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In the early days of the university, fraternities met in secret. Their exposure ignited a conflict that transformed U-M into the institution it is today.
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March 11, 2008
One night in the spring of 1846, Andrew Ten Brook, professor of intellectual and moral philosophy, set out on the trail of a pair of students whom he suspected in a series of minor crimes in the environs of the University of Michigan.
The "depredations" were no more serious than a few rail fences set on fire, but they were enough to bring Ten Brook out of doors long after the bedtime of his fellow clergymen on the faculty. To pad his salary, he had been taking in student boarders at $1.50 a week, and he had heard whispered talk hinting of secret societies.
Determined to root out the facts, Ten Brook tracked his young prey to a rough log cabin at the edge of what students called the Black Forest—the broad swath of woods stretching east of the campus along the Huron River. (Forest Hills Cemetery and the Nichols Arboretum are its remnants.) Confronted, the students refused to tell Ten Brook what went on inside the cabin, saying they had been sworn to secrecy. His suspicions of a secret society were confirmed, and further sleuthing unveiled what most of the all-male student body of 67 doubtless already knew: Not just one Greek-letter society but three—Chi Psi, Beta Theta Pi, and Alpha Delta Phi—had set down their infernal roots at the University of Michigan.
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So began the sustained combat between students and faculty that became known as the Fraternity War. It would wind down to an uneasy peace only after Ann Arbor's city fathers, the Regents and the state legislature had joined the fray, Ten Brook and several other professors had quit or been fired, and the early regime of faculty rule at Michigan had given way to the reign of the university's first real president, Dr. Henry Philip Tappan, who inaugurated the school's first great period of growth and prestige.
The immediate issue was an obscure university regulation known as Rule 20, which declared: "No student shall be or become a member of any society connected with the University which has not first submitted its constitution to the faculty and received their approval."
The rule had been written to prevent too many literary societies, but Ten Brook and others said it now should be invoked to stamp out this far greater peril. On the eastern campuses, they said, Greek-letter societies had become "a monster power…of disorder and rowdyism" that brought a plague of "debauchery, drunkenness, pugilism and duelling." The fraternities were elitist and exclusionary—an offense against the democratic idealism of the Jacksonian era—and to some pious Christians on the faculty, especially, they smacked of Freemasonry, that secular rival to the power of the church. If the students would not renounce their memberships, Ten Brook and his allies asserted, they must be expelled.
The fraternity boys were not cowed. Most were of a different breed than the city-bred dandies who populated eastern colleges like Harvard and Princeton. They were tough frontier kids, many of legal age, who argued that no stiff-collared professor had the right to interfere with their constitutional right of free assembly. The students executed a series of deft dodges. They argued that, for various reasons, Rule 20 was a dead letter. Chi Psi pointed out that their cabin in the woods was not on university property; they were not a university organization, but an Ann Arbor one. Alpha Delta Phi induced Elijah Holmes Pilcher, a Regent and a prominent Methodist minister, to join their ranks as an honorary member.
The faculty, already divided by sectarian disputes, argued among themselves. There was no president to referee, only a weak faculty "chancellor," or principal; the job rotated every year.
The state legislature, beseiged by complaints from parents, told the Regents to clean up their own mess, but the board, too, was divided. So, for three years, the fraternities continued to recruit new members and hold their meetings. "Our crazy faculty…seem determined to annihilate every secret society in College," a member of Alpha Delta Phi wrote to a brother at an eastern chapter, but "it is a hard matter to kill us 'Wolverines' when we make up our minds to live."
A showdown came on December 19, 1849, the last day of the fall term. At a campus-wide assembly, a faculty majority warned that every fraternity man must renounce his membership or stay home after Christmas. "The occasion, it must be admitted, was not marked by quiet and respectful attention," a chronicler said, and students went out in a dark temper. That night, fires were set in outhouses and woodsheds all over the campus, "rendering every tree, shrub, and fence-pole visible over the whole grounds." The faculty made good on their threat, expelling many students. Headlines around the state blared: "REBELLION," "SECRET LEAGUE," "DESPOTISM."
With this, leading figures in Ann Arbor had had enough. They went to the legisature with a list of complaints. Many of the expelled students were "among the most talented and moral of the members of the institution," they declared; the move against free association was "an abridgement of the rights of man." Further, they said, the University under the current crop of Regents and faculty had fallen into "a sickly existence." It was high time for a fresh start, a new charter for the whole institution and a strong president "who can give it character and standing."
The legislature declined to act, but the mass expulsions turned public opinion decidedly in the fraternities' favor, and by the end of 1850, the societies had all been reinstated by the university—though some of the expellees never returned. Bickering among the faculty droned on. Three professors drove Ten Brook to resign; then a band of Ten Brook's loyalists among the Regents forced his three enemies off the faculty. (Ten Brook later returned to Ann Arbor as University librarian, though in an ironic turn-about, Ten Brook's home was eventually torn down and replaced by a fraternity house,)
All this uproar had its effect on the writing of the state’s new constitution in 1850. The articles on the University of Michigan provided for a new, elected board of Regents who would select a president to govern the school's affairs—and, it was expected, to ride herd on the recalcitrant faculty.
Taking office in 1852, the charismatic Henry Tappan would find his own sorrows in Ann Arbor, but not before shaping the school into a form recognizable as a modern university, largely free of the clerical paternalism of its first years. As an early historian of the University put it, the Fraternity War was "the beginning of a new and progressive spirit" on the campus.
James Tobin is an author and historian. His most recent book is To Conquer the Air: The Wright Brothers and the Great Race for Flight.