Looking Back: A Letter to the Editor on PSI U from 2001

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By James L. P. Glidden

This letter was written by James Glidden ’72 in 2001 in response to a decision to remove certain fraternities from their houses and to instate the Minerva system. In support of a recent letter written by Bill Copeland ’77, Glidden has resubmitted the letter for publication by the Concordiensis.

In support of Bill Copeland’s ’77 “Open Letter to Dean Leavitt” published in the March 1 issue of the Concordiensis, I’d like to recall the 125-year tradition of civility and service of Union’s Fraternities (1833-1958), their 40-plus year decline to near-extinction in 2001, and despite the bumps, the re-birth of fraternities and sororities taking place today. My letter was first published in the Concordiensis in June of 2001 in response to the college’s ouster of a number of fraternities from their own houses (including Psi U and Sigma Phi), leading many to believe at that time that fraternities at Union were dead.

To the Editor, Union College Concordiensis:

So the Era of Fraternities is ending at Union. My brother John Glidden (Psi U ’69) and I (Psi U ’72) came up to school last week to have a night out with his daughter Lizzy Glidden (’01) and to say goodbye to our House. We bought the Brotherhood a keg and went over to drink some beer and meet the brothers. Buying a keg is a good way to be made welcome at Psi U and we’ve been doing it for years.

Psi U was founded at Union in 1833, as were Kappa Alpha, Sigma Phi, and one or two others. One hundred and sixty eight years later, Psi U is gonzo.

As I strolled about campus collecting my thoughts, it struck me that the Theta Chapter of Psi Upsilon has had a pretty good run. No matter what the current reasons for the bullet-to-the-brain, Psi U lasted one-and-two-thirds centuries—from the opening of the Erie Canal (out of business only 20 years later), through the Civil War, Manifest Destiny, two World Wars, Korea, the Soviet Empire, Vietnam, a man on the moon, and various booms, busts, protests, famines, and pestilences— before donning the blindfold.

Apart from my grief and rage, all of my brothers and I know that Psi U couldn’t possibly have lasted as long as it did without good reason. Why were fraternities founded in the first place? How did they come to decay so?

In the early 1830s, home was a long way from college even if home was just a few miles away. Classes were held, then dismissed. Sure, there were dormitories, but the winters were grayer and lonelier than they are now. Because of the isolation, there was a strong incentive for students to seek one another out. So when the fraternity movement began to take root, it was because these young men were of like mind— lonely, freezing cold, looking for a place to meet, to live, and to dine with friends— all eager for a sense of belonging. So they got together and began to form associations. They followed the ancient Greek traditions of civility, shared accomplishment, self-sacrifice, democratic self-rule, and concern for others less fortunate. These became Fraternities— the Greek system.

It was natural for Union to allow fraternities in 1833. There was plenty of land. There were only a few hundred students. There was French architect Joseph Jacques Ramée’s plan, partially executed, and some fields. For students who wanted to form clubs, build houses, and feed and house themselves at no cost to the college, what was there to lose? Nothing. So the new fraternities organized, bought and paid for land, built houses, and everything rolled merrily along until the late sixties, when the houses’ worsening behavior began to make them vulnerable.

But consider:

Allowing fraternities to form was a policy that the college ultimately came to regret, because the fraternities did what they were intended to do: they organized. They evolved into a system, a means of student self-help, student self-expression, and student self-interest that was independent from the college. Somewhere along the line, Union decided that the whole fraternity idea was a disaster, because the college couldn’t control them. So, over 40-odd years, the Administration convinced the Trustees that lack of control meant out of control. Even worse, for decades the fraternities had had their own alumni, guiding and nurturing their houses. Those alumni gave money, but the college didn’t control that money.

When I was at Union, Harold Martin was President. He said he wasn’t against the houses, but he hated them just the same. Ten years after I graduated, I ran into him on Park Avenue, and he admitted it. He said they were out of control and dangerous. Dr. Martin, a good man, had it close to the truth. When he said “out of control,” what he really meant was, “out of my control.” Out of the college’s control.

You can say that the fraternities were birthed by the loneliness and the cold, and that they brought camaraderie and comfort to many at Union, and you can also say that fraternities (Psi U included) became arrogant, exclusionary, even racist (not on my watch) and drunken (on my watch). But you must say, you must say, that the Fraternity System is the last organizational system of any type at Union College that is truly, truly, independent from the control and management of the administration at Union College, and truly run by the students. It’s no TV mystery as to why the administration wants them gone, but it damn well is Greek tragedy that the Board of Trustees let Hull & Co get away with it, and that the houses’ behavior made it so easy.

Think about that, Union students: The Fraternities— soiled, ruined, aged, discredited (largely by their own hand)— were formed and nurtured by students like you and alumni like me a hundred and seventy years ago. They are (were) the most articulate, the most independent, and the most singularly democratic set of city-states at Union. Student city-states. Like the Senate to the Presidency. I do not exaggerate here. The present (2001) Student Body has forgotten that the college once sought and listened to student opinion as articulated by the various Houses. So now the President decides to abolish the Senate. You’ve been screwed. You just don’t feel it yet. But those who follow you will feel it someday. They will be reminded that absolute power corrupts absolutely, that this was the college’s seizure of that power, and that ‘01 was the “X” that marked the spot.

Control. It’s the reason for the administration’s passion in this whole thing. Consider the nauseating “Plan for Union” marketing campaign. Think of the college’s efforts to make you feel like a disenfranchised boat person if you don’t belong to a house (so that you’ll hate them), and a bigoted degenerate if you do. That’s control, baby, control.

One asks where the blame lies. A share certainly lies with me. I graduated 29 years ago, in 1972. Psi U was a white marble palace compared to what it is now, and it was starting to fade even then. We had a most privileged place on the campus, but we as a group were convinced that our true mission was to party. Oh man, were we good at it. On Winter Weekend 1970 we had 25 brothers in the house, and we ran 26 kegs of beer. You should’ve seen ‘em stacked up. All-time record. How sad it is now that those kegs were all we were proud of. Where we as a house could have led, we lagged. We could have had a dialogue with the faculty and the administration. But the tradition of having a professor or a dean over for dinner once a week, and the president once a term, died out my freshman year. The Psi U dining room used to be the nicest on Campus, rivaling Hale House (I kid you not). But we began to neglect our lovely building, and it commenced its long decline into today’s stinking, post-bombardment Parthenon, making it ripe for the college’s plucking.

Back in the 1950s, Brothers put on their tuxes once a week at dinner, as did their guests. Those traditions were allowed to lapse when I was a student, and they never came back. Up until the mid-sixties, the houses used to sponsor clothing campaigns, staff soup kitchens, host study nights and even organize sleigh rides for local kids. Those community efforts shriveled.

By the time I moved in to Psi U in ’69, the Brotherhood’s gaze had turned inward, to the beer and the bones and the ladies, and I and my contemporaries bear a lot of responsibility for forgetting that a Brotherhood that becomes too focused on revelry inspires envy, and when envy tires, disgust.

Understanding people better than I did then, I am better equipped to understand Mr. Hull as he prepares to celebrate the demise of the “Greek System” at Union. I accept that he has no idea what he’s done, and I even accept that if he did, he wouldn’t care.

But where I do find ultimate fault is with the Board of Trustees of Union College. These are the people charged with having an eye on, and an appreciation for, a long-term view that transcends the passions and platitudes of today’s undergraduates and today’s Administration. Why do you think they call them “Trustees?” Wasn’t someone on the Board of Trustees supposed to stop Mr, Hull and ask, “Are you kidding me? Abolish the Fraternities? Emasculate the students’ best-articulated voice? Dismantle a system that could be restored to responsibility, that can regain its role as a constructive force?” (And don’t these kids and their parents pay your damned salaries?)

Of course the houses brought much of their demise upon themselves. But had the Board not been so blind, they could have seen that Psi U et al needed to be “slapped upside the head,” and they could have worked out a survival plan— a rebirth— with the houses and their collective alumni. But they lost sight of the Fraternities’ 150-year tradition of Brotherhood, civility, shared accomplishment, self-sacrifice, democratic self-rule, and concern for others less fortunate. The Board of Trustees of Union College abrogated its trust.

So you can blame a bunch of college kids for unacceptable behavior all you want. And you can trash Hull’s crew ‘til hell freezes over for their power grab. But instead, cast your gaze upon the Board of Trustees. These are the guys who are supposed to know their history, to be unfazed by the present, and to use both rudders to pilot the college into the future. Sadly, they have flunked.

Psi U is no more. Those gray and lonely winters are coming back.

James L.P. Glidden ’72Psi UpsilonUnion CollegeJune 5, 2001

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