The Legacy of ‘Old Middlebury’

By Fritz Parker

At a family party over the holiday break, I got to talking to a friend of my parents, a man in his 50s who graduated from Middlebury in the early 80s. In our conversation we covered all the basics of typical college small-talk – majors, abroad plans, clubs, you know the drill – but kept returning to a common thread: Middlebury is a tremendously different place now than it was 30 years ago.

Middlebury is a school with a short institutional memory. Consider the traditions we uphold here; there really aren’t many. We have Winter Carnival, but for most of the student body that amounts to a day off from class with a comedian and the annual decision not to go to Orange Crush. Most of us probably couldn’t tell you that our traditional athletic rival is Norwich, but that rivalry is limited to the hockey rink now anyway. The commons system – the backbone of today’s College residential life – is barely 20 years old, as is the network of social houses which dictate weekend nights on campus. I mention these not because I think that they are or should be the defining aspects of student life here, but because they are traditional ways in which colleges in this country create continuity in campus culture over time. So what in the College’s past are we trying to get away from? A large part of that answer is the fraternity culture which thrived here until it was effectively banned by the administration in 1990.

Middlebury today is inescapably different from what this place was like pre-1990: academically unremarkable, right-leaning and fairly traditional, particularly with regards to a 149-year tradition of fraternity life on campus. The changes have come slowly and with the conscientious (and I would suggest successful) effort of the administration to rebrand the College as a bastion of academia and socio-political progressiveness. These changes are nowhere more visible than in the social fabric of the school, with randomly-assigned commons and co-ed social houses created to fill the void left by the banned fraternities.

Consider this though: nearly 10 percent of Middlebury students are legacy, which means that almost one in 10 of your peers grew up listening to stories about a Middlebury which to you would be socially unrecognizable. Much of the money which pays for the everyday operations of this place comes from people who were here during that era. My point in this is that the legacy of “Old Middlebury” affects all of us, and though you might not be conscious of it, many of your peers are.

This week’s Community Council discussion has raised a number of questions about the role of these houses in the on-campus social life at Middlebury. The social houses function as stand-ins for the banned frats; some even carry the same Greek names. While the social-house model allows the College to have ultimate oversight, what the administration can’t dictate is the culture which gets played out inside these houses every weekend. Delta house is not a fraternity, but Delta on a Saturday night is the closest thing to a frat-party atmosphere that you will find here.

I think Middlebury is experiencing an identity crisis. I think there are two irreconcilably different campus cultures at play here – the quirky, crunchy one promoted by the administration and the one you see at Delta – but that this is really the same tension that the school has been dealing with since 1990, and it probably goes back farther than that.

In my mind, the fact that Delta existed in the first place is evidence of a segment of the student-body which has not been as quick to cut ties with Middlebury’s past as the administration, one that in part embraces the hard-drinking frat culture which has been the reality here for most of our 200-plus-year history. While this culture doesn’t line up with the direction in which the administration has steered the school, it represents a prominent voice in the student-body and one that is not going to change simply because Delta is gone. The legacy of “Old Middlebury” didn’t die with the frats, and it will survive this.

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