In Hastings, 1965). As the chapters became larger,

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Last updated: September 14, 2019

In December1776 at the College of William and Mary, Phi Beta Kappa was founded and becamethe first fraternal organization in the United States. The organization setprecedent for secret collegiate societies named after the Greek-letter initialsof a secret motto.

The founders of this secret society declared that it wasformed with “friendship as its basis and benevolence and literature as itspillars.” Phi Beta Kappa soon expanded to Yale andHarvard and eventually became an influential association of elite upperclassmenwith active faculty involvement across several colleges (Flanagan, 2014;Hastings, 1965). As the chapters became larger, thebrotherhood and congeniality that had defined the original chapter waseventually replaced with an increased focused on oratory and academic pursuits.This, however, is not indicative of the modern-day fraternity as the systemunder which Phi Beta Kappa functioned has significantly shifted (Hastings,1965).             Thefirst general Greek letter fraternity is considered to be the Kappa AlphaSociety, established in 1825 at Union College. The dissolution of the College’s military company prompted founder JohnHart Hunter and four other members to form a secret literary and social societyto fill the “aching void” left by its absence. The organization was formedaround fellowship, making the development of friendship and brotherhood theirprimary purpose (Syrett, 2009). Despite small membership size and fiercefaculty and administrative opposition, the Society was secretly popular amongstudents, inspiring the foundation of both Sigma Phi and Delta Phi in thespring and fall of 1827, respectively.

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Often referred to as “The Union Triad,”these three fraternities became the founders of the modern American fraternitysystem, and according to Baird (1920), “imitation of them or opposition to themwill account for the establishment of nearly all of the general fraternities”(p.6). By the 1850s these secret societies had become an integral aspect of collegiatelife, predominantly on New England and mid-Atlantic campuses. In the Midwestand the South, fraternities existed at institutions almost exclusively attendedby the wealthy. This meant the majority of fraternity men were seeking futuresuccess through academia and professional careers rather than the ministry(Syrett, 2009). Not long afterward, collegiateactivity across American campuses weakened during the Civil War. Fraternitiesat many colleges and universities were temporarily closed, and in the South,many were suspended altogether. However, the passage of the Morrill Act in 1862during the War led to the birth of new higher education institutions andincreased student enrollment.

Post-War, new fraternities were established, mostnotably at Southern institutions with a prominent military, unsurprising afterthe culmination of a war (Baird, 1920). The overall growth in the fraternity systemis responsible for the characterization of this period as “The Golden Age ofFraternities” (Sanua, 2003). The “Golden Age” wasundoubtedly a time of significant growth for the fraternity system. However,this period is also characterized by incredible discrimination against minoritypopulations, whose enrollment had been steadily increasing since the passage ofthe Morrill Act. Since its inception, the fraternity system has beenunofficially defined by the inclusion of wealthy White Christian students andthe exclusion of everyone else. The societies’ secrecy and exclusivity wereessential to their prestige and appeal.

This prompted the establishment of PhiKappa Sigma by Catholic students at Brown in 1889 as well as the non-sectarianPi Lambda Phi and exclusively Jewish Z.B.T. (later Zeta Beta Tau), both byJewish students at Yale in 1895 and 1898, respectively (Sanua, 2003). The 1960s brought upon a period of student unrest,prompting dramatic changes in American higher education. Activism, sexualliberation, and drug-use characterized this era and students made every effortto relinquish themselves from the patriarchal control of their college anduniversity administrators. Despite their reputation as elite leaders whofrequently ignored authority, fraternity members had become the opposite as”representatives of the very status quo the new activists sought to overthrow”(Flanagan, 2024).

With increasing unrest, administrators had effectively lostthe ability to control their students. In loco parentis became athing of the past and campus life was transformed. For the first time inhistory, fraternities had lost their appeal. The hierarchical social divisionand exclusiveness characteristic of the system was no longer of interest andmembership declined rapidly, with hundreds of chapters closing across thecountry (Flanagan, 2014; Horowitz, 1986).             Despite the period of liberation that threatened thefraternity system, the release of the movie Animal House in 1978 pavedthe way for the return of fraternity reign and modern-day Greek life. Prior tothis, fraternities had been predominantly focused on social engagements and theprestige of brotherhood.

The materialism that characterized the 1980s, however,formed a new culture of excessive partying, drinking, and general debaucherywithin the chapters’ private houses. Coupled with a lack of supervision, thisfostered an environment of violent hazing, fraternity rivals, and dangerousbehaviors (Flanagan, 2014; Horowitz, 1986).             Sincethen, fraternity membership has continued to grow and alumni membership hasgrown even more. From the very beginning of the emergence of the modern-dayfraternity, these organizations were met with faculty and administrativeopposition (Flanagan, 2014).

Some colleges and universities have since bannedGreek organizations altogether while others believe in their merit. Opponentsof the fraternity system have continued to argue that membership is detrimentalto intellectual development and fosters inappropriate behavior. The validity ofthese claims varies across campuses and remains at the forefront of Greek-lifediscussions today (Turk, 2004).  

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