Outlawed Fraternities Go Underground

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. - The students meet secretly - at a restaurant off campus, or for a drive in the countryside. The arrangements, says one participant, are never made on a campus phone.

If they are found out, they face suspension.

They are fraternity brothers.

Single-sex social organizations have been banned at Middlebury College, so the brothers of Delta Kappa Epsilon have gone underground. No boisterous beer bashes for them. No "Animal House," either - in fact, they're barred from using their own house.

Just furtive meetings. And a will to keep the "Dekes" alive.

"My fraternity brothers have been my closest friends," said Michael Cohen of Boca Raton, Fla., who graduated from Middlebury in May. "Most of my great times at Middlebury have been with Delta Kappa Epsilon and not Middlebury (College). . . . It's a tradition that shouldn't die."

Not everyone agrees. To some students and college officials, fraternities are outmoded institutions that promote sexism and inequality. And they have become associated with alcohol abuse and hazing episodes in which students have died.

Five of New England's elite private colleges have banned them outright, including Middlebury, where fraternities led social life for generations.

The official end of the fraternity system at this liberal-arts college of about 2,000 students began in 1989, when a study concluded that the all-male fraternities were incompatible with college life. Sororities disappeared on their own in the 1960s.

The study coincided with a series of embarrassing incidents, including one in which a female mannequin was suspended in effigy from the front of a fraternity house during a raucous party.

College trustees voted unanimously in 1990 to ban single-sex social organizations. Some fraternities decided to admit women and became part of the college's new social-house system, which replaced fraternities. Others dissolved.

Delta Kappa Epsilon refused.

"We know men. We don't know women's issues," said David Easlick, executive director of the fraternity's national office in Grosse Point, Mich. "It would be a totally different experience."

They fought in court and lost. Middlebury students are not banned from belonging to fraternities. But they cannot participate in fraternity activities, even off campus on their own time.

"I think (fraternity activity) is contrary to what our mission is," said Don Wyatt, Middlebury's vice president for undergraduate affairs. He said anyone caught violating the rules would be suspended. "It would be swift and severe."

This has not deterred the underground frats, though Wyatt insisted that their activities are "greatly exaggerated."

"It's a fairly natural thing in the death cycle of fraternities," said Jim Kolesar, spokesman for Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., where single-sex fraternities were banned in 1968 and underground fraternities flourished for years, but apparently have died out.

"We expected there would be underground activity and there was," said William Cotter, president of Colby College in Waterville, Maine, which banned fraternities in 1984. He claimed the influence of the secret fraternities was waning.

Chris Mastrangelo, a 1992 Colby graduate, spent all four years in college as an underground member of Delta Kappa Epsilon. He said five fraternities and one sorority are operating underground at Colby.

"You find people in underground chapters who take their frats very seriously," Mastrangelo said. "In a school where you know you can be expelled, you have to be dedicated."