“This story, in a funny way, begins in Paris,” remembered Robert H. Edwards, President of the College from 1990 to 2001. Now 86 years of age, Edwards sat upright at his spotless dining room table in his farmhouse near Wiscasset, Maine. In the two decades since his retirement, Edwards has traded his three-piece wool suits for blue jeans and a Carhartt field coat, and his president’s office for a tractor—a retirement gift from Bowdoin’s Board of Trustees.
In the spring of 1990, just prior to assuming the presidency, Edwards worked and lived in Paris, France. Several Bowdoin students studying abroad requested to meet him over a cup of coffee, and he soon found himself seated at a cafe on the Saint Germain facing the question, “what are your views on fraternities?”
Edwards hadn’t given the issue much thought. A graduate of Princeton University, where he reluctantly joined one of the fraternity-like eating clubs, and a former president of Carleton College, which has no fraternities, Edwards had little experience with Greek life.
“I’m a ‘Burkean,’ meaning that I’m a believer in institutions as long as they prove their worth to society,” he responded.
The worth of fraternities at Bowdoin
Six years later, on June 1, 1996, Edwards stood in front of a large crowd at the Alumni Convocation.
“I believe that Bowdoin College today is paying a far higher price for fraternities than it or its students are receiving in educational value from them,” he told them. In his view, Bowdoin’s fraternities no longer proved their worth to the College.
In the time that had passed between Edwards’ meeting in Paris and this announcement, the College’s President had settled into his new role and embarked upon a mission to change the institution for the better.
“I was not absolutely clear on how serious the student body was academically,” he said of his arrival at Bowdoin. “It was not clear to me that there was a distinct academic life.”
The 1996 condemnation of Bowdoin’s fraternities was not the product of hasty decision-making or the result of a prejudiced appraisal of the system.
Several factors led Edwards to the conclusion. The most immediate was the death of Cameron Brett, a 20-year-old student visiting campus from the University of Maine, who fell to his death from the roof of the Zeta Psi house (now Ladd House) on March 15, 1996 during an unregistered party. Brett had consumed alcohol at both the Alpha Kappa Sigma and Zeta Psi fraternity houses that night. His blood-alcohol content was 0.14 at the time of his death—nearly twice the limit above which one cannot legally drive.
In the days following Brett’s death and the College’s immediate decision to close down the two involved houses, a narrative emerged about the end of Bowdoin’s fraternities and lodged itself into College lore for decades to come.
The narrative is that Brett’s death triggered administrators to act on preexisting feelings that fraternities were unruly and unacademic. After the closure of the two houses involved in Brett’s death, the rest of Bowdoin’s fraternities soon befell the same fate, ceasing all activities and selling or donating their chapter houses to the College by 2000. To fill the social vacuum left behind, the College developed the social house system that exists today.
Despite this popular narrative, Bowdoin’s transition from Greek life to the College House system arguably began as early as 1971 and reflected not just the urgency of the moment after Brett’s death, but a decision to markedly change the experience of Bowdoin students.
At their peak in the 1960s, some 95 percent of the student body were pledged members of a fraternity. The organizations fostered a rich culture of decorum and intellectual exploration by day and a raucous party culture by night.
“‘Animal House’ captures what the Bowdoin fraternity scene was like,” reminisced DeAlva Stanwood Alexander Professor of Government Christian Potholm ’62, a member of Psi Upsilon fraternity and a faculty member of the College from 1970 until his retirement last month. He was not the only alumnus to draw this comparison.
In the 1960s, and up through the early 1990s, the lives of Bowdoin students had two different nuclei—one academic, at the College, and one social, at the fraternities.
“Fraternities provided all the social life,” said Charlie Bridge 61, a member of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity, and the president of Bowdoin’s Theta chapter corporation from 1980 until the chapter closed. “Not a percentage of it—all of it.”
Although no alternatives to fraternities existed, by most accounts, the chapters welcomed the entire Bowdoin community, albeit an exclusively male students and generally white, wealthy student body.
“Even faculty and administration members would sometimes show up for a few beers,” said Jed Lyons ’74, a member of the Psi Upsilon fraternity.
As the social atmosphere of the United States began to change and the constitution of the Bowdoin student body grew increasingly diverse, many of the critical pillars of Bowdoin’s fraternities that made them so functional crumbled.
The most noteworthy shift was Bowdoin’s decision to admit women in 1971. When the College became co-educational, the number of women increased and the overall percentage of the student body involved in Greek life began to drop. Although some fraternities began to admit women in the late 1970s, this eventually caused a split between the Bowdoin chapter and the national organization, contributing to the downfall of some co-educational fraternities. Motivated by a sense of justice and gender equality, as well as a need to stay relevant, the attempts at diversification proved futile.
On a larger scale, nation-wide counter-cultural movements pushed back against the sort of elitism that Bowdoin’s fraternities exemplified. Edwards recognized this in his 1996 Alumni Convocation speech.
“The early 70s opened the generation gap. Cambodia, strikes, distrust for age, contempt for orthodoxy and property changed the culture of the houses,” he said. The houses had become rundown, dirty, and even dangerous.
When Edwards arrived at Bowdoin in the fall of 1990, Bowdoin’s fraternities were no longer appropriate places for socialization—but neither were the majority of Bowdoin’s other social spaces, which still mostly catered to men.
The student union, then located in Moulton Union, contained a bar and pool table. Women’s bathrooms still had urinals and dining facilities could not accommodate the growing student body.
“The College had gone co-ed in the 70s,” said Vice President of Communications Scott Hood. “But the facilities hadn’t necessarily caught up with that.”
With only 30 percent or fewer students pledging fraternities in 1996, the chapters began to experience financial difficulties, leading to the degradation of the houses, and some alumni charge that the College intentionally stood idle while fraternities endured a slow, natural death.
“My perspective, from being a student and then coming back as a staff member and seeing the fraternities, was that the College … never had exercised any real oversight or had expectations for the houses or helped them to meet any expectations,” said Bowdoin Outing Club Director Michael Woodruff ’87, who did not join a fraternity as a student and returned as a staff member in 1992. “I think there were punitive consequences when things really got out of hand, but we didn’t actually establish a system of mentoring and advising.”
The making of a residential college
“When Bob Edwards became president of Bowdoin, there was a lot of change that took place,” remembered Hood, who has been employed at the College since 1989.
Edwards saw, and would go on to execute, a vision of the College in which the Board of Trustees worked alongside the President to evaluate and shape the entire experience of a Bowdoin student.
A major component of this vision included increasing the size of the student body and faculty. Edwards took an involved approach to the hiring process, interviewing the final three candidates for any new faculty position personally.
The new President recruited a former colleague of his from Carleton, Richard Steele, to serve as the Dean of Admissions and tasked him with curating an increasingly international and diverse student body. In turn, the College developed co-curricular academic programs to support those students and renovated or built an unprecedented number of new facilities, including David Saul Smith Union and Thorne Dining Hall, to support the College’s growth.
Fraternities did not fit well into this vision. They fostered what Edwards called a “culture of anti-intellectualism.” Professors told horror stories, some bordering on apocryphal, of fraternity members intimidating students out of speaking in class and causing disruptions in academic settings. Coaches complained that the party scene interfered with athletic success. Even Potholm, brimming with nostalgic stories from his fraternity days, saw the fraternities as outdated.
“You couldn’t have a system, in my opinion, that had no relevance for an increasing number of women and also for people who came from other societies where this was such a strange aberration in their lives,” Potholm said. “How could it have a positive meaning?”
Although he still considers the abolition of fraternities a mistake, even Bridge admitted that, “some things had to change and fraternities weren’t too good at making the change.”
Catalyzed by Brett’s death and seeking to reimagine the residential experience of the Bowdoin student, Edwards announced at the 1996 Alumni Convocation that he had requested the Board of Trustees form a Commission on Residential Life (CRL). Edwards did not charge the CRL with the task of abolishing fraternities, nor even to address them directly. Its mission was to reconsider how Bowdoin’s residential experience fit into the broader experience of the College.
Former Board of Trustees Chair Paul Brountas ’54, P’91, H’97 tapped Don Kurtz ’52, who had just finished a 12-year stint on the Board of Overseers—a governing body that Edwards later incorporated into the Board of Trustees—to head the Commission.
Kurtz, now age 91 and a member of the Zeta Psi fraternity, formed a tight, personal connection with Edwards during his time on the Board. Although Brountas had asked Kurtz to head the CRL, Kurtz saw Edwards’ shadow behind the request.
“I figured out that [Edwards was roughly halfway through his tenure] as president, and he was at a point where he thought this should be done—I knew this—and if we didn’t do it the right way, he’d have to resign,” Kurtz recalled. “I knew that he put his job on the line. He depended on the committee to come up with the right answer.”
By “this,” Kurtz referred to reforming Bowdoin’s residential life. Sometime after Brett’s death, Edwards confided in Kurtz.
“There is a cleavage in this institution that I don’t choose to be part of any longer, and I think we must either deal with that situation, meaning it’s time for [fraternities] to go, or I think you probably need to find another president,” Edwards recalls telling Kurtz.
Kurtz, however, did not feel as though Edwards was making a threat. Bowdoin had a grave problem, and if the President could not ameliorate it, he should have to go.
The Commission on Residential Life
Despite the claim that the CRL had no specific directive, many members of Bowdoin’s community suspected that Edwards was on a mission to end Bowdoin’s Greek life.
The backlash to the CRL was swift and vicious, especially from alumni who had attended Bowdoin during the fraternities’ golden years. Angry letters, now preserved in the College’s archive, arrived daily in Edwards’ inbox.
“I suspect you are familiar with the current assault by Bowdoin’s ‘Intellectual Elites’ against the traditions of fraternities on the Bowdoin campus,” wrote Edward Burr ’45 to his Class Agent on June 25, 1996.
Raymond Bolduc ’71, a member of Zeta Psi, recognized that Bowdoin’s fraternities were “dinosaurs fading slowly into extinction,” but still expressed his discontent with what he maintains even today was a “power grab” by Edwards.
“If you seriously believe that Bowdoin would be better off without fraternities, then you are the wrong man for the job,” Bolduc wrote to the President in 1996. “Bowdoin does not need an anti-fraternity ‘everyone go to your dorm and study’ academian.”
Facing an unhappy body of alumni and a divided campus, Kurtz convened the CRL for the first time on September 7, 1996. Kurtz divided the Commission’s 16 members into three subcommittees: one for philosophy and structure, one for facilities and finance and one for social policy. The CRL comprised members of the Board, students, professors, Dean of Student Affairs Craig Bradley, and various alumni including Bridge. Throughout the fall, the CRL’s members met with current students, traveled across the country to consult with alumni and visited peer institutions to observe their systems of student housing.
“At some of these meetings in Portland, Boston, New York, [the alumni] were vicious going after what we were doing,” Kurtz said.
By December 1, 1996, the CRL had completed its information gathering phase and began work on its interim report, which they submitted at the meeting of the Board on February 28, 1997. The CRL’s findings had been kept largely a secret from the Board, the President and the student body.
“I kept [Edwards] out of it because I wanted him to have clean hands. I knew that the biggest problem was going to be putting this plan in place,” Kurtz said.
The report outlined a structure modeled after the existing system of fraternities in which students could live in College Houses that the College owned and maintained. The authors also outlined four proposals for the College’s fraternities: leave them in their existing state, invest in and rehabilitate them, allow them to coexist with a College-run house system or abolish them in favor of the proposed College House system.
Although over 80 percent of the College’s trustees were themselves fraternity alumni, the Board unanimously voted to accept a fourth proposal.
Despite the Board’s endorsement, the student body remained divided over the proposed changes. The Orient’s Opinion section was inundated with Letters to the Editor and op-eds on both sides of the debate.
Behind closed doors, Edwards diplomatically told the Executive Committee of Trustees that there had been a “restrained and thoughtful response to the Commission on Residential Life Report and to the action of the trustees.”
In an effort to give students ownership over the new system, Dean Bradley assembled an Ad Hoc Implementation Committee consisting of himself and 19 students to enact the proposed system shortly after the release of the CRL’s Interim Report. Bradley’s committee generated a report in which they drew upon the fraternity model but reincorporated certain aspects that had faded, such as faculty involvement. Although the CRL envisioned sophomores living in the College House with which they were affiliated as first years, the Implementation Committee decided to offer students the option to form groups of 12 and apply to houses as a block.
The CRL adopted the Implementation Committee’s report into its final report and submitted it to the Board of Trustees, who unanimously approved the proposal on May 10, 1997.
The College House System and beyond
At the start of the 1997-1998 school year, five College Houses were in operation: Baxter, Burnett, Helmreich, Reed and Howard Hall. Bradley reported to the Board that four fraternities—Alpha Kappa Sigma, Chi Delta Phi, Kappa Delta Theta and Theta Delta Chi—were operating in good health. Alpha Delta Phi and Psi Upsilon existed, but struggled.
By the end of September 1997, Bradley cheerfully reported to the Executive Committee that there had been an increased number of noise complaints from neighbors of the new College Houses.
“At the time of the decision, there was some skepticism among students—and more among fraternity members and alumni—that students would not get involved in the College Houses,” Bradley reflected. “It was new, non-selective, etc.. I found it heartening to see that the new College Houses were in fact very active.”
Professors—whose visits to fraternity houses had declined as student membership decreased—returned as well.
“We did a lot of creative, cool things over a long, long time,” said Professor of Cinema Studies and Director of the Cinema Studies Program Tricia Welsch of the new College Houses. “No professor would have wanted to do anything like that in those beat up, ratty frat houses. It was only when the College took those places on and … maintained them and renovated the mess spaces and had some modicum of control that that became a possibility.”
Although many current members of the faculty who worked at the College throughout the transition extol it, some criticism still lingers.
Woodruff commented that the new system “threw the baby out with the bathwater,” in that the College Houses failed to retain the elements of fraternity houses that instilled a sense of responsibility and care for one’s domestic space.
“We had to keep the house clean, we had to repaint the inside,” Bolduc said in an interview reflecting on the letter he wrote to Edwards. “We had to kind of make believe it was our house.”
Edwards has given the issue little thought in the 25 years since these events, but said the criticism likely contained at least some truth.
“Any tough institutional decision is a tradeoff, without any question,” he said. “All I can say is, I understand the tradeoff, but I probably understand it better now than I did at the time.”
Ben Allen and Chris Zhang contributed to this story.