My youngest daughter Cassandra was sad to discover that there is no Santa Claus. It appears that Jonathan Landsman ’05 is going through a similar trauma, brought on by reading Henry Bass’s ’57 reminisces of end of the fraternity era.

Do I read this right? Did a primary beginning — if not the beginning — of the movement to end fraternities come from the students? The common wisdom held by administrators, as told to me by them directly, is that students were overwhelmingly against the abolition of fraternities when it was pressed, I suppose by Angevine ’11.

Those “administrators” misled you, Jonathan. I tried to tell you that they were wrong, tried to explain to you why they were doing so, tried to demonstrate to you the mendacity and/or ignorance of much of their commentary. Alas, I failed to get my point across, failed to explain the history of housing at Williams. Perhaps I needed to write more words.

But the past is prolegomena to any future plan of better housing at Williams. Let’s use the misinformation fed to students like Jonathan as an excuse to learn some Williams history, and to set the stage for the return of the class of 1957 to campus.

Robinson Sawyer’s ’03 brilliant thesis highlights (pp. 32 — 35) the students who campaigned to end fraternities at Williams fifty years ago.

In the spring of 1957, a group of students, who became known as the Committee of 22 or the “Terrible 22”, proposed a radical change in the social system. A published plan was distributed around campus as an open letter to President Baxter. It called for the total elimination of the fraternity system with the college fulfilling many of the functions fraternities had once performed. The most important role the college would take over was the random assignment of students to social units. Freshmen would still belong to social units, too; and would take part in social events, but they would eat in the student
union. Housing in the social units would be done by seniority, with the excess capacity living in two or three dormitory entries associated with the social unit. Once the college assigned the various members to their social units, the social unit would be autonomous.
In this way every student would be affiliated with a social unit, while eliminating the influence of fraternities and the sense of rejection felt by those who were not members.

The plan proposed to convert fraternities into dormitories while retaining the advantages of the existing system, “such as decentralized eating, intramural competition, the experience of selfgovernment, and the opportunity to form close and lasting friendships.” The Committee of 22 devised this plan hoping to get rid of what its members saw as the six negative aspects of fraternities:

1) Fraternities misdirect too much time and energy;
2) Fraternities lead to unfair standards, cruel to both upperclassmen and freshmen, and a shattering rejection to a small minority;
3) Fraternities are traditionally undemocratic (referring to Discrimination);
4) Fraternities destroy college unity by splitting Williams into 15 socially competing units and isolating freshmen;
5) Fraternities submerge the individual beneath the narrow standard inherent in such a system;
6) Fraternities place severe financial strain on many members.54

There were three main constituencies the Committee had to win over if they wanted their plan to succeed. The first was the student body, where fraternity membership in the upper classes was over 90%. The second was the faculty, who had a vested interest in the social system and how it affected students’ performance in the classroom. The third and most influential constituency was President Baxter and the Board of Trustees. A majority of the student body was hostile to the idea. A Record editorial commented that the plan had merit, but observed that it would be almost impossible to enact, calling it “totally unrealistic and impractical.” It The college would never be able to afford to buy all the fraternity houses, and it was highly unlikely that the fraternities would donate their houses. The other problem would be the major decline in alumni contributions to the college. Fraternities, The Record stated, serve as the main tie between alumni and Williams College. The article ended, “Although the proposed new social system could never become a reality here, the report does indicate that our present fraternity system is far from perfect.”

In contrast to the students, a majority of the faculty supported the plan. Professor Robert Barrow of the Music department stated, “It is a change for the better in that it provides for more mixing of students with different tastes and social backgrounds.” However, the most influential segment of the Williams community had yet to be heard from. After meeting with the Board of Trustees, President Baxter issued a statement that unconditionally condemned the antifraternity plan, stating that the proposal “does not, in our opinion present a convincing case. We believe that the social units on campus are serving a useful purpose, and we hope that they will continue to do so. Later in the statement he called the proposal “totally unrealistic.” While, unsuccessful the Committee of 22 did, it turned out, significantly heighten student opposition to the continuation of the fraternity system.

[Footnotes removed.] As Sawyer (the grandson of Williams President Jack Sawyer ’39) documents, the Terrible 22 were not even the first major student-led push to fix/eliminate fraternities. See Wikipedia for an introduction to the relevant history.

Want to read more? Of course you do! That’s why you come to EphBlog. Peter Elbow ’57, a member of the Terrible 22 was kind enough to provide me with a copy of their original publication. I have scanned it and posted it below. (Someone should type up a version for easier reading. Volunteers? I will ensure that you work is saved and distributed for posterity.)

In another few years, it will be time to revisit anchor housing, to see what work and what doesn’t, to make Williams housing even better than it already is. Those interested in this effort need to learn their history.

Wise students do not get their history (solely) from the Administration.

Want to learn some real history? Stop by the class of 1957 reunion tent. Share a beer with Peter Elbow and his classmates. They have some stories to tell, stories that Dean Roseman and her ilk either do not know or will not share with you. Learn from them about how change comes to Williams. Your turn at change will come soon enough.






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