Greek life: History of fraternities and sororities

By Meg Waltner
last updated November 12, 2004 1:40 AM

At first glance, Greek life at Stanford seems a shadow of its past. While once all 36 houses on the Row belonged to Greeks, now only 25 percent of them house sororities and fraternities. Still, the Greek system remains a significant part of social life at Stanford.

History of Greek Life

“[Fraternities and sororities] are clearly a part of our history,” said Nanci Howe, associate dean of students and Director of Student activities.

Demand for a housed Greek system emerged in the early days of the University, when students were not guaranteed four years of on-campus housing.

The first Greek organization at Stanford was the sorority Kappa Alpha Theta. Theta rented a house in Mayfield, a town that no longer exists. Many of the other original Greek organizations rented their houses off-campus, although some did have on-campus houses.

By 1898 there were five sororities on campus, and by 1916 there were 24 fraternities. By then, twice as many students lived in sororities and fraternities than in non-Greek on-campus housing.

Fraternities grew much faster than sororities, partly because there were fewer women. Jane Stanford had a “500” rule, which allowed no more than 500 women at Stanford at one time. The “500” rule was in response to criticism the University received for being heavily female when it first opened. Since the University was founded in the name of Jane Stanford’s son, she did not want it to be referred to as the Vassar of the West and sought to limit female enrollment.

In the late 1910s and early 1920s, the University criticized members of fraternities and sororities because of their low academic performance. Then-University President Ray Wilbur threatened to ban fraternities and sororities unless their members improved academically.

“President Wilbur really cracked down on sororities and fraternities and made them toe the line academically,” said Maggie Kimball, an archivist for Stanford library special collections.

The students improved and were allowed to keep their houses.

In 1933 the “500” rule was revised in response to increased enrollment. The number of women on campus grew. With the influx of women came an increased demand for sororities, but the number of sororities did not change. This led to a schism in the female student body. According to Kimball, the female student body was plagued by excessive competition and serious disunity.

Behavioral issues were also a concern for sororities. Women’s dormitories were much stricter, with regulations requiring girls to sign out when leaving and saying when they would be back. Sororities were less regulated. Some female students asked that sororities be abolished.

“This was a way they could reunify the undergraduate women,” Kimball said.

As a result, in 1944 the Board of Trustees voted to ban sororities. Although it has been rumored that this decision was prompted by a suicide, Kimball says that this was not the case.

While sororities were banned, fraternities remained strong.

“What’s unique about our fraternities and sororities [at Stanford] . . . are that they’ve always been on the cutting edge nationally,” said Joey Greenwell, assistant director of student activities and adviser to the interfraternity council.

In the 1960s, many national chapters had racial and religious discriminatory policies, but several fraternities at Stanford ignored them. In 1965, Sigma Chi was suspended by the national organization for pledging an African-American member.

Fraternity Interest Declines,

Rebirth of Sororities

During the 1960s and 1970s, Stanford’s fraternities were hit by a national trend — Greek life was becoming less popular. Many fraternities had to sell their houses to the University because of financial hardships and the poor condition of the buildings. Some fraternities could not draw enough interest and had to close. The development of co-ed housing in the late 1960s also contributed to a drop in Greek life interest.

“A lot of chapters left by natural attrition,” Howe said.

However, in a Daily article published on Nov. 7, 1970, two fraternity managers lamented that the University strictness on bills and debt was an effort to reduce the number of housed fraternities.

“I wouldn’t want to say that Stanford is trying to cut down the number of fraternities, but one might infer it,” said Chuck Kitsman, house manager of Delta Kappa Epsilon.

In the late 1970s, students demanded that the University allow sororities back on campus. The resurgence in sorority interest was partly due to Title IX, which was passed in 1972 and prevented inequality in education. As a result, the ban on sororities was lifted in 1977, but Sororities did not regain housing for another 20 years.

While interest in sororities grew, fraternities continued to suffer. In the 1980s student housing was guaranteed for all four years, which further decreased interest in fraternities. Also, three fraternities lost their houses because of behavioral issues. Howe noted that one fraternity lost its housing privileges after someone threw a burning couch out of a window.

Further stunting fraternity growth, a policy known as the “grandfather policy” was instated in 1985. This policy allowed fraternities to keep their houses if they were already housed, but once they lost their houses they could not get them back. This policy also excluded sororities from being able to receive on-campus housing.

Finally in 1996, the grandfather clause was revoked and replaced by a policy that allowed fraternities and sororities to apply for housing.

“[This policy allows] the groups that can be best at managing a house, get a house,” Howe said.

A Row task force mandated that the Row could only be 25 percent Greek. Currently the Row is at capacity for fraternities and sororities, leaving much of Stanford’s Greek life unhoused. Of Stanford’s 26 sororities and fraternities, seven fraternities and three sororities are housed.

Un-housed Greek Life

Many students do not feel that being unhoused is a hindrance to Greek life.

“We do everything a housed sorority does,” said Cristin Carey, president of Omega Chi, an un-housed sorority. “We just don’t have four walls to call our own.”

Howe said that there is a stereotype on campus that all sororities and fraternities are housed organizations, but the un-housed Greek chapters prove this wrong. Greenwell also stressed that, “the individuals that [un-housed sororities and fraternities] draw are truly committed to their organization.”

Howe said that the increase in other groups that could serve some of the same functions as Greek organizations — a social network, community service, shared interests, and friendship — has decreased the demand for Greek life.

“Initially there weren’t as many groups to be a part of,” she said. Today there are around 640 student organizations on campus, whereas 10 years ago there were half as many.

“I think right now, the climate as is, we’ve reached a dynamic equilibrium,” Carey said. “We have enough [people] interested in Greek life to support the [current] system.”




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