Old Main, a building on Penn State's campus, in 2011. 19-year-old fraternity pledge Timothy Piazza died of alcohol poisoning on campus in 2017, leading to an investigation into the Beta Theta Pi fraternity.
In 1863, the third president of Amherst asked his fellow college presidents what they thought of this new thing called a “fraternity.” The overwhelming consensus was alarm. They described fraternities as a “plague” and “un-American.” They “sow dissensions and produce factions,” said one president. “They have led to greater unkindness and ill feeling than almost anything else in college,” said a second. “Nothing but evil results,” said another.
Young rich men invented “social” fraternities to isolate themselves from their middle-class peers, thumb their nose at the religious values of their professors and wrest control away from the administrators who set their schedules, curricula and objectives. They came to prominence during a period of widespread and largely forgotten campus violence. At a time when militias were commonly called in to tamp down riots led by students armed with pistols and flame, the young rich men to whom fraternities appealed were nothing short of a menace.
Until the mid-1800s, and in some cases until the turn of the century, university presidents tried valiantly to close fraternities down. Brown, Princeton and Union, for example, banned “secret societies” and expelled students who attended unauthorized meetings. Their efforts would fail.
Fraternity men consolidated power by placing their own members in every conceivable position of authority on campus. Describing the 1860s, a Yale graduate argued that fraternity men were said to manage “the entire system of college politics.” A 1900 account from Northwestern reported that fraternity men conspired to ensure that only they received scholarships, leadership positions, and awards.
In their free time, fraternity men entertained themselves the same way they do today: with parties that bordered on perilous. Fraternity men invented the prototypical collegiate party that we now associate with higher education more generally. It isn’t enough to have a good time; they want their partying to smack of revolt.