On a recent Friday evening, several smartly dressed men filed into a red brick building. They slipped a mellow rock CD onto the sound system, spread an assortment of liquor and mixers on the coffee table and waited for their guests to arrive.
This was a social event for men only, but it was not affiliated with a mansion on or near Mount Auburn Street. The club holding the soiree was Delta Upsilon (DU), one of Harvard’s five fraternities.
Shortly after 7:30 p.m., the first young hopeful knocked on the door. He was greeted by club president Adam Kalamchi ’05, and welcomed warmly to the final event of the season: an evening of poker at Hampshire House in Boston.
Fraternities are a social option for Harvard men that often go unnoticed behind the mystique and controversy that surrounds the final club scene. While final clubs have been a focal point of late-night gatherings—and sporadic protest—for centuries, frats have taken off only in the last decade. They began asserting their presence by throwing large, open, crowded parties in places such as the Pfoho Belltower or the Harvard Advocate building.
“Fraternities represent a certain amount of freedom from the social stratification that Harvard creates and that final clubs perpetuate,” says one Harvard undergraduate member of both a final club and a fraternity.
The Other Option?
It seems that fraternities—simply for lack of being those “other” clubs— have earned themselves a somewhat alternative reputation. While they remain exclusive and all-male, they have a friendly face, a bizarre twist considering the less cuddly reputation on other campuses. As they have grown in numbers and increased the volume on their events, the frats have shifted the social terrain for Harvard men (and women). But as fraternities take more public shape, they are also forced to make definitional choices.
They are quick to add disclaimers like “We’re not here to pass judgment,” as Kalamchi says of DU. But the Greek consensus seems to be clear: they want to be different.
“Final clubs and fraternities offer two entirely different scenes,” Kalamchi says. “Like, they have a house, and we don’t.”
Simple as it seems, this is usually the punch line to the why-frats-are-different story, and the members say it matters. In addition to opening membership to a wider community, the frats’ lack of property gives them an unexpected advantage. Because they don’t have houses to bring them together, the members say, they have to bond around something less tangible: friendship.
But that familiar formula got complicated last winter. Sigma Chi, another fraternity, announced its million-dollar purchase of 1124 Massachusetts Avenue. The frat has had a long and tumultuous few years. They had a house on Mt. Auburn Street, lost their lease, and vigorously mounted a legal battle. The new home has brought their quest to an end.
But the purchase has also changed the dynamics of a long-static scene, blurring what had been an apparently clear distinction and raising the question: just how different are these clubs from each other? How “open” can any club be when it has its own real estate to protect?
The Brotherly Difference
Despite Sigma Chi’s big purchase, Harvard frats maintain that they are nothing like final clubs.
Partygoers and members agree that the distinctions between the two types of clubs make for a hugely different scene—and one that goes way beyond the contrast between a sweaty party in Eliot’s Ground Zero and a sweaty party at the Fly.
For one thing, any old freshman can rush a frat. Rather than slipping personally addressed cards under doors like the final clubs do, the fraternities flyer outside Annenberg.
That difference attracted Ross A. Faldetta ’07, one of the freshmen who rushed DU this semester. “The nice thing about frats is that they’re open—they want you to come out and rush,” says Faldetta. “The thing about final clubs is that they’re a bit more imposing.”
The fraternities’ presidents are not so blunt, choosing their words carefully in an effort not to offend their peers—and sometimes even fellow frat brothers–who choose the other side of the male social fence.
“We’re not here to critique or pass judgment on what final clubs do,” says Kalamchi. “Our organization is defined independently of anything else on campus.”
Others pinpoint their distinguishing quality. “We all kind of do our own thing,” says Sigma Chi president Matthew B. Salzberg ’05. “But Sigma Chi is all about forming friendships, meeting people and building relationships.”
Salzberg is proud that Sigma Chi is the only fraternity at Harvard to rush new members during both the fall and spring semesters. Because Harvard does not officially recognize single-sex social organizations, the fraternities must rely on creative outreach strategies to recruit new members, instead of advertising and postering on University property.
Since the Greek rush season began about a month ago, several dozen freshmen have rushed each of the fraternities, and a select number have been offered bids to join after attending a string of events like the DU excursion into Boston.
In some ways that event itself embodies what brothers say is the fraternity difference: while final club punch events often include female dates, the Greek rush events are mainly male.
“Frats are more about hanging out with guys with the sole sake of hanging out with guys, while final clubs often get carried away by girls,” said a first-year DU rusher who asked that his name not be used.
While campus feminists from groups like Radcliffe Union of Students have criticized the final clubs, frats have actually pitched in to help women’s groups campaigning against sexual violence. Last year two fraternities, Sigma Chi and Alpha Epsilon Pi both helped sponsor Take Back the Night, a week of events in April that is designed to raise awareness about sexual assault on campus.
DU brother John P. Kiernan ’06 says that another difference between the two types of clubs characterized the rush event. “My impression is that drinking is pretty much a mandatory part of every [final club] event, and at our events drinking is always optional,” Kiernan says.
According to Kiernan, that is one of a few studied differences. “We find fault with lots of things that the final clubs do and don’t want to emulate them completely,” he says.
Another result of that is the freshman rush season. “Freshman guys definitely want to join something,” says Bo Clayton ’06. “They want to be part of a bigger community.”
His brother M.P. Marynick ’06 agrees, “There’s no sense of community during freshman year. So you have to find something to fill the void. It’s like going without women for three and a half years—nobody wants to do it.”
DU alumni coordinator Michael E. Clear ’05 also praises his fraternity for building community. “We at DU prioritize friendships,” says Clear.
“The more we try to just have fun, the more everybody around us does too. And it’s not just emphasizing fun, we also emphasize fraternal bonds. I expect in ten years to see most of these guys at my wedding. I think those meaningful relationships are definitely lacking a lot in the Harvard community.”
But How Different?
Still, the frats aren’t entirely separate from the final clubs’ sphere of influence. In the most obvious sense, some frat members are also members of final clubs.
“In forty years when I’m sharing drinks and discussing the days before I became an alum of Delta Upsilon, I will still be a full-fledged member of [my final club],” says one DU member who also belongs to a final club. “This distinction will imply not only the rights and responsibilities of my undergraduate days, but also benefits unlike those of a country club: If I pay my dues, there’s always a home for me at [my final club.]”
The overlaps between final clubs and fraternities are often not just limited to membership.
“The fraternities all pride themselves as being different than the final clubs, but at times they’re less different than they think they are,” Kiernan says.
For one thing, no organization can be entirely non-exclusive. Like any other selective social group, the frats have to make choices.
While he stresses that the one-and-a-half-week process of rush is open to all undergraduate men, Salzberg admits that Sigma Chi “makes sure that certain people get flyers.”
The contrast between frats and clubs can also get hazy. To a first-year woman, a group of frat brothers and a yellow cooler at an open party may not seem too different from their final club brethren—even if that punch comes in a silver bowl, or an envelope.
From the perspective of men who are heavily involved on both sides of the male social scene, the distinctions between the two become less important when their common theme of brotherhood is realized.
“[While] frats here are less about formalities of the gentleman and more about the nature of person and brotherhood, final clubs are heavily based on certain formalities and passed-on traditions that engender deep fraternity,” says one undergraduate who belongs to both a fraternity and a final club.
Another undergraduate with dual membership agrees. “Even if I can’t explain the overlap,” he says, “I hold the organizations in different places in my life, and thus one has little benefit or detriment to the other.”
And while broad distinctions may hold true, the individual fraternities and final clubs continue to search for their own niche; they are still drawing the lines.