In the wake of the horrifying behavior of some members of a fraternity at the University of Oklahoma recently, we are hearing that the whole fraternity system is flawed and we should be done with them. To my way of thinking, that is nonsense and I would respectfully like to tell you why, at least for me.
My first stories of fraternities were deeply upsetting. My father, who became a famous economist, was a dishwasher at a fraternity at Williams College to help pay his way through college. At that time, and for long after and before, that fraternity and all of the frats at Williams did not admit Jews. I asked my Pop how he felt about it. “I just felt grateful that I had a job and could go to the best small college in the country in the middle of the worst Depression in industrial history,” he said.
One of the members, Richard Helms, who ate off the dishes that my father washed, later became head of the CIA and one of my Pop’s closest friends.
When I was in college at Columbia starting in 1962, I was lonely and miserable. I was a pitiful atom of nothingness in a huge ocean of contemptuous students from New York. It was only when I was so incredibly lucky as to be asked to join the coolest fraternity there has ever been, the Columbia chapter of Alpha Delta Phi, that my whole life turned around. Immediately, I was a part of the hippest, most elegant, well-dressed, friendliest boys on the campus.
It was as if I had been granted a title of nobility. AD was so great partly because we had a beautiful club house, had super parties, often black tie, drank insane amounts of alcohol, and had the prettiest girls at our events.
But it was also fabulous because it was exclusive. Almost everyone who wanted to be in a frat rushed AD and only a small number were let in. I STILL DON’T KNOW WHY THEY LET ME IN. Maybe they needed me to raise their GPA. But whatever it was, AD changed my life for the better in ways that still resonate inside my heart.
It is part of the human soul to want to be in an elite, highly selective club. This is true whether the club is the US Senate, the Supreme Court, the partners at Goldman Sachs, the players on the OKC Thunder, or the commentators on the best TV network. That is true whether you show exclusivity by your gang signs or your car or your watch. It is just part of human nature and it helps people feel better about who they are.
If you are on the outside looking in, it’s a bad thing but then who wants to be on the outside looking in?
Our frat always had diversity. It was about 80 percent white Gentiles, maybe the rest Jews and blacks—but very cool Jews and blacks (like me!). Of course, it would be disgusting to go back to the era of Williams in 1931 to 1935 in which your eligibility to be cool was cut off at birth. The ability to be part of an exclusive group should always be about the ability to be cool and hip, never about race or religion. But to eliminate students’ happiness and pride at earning the right to be members of selective groups helps no one and eliminates one of the great joys of college days.
The Columbia chapter of AD that I knew is no more. It has women members and many bisexual and gay members and when I recently tried to help the young woman child of a dear pal get into AD, the Chapter President, a woman, actually told me she would not even consider my friend’s daughter unless I could get the frat President a job at Goldman Sachs. I have no connection with that bank, by the way, except for being a very unfortunate stockholder. But I would not have helped even if I could have. That’s not what AD was supposed to be about. If your family or friends had to bribe your way in, you were not cool.
So, those glory days for AD at Columbia are long gone. But my son was just in a frat at Presbyterian College in South Carolina, and it was where he met his future wife and the mother of our granddaughter. I meet many fraternity boys on airplanes and almost uniformly, the experience is totally non-racist and totally great.
The behavior on that bus was disgraceful and everyone knows it. Racism anywhere is disgraceful. But fraternity life has healed many a wound and helped to make many a boy into a man. Long may they run.