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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Thursday, April 18, 2024

History on the Hill: Greek life at Tufts

Members of the Heth Aleph Res fraternity pose for a photo in front of their house, which is now the Arts Haus, sometime between 1896 and 1897. (Digital Collections & Archives)

The presence of Greek life at Tufts stems back almost to the foundation of the university. Zeta Psi was the first fraternity at Tufts; it started in 1855, three years after Tufts was founded, according to an 1864 Tuftonian from the Tufts Digital Library.

Sororities were also founded early in Tufts history, with the first one, Alpha Delta Sigma, forming three years after Tufts went co-educational in 1892, according to Russell Miller's "Light on the Hill," a work from the university digital archives.

Historian Charlie Trantanella (E '89) is currently working on a book about Tufts' history with student organizations and Greek life. Trantanella was a member of the Sigma Nu fraternity during his time at Tufts.

“When I joined … the oversight of the fraternities and sororities, in general, was less than it is today," he said. "Each chapter acted as its own little entity. There was no coordination for things like rush week or worrying about if people had ... a high enough grade point average to join a chapter.”

Through his study of the archives and history of Tufts since its foundation, as well as from his time as a student, Trantanella said he has noticed that perceptions of Greek life on campus have changed significantly throughout Tufts' history, sometimes just over the course of a few years.

“Some years, there's very little controversy and everybody seems to be getting along. And other years, there seems to be quite a lot of controversy, kind of what's going on right now,” he said. “And there are calls for major, drastic changes within the system. A couple years ago, there was really nothing like this, and a couple years from now, it could be a completely different sentiment.”

Trantanella said that these trends are partly related to media outlets' coverage of Greek life-related news. After looking through old editions of the Tufts Weekly -- the first student newspaper founded in 1895, which is now known as the Tufts Observer -- he recalled that a change in the paper's editorial staff could have a huge effect on the coverage of Greek life news.

“There's a semester where you don't see anything, and then there's a semester where just every editorial was anti-Greek," he said. "And then students leave for break, they come back, and you don't hear anything for years."

Throughout Tufts' history, these cycles have had some notable peaks and troughs.

In 1853, a year after Tufts College was founded, two students from Harvard College approached a Tufts student to start a chapter of Zeta Psi, Trantanella said. Then, in 1856, a transfer student from Brown University introduced Theta Delta Chi, of which he had been a member at Brown.

After Tufts went co-educational in 1892, the formation of sororities quickly followed.

“By 1895, there were two sororities, and then a year later, there was a third," Trantanella said. "It took the women a few years before they came in significant number[s]."

In 1892, the first co-educational fraternity on campus, Heth Aleph Res, was formed by a handful of Universalist students at the Tufts College Divinity School.Trantanella wrote about this particular event in a fall 2015 article for Tufts Magazine, noting that these students seemed to be more committed to gender equality because of their Universalist faith, a religion that has historically harbored progressive attitudes toward women.

"It seems that by inviting their female classmates into their fraternity, the men had decided to practice what they would soon be preaching," Trantanella wrote in the article.

Nonetheless, the organization's co-ed status was condemned in 1893 by the trustees, who had also opposed the acceptance of women at Tufts for years prior. Heth Aleph Res dissolved in 1904, and no other co-ed fraternity arrived on campus until ATO of Massachusetts was established at Tufts 70 years later.

After World War II, fraternities and sororities came under closer scrutiny for their membership clauses and constitutions, which officially or through "gentlemen's agreements" generally excluded black people, Jews, Asians and other religious and racial minorities.

“There was a lot more scrutiny, especially in regard to their membership policies, because the [U.S.] army had just fought a war of tyranny against Adolf Hitler and the Empire of Japan,” Trantanella told the Daily. “And so, democracy had triumphed, the good of the people had triumphed, and then we come back to campus and now all of a sudden we're going to segregate everybody by race and religion. And a lot of the students especially responded against that. They wanted to see, ‘We worked together to win the war, why can’t we work together here at home.’”

This conflict reached new heights in 1956, when two black students pledged Tufts' Sigma Kappa sorority, and the sorority’s national body took away the group’s charter, according to Trantanella and "Light on the Hill." In 1955, a faculty committee decided to take a stance on these provisions, establishing a "double standard" for newly-formed organizations, according to "Light on the Hill."

"Fraternities existing before 1955 that had restrictive provisions regarding race, religion or national origin were allowed to remain undisturbed," Miller wrote. "However, any established after 1955 were to be recognized only if no such restrictions existed."

At that point in time, Greek life largely operated outside of the university's oversight. While faculty committees, student organizations and the Board of Trustees debated the university's policies on policing discrimination clauses within Greek institutions, the conversations were largely tabled by the university.

Throughout the 1960s, many Greek organizations went out of favor among students, partly because of continued racial and ethnic restrictions on memberships. In the 1970s, some organizations struggled financially due to low membership and interest. 

Despite this, some of the organizations persisted and reformed, bringing involvement back up in the 1980s. Black students and other minorities also began pledging at citywide chapters of historically black fraternities and sororities.

Trantanella noted that the university became more involved with Greek organizations under the leadership of Former University President Jean Mayer.

"The administration really stopped caring about fraternities ... and then they [started] really to care about them again in the late 80s," Trantanella said.

Compared to other schools in the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC), Tufts was and still is an exception regarding its continued support for Greek life.

Mayer ... came under a lot of pressure from NESCAC presidents to close down the Greek system,” Trantanella said. “And he was not a fan of fraternities, I can tell you that.”

Trantanella said that fraternities were able to maintain their position after creating connections with the administration and better connecting to and integrating themselves into the campus community. Part of the difference between Tufts and other NESCAC schools that began to eliminate Greek life at this time, he explained, is that many fraternities and sororities at Tufts live in university-owned houses.

[Mayer] helped really put [in] a lot of oversight,” Trantanella said. “He gave them the ultimatum. He said, 'Either you clean up your act, or I will kick you out.' But he gave them the chance to change, to toughen the resolve and be more of a positive influence on the community, rather than this separate entity that was doing its own thing and not always doing good things.”

In recent years, Greek life at Tufts has grown, as have the university's efforts to work more closely with Greek organizations, according to Judicial Affairs Administrator Mickey Toogood. As of spring 2016,approximately 24 percent of Tufts students were members of fraternities or sororities, compared to13 percent in fall 2013.

Toogood said that notable changes to the system in recent years include the revitalization of the Multicultural Greek Council and the addition of the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority in fall 2013.

He also pointed to the creation of the Greek Life Advising Team in fall 2015 as another major change.

"[The Greek Life Advising Team] enhanced existing support, giving each chapter their own advisor on campus and facilitating closer partnerships between students and staff," Toogood told the Daily in an email.

Though the nature of disagreement over Greek life at Tufts has varied over time, the existence of disagreement on campus today is not a new phenomenon, Trantanella said.

“Fraternities and sororities have certainly changed over the years. They've changed practices, they've changed things that they emphasize, but there's always been animosity between those in the system and those not,” Trantanella said. “There's always been calls for change for things that people don't like about them. That's been constant.”