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Half-Century Annalist Letters

The Obligation of the Fraternity System to
Aid Our Colleges in Meeting their
Obligations to the Social Order

William A. Hoy, Class of 1883

Delivered: June 10, 1933

Faithful are the wounds of a friend. — Proverbs 27:6.

Be thou diligent to know the state of thy flocks. — Proverbs 27: 23.

Within the fraternities “in too many instances there is a bowing down to false gods.”
— Harry A. Garfield, President of Williams College

“I am not familiar with the part which fraternities play in the colleges and universities at the present time. I can only say that in my judgment fraternities are undesirable in educational institutions if they do not recognize that the main objective of college and university life is to stimulate and develop young men morally and intellectually. In my day at Amherst College, my own fraternity justified its existence there by actively participating in that enterprise and in cooperating with the college authorities to promote it. When fraternities fail to do that I think that college authorities are fully justified in considering their abolition.”
— Harlan F. Stone, of the United States Supreme Court

“The movement to bring the alumni governing boards of college fraternities and the presidents and other officers of the colleges into closer cooperation will tend, in my judgment, to broaden the view of college authorities and to keep graduates in closer touch with the educational policies of the colleges. The fact that the fraternities as such will sponsor and help along this cooperation will further justify their existence. I think you and those working with you are undertaking a healthy thing.”
— James W. Wadsworth, former Senator for the State of New York now the House of Representatives, a member of Delta Kappa Epsilon

“Ludo autem, et joco uti illo quidem licet; sed sicut somno, et quietibus ceteris tum cum gravibus, seriisque rebus satisfecerimus” — Sport and merriment are at times allowable; but we must enjoy them as we do sleep and other kinds of repose, when we have performed our weighty and important affairs.
— Cicero, De Offciis

“Proclaim everywhere, by word of mouth to this company and by messengers bearing the tidings far and wide, that pleasure is not the first of possessions, nor yet the second, but that in measure, and the golden mean, and the suitable, the eternal nature has been found.”
— Socrates in The Dialogues of Plato

“I agree fully with the integrating principle of your whole address, viz: that ethical considerations are paramount. I know very little about the fraternity question, but I am sure that if the fraternities are conducted in accordance with the ideal you set up in your admirable paper they would be of immense value in the crisis.”
— George D. Bull, Professor of Ethics, Department of Philosophy, Fordham University.

It has been the custom for the annalist to engage in reminiscences of the happy days of undergraduate life, but in this unhappy year of 1933 we should look to the future and consider the obligations of our colleges to the social order, consider also the part which the Greek Letter Fraternity System is able to take in aiding the colleges to meet those obligations.

Within the term “fraternity system” I include the Emerson Literary Society of Hamilton College and such other student organizations of its high type as there may be at other colleges, but exclude those societies which, whatever their names, are only counterfeits of the genuine fraternities. They should be regarded as we regard counterfeit money.

The obligations of our colleges to the social order are greater than they have ever been. Colleges are the primary sources of leadership of sound public opinion; in them is the beginning of the liberal education of our journalists, preachers, lawyers, and teachers, and may of the men who hold public office. The sidewalks of New York have graduated only one Alfred E. Smith. It is from the colleges that the country expects the largest number of leaders of that public thought which is the controlling power of our nation.

Our country, so important a part of Western Civilization, is in disorder. All the countries of Western Civilization are in disorder. The sore distress from which we are suffering is more than the depression of a severe business cycle. All Western Civilization is in the midst of a crisis, an educational crisis, a moral crisis. We may reject Oswald Spengler’s gloomy opinion, expounded in his two-volume essay titield The Decline of the West, that our civilization is in its dying years; but we must not be blind to the fact that we are at the end of an era in world history, and that if there is not to be such chaos as followed the end of the era of Rome, we must not be indifferent to the gravity of the crisis. We must become conscious of the truth of the dictum of Chateaubriand a century ago: “The corruption of morals and the civilization of nations march abreast.” There is the additional truth that in corruption there are the germs of decay and ultimate death, and that corruption originates in the ignorance of men as well as in their evil passions. It is to the colleges that we must look for the men who in the coming years will lead in the lessening of ignorance and of corruption and in the spread of that knowledge and that ethical spirit which will resist materialism and so improve and so strengthen our morale as to prevent the fall of our civilization.

The fraternity system has hundreds of thousands of members. Their alumni have built and own more than 1,800 chapter houses for their undergraduates to live in, with an aggregate value of more than $70 million. What is this system doing today to aid the colleges in meeting their obligations to the social order?

Many of us who have studied the situation believe that in too many respects the system is an impediment to the colleges, and that in those respects wherein it is not obstructive, it fails to be as helpful as it can be and should be. In too many instances there is a bowing down to false gods. I take that expression “bowing down to false gods” from a letter President Garfield of Williams College has written to me on this subject. It is not a sweeping indictment of the fraternity system, but it does mean that here and there, or as President Garfield says, “in too many instances” there is a wrong spirit.

What can be done so that there will not be this worship of false gods? What steps can be taken to increase the spiritual strength of the fraternity system and to promote its usefulness to the colleges?

After having had some correspondence with President Garfield, I wrote on May 16 to the presidents of the 13 other colleges in the Eastern States and in an identical letter to them presented the points of my own beloved Alpha Delta Phi and other genuine fraternities. To all 14 presidents I submitted a specific request. I asked each whether he would be willing to have a conference with alumni representatives of the governing boards of the fraternity chapter at his college for the purpose of effecting a much stronger alliance than any now existing to eliminate from student life its harmful practices and to increase among the students at his college their devotion to study and reading and thought.

Affirmative answers have come from all 14 colleges. They are: Amherst, Bowdoin, Brown, Colgate, Cornell, Dartmouth, Hamilton, Johns-Hopkins, Rochester, St. Lawrence, Trinity, Union, Wesleyan and Williams. Approval of the plan for these proposed conferences has come also from the Chancellor of the University of the State of New York, Chester S. Lord, a Hamilton alumnus and a member of Sigma Phi.

I now ask that the alumni trustees of the chapters at those 14 colleges enter into the proposed conferences with their college presidents.

You and I are well aware that in many of our chapter houses there is a worship of false gods. There is a gross hedonism, a degradation, a perversion of these houses which ought to be cloisters of study and thought into mere social clubs in which the undergraduates cultivate the art of what they call “having a good time”; and from these houses a demoralizing influence spreads among all students. It may not injuriously affect the best students in or outside the fraternities, but it does not inspire them with high ideals. Little wonder that there are signs of a campus opinion disapproving this or that fraternity chapter. Wherever there is a decadent chapter, we need not, in the exercise of our power of ownership, turn its house into a monastery, but a touch of asceticism in it would be better than a low form of hedonism.

At a conference between a college president and the alumni trustees of a chapter it will be necessary to survey present customs, practices, habits, and to agree upon an adjustment between a student’s play and his serious work. Play, fun, merriment, frolic, all are essential in the life of a student, but they should not be permitted to interfere with the discipline of his mind and the acquisition of such stock of general ideas and information as he can gain in his four years as an undergraduate, too short a time for him to become highly proficient in the intellectual processes, also too short a time to learn more than a little. Physical exercise is important, but vastly more important is culture of the mind and the training of that curiosity for knowledge which will abide after commencement day and cause constant reading and thought all through the mature years.

In making their definition of harmful practices, undoubtedly the conferees will base it upon this principle: that whatever practice is ethically wrong must be defined as harmful. A test of the ethical quality of a practice is found in considering whether it justifies sincere advocacy of it as positively contributing to college welfare, or is one for which only apologies can be offered.

College welfare depends upon the degree to which the students devote themselves to the true purposes of the college. We are told that these purposes are disciplinary and cultural, and that the aim of the college is to produce men of high intellectual and moral character. With that fine ideal clearly before a college president and the graduate trustees of a chapter, when they confer, what will the conferees decide about certain things which characterize in varying degrees the lives of so many students? It seems to me that they will be obliged to decide against frequent absenteeism from college quarters over weekends and at other times, the use of automobiles, the holding several times a year of chapter houseparties with the girls as house guests for two or three days and nights at time, and booze parties and hell week parties, excessive devotion to athletics, excessive participation in some kind of extracurricular activities, and the devoting of too much time to bridge and the radio and to idle conversation. All these things are part of the worship of false gods and unquestionably they take a student’s attention away from his study and his reading and forms of serious thought. Some are inherently vicious, some are merely transgressions beyond the limits of reasonable play and recreation. Let me propound a question for conferees in session:

“If, Mr. College President, these practices were not in being now at your college, and if you were casting about for ways and means to raise the tone of life at your college, would you call a meeting of your students and earnestly advocate the adoption of one or more of these practices? And if at your college there were not fraternity system would you advocate the founding of societies to build houses and to make them the center of encouragement at these practices?”

Let that question be squarely faced also by the alumni trustees of a chapter. All parties to the conference should, I contend, be guided by the principle that no student practice that which is ethically wrong can be right as a college policy or as a fraternity policy. Proper regard for that principle requires that a student practice which is not consistent with true college purposes, which tends rather to defeat them than to promote them and in itself is not in all respects for the student’s individual good, must be defined as a harmful practice, taking him away from his legitimate work as a member of the College body.

The conferees should not be deterred by a fear that they will arouse opposition by pronouncing harmful a practice now favored by students. Colleges depend to some extent upon students for financial support, but college dignity and fraternity dignity and their joint prosperity demand that their policies shall be determined by the wisdom of mature minds, not by our lovable young brothers only a few years out of their knickerbockers, who know no more about how to manage a college than cub reporters know how to manager a newspaper. It would be unethical on the part of the conferees in making their definition to do so in fear and trembling as to whether they are going to offend the young men. If the conferees are to be influenced by thought of what anyone may say, let them reflect upon the fact that a soundly ethical definition of harmful practices will be applauded by masses of student who do not waste their time, by those parents and guardians who are wise, and by the best public opinion.

Total elimination of some practices and the bringing of others within ethical limits will require a combination of the college president’s authority and the authority of the alumni trustees of each chapter. This alliance of authorities will be all-powerful in the chapter houses and it will have the support of the stalwart non-fraternity students. This alliance, imbued with courage not to temporize or compromise, can announce a policy for the improvement of college morale, which can be printed on one page of a college catalogue. It can conclude with the statement that each chapter will be held responsible for executing it. Failures by a chapter or a member of a chapter can be dealt with as they arise. Suasion will undoubtedly prove more efficacious than high handed compulsion, but in a very serious case there can be severe discipline even to the extent of expulsion from college simultaneously with expulsion from fraternity.

An alliance between college authority and fraternity authority would not mean either loss of fraternity ownership of a chapter house or loss of chapter autonomy, but it would mean formal recognition by a college of the fraternity system as a valuable factor for good in college affairs.

President Lowell has set up for the students in residence in his new Harkness fund houses at Harvard a policy which we might well adopt for our chapter houses. The students there have play and recreation but emphasis is given to intellectual activities rather than to brawn and muscle and frivolity. Over the entrance to the gardens of a college at Oxford, which was new 550 years ago and is still called New College there is an inscription in these three words: “Manners Makyth Man,” the old time equivalent of saying “Customs Make Man.” We should be governed by the wisdom in that inscription and should encourage in our chapter houses only those customs and practices and habits which will give to our students intellectual and moral strength and make them sure of durable satisfactions in life. Neither an indulgence in revelry nor an overindulgence in athletics tends to the gaining of permanent satisfactions; they come from having a strong mental grip, a wholesome capacity for hard work with the machinery of the mind. When Charles W. Eliot was president of Harvard he urged effort to develop high mental ability, he stressed the fact that our college students constitute a privileged class, the class that has opportunity for prolonged education, and that the educated class lives mainly by the exercise of intellectual power, and he declared that to possess this power is to be sure of satisfactions which will endure.

Our heartiest cooperation with college presidents and faculties is a vital need, not only that we may aid them, but that we may save the fraternity system from extinction. We must become aware that the colleges can get along without the fraternity system, but that the fraternity system cannot get along without the colleges, and that the day may come when colleges will be impelled to declare the system a parasite and abolish it. Do you deride the idea of possible abolition? I told a distinguished member of Alpha Delta Phi, Mr. Justice Harlan F. Stone of the Supreme Court of the United States, some of my views as to the fraternity system, and he has written to me that he is unfamiliar with the part taken by the fraternities in the colleges and universities at the present time. His unfamiliarity is natural, when you consider that the Justices of our highest tribunal must necessarily hold themselves aloof from many of their former activities. But I beg you to ponder upon what Mr. Justice Stone writes as his opinion, in these words: “Fraternities are undesirable in educational institutions if they do not recognize that the main objective of college and university life is to stimulate and develop young men morally and intellectually. In my day at Amherst College, my own fraternity justified its existence by actively participating in that enterprise and in cooperating with the college authorities to promote it. When fraternities fail to do that, I think that college authorities are fully justified in considering their abolition.”

The task of our colleges is to enlighten their graduates with a knowledge of the humanities, studia humanitatis, and so inspire them with ethical concepts that they will make the brotherhood of college-trained men a more potent force than it now is for the progress of civilization. If as a result of international conferences, some order be restored to Western Civilization, it will be the task of the oncoming classes of graduates to help in their maturer years to maintain that order and to develop it. All successive classes will have that task because civilization is never static, old problems continue and new ones arise. There will always be the problems of international peace, international commerce, and of maintaining a system of sound and stable money and a right structure of credit, always the need to educate national and international opinion to understand and to apply the fundamental truth that whatever is ethically wrong cannot be economically or politically right, always the problems of the conflict between individualism and collectivism, always the need to train people in the practice of democratic constitutional government and to avoid dictatorships, always the need to maintain the institution of the family with its moral beauty and its wholesome parental authority, always the need to protect the institution of private property and capitalism, an institution resting upon entirely ethical foundations, whose worst enemies are not the socialists or the communists by those capitalists who for their own greed pervert and abuse the institution. And if we become so well equipped ethically and intellectually that we can master the marvelous machines which physical scientists have already given to us, there will still be the need of keeping up with their new discoveries and inventions and being prepared so to deal with them as to prevent a recurrence of widespread unemployment, and so to educate the masses that they will not abuse the increased leisure resulting from the substitution of machine power for man power.

Many of the responsibilities of our colleges are in affairs peculiar to the United States; one of the most important obligations is to contribute annually to our life larger numbers of graduates qualified and inspired to participate actively in politics. We have yet to devise such a method of making nominations to public office that instead of our being obligated to vote for the least objectionable nominee, all nominees will be honest and competent. We shall have indefinitely to strive for a strengthening of the two party system and for bringing it to be that politics will command an interest as lively as bridge and golf, and that the game of professional politics will be as free from corruption as is the game of professional baseball. Generation after generation must be trained in our colleges to show a respect for law and for an intelligent and reverent care for the Federal Constitution, and to practice seven days in the week their belief in God and in His commandments.

As a member of Alpha Delta Phi, I desire that not in even one chapter there shall be any worship of false gods, but that the entire fraternity shall be faithful to the purposes declared by Samuel Eells when he founded Alpha Delta Phi here at Hamilton College in 1832. I know how high and pure those purposes are. I attribute to all other genuine societies in the fraternity system, including the Emerson and similar organizations, equally noble purposes. My plea is that we shall be loyal to the fraternity system. That loyalty means greater practical loyalty to our colleges, and means some aid to them in their task of developing and maintaining social order within the domain of Western Civilization.