One out of every six students enrolled at the University of Oregon is a member of a fraternity or sorority, part of a vibrant Greek life culture that has been an integral part of the UO experience for over a century. How, though, did fraternities and sororities become such a focal point of campus life for students? Their introduction to the university resulted from a number of factors, from a shortage of housing to the lack of extracurricular opportunities for students. Today we will examine the early history of campus life and the situation that fostered the rise of these institutions in Eugene.
For its first seventeen years, the University of Oregon had no means of housing the students that arrived from outside Eugene to matriculate on campus. The completion of the dormitory that would later bear the name Friendly Hall in 1893 alleviated the housing issue somewhat for students. Steady increases in enrollment during the 1890s, though, rendered the new dormitory insufficient to meet the boarding needs of a growing population of collegians. Prior to the construction of the first dormitory, every student was required to find his or her own lodging, either through the rental of communal houses or finding rooms for let in private residences.
The fledgling college, with its limited space and small faculty, was firmly dedicated to erecting an academic institution. As a result, few opportunities existed for extracurricular diversion or fraternal bonding among students, who in the words of 1879 graduate Joel N. Pearcy “were mostly self-supporting — they devoted their principal time to study, and side issues were little considered.” The growing city of Eugene still had no theaters, dances were largely nonexistent, and the scattered nature of the student body permitted only informal gatherings. As another alumnus from the 1890s, Dean Straub, said about the time, “There wasn’t much to do then except study or loaf.”
As the university approached the onset of the 20th century, it had progressively grown both in terms of its footprint and its academic offerings. The student body had also ballooned, once again raising issues about where all the students might be housed. Into the void entered fraternities and sororities.
On October 22, 1900, a group of 14 male students organized the first fraternity on campus, affiliating with the Sigma Nu fraternity that had been formed three decades earlier on the campus of the Virginia Military Institute. The Gamma Zeta chapter was officially installed on December 1, with the members taking residence in their first chapter house located at 11th Avenue and Pearl Street.
For the next four years, Sigma Nu would remain the only fraternity on campus, yet their existence would eventually prove to be a catalyst for the eventual explosion in interest for such organizations. As a result, the spring of 1904 became the point when interest in residential fraternities and sororities really took off.
That spring, 13 female students joined together to form Beta Epsilon, the first sorority on campus that five years later affiliated with the national Kappa Alpha Theta sorority as the Alpha Xi chapter, on the last day of March. The Gamma Alpha chapter of Kappa Sigma fraternity was installed on campus on April 16, 1904 by three seniors, three juniors, ten sophomores, and three freshmen. Six days later, Tau Pi sorority was formed as an alternative to Beta Epsilon; it too would later affiliate with a national organization, becoming the Nu chapter of Gamma Phi Beta in November 1908.
By 1910, women at the University of Oregon could choose to join one of seven different sororities. Men on campus had their choice of ten fraternities. Initially, like Beta Epsilon and Tau Pi, many of these groups were consolidated locally before later seeking national affiliation. Providing both a residential and social function for the growing student body, fraternities and sororities continued to form during the years before and after World War I. During the 1920s, many of the iconic buildings that house fraternities and sororities were constructed near campus, further cementing Greek life as an indelible part of the campus experience for generations of UO students. These pioneering students paved the way for the more than 3,300 students pledged to over 30 operational fraternities and sororities on campus today.
Information for this article was collected from the following sources:
- Joel N. Pearcy, “The Old Professors,” Old Oregon 1, no. 4 (October 1919): 4-5.
- Luella Markley, “‘Chips Off the Old Block’ Attend Oregon,” Old Oregon 11, no. 5 (February 1929): 5-6, 13.
- “Sigma Nu Fraternity House,” Ellis Lawrence Building Inventory (Eugene, 1989).
- “Fraternity and Sorority Life,” University of Oregon, http://oregonfsl.orgsync.com/.
- Allen H. Eaton, ed., The Webfoot (Eugene: University of Oregon, 1901).
- Earl R. Abbett, ed., The 1906 Webfoot (Eugene: 1905).
- “Fraternities & Sororities,” University Archives alphabetical subject files, UA Ref 1, box 7, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon.
- “Student Organizations: Frats/Sororities/Honorary,” University Archives alphabetical subject files, UA Ref 1, box 14, Special Collections & University Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, Eugene, Oregon.
- Photographs from “Building Oregon,” UO Digital Collections.
Student Research Assistant