History of Greek Life
100 years on campus and counting.
In the 1850’s groups known as Literary Societies began forming at Otterbein. These early societies were meant to help young men and women gain a mastery of public speaking and debate skills as many early graduates pursued careers as ministers, lawyers, politicians and teachers. Literary Societies dominated campus life at Otterbein until the early 1900’s. The first decades of the 1900’s Otterbein began to see fraternities and sororities pop up on campus. Greek organizations first appeared on American campuses in the 1820s and grew rapidly after 1890.
At Otterbein, fraternities and sororities unofficially sprang into existence beginning in 1908. The fraternities often grew out of eating clubs made up of friends who belonged to the same literary society. For example, Lester Essig, William B. Grise, Harry D. Thompson and Charles Yates were all friends and members of Philomathea. They began eating together in 1908 at a house on West Broadway beyond the city limits, and so became known as “Country Club.”
Six Cleiorheteans “clubbed together” in each other’s rooms on the second floor of Cochran Hall in 1910. They shared friendship and food from home until deciding in the spring of 1911 to form Otterbein’s first sorority, Sigma Alpha Tau, “Owls.”
These organizations quickly became the new framework for organizing social life. Among students, their acceptance and importance was reflected by the 1915 Sibyl which featured a section titled “Fraternities,” including a sketch of an initiation ceremony. Officially, the University denied their existence, although it seemed to tolerate them for a time. But as the fraternities and sororities grew, so did their opposition.
From 1917 through 1921, University trustees instructed President Clippinger to suppress the fraternities and sororities. Clippinger found the task aggravating and frustrating. No matter how many students were confronted, the groups continued to grow, and by 1920, a sense of defeat was setting in among the trustees who opposed the new groups. In 1921, the Board of Trustees finally heard arguments for changing its policy. J.R. Howe, who later became president of Otterbein, spoke for the students. In the end, fraternities and sororities were allowed on campus only if membership and meetings were public, and no “oaths or irrevocable pledges of allegiance” were required. Initiation rituals, Greek letters and affiliation with national organizations were forbidden.
In the years after Otterbein sanctioned these social organizations, they grew rapidly. In 1922, when the Board first officially recognized them, 52 percent of the student belonged to fraternities and sororities. By 1928, participations had risen to 76 percent. But the place of fraternities and sororities in college life remained tentative. As late as 1929, President Clippinger insisted that Otterbein did not have fraternities and sororities, but unique “social organizations.”
By 1971, Otterbein had allowed fraternities and sororities to move out of the halls and into houses around campus. Unfortunately this came at a time when Greek organizations across the country faced mounting criticism and declining membership. Otterbein student Bob Ready ’74, who had pledged a fraternity but dropped out, wrote in the Tan & Cardinal that Greeks were too “WASPish” and divided the campus at a time when Otterbein and the country needed peace and unity.
In the 1950s and early ’60s as many as 80 to 90 percent of all Otterbein students belonged to a fraternity or sorority. Dean Joanne VanSant remembered that in 1953 before rush began, there was only one independent woman on campus. By 1972, members had dropped to approximately 54 percent for women and 45% for men. Despite the decline, Otterbein’s Greeks defended their organizations as important and positive forces in campus life. Mark Bixler ’73 argued in the Tan & Cardinal that the Greek organizations provided a style of living that encourages personal development as well as numerous service opportunities. Debbie Ayers ’72, then president of the Panhellenic Council, felt the Greek organizations were “not slowly dying, but slowly changing.”
Otterbein’s Greeks found support from numerous sources. Alumni returned to campus to work with active chapters, and the University invited national consultants to campus to help them increase their membership, modernize rushing, and focus on leadership development. In the 1980s, the fraternities and sororities steadily rebuilt their base and again expanded their influence and leadership on campus.
Today, Greek students make up about 22 percent of Otterbein’s campus populations and are places students can gather to foster deep friendships, gain valuable leadership skills, and volunteer their time within Otterbein and the greater community. Excerpts from:
Hurley, Daniel, Cathy Fishell, Melinda Gilpin, Lois Szudy, and Tuesday Beerman Trippier. "Fraternities and Sororities." Otterbein College: Affirming our Past/Shaping our Future. Westerville, Ohio: Otterbein College, 1996. 56-57. Print.
Hurley, Daniel, Cathy Fishell, Melinda Gilpin, Lois Szudy, and Tuesday Beerman Trippier. "Greeks." Otterbein College: Affirming our Past/Shaping our Future. Westerville, Ohio:
Otterbein College, 1996. 72. Print.