Case Study One: Sigma Chi
Male Bonding can be used very constructively to overcome oppressive social condition. This case story explores one fraternity’s attempt to break the racial barrier in 1966.
The alumni, they own the house and they have complete say in it. They basically make the rules. They can tell someone to kick someone out. This is basically what happened to us. (Jack B. Dalton)
If they see that character is slipping and will cost them a lot of money, they will pull that charter like no tomorrow. (White Sail)
They send a chapter consultant out here it seems like every term or tow, and these guys who have been coming lately the last couple of years are real assholes. All they do is bitch at us. Everybody has a bad attitude about them…so everyone just gives him a cold shoulder…since I have been pledge educator, in charge of initiation, members, and things like that, I have had to deal with national fraternity. It just gets frustrating. I get real frustrated. I try to get the forms to them, and it takes them a few months to get back to me. It is just a big hassle, a big mess. (John Blutarski)
Fraternity history is not confined to battles between university and fraternity. In terms for power, several authorities can be in competition to control the behavior of its subordinates. The university, the national chapter, and fraternity alumni are all in a position of authority over the actions of a fraternity house. At times, fraternity members can be trapped between competing authorities or might have to decide which dominant group to ally with. These complex power struggles were brought into light at OSU when the Beta Pi Chapter of the Sigma Chi Fraternity became involved in a controversy pertaining to civil rights.
The incident began during winter quarter, 1966, when Sigma Chi members pledged Eugene Okino a third-generation, American-born, Japanese youth. As was the practice, the plans to initiate Okino were forward to the Sigma Chi regional director for British Columbia, Washington, and Oregon who anticipated trouble in relation to Okino’s race. It was decided to poll over 900 Sigma Chi alumni members for comments. In an untitled form letter (6/10/66) the OSU’s chapter president, Jay Greenwood, spoke of Okino’s high school achievements which included a 3.91 high school GPA, four years on honor roll, and graduating third in his class (OSU Archive File, Sigma Chi). Okino’s qualifications, clearly, were not the issue.
Nevertheless, the poll was completed resulting in only one vote of objection. The single dissenting vote was racially motivated. The vote was cast by George W. Reynolds, a dues-paying active alumnus. Reynolds, who graduated from OSU at least forty years earlier, threatened to vote to suspend the chapter if the matter was brought to a vote. Reynolds objection to pledging Okino was in response to the past trip he made to Japan during which he felt he had been discriminated against.
Unfortunately, a single alumni vote could carry a lot of weight at the time. Under its constitution, Sigma Chi was a unified fraternity and not a federation of autonomous chapters. Therefore, the Sigma Chi constitution, which did not have a “Caucasians only” clause, did not allow local chapters autonomy in respect to membership decisions. National solidarity ruled over a fraternity house’s local bond. This arrangement, unfortunately conflicted with an earlier Oregon State Board of Higher Education decision that it would withdraw recognition from any fraternity or sorority who restricts membership based on race, color, or religion. The OSU Sigma Chi fraternity was caught in a double bind: if they pledged Okino, the national chapter would revoke their charter, but if they obeyed their national chapter, then OSU President James Jensen promised to halt the chapter’s recognition at OSU.
Confronted by two competing authorities, Sigma Chi members sided against their own nationals. The OSU chapter president, Jay Greenwood, declared that “Under no circumstances will this chapter depledge Okino” (OSU Archive File, Sigma Chi). In addition, the OSU Inter-Fraternity Council, representing 33 OSU fraternities, also went on record in support of initiating Okino (OSU Archive File, Sigma Chi). The fraternity members at Sigma Chi bonded in defense of Okino and ultimately won. The alumni held a private meeting (11/21/96) to vote on Okino’s initiation. Only eight alumni attended and no votes were cast against Okino. Reynolds, residing in San Diego, California, opted not to attend the event.
During this time many Sigma Chi chapters across the United States were involved in civil rights issues. The Stanford University Sigma Chi chapter withdrew from their national chapter because of a two-year dispute involving racial discrimination. Other Sigma Chi chapters were involved in similar struggles at the University of Colorado, Brown University and the University of Michigan (OSU Archive File, Sigma Chi).
This case study was selected to illustrate power struggles involved in male bonding. In this example, multiple authorities (Sigma Chi alumni and the university) fought to control the actions of a fraternity house by subjecting it to contradictory rules. Meanwhile, house members struggled to protect the convictions and integrity which defined their bond. Sigma Chi alumni sought to dominate subordinate members by dictating membership policies but the younger members asserted its rights to change the cultural pattern recognized by alumni. In this inter-male conflict the younger members’ bond was strong enough to confront a dominant group and win. The following action demonstrates how fraternity members can seek to dominate others using more devious methods.