Middlebury students banned from Greek life

The Associated Press

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. Q The students meet surreptitiously Q at a restaurant off campus, or for a drive in the countryside. The arrangements, says one participant, would never be made on a campus phone.

They are outlaws. If they are found out, they face suspension.

They are fraternity brothers.

Single-sex social organizations have been banned at Middlebury College, so the brothers of Delta Kappa Epsilon have gone underground. No boisterous beer bashes for them. No Animal House, either ; in fact, they're barred from using their own house.

Just furtive meetings. And a will to keep the Dekes alive.

"My fraternity brothers have been my closest friends," said Michael Cohen of Boca Raton, Fla., who graduated from Middlebury in May. "Most of my great times at Middlebury have been with Delta Kappa Epsilon and not Middlebury [College]. ... It's a tradition that shouldn't die."

But not everyone agrees. To some students and college administrators, traditional fraternities are outmoded institutions that promote sexism and inequality. And they have become associated with alcohol abuse and hazing episodes in which students have died.

Five of New England's elite private colleges have banned them outright, including Middlebury, where the fraternities led college social life for generations.

The official end of the fraternity system at this liberal arts college of about 2,000 students began in 1989, when a study of student life concluded the all-male fraternities were incompatible with college life. Sororities disappeared on their own in the early 1960s.

The study coincided with a series of embarrassing incidents, including one in which a female mannequin was suspended in effigy from the front of a fraternity house during a raucous party.

College trustees voted unanimously in 1990 to ban single-sex social organizations. Some fraternities opted to admit women and became part of the college's new social house system, which replaced fraternities as the center of social life. Others dissolved.

Delta Kappa Epsilon refused. "We know men. We don't know women's issues," said David Easlick, executive director of the fraternity's national office in Grosse Point, Mich. "It would be a totally different experience."

They fought the ban in court, and lost. Middlebury students have not been prohibited from belonging to fraternities. But they cannot participate in any fraternity activities whatsoever, even off campus on their own time.

"I don't believe the conduct of every organization is defensible," said Don Wyatt, Middlebury's vice president for undergraduate affairs. "I think [fraternity activity] is contrary to what our mission is."

Wyatt said anyone caught violating the rules would be suspended. "It would be swift and severe."

This has not deterred the underground frats, though Wyatt insisted that their activities are "greatly exaggerated."

"It's a fairly natural thing in the death cycle of fraternities," said Jim Kolesar, spokesman for Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., where single-sex fraternities were banned in 1968 and underground fraternities flourished for years, but have since Q apparently Q died out.

"We expected there would be underground activity and there was," said William R. Cotter, president of Colby College in Waterville, Maine, which banned fraternities in 1984. He claimed the influence of the secret fraternities was waning.

Chris Mastrangelo, a 1992 Colby graduate, spent all four years in college as an underground member of Delta Kappa Epsilon there. He said there are now five fraternities and one sorority operating underground at Colby.

"You find people in underground chapters who take their frats very seriously," Mastrangelo said. "In a school where you know you can be expelled, you have to be dedicated."

At colleges where underground life is strong, fraternities have re-established ties with national organizations, found ways to bring in new members and carry out secret initiation rituals and rites.

At Colby, instead of a much publicized "rush" to attract new members, they investigate prospects and then "tap" them secretly.

At Middlebury, the Dekes say they and at least two other fraternities are learning clandestine survival.

Fearing the college administration, no Deke who will be returning to Middlebury this year was willing to talk.

But recent graduates described a skeletal organization where their lives were ruled by fear that an overheard whisper or an errant letter could lead to their suspension.

Cohen and others say that the school administration waged a "witch hunt," tapping phones and intercepting mail in pur suit of the outlaw frat brothers. Administrators dismiss the charges as laughable.

Cohen said the Dekes met through most of the first semester. But beyond that they decided the risk of continuing was too great and they stopped.

The plan was they would begin again this fall — though like revolutionaries who compartmentalize information, Cohen said he had not been told of the plans of Dekes returning to Middlebury in September.

Nationally, fraternities are healthy. “I really don’t think of [the restrictions and bans)]as a major threat to the fraternity world in general,” said Jonathan Brant, executive vice president of the National Interfraternity Council, representing 55 fraternities with about 400,000 members.

Fraternity supporters say their wild parties have been reined in and critics don’t take into account the community services provided by fraternities and the strength of the lifelong friendships that develop.

And they say the schools underestimate their perseverence. At a football game last fall, a plane flew over Middlebury’s stadium, towing a banner.

The message?

“Deke Lives.”

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