How Queen’s rejected the rise of fraternities

Queen’s historian attributes Greek life’s absence on campus to University’s Presbyterian roots 

In the early 1930s, the AMS banned fraternities from campus. Now, nearly 90 years later, Kingston is home to three fraternities—all predominantly made up of Queen’s students.

To understand the University’s long and complex relationship with fraternities and sororities, The Journal spoke to Queen’s historian Duncan McDowell.

Though Greek life has never fully taken root at Queen’s, two of the three frats currently existing in Kingston were established in the last seven years. 

The University’s fraught history with Greek life stretches back to 1933, when the AMS court ruled fraternities were to be banned from campus. The ruling came as a direct response to the presence of two groups—one made up of Arts and Science students and another of medical students—who sought fraternal status and university affiliation. 

Still, with fraternities making a slow return to Kingston in recent years, questions about the nearly century-old ban linger.

In an interview with The Journal, McDowell, professor emeritus, said he’s often pleasantly surprised by how engaged 

Queen’s students can be with their school when he frequents campus, despite the University lacking the staple frats have become on campuses across North America. 

Its one of the reasons he believes fraternities and sororities never took root at Queen’s.

“I’m struck [by] how involved Queen’s students are in public service,” McDowell said. “I always notice in the ARC that students are raising money for charity, or supporting some good cause.”

He views these traditions as a reflection of the University’s values as an institution. 

McDowell says the unique founding values of Queen’s—togetherness, egalitarianism, and altruism—are precisely what has kept the resurgence of fraternities at bay, though the ban is approaching its hundredth anniversary.

According to McDowell, historically, these principles unified members of the Queen’s community against groups which were believed to foster exclusivity—though campus still struggles with allegations of privilege and classism today.

In contrast to other major Ontario universities, like the University of Toronto—which was founded as an Anglican institution—Queen’s roots as a Presbyterian college shaped the values McDowell says turned away Greek life on campus.

Though Queen’s became a secular institution in 1912 when it started to receive government funding, the values of its Presbyterian origins remained strong.  

According to McDowell, an understanding of Queen’s Presbyterian roots is crucial to understanding why the University rejected fraternities and sororities. 

“If you know much about Presbyterianism, you’ll know it’s a very egalitarian ethos. At the heart of Presbyterianism, and therefore at the heart of Queen’s in its first decade, was this Presbyterian-egalitarianism—we’re all equal, we’re all in this together, we’ll all do well out of this education together.” 

This idea, McDowell said, was for Queen’s to be an open society. “This kind of openness led to very strong school spirit and sense of togetherness.”

When the AMS was created in 1859, its leadership was aligned  with the University’s early Presbyterian values. 

At the time, the Society proclaimed to advocate for equality among students—despite only extending these efforts to male students. 

However, in the 1920s, Queen’s egalitarian values were tested with the introduction of two fraternities: one for Arts and Science students, and another for Medical students. 

The Medical students were particularly firm about becoming a fraternity similar to the ones established at prestigious American schools. They sought affiliation with such groups, and had their own house exclusively for medical students, where they hosted private events. 

This behaviour was frowned upon by the Queen’s community at large, with many in the community criticizing its exclusivity as harmful. As a result, the AMS voted to ban fraternities from campus in 1933.

The conflict came to a head when medical students who wholeheartedly rejected the ban on fraternities by continuing their practices were tried in the AMS court in 1934 for the “contravention of the AMS Constitution.” 

The medical students were found guilty and were punished by being excluded from all student activities for a year. 

***

While Queen’s has technically never been home to any sororities, the majority of women on campus were members of the Levana Society, an organization founded to further the interests of women on campus.

The Society held private meetings and organized advocacy events exclusively for its membership. While the group was described as sorority-esque at the time, it was welcoming to all women on campus and did not exclude anyone based on secret, arbitrary grounds, unlike the fraternities on campus.

Counter to the description of the group as a sorority, the Levana Society was part of the AMS coalition which voted to against the allowance of fraternities and sororities in the 1930s.

The Levana Society officially disbanded in 1967 and its remaining members joined ASUS, the undergraduate society representing the Faculty of Arts and Science. 

The Society is survived by the Levana Gender Advocacy Society, a group “devoted to fighting gender oppression” and “advocating for broad ideas of gender empowerment.” 

***

After the now-infamous trial of the medical students in 1934, Queen’s steadfast ban on fraternities and sororities remained largely unchallenged. 

That was until 2013, when the AMS Assembly once again considered the University’s longstanding ban on groups they deemed to be exclusive in nature. 

The AMS Assembly—seemingly inspired by Queen’s longstanding values reaffirmed the ban, a decision that was backed by the Senate.

Despite the long history of rejecting Greek life, Kingston is still home to fraternities. 

While they might not be associated with the University, the majority of the members in these fraternities are Queen’s students. These fraternities are recent additions to the Queen’s community, all having been founded in the last 10 years.

With fraternities seemingly making a resurgence in the Kingston area, it may be only a matter of time before they seek affiliation with the University. 

Some, like McDowell, believe the decision to have fraternities reinstated into campus life comes down to a choice that must be made by the students.

“Are students prepared to defend their quality of life?” McDowell asked. “Or do they believe that their way of life is found wanting under the AMS, and that they should turn to fraternities?” 

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.