When I took my first campus tour of Penn as a high school student, I fell in love with Locust Walk. I was enamored of its ancient, beautiful brick buildings, their elegant columns and stained glass windows. I envisioned myself taking seminars in those buildings, working on homework late into the night while sitting in large armchairs, talking with friends. But then when I got to Penn, I realized that 12 of those buildings were, in fact, fraternities.
There is nothing I love more than walking down Locust on a beautiful spring day and passing group after group of fraternity brothers sitting proprietarily in front of these buildings, lounging on leather couches and looking at everyone over the tips of their sunglasses. And there is for sure nothing I love more than having those fraternities decide what kind of music the entire campus gets to listen to all day long.
It’s kind of funny, isn’t it? The way in which Penn’s three cultural centers — Makuu, Pan-Asian American Community House and La Casa Latina — are all housed in a small basement in ARCH. The way in which the Penn Women’s Center shares a building with the African American Resource Center. The way in which the chaplain’s office is squeezed into a small, hard-to-find space in Houston Hall. And the way in which there are no less than 12 magnificent buildings on the Locust thoroughfare alone used almost exclusively by and for fraternity men.
Why do the fraternities have such prime real estate, you might ask? Well, I went all the way to the University Archives Records Center to find out.
Up until the creation of the Quadrangle in 1895, many students had to commute to Penn’s campus. However, even with the Quad, the University didn’t have enough space to house all the students who were attending Penn. This problem was exacerbated in the 1920’s when the U.S. economy began to boom. Suddenly families had more money to spend and more incentive to send their kids to college. Penn’s applicant pool increased steadily and, wanting students to choose Penn over competing schools like Princeton University and Harvard University, the University Board of Trustees decided they needed to expand on-campus student housing. More student housing would lead to a more inclusive and lively community and incentivize students to come to Penn.
However, the University did not have the money to build tons of new College Houses. But what they did have was empty space in the fraternity houses already on or near the developing campus. Many of these fraternity houses were privately owned, and so the University struck a deal with the fraternities detailed in the Dec. 20, 1926 Board of Trustees notes. The University would buy the fraternities’ houses and pay their maintenance costs, facilities upkeep and utilities bills.
In exchange, the fraternities would give their empty rooms to the University, who could then use them to house the influx of new students. Thus the Fraternity Dormitory System was created on Dec. 20, 1926 and was entered into as a mutual contract between the University and 37 fraternities.
There are two things of particular interest in this agreement. The first is that the fraternities could nominate certain men to live in those fraternity houses and those men would then get priority during housing assignments. Penn made this clear to the public. But what they didn’t disclose was a clause in the contract that specified those nominees would pay for their “dormitory facilities” at “the lowest price for which the same can be given.”
For non-nominated students placed in the fraternities, “Any rentals charged to others than nominees of the Donor [the fraternity] shall be fixed by University on a fair rental value basis and credited to the income account of said dormitory.” In other words: friends of the frat brothers were charged much lower rental rates than men who were randomly placed there. And the men who were randomly placed there were paying much higher rent — rent that, unlike that of the nominees’, was going straight to the fraternity’s coffers.
I can’t think of a better way to create a more inclusive, vibrant and equitable campus culture.
Second item of interest: a 1939 amendment to the contract stipulated that if any of these 37 fraternities stopped being used as dormitories, the University would not only be “authorized” but also “directed forthwith to reconvey such property or properties to the Fraternity or Fraternities, respectively.” In other words, if the fraternities were discontinued as public dormitories, the contract between the University and the fraternity would be void and the property would have to be returned to the original owner — the fraternity. The fraternity would then be responsible for all property tax, maintenance and utilities costs.
In 1939, the city of Philadelphia, who had in 1938 questioned and fought against the fraternity houses’ exemption from all property taxes, which was a byproduct of the houses being purchased by the University, ended up officially sanctioning that exemption. Their rationale? The property titles belonged to the University, and so the fraternity houses could be claimed as “real estate used for educational purposes.” This decision, which was made by the Board of Revision of Taxes, is cited in the 1939 amendment.
Although this 1926/1939 contract is not the same as those which currently exist between the fraternities housed in University-owned buildings and the University, they are in practice almost identical. I spoke with a Facilities and Real Estate Services executive and an attorney from Penn’s Office of General Counsel, both of whom requested to remain anonymous, about current fraternity housing contracts. They told me that many fraternities which currently inhabit University-owned property do so under contracts that include a buyback clause.
This essentially states that if these buildings stop being used as “residences for University students,” the original donor of the building (the fraternity) could buy the property back for about $1. However, after that point all other taxes and utilities costs would be on the fraternity. If the fraternity could not afford these expenses, the University could buy the building outright from the fraternity.
When I asked if the term “residences for University students” was in reality restricted to members of the fraternity, the response was that the language is broader than that. Almost a hundred years later, the core of the 1926 contract remains. The frats housed in University-owned buildings — which are the vast majority — are, above all, dorms. Dorms in which, technically, any student could live.
It is because the frats are legally considered to be University-owned dorms, and thus theoretically open to all Penn students and serving an "educational purpose," that the University can rationalize spending money on them. As the FRES executive pointed out, the University can't justify spending University money on assets it doesn't own. Precisely. I would very much like to know how much University money is being spent on these "assets."
How much of our tuition is going to the fraternities, and thus to the select group of fraternity brothers who live inside of them? How much money for Castle’s maintenance? How much money to beautify Kappa Sigma? And in the meantime, how much of the actual fraternity brothers’ dues are going straight to alcohol?
The thing about the fraternity housing system is that it is obsolete. There is no need for the fraternities to be legally considered as public dorms anymore because the University has enough dorms. In fact, in the 1980s, “fraternity houses” stopped being listed as potential student dormitories in the annual University Bulletin available in print in Van Pelt Library because at that point the High Rises and Gregory College House had been constructed. The Kings Court College Houses had become coed. And now we have New College House and a soon-to-be-new Hill College House.
And if the fraternities are no longer legally viewed as public dorms, which in practice they are not, then there is no need for the University to own those buildings — especially since they are now working to extend similar amounts of administrative control over off-campus fraternities living in non-University-owned property. So the fraternities that live in University-owned properties should, in theory, be directed to buy those buildings back. According to the FRES executive, the fraternities have the right to buy back their houses for next to nothing whenever the properties stop being used as dormitories for University students.
But even if they have that right, they’ll try to avoid using it at all costs. Why would they want to buy back their houses, when there’s a chance they won’t have enough money to maintain the houses as they currently are? After all, those property taxes, landscaping costs and utilities bills are pretty darn expensive. But these houses are, for all intents and purposes, private residences. They are not being used as public dorms nor for public intellectual purposes. The fraternities should be paying their own bills. They should no longer be exempt from paying their own property taxes. There’s no two ways around it.
The other option would be for the University to buy the houses outright — which they could do even if the buyback clause were exercised — and turn them into buildings that would actually be accessible to the entire student body. This makes sense. Because if University money — our money — is going to the fraternity houses and has been for all this time, for almost a hundred years, then we are entitled to those buildings. In fact, our use of them is long overdue. It is high time we actually use that real estate for real educational purposes.
If the University wants to stand behind the mission it had when it first bought the fraternity houses on and around Locust — if it really wants to create a more inclusive, equitable community — it must now buy those houses outright. Because if it doesn’t, the fraternities will continue to exercise their “stranglehold” over the social and intellectual life of the University, in the words of 1968 College graduate Tom Rafael. And to that list, I would add the financial life of the University.
From our first night of New Student Orientation to our last step on Locust Walk, we are taught — and reminded over and over again — that the fraternities not only command the social scene, but also occupy the very heart of Penn’s academic campus. The allocation of physical space is political and it speaks volumes. And the hierarchies, priorities and ideologies of the University sure ring loud when walking down Locust.
Ashley Sarah Paine, a 1996 College graduate, is quoted as saying, in relation to the construction of the Women’s Center, “In the past, Locust Walk has embodied the old boy mentality that Penn has traditionally held and the Women’s Center will be a real source of empowerment and comfort for women. It’s about time we get women on the Walk.”
Twenty-one years later, Locust Walk still embodies that old boy mentality. The old boy mentality that Penn currently holds — and upholds. It’s about time we get everybody on the Walk. It’s about time we reclaim what’s ours.
EMILY HOEVEN is a College senior from Fremont, Calif., studying English. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Growing Pains” usually appears every other Tuesday.