Phinney Baxter and the trustees could not have been unaware that they were taking the first step toward phasing out fraternities. The Williams campus was shocked in 1962 when a committee of distinguished alumni under the leadership of Jay Angevine ’11 recommended the end of fraternities. But I have always thought that no one who understood the economics of the situation should have been surprised. A number of fraternities had serious deficits and substantial mortgages. The alumni of these fraternities surely sighed in relief to have the college bail them out of debt (though negotiations with the college over financial details of the college takeover took several years.) Even the alumni of the rich fraternities who could afford to donate their houses to Williams must have been relieved to know that they would in the future get fund appeals only from the college and not from their fraternity as well.
My senior year at Williams, I had a fascinating conversation with Anne Baxter, the wife of President Baxter. We had invited her and President Baxter to dinner at the Turkey Coop. After dinner, someone suggested over coffee that Williams would be better off without fraternities. Mrs. Baxter strongly disagreed. She said that what had made Williams an exciting place for her over the years was the marvelously diverse group of students who were not in fraternities, first in the Garfield Club and later in the Turkey Coop. Mrs. Baxter said that no one could have recruited such an extraordinary group by design as the fraternities had done mostly by default. She feared that once fraternities were gone from the scene no one else would assemble such an exciting group.
Our college historian, Fred Rudolph, has argued that Williams had a tradition of nonconformity long before fraternities, like the five students who sought refuge from a storm under a haystack in 1806 and dreamed of an American foreign missionary movement. When we were at Williams, Rudolph came up to those of us who had invited Thurgood Marshall to lecture and told us that we were the descendants of those who had invited Emerson to come to Williamstown, after Emerson was accused of being a notorious atheist. I hope the tradition of nonconformity still exists now that the Turkey Coop and fraternities are both gone.