They ring Wriston Quad and Patriot’s Court; they’re bumping on any given Saturday night; and they are literally nothing like what you imagined after watching Animal House for the first time. Behold the modern Greek houses of Brown University, important brotherhoods to some and party venues to others. In this series, we take a look at College Hill’s Greek life through the years: its impressively rich history, its present-day situation, and its future.
Because of the abundance of information on Brunonian fraternities and sororities, this series will be divided into several parts.
To set things off, Ra Ra Brunonia presents: Greek Life, Part 1: The rise of the frat.
Encyclopedia Brunonia dates the arrival of the very first fraternities – Alpha Delta Pi, Delta Phi, and Psi Upsilon – to the 1830’s, while Beta Theta Pi, Delta Kappa Epsilon, Zeta Psi, and Theta Delta Chi would also go on establish chapters later in the century. By the 1870’s, there “were seven secret societies with a membership of 102 and two Greek letter ‘open’ societies with 75 members, leaving 78 students unaffiliated with any society.” By “secret societies,” the Encyclopedia is presumably referring to fraternities, as by this point in history the two types of organizations had begun to meld until they were virtually indistinguishable from one another. The secretive senior Cammarian Club even went as far as to publicly step in to regulate rushing practices in 1903.
The university was less than thrilled with these early developments. The Corporation promptly declared its support for the “suppression of said secret societies” in 1844, and passed rules that allowed the university president to attend any fraternity’s meeting without prior notice. The most impassioned remarks came from librarian Reuben Guild, who announced that “Secret Societies… originate with the Devil, all of them.”
With the founding of the Women’s College in the latter half of the 19th century, societies made up exclusively of women also appeared on College Hill, though in the earlier years they too were commonly known as “fraternities.” Much like the first secret societies, these early sororities originated as literary groups; one such, Alpha Beta, presented Twelfth Night in 1896, and would go on to present a Shakespeare play every year for the next sixteen years.
Up until WWII, however, fraternities existed — both literally and figuratively — on the fringes of campus. Decrepit, isolated chapter houses and grade averages that were notoriously poorer than non-fraternity averages gave the organizations a bad reputation. It took nothing less than the support of Brown’s celebrated 11th president and fraternity supporter, Henry Merritt Wriston (1937-1955), to change things. Over the course of the 1940s and 1950s and at the urging of Wriston, the fraternities deeded their houses to the university and moved to houses on the newly constructed Wriston Quad, despite controversy within both the administration and the fraternities themselves. Wriston defended his actions, noting that “we have gone through the entire year with no disorder. I haven’t been called up in the middle of the night and scolded by the neighbors once this year and that is unique in my experience.”
Grade averages went up, but the fraternities remained controversial. Their relatively low grades seemed at odds with their dominance of campus leadership – fraternity members composed only 30% of the student population but held 90% of the student’s elected offices. Brunonia magazine summed up the situation: “the fraternity man is both the campus idiot and the campus leader.” On the evening of March 4th, 1949, the situation came to a head. Engaging in a “campus-wide beer orgy, ” all seventeen fraternities were placed on social probation after the evening’s wild and tragic events: a Theta Delta Chi member died from a fall down the stairs, Beta Theta Pi and Delta Phi got into a fight, and two brothers were attacked in downtown Providence. Though Wriston remained an ardent supporter of Greek life, the future of fraternities looked increasingly uncertain.