I remember my classmate Myong-Ku Ahn ’63 as a pleasant guy, rather quiet. I didn’t know him well, but sophomore year we did share meals at the Alpha Delta Phi house, where several classmates and I had pledged that fall. Ahn, who was from South Korea, was assigned to the house as a “social member,” a way for foreign students to be affiliated with a fraternity.
In the spring of 1961, I approached our president, Bruce Grinnell ’62, to propose that Ahn become a bona fide brother. After all, Ahn ate with us every day; on occasion he came to our parties. But he couldn’t vote on fraternity business. He couldn’t live in the fraternity house. Nor could he enter the “goat room,” the secret sanctum reserved for the brethren.
It was in that paneled goat room, with Bruce’s nod of approval, that I stood up before my brothers and suggested that Ahn be elevated to full membership. All hell broke loose.
By my count, more than half those assembled supported the proposal, maybe even two thirds. But several individuals insisted that full membership would never happen as long as they were Alpha Delts. One fellow suggested that Ahn didn’t know English well enough to join. Another said, “If you make him a brother, I’ll never be able to bring a date to the house.”
Bruce and I and several others couldn’t believe what we were hearing.
As the debate roiled on, I offered an ultimatum: If Ahn wasn’t given membership, I’d quit the house.
Trouble with Greek life at Williams had been brewing on a larger scale for years. The college’s 15 fraternities housed and fed more than 90 percent of upperclassmen, which made Williams dependent on the fraternities for functions most other colleges controlled. The system created a campus hierarchy, with social status defined by the presumed but generally agreed upon desirability of the houses young men were affiliated with. Among the tiny group of non-affiliates were a handful of people who voluntarily rejected the fraternity system. But far more of them had been rejected by the system. None of this social inflation and deflation seemed necessary in our small, “elite” liberal arts college. Yet Greek life persisted.
Now here we were, facing a vote on whether Ahn could become our brother. Technically Alpha Delt didn’t have a “blackball,” in which a single, anonymous vote blocked membership. But it did have the “butter,” which required three negative votes. Ahn got buttered.
I left the meeting in an angry fog and met with Bruce and Morris Kaplan ’63 in the snack bar. Morris recalls me saying, “This is the last straw. What are we going to do about fraternities?”
We proposed a meeting for that night and spread the news carefully, by word of mouth. Morris and I circulated around the campus, approaching students we thought might be sympathetic to our nascent rebellion. Bruce, a junior advisor (JA), brought the question to his fellow JAs, who were in prime—if potentially corrupting—positions to recruit new brothers to their frats. Fortunately, most JAs did not abuse the privilege.
At that point no one knew the extent of the opposition to Greek life. But when we convened a subsequent meeting in the physics lab auditorium at midnight, I felt a huge lift when 40 young men filed in. Among them were a fraternity president and first-string quarterback (Bruce), officers representing several fraternity houses, leaders and members of the senior honor society Gargoyle, the chairman of the Athletic Council, the president of the Williams Chapel Committee and several JAs.
We drafted what’s come to be known as the Grinnell Petition, calling for “the immediate establishment of a committee … to investigate the social system and to recommend the plan they feel will be most effective” in meeting the objectives we outlined. Many of the original 45 signers had distinguished records at the college and represented constituencies of consequence.
On July 1, 1961, when John Edward Sawyer ’39 officially became president of the college, on his desk was the Grinnell Petition. To the petitioners’ delight, Sawyer quickly appointed the Angevine Committee to study the matter. One year later, the committee made its recommendation “for the college to assume full responsibility for the housing and feeding of all students,” which the Board of Trustees approved in time for our return for senior year in the fall of 1962. The phrasing was inspired—it was a way of recommending the abolition of fraternities without saying so.
Not to overstate this, but for some of us the ’60s were born in the physics lab basement that night in the spring of 1961. We’d entered a college that was a preppy, conservative, relatively complacent institution. One of the great privileges of being at Williams then was that we came to believe in our right to resist unfair and/or nonsensical policies and the need to make an effort to change them. If that’s not the privilege and burden of democracy, what is?
–Robert J. Seidman ’63 is an Emmy-winning screenwriter and novelist. His third novel, Moments Captured, was published in the fall. Read his full essay about his fraternity experience at http://bit.ly/seidmanessay. Myong-Ku Ahn ’63 was listed in the class’s senior yearbook as belonging to Alpha Delta Phi, though he was never officially a member. He went on to complete a Ph.D. in chemistry at Yale and become a professor of chemistry at University of Indiana.
The college’s Archives and Special Collections include more than 82 linear feet of material documenting 13 of Williams’ 15 fraternities. Among the collection are typical items such as minute books, photo albums, pledge pins and paddles. But there are some unconventional pieces as well, such as this 150-year-old ballot box used by brothers of Delta Kappa Epsilon to vote on prospective members.