1947-1980: A Fresh Landscape for Fraternities

At first, the college population surged back into fraternal life, eager to re-embrace university life to its fullest. Zeta Psi spent the preponderance of its energies assisting chapters grievously disrupted in direction and number by the departure of their brothers for the war to return to their normal fraternal function and academic commitments— a hefty task given the scope and breadth of the war’s upheaval. Broader expansion was placed on a back burner: through the 1950s, only minor spread was endeavored with the chartering of Omega at Northwestern and Theta Phi at the University of Western Ontario in 1947,1 Rho at Middlebury in 1956, and Omicron at Nebraska Wesleyan in 1958.2 Additionally, the return of veterans to Rensselaer eager to enter fraternity life induced IHQ to reactivate the Pi chapter, which had lain dormant since 1894.

The landscape for fraternities had surely changed by the time the Second World War had wound down: society was moving towards meritocratic admissions to colleges, distancing themselves rapidly from the elitist and nepotist institutions of years past, encumbered with prolix and arcane stipulations. The new colleges were refashioning themselves as the new temples of academe, with a dispassionate focus on research.3 Though fraternities were not keen to discard their time-honored ritual and tradition, they realized that the face of fraternity need perforce change to match a changing student population, even while preserving their legacies all the more zealously. In order to facilitate this change, the Grand Chapter of Zeta Psi resolved on its centennial in 1947 to drastically overhaul its increasingly pleonastic constitution.4 This resolution was given force three years later when a new document was agreed upon by the various chapters in 1950, which text has served as Zeta Psi’s guiding force to the present day.

Former Zeta chapterhouse at Williams

Former Zeta chapterhouse at Williams

Yet all was not to remain so halcyon as the decade after the war, when quietude from sea to sea and complacence on campuses greatly assisted Zeta Psi in reestablishing its illustrious presence. In the early 1960s, the administration of Williams College decided after much-derided deliberation to outlaw unilaterally all fraternal organizations from its campus.5 Zeta Psi, among others, attempted to maintain their house and presence, but in the end the college’s obduracy proved too strong, and the lauded chapter—the fraternity’s second-oldest—was forced to leave campus, though it struggled on for another few decades in exile.6 This was not to be an isolated incident.7 The counterculture experimentation of the 1960s and 1970s did not reserve its wrath for overt organs of government; any long-standing institution was viewed with suspicion, and those which had always practice self-selection in membership were quickly heaped with opprobrium by students naively seeking some kind of elimination of meritocratic classes in favor of anarchalism or communism. Particularly, many fraternities still contained restrictive clauses which were anathema to the freer society which was forming.8 Zeta Psi, seeking to be the fraternity of the intellectual elite, had never relied on such instruments in garnering its membership, preferring to focus exclusively on merit. But the Greek system had always weathered the waxing and waning of popular support together, and now the student body’s support was waning indeed.

Br Greg McElroy

Br Greg McElroy

Ironically, it was just as popular sentiment was turning against fraternities that Zeta Psi embarked on its longest and most concerted campaign of expansion since its early days after foundation. Moreover, while that first drive focused mostly on New England, Zeta Psi by the 1960s was already firmly established in its native grounds. Its new sights were set much farther abroad: it had been the first on the Pacific and in Canada, but its chapters remained few and far between beyond the northeast.9 Now seemed the time to change this, to set a bulwark against a tide of anti-Greek intolerance in a new range of schools. As time had progressed, the position of executive director of the fraternity had become ever more important in spearheading expansion. With the appointment in 1972 of Br Gregory E McElroy (Φ 1970) to the position, this process moved into overdrive under his expert and vigorous direction.10

The 1960s and 1970s proved uncommonly successful: Theta was chartered at the University of Connecticut and Pi Sigma at Penn State in 1960; Omicron Sigma at Oregon State in 1962; Chi Gamma at Calgary in 1967; Tau Gamma at Purdue in 1968; Delta Chi at American in 1969; Pi Kappa at Bloomsburg in 1969; Sigma Phi at the University of Illinois in Chicago in 1970; Tau Delta at Lehigh in 1973; Upsilon Mu at the University of Massachusetts, 1975; Alpha Pi at Virginia Tech in 1975; Pi Tau at Worcester Polytechnic in 1976; Phi Epsilon at the University of Maryland in 1976; Beta Tau at Tulane in 1977; Iota Alpha at the University of Texas in 1979; Rho Alpha at MIT in 1979; and Psi Zeta at Ohio State in 1979.

Beta Tau

Beta Tau chapter at Tulane

Moreover, this rapid expansion—seventeen new chapters in two decades, just under a new chapter every year—was not accomplished at the expense of weaker institutional values in the new chapters. Among the highest priorites was to affirm the role of the new chapters in the circle of Zeta Psi in the broader Zete community. This was reflected by the strong perseverance of the new inductees; only four of them would perish before the turn of the millennium. And the dream of expanding the geographic embrace to new areas had been realized as well: over half of the new chapters were outside the traditional New England stomping ground of the fraternity’s youth. Some of these new chapters were far afield indeed: the Beta Tau at Tulane was the first chapter chartered in the Deep South (excluding the first Gamma at Georgia Military Institute, which was active only a few months during the Civil War), and joined only a few other chapters (viz Upsilon, Beta, and Alpha Pi two years earlier) in the South at all; though it would be followed only two years later by the Iota Alpha in Texas, the first of several overtures into that state.

But of course as these great strides were taken towards bringing Zeta Psi into the second half of the millennium, some were inevitably left behind. The new antiestablishment values on many of the more rabidly obstructive campuses had pushed some chapters into terminal decline. During the 1970s, the Omicron Sigma, and Delta Chi would expire, while such illustrious chapters as the Alpha Psi, Zeta, Eta and Xi would lapse and lose their historical residence, some of which had been held for a century. And in a double blow to the fraternity’s natal city, the palatial Zeta Psi Club was sold in favor of an upstate location, and the Mother Chapter, the Phi lapsed into brief inactivity in the face of an overly antagonistic student body at the traditionally liberal leaning NYU. Yet the international fraternity had suffered through the protests of an often-hostile college world with comity, and emerged the stronger for it.

1 Although the Theta Phi at the University of Western Ontario was indeed in the first social fraternity, their online history records that took over the membership and built on the structure of the solitary professional fraternity on campus, the Beta Kappa chapter of Alpha Kappa Psi (which still appears in ΑΚΨ’s chapter directory entry), a business fraternity—which was coincidentally founded, like Zeta Psi, at New York University, though fifty years later, per ΑΚΨ’s online history.

2 The Omicron was the successor organization of a fraternity originating in 1887 as the Theophanians contemporaneously with the foundation of the university, predating every other group on campus substantially. The Theophanians would later merge with another later-arising group to form the Crescent Fraternity owing to a depleted campus population during World War II. It only affiliated with Zeta Psi in 1958 as it became clear that national fraternities would enjoy greater power and resources into the future; but by the time the Crescent Fraternity had come to this conclusion and contacted Zeta Psi, two other fraternities had already arisen on campus. The Omicron is thus only the third chartered fraternity, despite its venerable heritage, which can be found in greater detail in the Omicron’s online history.

3 An excellent discussion of the rise of meritocratic admissions in American higher education may be found in Nicholas Lemann’s The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy, which may be purchased at Amazon.com, and reviews of which may be read in the Journal of College Admission or Washington Monthly.

4 Many fraternities were uncumbered by inefficient documents gravid with the weight of amendments over the years, and certainly Zeta Psi was not the only to seize the momentum afforded by its centennial to push through change. Cf e.g., Pi Kappa Sigma’s online history.

5 In the 1950s, construction of a new student union and the introduction of new meal plans allowed the administration to ban any affiliation with fraternities until sophomore year. In 1962, the infamous “Angevine Report” was released, advocating abolition of fraternities because they assumed too many of the prerogatives the college wishes to control itself. A contrary report backed by various Greek organization was issued later that year, and the controversy exploded, and student riots ensued. But shortly “it became clear that the College”s commitment to the abolishment of fraternities was real and implacable.” Eventually, thirteen of the fourteen Greek chapters agreed to convey their properties to the university, either dissolving or retreating to off-campus locales to dwindle in obscurity. A full version of the grim tale may be found in Williams College’s Archives and Special Collections.

6 After the ouster of the Greek system, Williams converted their former residences to dormitory-style houses. The old Zeta House, pictured supra, is now known as Wood House, and can be found described in Williams’s housing materials.

7 In the event, Williams’s hostility to fraternities presaged a general trend among generally rural New England colleges; q.v. Note 7.X regarding the fruition of that movement in the 1990s.

8 Unfortunately, Greek life in American had a long history of such restrictive clauses forbidding membership to, primarily, racial and religious minorities. Nor were such predilections quick to fade with time, given the traditionalist and interrial character of most organizations. As late as 1947, the president of the National Interfraternity Conference (now the North American) exhorted that people should “stop shivering at the word discrimination… I love the discriminating tongue, the discriminating eye, the discriminating ear, and, above all, the discriminating mind and… soul. The person for whom I can find no love and no respect is the indiscriminate person. To be indiscriminate is to be common, to be vulgar.” While his words are overtly unoffensive, they were spoken directly to critics of restrictive clauses. Fortunately, “by the early 1960s all the major national fraternities and sororities had eliminated discriminatory clauses from their charters,” though de facto discrimination no doubt persisted for some time thereafter. A piercing history of the practice may be found in the Rutgers Etext Archives.

9 Specifically, through 1960, Zeta Psi had chartered 47 chapters. Of these, 24—over half—were located in the northeastern states of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania or New Jersey (not to mention several in Ontario and Quebec). It is, however, worth mentioning that the periof following the chartering of the Iota and Theta Xi had already seen dramatic expansion far from Zeta Psi’s home, in California, Washington, British Columbia, and elsewhere.

10 Br McElroy also sought to integrate Zeta Psi more tightly with the Greek community as a whole—in the face of widespread antagonism, cleaving more closely together seemed wise. Zeta Psi had long been a member of a the National (now North American) Inter-Fraternity Conference, but now Br McElroy acceded to the Fraternity Executives Association, serving as its president in 1985-86, and receiving the Distinguished Service Award in 1999.