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Book of Matthew: Scenes from Brandeis’ past, part one:

Campus activism during the rise of Greek life

Published: November 12, 2010
Section: Opinions

As my time at Brandeis passes, I find myself more interested in the long history of this institution and its students. It is a view that, unfortunately, few of my fellow students share. Often, Brandeisians will go four whole years without consuming any more than a few anecdotes about the past. The purpose of this semi-regular series is to change that.

The following story, pieced together from articles printed in the Justice and the Watch (a now-defunct campus news magazine), is the story of how Greek life came to Brandeis. But it is also more than that—a story of campus activism.

For 37 years after its founding, Brandeis existed without the presence of fraternities or sororities. Most students at the time were satisfied with this arrangement; some even cited the lack of Greek life as a reason for attending Brandeis in the first place.

But everything changed in the fall of 1985, when the national Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi) fraternity discovered that Brandeis’ charter did not explicitly ban fraternities from campus. They then contacted the Brandeis College Republicans—whose members were generally more receptive to fraternities—and began laying plans for the establishment of a chapter.

Their first attempt did not go well. In December, Matthew Brooks ’87, President of the College Republicans, presented the Student Senate with a petition signed by 84 students as evidence of mounting support for fraternities. As reported by the Dec. 10, 1985 issue of the Justice, Brooks asked the Senate to establish a support group that would look into the possibility of an AEPi chapter on campus, but later withdrew the request after meeting significant resistance. Senator Mike Abrams ’88 in particular felt that a support group would not be necessary.

Undaunted, the fraternity hopefuls decided to build their organization anyway. From Jan. 21-23, 1986, they held interviews to select the “founding fathers” for an AEPi chapter. Brooks, who had become AEPi’s campus organizer, told the Justice that it was important for the Senate to recognize fraternities and allow them to exist under their jurisdiction, saying: “a good structure makes a good system.” Even though Senate rules at the time prevented senators from recognizing a club that is not open to all Brandeis students, Brooks told the Justice that he was enthusiastic about working with the Senate to develop a system that worked for everyone.

But not everyone shared his enthusiasm. A Feb. 4, 1986, Justice poll revealed that 62 percent of students opposed fraternities on campus, including 82 percent of women. In its editorial that week, the Justice editorial board called fraternities “large and rigid cliques” that “foster a group mentality, subjugating individual morality,” and cited an incident at San Diego State University in which fraternity brothers drugged and raped a female student. Even the Alumni Association got involved, voting unanimously to oppose the development of Greek life on campus.

Fraternities were not dissuaded by any of this. They continued to organize on their own, and in an increasingly disrespectful—and sometimes hostile—manner. According to the Watch, one fraternity brother, when asked about membership requirements at an information session for Zeta Beta Tau (ZBT), answered that one must be “at least four inches.” Protestors at the session also faced heckling and profanity. And civility did not improve in the following days, either: At a filled-beyond-capacity Senate town hall meeting in Usdan Student Center on Feb. 13, 1986, both sides were met with increasing disruption as they attempted to debate.

Despite this, sources at the time told the Justice that AEPi still wanted to be recognized by the Senate, and was working with a “sister society” to make that happen. But before they could make significant progress, students acted preemptively. On Feb. 16, 1986, a petition was presented to the Senate requesting that the following article be added to the Senate Constitution: “Clubs and organizations that are not open to all members of the Brandeis community, that discriminate on the basis of sex or do not accept both men and women and/or charge fees or dues of their members will remain unchartered and unrecognized by the University.” The petition contained 1,024 student signatures, easily surpassing the 5 percent of students necessary to force a constitutional amendment referendum.

At this point, one might have expected fraternities to take a step back and work on their image. They did the opposite. Despite their future relationship with the university being at risk, fraternities failed to take seriously the opposition they faced. At a second Senate town hall meeting on Feb. 27, 1986, one fraternity supporter, sarcastically responding to the Justice editorial from two weeks prior, remarked: “Without that channel for my aggressions, who knows, I might wind up raping women to release the tensions of the school week.”

The next day, a front-page Justice article revealed that a note had been left next to the Women’s Coalition Door, which read: “Why fight rape? Sit back and enjoy it!” The note was signed “The Death Frat.” Next to the note was a mutilated Barbie doll, taped to the wall and splattered with red paint. Campus police were called, but the vandals were never caught.

“One thing is for sure,” campus police officer Steve Zolan told the Justice, “we can rule out the frat organizers, because they would not have done something so stupid before the referendum.”

Perhaps not. But the incidents did not stop there. In March, according to the Watch, the Take Back the Night march was disrupted outside of the former Reitman Quad by several male students yelling: “We hope you get raped!” to female participants.

Sixteen days later, more than 1,400 students filed into the voting booths and responded to these acts. The final tally was 973-338 in favor of the constitutional amendment. The effect was immediate—fraternities were denied recognition, and some sororities were even denied money by their national organizations because of rules regarding “hostile” campuses.

In the months and years that followed, fraternities made efforts to gain power within the Senate, but they were unsuccessful. In 1988, Sigma Alpha Mu (SAM) president Todd Katz ’89 lost his race for Senate president in a landslide. In 1989 and 1990, frats fielded candidates for every open Senate seat. All but two lost, and Senate rules regarding fraternities remained in place.

Today, our situation has experienced few changes. Fraternities and sororities still exist, and neither the Student Union nor the university officially recognizes them. Based on their past behavior, this seems fair—in fact, I think it’s something to be proud of.

So, what can we learn?

Simply put, we should not allow ourselves to forget how we got to where we are today, nor to take it for granted. Despite not having computers, or social networking sites, or electronic voting, or any of the things that supposedly make democracy and social movements easier, the students who opposed Greek life organized in numbers that we almost never see at Brandeis today. Their voting turnout puts us to shame; their involvement with campus issues makes us look ignorant.

Maybe we won’t ever face an issue as controversial as the arrival of Greek life on campus. But if we do, we have no excuse not to continue the proud tradition of our forebears.