May 6, 2014
Dear Students, Faculty and Staff,
I write to share with you a recent Board of Trustees decision concerning fraternity membership. In 1984, the board prohibited the use of any College facilities or resources, including money and staff time, by fraternities or sororities and revoked any College affiliation with, or recognition of, these organizations. The board has voted to reaffirm the 1984 Trustees’ Resolution on Fraternities and, effective July 1, 2014, to prohibit student participation in fraternities and sororities and fraternity-like and sorority-like organizations, either on or off campus. Violations of this decision will be treated consistent with other violations of the Honor Code, which sets forth standards and expectations that apply to all students, faculty and staff.
I am attaching the board’s statement and resolution, which explain the history and reasoning behind our reaffirmation of the 1984 prohibition on fraternities and sororities and also commit the College to new efforts on behalf of student life. We believe deeply that the residential experience is vital to an Amherst education, and will continue to do all we can to strengthen it.
Trustee Andrew Nussbaum ’85 and I will be on campus next Monday, May 12, from 6:30 p.m. until 8:00 p.m., in the Cole Assembly Room in Converse Hall, to speak with anyone who has questions about this decision.
Thank you for your attention to this announcement.
Cullen Murphy ’74 Chair, Board of Trustees
In 1983, with the College’s relatively new coeducational environment very much in mind—and in response to concerns about the College’s social and residential experience, and about issues of divisiveness and inclusion—the Board of Trustees formed an Ad Hoc Committee on Campus Life. The Committee’s final report stated that Amherst “can be better without fraternities than it can with them” and recommended, among other suggested improvements to campus life, that fraternities on campus be abolished. A year later, in 1984, the Board prohibited the use of any College facilities or any College resources, including money and staff time, by fraternities or sororities. It revoked any College affiliation with, or recognition of, these organizations. The goal of the 1984 resolution, as understood at the time and as confirmed by those involved in the original decision, was to bring the fraternity system to an end.
In the intervening years, several fraternities took on life underground. They have had “non-status” as official student organizations. The College has not expressed itself with a single mind about them, creating a condition of ambiguity.
In 2013, the Sexual Misconduct Oversight Committee—a committee composed of faculty, students, staff, administrators, and members of the Board of Trustees—urged the Board to review the issue of underground fraternities at Amherst. As noted in the committee’s report, underground fraternities, despite their lack of any official status, “possess considerable ability to shape the College’s social life.” At the same time, their “juridical invisibility”—the fact that they “simultaneously exist but do not exist”—prevents the College “from enforcing appropriate expectations for student behavior with respect to them, including accountability under the Honor Code.” The committee asked the Board to clarify this ambiguous situation. In accepting the committee’s report, the Board resolved that it would address any matters, such as this one, where Board action was needed or sought.
The issue to which the report called attention is a serious one. The College has no authority with respect to underground fraternities. It knows little about their membership or their activities. At the same time, whatever the realities may be, the appearance of College responsibility cannot be avoided, both because the membership of underground fraternities consists of Amherst students and because the College has acquiesced in the fraternities’ existence. For the College, the condition of seeming to have some measure of responsibility without possessing any measure of authority is inherently problematic. That condition may be acceptable or unavoidable in some situations, and there are variations of degree; Amherst students can and do—and should—freely participate in many off-campus pursuits, and in most cases these pursuits are transparent and have no bearing on the College, nor does the College need or wish to venture an opinion. In this instance, however, the activity reaches directly into College life and persists despite a decision taken three decades ago whose clear intention was to “discontinue” fraternities at Amherst, for the College’s own well-being.
There are several possible responses. One would be to turn back the clock, restoring the regime that existed before 1984. The Board and the Administration believe that the original decision to ban fraternities was sound and that the reasoning remains valid: The College is better off without, than it would be with, a fraternity system. A second response would be to accept some version of the status quo, along with its contradictions and consequences, indefinitely. Such a course, in the view of the Board and the Administration, would be counterproductive and unwise. It would be counterproductive because the unregulated presence of underground fraternities would divert from social and residential life on campus and from efforts to create community at the College. It would be unwise because situations will occur when the policies of the College and the wishes of underground fraternities are at cross-purposes. Such situations are not hypothetical. They are inevitable.
The Board and the Administration embrace a third response: to reaffirm, unambiguously, the spirit and intention of the 1984 decision—by prohibiting membership in off-campus fraternities, as peer institutions have done, while committing the College to new efforts on behalf of student life. The 1984 decision banned on-campus activities “relating to rushing, pledging, initiating or otherwise admitting to or maintaining membership by any student of the College in any fraternity, sorority or other social club, society or organization (however denominated).” The Board resolution on membership in underground fraternities will be effective July 1, 2014. The prohibition will be articulated in the Honor Code, which embodies standards and expectations that apply to all, and violations will be addressed according to procedures spelled out in the Honor Code.
Amherst is a residential college, and the quality of the residential and social experience is of central importance. Improving it is among the highest priorities of both President Martin and the Board. The Administration has already approved and implemented changes intended to enhance social and residential life—including an improved campus party policy, renovations to the Power House, and a variety of campus-wide events. The building of four new dorms with new social spaces has just been approved, and the dorms are currently being designed. That work is being done in close consultation with students. A large component of the strategic-planning process currently under way—which will produce a working blueprint for the College—is devoted to the residential and social experience on campus; again, students are involved in this process. The Administration and the Board welcome ideas for improvements from all parts of the community, especially from students. The quality of life at a residential college is an essential part of the educational experience.
Resolved on April 4, 2014: The Board reaffirms the 1984 Trustees’ Resolution on Fraternities. In addition, effective July 1, 2014, student participation in off-campus fraternities and sororities, and fraternity-like and sorority-like organizations, is prohibited. Violations will be subject to appropriate penalties, including suspension or expulsion from the College. Adopted, Board of Trustees, Amherst College