A Walk Down Webster Ave.

by Sean Schultz | 2/23/12 11:00pm

Over a period of more than two centuries, Greek letter organizations and their literary society predecessors have become intricately intertwined with Dartmouth's culture. In 1783, taking cues from existing societies at other American and British schools, a group of Dartmouth men founded the predecessor to fraternities by way of the Society of Social Friends. Three years later, a rival society called United Fraternity was formed. Respectively known as "Socials" and "Fraters," the primary aim of these first societies was to foster literary culture, which they accomplished by collecting books in private libraries to complement the meager collection of College texts then available to students.

The "Socials" and "Fraters" were so successful in achieving their ends that by 1826, society libraries "had reached [the College library] in size as well as exceeded it in practical value." Charters to transact regular business and hold property were obtained by both societies between 1826 and 1827 to better hold and maintain their collections, according to former College librarian C.W. Scott. The two societies maintained private libraries until their unification with the College's main library system in 1874, nearly 100 years after their establishment. By 1904, the societies were completely phased out.

By the mid-1800s, student taste had already begun shifting from literary societies to fraternities. In 1842, United Fraternity spinoffs formed a chapter of the national Psi Upsilon fraternity and the local fraternity Kappa Kappa Kappa. After a series of stops, starts and mergers, the Gamma Sigma Society formed a chapter of the national Alpha Delta Phi Society as the College's third fraternity in 1847, later to become the local fraternity Alpha Delta in 1969.

Between 1850 and 1870, students hungry for social and intellectual diversions outside of the classroom established five more organizations (Zeta Psi, 1853; Delta Kappa Epsilon, 1853, defunct; Phi Zeta Mu, 1857, and later the Tabard coeducational fraternity; Sigma Delta Pi, 1858, defunct; Theta Delta Chi, 1869). Fraternities were growing to fill the void as the primary social organizations at Dartmouth.

Between 1869 and 1884, the national turmoil engendered by the Civil War caused Dartmouth's fraternity growth to sputter but not stall. Just 15 years after Theta Delt, another national fraternity known as Phi Delta Theta (which became Phi Delta Alpha in 1960) formed. In the 45 years bookended by the founding of Beta Psi fraternity, which became Panarchy undergraduate society in 1990 after a series of absorptions and name changes in previous years and the issuance of now-defunct Sigma Alpha Mu's charter. Dartmouth experienced a rash of new fraternities that was only briefly interrupted by World War I. In total, Dartmouth saw the creation of 17 fraternities in rapid succession over this time. Although a good era for establishment, Dartmouth's fraternity mortality was only slightly better than 50 percent. Four of the 17 would be shut down by 1936, and four more would stumble and stagger their way into the late 1960s and early 1970s before disbanding entirely. Those fraternities that survived began constructing physical plants in earnest, mostly between 1920 and 1940.

Between 1930 and 1970, only one now-defunct fraternity was chartered. The 1960s saw several national fraternities become local standalone chapters, either due to conflicts with racist national constitutions or a general belief that nationals offered little to no benefit to Dartmouth chapters. It took the admission of women in 1972 to breathe life into the Dartmouth Greek system. In 1973, Dartmouth's first black fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, was founded, and three years later a group of women established Sigma Kappa (which later became the local sorority Sigma Delta in 1988) as the first all-female Greek letter organization. In the six-year period between 1978 and 1984, sororities were established at a furious pace, exceeding one per year as Dartmouth women carved a space for themselves amidst the fraternity-dominated landscape. While fraternity creation has stagnated since 1930, sororities continue to experience steady, healthy growth, with Kappa Delta as the latest addition.

Despite serious challenges to Greek life by former College President James Wright's failed Student Life Initiative in 2000, which would have demanded Greek letter organizations be made "substantially coeducational," Dartmouth's Greek letter organizations have continued to exist and thrive. As of 2012, 17 fraternities, 11 sororities and three coed organizations call Dartmouth home.

With over 200 years of history and 68.2 percent of eligible students currently affiliated with a Greek organization. Greek letter organizations will almost certainly play an integral part in Dartmouth's future, though in what capacity remains to be seen.