John Drescher

Former college president skeptical of fraternities

John Chandler
John Chandler

The racist video from Sigma Alpha Epsilon at the University of Oklahoma. Brothers at Kappa Delta Rho at Penn State posting photos of naked, unconscious women. A Pi Kappa Phi pledge notebook at N.C. State with racist and sexist language.

John Chandler, the former president of Williams College in Massachusetts, isn’t surprised. “I don’t think there’s any college or university that’s immune,” he told me this week. “But I think without fraternities the risk is considerably lower for episodes of that kind.”

Chandler, 91, is a North Carolina native who graduated from Wake Forest College in 1945 and received his doctorate from Duke. He taught religion at Williams in the early 1960s when the all-male college decided to phase out fraternities. He served as president of Hamilton College in central New York from 1968 to 1973, then returned to Williams as president for 12 years.

Later he was president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities and chairman of the board at Duke University. He’s one of the most distinguished figures in American higher education.

And he doesn’t think fraternities are compatible with the mission of today’s colleges. “I recognize that fraternities are meaningful and positive for a lot of students,” Chandler said. “But colleges and universities that not only tolerate but encourage and facilitate Greek life are singing two tunes that are simply inconsistent.”

Most colleges and universities today embrace diversity and inclusiveness, Chandler said, but fraternities and sororities often don’t. “They create a culture in which there’s a kind of minimization of mixing and mingling,” he said.

Chandler’s book, “The Rise and Fall of Fraternities at Williams College,” was published last year by the college. Most fraternity members were opposed to making Williams co-ed. Chandler says eliminating fraternities opened the way for Williams to admit women and thrive. The college grew from 1,200 students to today’s 2,000.

Fraternities at Williams often discriminated against Catholics, Jews and other minorities. A key moment came in 1961 when three fraternity brothers denied admission to a well-known Asian student. The fraternity president and captain of the football team, Bruce Grinnell, objected.

Grinnell led a petition effort to change the way fraternities admitted members; typically, one or two brothers can block a candidate. The petition prompted a chain of events that led to Williams phasing out fraternities.

As I was reading Chandler’s book, my fraternity’s national magazine arrived with the cover story, “Pushing Back: How sweeping generalizations are shortchanging young fraternity men.” The magazine features grads discussing the value of their experience and short stories about current brothers doing good deeds.

My experience was overwhelmingly good. Some brothers remain my closest friends – good guys doing good things in their families and communities.

But I also was aware of sickening discrimination when a great person – one of the best dudes ever, a big-hearted bridge-builder and fun guy – was denied admission by a couple of morons because of his ethnicity.

Chandler says fraternities are more prone to bad behavior because they attract people of the same backgrounds who are less likely to confront one another. He thinks a more diverse membership serves as a check on bad behavior.

In each house, there is a push and pull about acceptable behavior and language. The good guys need to assert themselves.

Fraternities are squarely in the bull’s-eye of college presidents and chancellors. For good reason. If the best young men in fraternities don’t step up as leaders and silence the jerks, universities will shut them down. The party will be over.

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or jdrescher@newsobserver.com;

Twitter: @john_drescher

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