Fraternity restraint

On some American college campuses that ancient institution - the fraternity - is coming under sharp criticism. Its effect is more negative than positive, critics are saying: for one thing, too much rowdy behavior, often associated with alcohol. And the fraternity presence can be divisive, separating the haves from the have-nots to the detriment of the latter.

In recent years several New England colleges have taken action in one way or another against the fraternities. The latest is Amherst College in central Massachusetts, which had been studying the fraternity issue for five months. It will ban all fraternities after this school year to improve a campus social life that a trustee committee said had ''become inadequate to the needs of the college and its students.'' Instead, Amherst will build a campus center that all students may use.

The wisdom of the action by college trustees was quickly shown by the childish action of some fraternity members who protested by throwing food and chanting obscenities in dining halls, and who ''hung'' the college president and a dean in effigy.

Critics have held that fraternities constitute a center of resistance to needed change on college campuses, and that their existence can make it difficult for administrators to effect that change. One reason Williams College made a relatively smooth transition from an all-male to a coeducational student body is that the college previously had abolished all fraternities. In some other colleges, which have had more difficulty eradicating overt sexism, fraternities often are identified as rallying points of resistance to change.

At the same time it should be acknowledged that at some large schools fraternities may be providing a sense of home and community that the school itself is unable to give. Yet that is not sufficient to balance the negative impact on some campuses.

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