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Frat Row : At Middlebury College, Sexism Puts Traditional Greek Houses On the Ropes

February 09, 1990|BETH ANN KRIER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. — There may be no more idyllic spot in all of higher education than Middlebury College. Students here boast, with little exaggeration, that they select their rooms based on whether they want to gaze upon the Green Mountains to the east or the Adirondacks in the west.

Filled with majestic, Colonial buildings of white marble and pale gray limestone, the campus is quintessentially New England--with the exception of its flashy sports facilities. The academically selective school has its own alpine ski slopes. A state-of-the-art indoor fitness center. An 18-hole golf course. And more.

But despite post card-perfect scenes of "Club Midd" students merrily shredding the ski runs and skating pond, winter has not been entirely cool at Middlebury. According to administrators, faculty and students, the school is in the midst of a red-hot debate over the imminent demise of a 149-year-old tradition.

On Jan. 13, the school's board of trustees ordered Middlebury's six fraternities to pledge women by the end of the year or cease existing at the college. (Middlebury has no sororities. They reportedly died out amid civil rights and Vietnam War protests of the '60s.)

The decree that women be integrated into fraternities--sparked by some misogynist high jinks at a Middlebury frat house in 1988--is considered a serious threat to the school's unique, somewhat laissez-faire social structure.

It may also portend more trouble for fraternities nationwide. Most observers agree that the Greek system--inspiration for such films as "Animal House" and "Revenge of the Nerds"--has made a strong comeback from membership drop-offs of the late '60s and early '70s. But fraternities, in particular, continue to be plagued by allegations of racism, concern over alcohol and drug abuse, and increasingly, suggestions that they condone sexist behavior and perpetuate, if not promote, sexual stereotypes.

Middlebury's mandate is just the latest development from New England, seedbed of a small but growing movement to sexually integrate fraternities or abolish them completely. Already, Greek letter societies have been outlawed at such respected Northeastern liberal arts colleges as Amherst and Williams in Massachusetts and Colby in Maine.

But Middlebury appears to be spearheading a countertrend: an attempt to \o7 reform\f7 rather than eradicate its fraternities. Similar efforts are also under way at Maine's Bowdoin College, which has given fraternities until September, 1991, to pledge female members. At Connecticut's Wesleyan University, all-male organizations are being strongly encouraged to admit women but haven't been threatened with sanctions.

Some co-ed fraternities exist on West Coast campuses, but integrating single-sex groups hasn't been much of an issue here, reports Ken Taylor, director of residential and Greek life at the USC. "I'm not aware of discussions about it . . . ," says Taylor, "or of a serious intent on the part of any (West Coast) school to do that."

Ironically, Middlebury already has a progressive reputation with regard to Greek houses, and a precedent-setting history on integration issues.

Founded in 1800, it was the nation's first institution of higher education to graduate a black student (1823). It was the first to award a black an honorary degree (1804). Back in the late 1940s, Middlebury fraternities challenged their national organizations and pledged both a black (Charles A. James, a former U.S ambassador to Niger) and a Jew (Felix Rohatyn, a nationally known New York financier).

In 1959, Middlebury's Sigma Phi Epsilon chapter pledged Ron Brown, the black man who is now chairman of the Democratic National Committee. In so doing, the chapter lost its ties with its national organization and renamed itself Sigma Epsilon.

The latest move by the trustees--which has been called a "creative, innovative" solution by Middlebury president Olin Robison--charts middle ground between two opposing campus views: * The recent majority report of a Middlebury task force on student social life, which recommended fraternities be totally abolished so that a contemporary social structure could be created without ancient Greek baggage. "As society has changed, fraternities have not, and therefore have become an anachronism," the report maintains. "A narrowly defined, fraternity-dominated social life on campus is incompatible with our vision of the future."

* The students' decidedly pro-Greek wishes. Though only 14% of Middlebury's approximately 2,000 students are fraternity members, 68% of them favor keeping fraternities, according to a survey of the task force.

Blame it on the toga party that went too far. Though there have been other reports of sexist behavior at Middlebury, just about everybody at the school says the catalyst for the trustees' decision was the 1988 toga party hosted by Delta Upsilon.

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