Although fraternities are most common in the United States, the “Greek” system originated in European colleges. This section explores how students formed guilds for their own housing and protection. These student held a great deal of power over their teachers, but, by the 18th century, the power of students declined as municipal authorities took control
I am interested in the argument, in the method of their doing it. I think it would be best for the school to lose the houses, but as for my fraternity, no, because the way it has evolved my fraternity is largely based on the house. The social functions are at the house, and without the house we would lose that…the house is a large part of the fraternity, I mean the fraternal bond. You own your land. You own your house. That is yours. As a member of a fraternity I am part owner of that house…they can’t institute rules against me in my house. If I live in the dorms I would have to follow their rules (The Owl).
University student organizations have been around for almost 900 years. Clyde Johnson (1972) traces fraternity roots back to the University of Bologna in Northern Italy. He describes Bologna as a student university in which students formed guilds “for their own purpose and self-protection” (6). These student groups were founded along national lines and undertook tasks such as burial service if necessary. At the time universities did not have an infrastructure such as buildings and libraries for centers of instruction. Therefore, “it was the lack of physical possessions that provided an opportunity for students to assert power” (6).
The student government exercised a great deal of power over their teachers. The students’ autocratic discipline code dictated the student relationship with the faculty and “teachers had to swear obedience to a student-elected rector. Their salaries were set by student governors. They were required to pay penalties for unauthorized absences, not beginning lectures promptly, and even for failing to finish within one minute after the bell” (7). Furthermore, students were able to assert power by walking out of class if dissatisfied.
By the 18th century, student power in universities had begun to weaken. Municipal authorities began to claim control of universities by paying professors’ wages. More importantly, they began to acquire buildings, libraries, and endowments. Ultimately, this accumulation of property hindered students’ autonomy in the governance of the university. By owning infrastructure, municipal authorities saw to it that student power could no longer be as effectively expressed by migrating out of class in protest.
In France, the situation was considerably different. In Paris, it as the faculty who “assumed leadership in forming guilds for their self-protection and won, from popes and kings, larger and larger concessions, immunities, and privileges” (8). Students and little power in this context so they began to bond together in communal houses and developed a practice of self-governance. These student guilds became elitist and poor students were unable to participate in them or benefit from their housing.
The English university tradition was structured partially in reaction to the poor student conditions in Paris. By 1263, English universities such as Oxford made attempts to provide student housing. By providing housing, the college was able to impose strict discipline on students. Eventually, Oxford university established its status as in loco parentis and, by 1274, “deprived students of most of their power, and set regulations almost monastic in character” (9). It was the English university tradition that was imported into colonial United States.