President Maud S. Mandel awarded the Bicentennial Medal to Bruce Grinnell ’62 during a Zoom webinar on November 22 for his role in abolishing fraternities at the College.
The Bicentennial Medal was created in 1993 to “honor members of the Williams community for their distinguished achievement in any field of endeavor.” Since it was first awarded in 1993, five to seven people have received this honor each year.
During the event, Grinnell was joined by Stephen Lewis ’60, who was Professor of Economics at the College from 1966 to 1987. After attending Boston University Law School, Grinnell established a firm of local attorneys, Grinnell Partners, in 1971 and managed it. until his retirement in 2020.
Lewis began the conversation by discussing the history of fraternities at the College. By the 1950s, the fraternity system had dominated the college for more than a century, Lewis said. After being introduced to the College in the 1830s as literary clubs, these social organizations slowly evolved into full-fledged fraternities with national affiliations in the early 1900s.
In 1951, the College established a rule prohibiting students from joining fraternities until their second year, but fraternities continued to dominate social life – so much so that students who couldn’t get an offer to join the One of the 15 fraternities would most likely be recommended for transfer to another college, according to Lewis.
Grinnell came to college in 1958 and became captain and quarterback of the football team. During its first two years, dissatisfaction with the fraternity system within the college community remained relatively undisputed, Grinnell said. This was perhaps most noticeable among faculty members, many of whom believed the fraternities exerted an “anti-intellectual” influence.
In 1961, Grinnell said, his fraternity was awarded an international student from North Korea, Myong-Ku Ahn ’63. More commonly known as “Charlie,” a perpetuation of a WWII stereotype, the fraternity allowed Ahn to be a social member: socializing and eating but not sleeping at the fellowship house. His willingness to volunteer for various activities caught the attention of Grinnell, who had recently taken over the chairmanship of the fellowship.
In April 1961, Grinnell’s proposal to become a full member of Ahn was put to a vote. Much to Grinnell’s horror, the fraternity did not vote to admit Ahn. One member commented, “If Charlie lived here, I couldn’t bring a date here.
“I was stuck. I don’t think I ever encountered any forms of racism, and it just pushed me over the edge, in a sense,” Grinnell said. “The meeting was cut short. little contentious, and I went back to the first year I was a junior councilor and started talking to the other junior councilors to find out if this thing had happened in other fraternities. The answer was “Yes”, but it’s interesting that you’ve never heard of it on campus. ”
Grinnell then set up a meeting with other junior counselors and anyone else interested in addressing the injustices of the fellowship system. By the time this group met for the third time, it had a written petition calling for the abolition of fraternities.
Of the 900 people eligible to sign the petition, 46 or 47 have done so. Now known as the Grinnell Petition, this document was submitted to College President James Phinney Baxter in May 1961.
Despite his central role in shaping the Grinnell petition, Grinnell stressed at the awards ceremony that the petition was a collective endeavor. “These young men at the time [who signed the petitions] were some of the best Williams had to offer, ”said Grinnell. “They were serious students. Some were presidents of their fraternities, some were editors of the Save. So there was a gravity in this group that allowed [the next College president, Jack Sawyer ’39] to go ahead with this petition in 1961.
Shortly after Sawyer was appointed president, he informed Grinnell that he would be one of two undergraduates appointed to a committee – known as the Angevin Committee after its chairman, Jay Angevine. , class of 1911 – which would investigate the role of fraternities at the University.
Grinnell said he was initially hesitant about the impact this committee would have on the fellowship system. The list of committee members’ names contained only two former WWII graduates and one unaffiliated. However, the committee, Grinnell said, “was made up of some of the most interesting, loyal and thoughtful Williams graduates you can imagine … Their loyalty, although most of them were fellowship members, was with Williams. . “
After several meetings during Grinnell’s last year, some of which were very tense, the Angevin committee reached a consensus in May 1962: it would recommend that the College – and not the fraternities – take responsibility for feeding and housing. all of its students. The fraternities gradually collapsed over the next few years, and the College officially banned fraternities in the late 1960s.
Grinnell said he felt social repercussions for his transformative role in abolishing the fraternities, especially with regard to his participation in the Angevin Committee. “I probably should have left the [fraternity] house, ”Grinnell said. “I lived in the house for my senior year.”
“There were some aspects of the life of the elderly that were difficult,” he added. “Eighty-four percent of undergraduates wanted to maintain fraternities, so overall it’s been a long year, to put it that way. “
Mandel praised the lasting impact of Grinnell’s work when she awarded him the Bicentennial Medal. “You were just doing what you thought was right,” Mandel said. “From a humble working-class kid in Northampton, Massachusetts, it probably sounded that simple. You couldn’t have known that your actions in the spring of 1961 would change the course of your college and carve your name in Williams’ history, but that’s exactly what happened.