In the early morning hours of March 15, 1996, Cameron Brett, a 20-year-old University of Maine-Orono student, fell from the roof of Bowdoin's Chi Delta Phi fraternity house to his death.
Two weeks later, Bowdoin shut down two campus fraternities because of "blatant disregard for College policies," according to local newspaper accounts.
A significant debate arose among students about the fairness for the College's actions, and, more importantly, the place of fraternities on campus, according to an Orient article published in April of that year.
In a speech to the Governing Boards on May 23, 1996, President Bob Edwards delivered a stinging rebuke of many aspects of the fraternity system at the College.
"Bowdoin is now paying a far higher price for fraternities than it or its students are receiving in educational value," he said according to a copy of the speech from the College archives.
Edwards asked the Governing Boards "to set forth a theory of residential life which, over time, will enable us to create a College environment in which our students can grow intellectually and morally."
In the following days, the Trustees created the Commission on Residential Life (CRL) and appointed Donald R. Kurtz '52 chairman. Composed of 16 members, it "was a broad cross-section of the whole Bowdoin community," Kurtz said. "We had trustees, faculty, students, administrators and alumni-at-large."
The mission of the CRL was manifold, but its primary goal was to "develop a philosophy for residential life," according to its interim report.
"We started the process with no prior agenda and no preconceived ideas," Kurtz said in a telephone interview. "We were just going to take a look at [residential life at Bowdoin], see what was going on and see if we could make it better," he added.
"I knew that the most important thing was that, at the end of the day, whatever plan we came up with, it was imperative that we have a broad acceptance [of it] within the Bowdoin community?the entire Bowdoin community," Kurtz said.
If there was only limited support for the Commission, Kurtz explained, he knew that whatever recommendations the CRL made would be ineffective.
But to solicit the opinions of so many diverse groups took a great deal of time.
"There was an extraordinary amount of time and resources committed by the College in this [CRL] process," Kim Pacelli '98, a student member of the CRL and current director of residential life, said.
"There were a lot of opportunities for gathering of input. We did tons of focus groups with every different student group you could possibly imagine," Pacelli said.
There were open forums for alumni and parents to share their opinions about the College's residential life system in Portland, Maine, Boston, Massacusetts and in New York City. The Commission also received hundreds of letters from alumni.
"It was an exhausting process to go through," Senior Vice President for Planning and Administration Bill Torrey, a member of the CRL, said.
But "I think Bowdoin should [be] really proud of the process it put itself through," Torrey said. "Everybody had an opportunity for their voice to be heard."
The Commission visited a number of peer institutions and examined the different models of residential life at a small liberal arts college.
Throughout the whole CRL process, Kurtz strove to keep the College community informed of the Commission's activities.
Despite this, students were on edge waiting to hear the Commission's recommendations.
"People were definitely angry, Bowdoin students were definitely angry," Pacelli said. "That spring semester of '97 was a very tense time at Bowdoin because of the fraternity decision. The future of a lot of Bowdoin students' experiences was sort of up in the air," she said.
"And whether or not you were a fraternity member very much defined your identity at Bowdoin?good, bad or otherwise."
When the CRL presented its recommendations to the Board of Trustees in late February and early March of 1997, recommendations which included the phased abolition of fraternities and the adoption of a College House system, the Trustees voted unanimously to adopt the CRL's interim report.
"Because we had prepared the Board, we had been informing them all the way along as to what we were thinking and doing so that when it came time to make the actual proposal to the Board, they were already there," Kurtz said.
The CRL's Interim Report explained that "the status quo of Bowdoin's residential life cannot continue." With only 30 percent of College students members of fraternities in 1996, the Report cited a residential life system that encouraged fragmentation and discouraged a sense of community.
"It is clear to us," the Commission wrote, "that the fraternity system remembered by many alumni disappeared some time ago." Therefore, the CRL recommended "that Bowdoin abolish the fraternity system and adopt a non-exclusive House system, owned by the College and open to all Bowdoin students."
The decision to phase out fraternities "was a very profound change for the College ? fraternities had been at Bowdoin for a century and a half," former Dean of Student Affairs Craig Bradley said in telephone interview.
"While the spring and mechanism [of fraternities] had pretty much unwound, there was still a lot of inertial energy," he said.
"I think the thing that was most eye-opening to me, observing the Commission on Residential Life," Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs Scott Hood said, "was that the upset or the tumult was really focused on the announcement that we were going to look at [residential life at the College] and much less so on the result."
"And between those two bookends, the process was so deliberative, so open, so transparent, that unlike other places that might just say 'starting next year we're going to get rid of fraternities,' I think that at the end of that process there was a sense [among some students] that 'yeah, even though I loved fraternities, that's over for Bowdoin,'" Hood said.