Commentary Magazine


College Days

To the Editor:

. . . As a Phi Ep I enjoyed reading Joseph Epstein’s “Memoirs of a Fraternity Man” [July]. Through the similarities and differences between the Phi Epsilon Pi of the University of Illinois in the 1950’s and the Phi Epsilon Pi of Northern Illinois University in the late 1960’s there runs a common feeling of sadness at its passing from the scene forever.

When I first came to NIU in DeKalb (the barbed-wire capital of the world) in 1967, Phi Ep was at its zenith. The new Phi Ep house on Hillcrest Avenue was one of the biggest and plushest on Greek row. The Phi Ep concept of itself as an elite brotherhood still corresponded, somewhat, to reality.

The decline of Phi Ep at NIU in the ensuing three years would make a nostalgic magazine article in itself. Multiply this by the total number of defunct Phi Ep chapters and the dismal story could fill a book.

At NIU Phi Ep, which was over half Jewish, and the local chapter of Zeta Beta Tau, which was almost entirely Jewish, folded within one semester of each other. There are no other Jewish national fraternities on our campus of 23,000 students.

The fraternity system is obviously withering away. With the deep changes that have come over campus mores in the last decade, this trend can certainly be expected to continue. Many of the reasons why today’s college students reject the traditional fraternity system are valid. But I cannot say that I am really pleased to see many of our fine fraternities like Phi Epsilon Pi pass into the realm of distant memory.

Nathan B. Davenport
Phi Epsilon Pi
Northern Illinois University
DeKalb, Illinois

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To the Editor:

Not all college students in the 50’s were cast in the mold which Joseph Epstein imposes on them—not even at the “Fraternity Capital of the World.” . . . As a contemporary of Mr. Epstein’s, who also would have preferred a more stimulating undergraduate environment than that of the “dismal twincities” of Champaign and Urbana, I can attest to the fact that there were numbers of independent students in the men’s and women’s dormitories who at that time, as their spiritual descendants do now, recognized the vacuity of Greek life, its lack of serious purpose, and the existence of social injustice and political irresponsibility in the world. Indeed these students fought against local segregated practices and sought in other ways to organize and arouse politically—alas, in vain—the generally lethargic student body. Perhaps Mr. Epstein would admit that not all of these independent students developed social consciences only as a result of personal inadequacies, financial limitations, or the discrimination practiced against them by fraternities. And some of them, it might surprise him to know, were even Jewish!

Sally M. Miller
University of the Pacific
Stockton, California

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To the Editor:

I preceded Joseph Epstein by ten years at the University of Illinois. Although by some odd stroke of good luck I rejected overtures made to me to join a fraternity, I had relatively strong ties to several of the Jewish fraternities—I was a waiter in their dining rooms!

Two incidents stand out in my memory which illuminate both the awe with which members of the fraternity regarded the institution and the feelings of disdain (fear? superiority?) the adherents felt toward the “independents.”

While waiting tables—in the Zeta Beta Tau, not the Phi Epsilon house—I was regarded with curiosity and wonder because, first, I was a graduate student, and second, I was a Jew, and Jews rarely served as waiters in Jewish fraternities. During Hell Week, I was sickened by the physical, mental, and moral abuse suffered by the pledges, and I tried to organize resistance to the activities. (This “good clean fun” sometimes resulted in the need for medical treatment.) I was amazed to find myself a leader without followers, and shocked to find that the victims actively opposed any interference with what was taken to be a sacred tradition. . . .

A second, and more humorous, incident: the same year, while serving as a waiter at a fraternity dance, I was led to an anteroom by the fraternity officers and house mother and admonished for fraternizing with a guest at the dance—my own sister! . . .

That today’s student body is in-different or hostile to the Greek letter system is just another sign that today’s generation is a lot smarter than mine was. . . .

Robert J. Schreiber
Stamford, Connecticut

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