The Story of Psi Upsilon

Schenectady, New York was a tranquil place in the early 1800s. It was originally founded as a settlement at one of the last navigable points on the Mohawk River. The town grew after the Revolution, and finally grew large enough to support a college. The college founded was called Union and was intended to be someplace special. Unlike the colleges founded along the coast, such as Harvard or William and Mary, Union was founded as a non-sectarian institution. Union taught its students classical literature, Greek and Latin, but almost uniquely at the time, Union also offered history, science, modern language and mathematics. It was in this extraordinarily liberal environment that Psi Upsilon was founded. The early days of Union are well described by Dr. Dixon Ryan Fox, the twelfth president of Union College:

Most of the time from 1825 to 1850 Union College was the largest in the United States. Several different years Yale got ahead of it, but Harvard and Princeton were behind and Columbia was much behind. There is no question but that in 1833 Union was the leader. This was not due so much to its location or its fine buildings as to its faculty and particularly its President, Dr. Eliphalet Nott.

Union College’s student body of 232 made it the largest college in the country, and the men lived in boarding houses near the school. It was difficult for them to socialize outside of class, and there were few organized extracurricular activities. Six fraternities were founded at Union, more than any other school.

In the early 1800s, as at other schools, literary societies played an important role in the life of Union College. The faculty encouraged these groups; they presented debates and orations, produced plays and maintained libraries. They also provided forums for discussion and social interaction, which could not be found in the classroom. There was much rivalry for membership, literary supremacy, and political dominance on campus. The oldest of these, the Adelphic Society, was founded in 1792 and lasted into the nineteenth century. The Philomathean Society, which began in 1798, still exists.

Psi U Founders: Robert Barnard ’37, Samuel Goodale ’36, Sterling G. Hadley ’36, George Washington Tuttle ’36, Edward Martindale, (no photo for Merwin Henry Stewart ’37), and Charles Washington Harvey ’37.

The Delphian Society was started in 1819 and was known as more secretive and close knit than other societies. In 1833, five sophomore and two freshman members had become close friends. Their names were Samuel Goodale, Sterling Goodale Hadley, Edward Martindale, George Washington Tuttle, Charles Washington Harvey, Merwin Henry Stewart, and Robert Barnard. By the fall of 1833, the group of seven men had begun to meet regularly to read poetry and to exchange essays they had each written. It became a tradition to meet one night each week for these literary exercises. One night, after a particularly enjoyable session, Samuel Goodale said to Sterling Goodale Hadley, “Goodnight thine cordially.” In response, Hadley said, “Goodnight thine always.” This ritualistic farewell was repeated at each session thereafter.

By November, the seven men realized that they had something special: a group of people, with common interests and aspirations, sharing special times. They wanted somehow to capture these moments and make them permanent, not just as a club for themselves, but as a special association that would welcome new members, and that would continue long after they graduated from Union. Following the examples of the organizations founded at Union and Hamilton, they decided to found Psi Upsilon.

But they did not found our fraternity immediately, for they were not sure exactly what form they wanted it to take. On November 24, 1833, these seven men pledged to one another to found a new society as soon as school commenced the next term. In the interim, they would consider the manner in which the society would be organized. The thought that went into the founding of Psi Upsilon has served us well. Their Constitution was written with great care before they held their first meeting. The new society became very well known at Union, and it was admired for the quality of its membership.

The Hon. William Taylor, Theta ’38, in The History of the Psi Upsilon Fraternity, describes the founding of Psi Upsilon in these words:

“Several students of Union College, members of the Sophomore class of 1833 and belonging to the Delphian Institute…being desirous of a more close and friendly union than afforded by that association, determined to unite themselves into a club or secret society. The first record of their meeting is in the following words:

`We, the undersigned, having determined to form a secret society, and having some conversation on the subject, do now and hereby pledge our sacred honors that we will keep all that has been done and said a most profound secret and that, if we please, at or before the beginning of the next term, we will meet and form a society. `Signed: M. H. Stewart, R. Barnard, Sterling G. Hadley, Geo. W. Tuttle, Edw. Martindale, C. W. Harvey, Sam’l Goodale.'”

Consequently, on the evening of November 24th, 1833, in a quaint Dutch settlement on the banks of the Mohawk River, Psi Upsilon came into being.

The early days of Psi Upsilon were by no means smooth. The formation of the Fraternity was at first kept secret, the members took time to strengthen it by adding new members, and forestalling opposition until their organization was strong enough to resist such opposition. The success of Psi Upsilon can be attributed to these early actions of the founders.

The minute book of the Theta reveals that the first Constitution of the Fraternity was adopted on January 10, 1834. This important document was signed by the seven original founders and thirteen other members of the Fraternity and is now in the Fraternity archives. Although it is unlikely that any of them would have anticipated the international stature of Psi Upsilon today, the care and concern with which the Founders designed the organization and recruited its first members set us on our path to success. One unique action our Founders took was framing a Constitution, which lacked discriminatory language, and which was flexible enough to be suited to conditions on diverse campuses. The undated manuscript was missing for a number of years before its discovery in a shop dealing in rare documents in 1936.

Soon it was decided to bring a few others into the fold. They did this by inviting a few friends to pledge themselves to the same values that the Founders had sworn themselves to in 1833. That simple initiation ceremony is very similar to the pledging ceremony we use today. Thus the first members were initiated into Psi Upsilon, and it evolved into an organization that would continue indefinitely. The life and vitality of the organization changed from simply being a product of the Founders to something with a life and existence of its own.

Rival organizations did what they could to hinder Psi Upsilon’s growth and progress. They made agreements among themselves to exclude all of its members from Phi Beta Kappa. This seemed unjust to college president, Dr. Eliphalet Nott, so he informed the members of Phi Beta Kappa that if the agreement was not dissolved, the faculty would nominate the members of Psi Upsilon. This threat was actually carried out, and Psi Upsilon secured fair representation in Phi Beta Kappa.

The founding of Psi Upsilon created such a sensation that two fraternities (Chi Psi and Theta Delta Chi) were founded at Union over the next few years. Alpha Delta Phi came up with the idea of creating branches of their society at different colleges. When a member of Psi Upsilon at Union transferred to New York University in 1837, the time was right for Psi Upsilon to expand, and so grew our first branch.

Over the next few years, Psi Upsilon saw a period of unprecedented expansion, never seen by any fraternity before that point. Ten chapters were founded in the first ten years, and eight more chapters were founded in the twenty years after that.

Our fraternity was successful and popular for a variety of reasons, but mostly because of the quality of the members and the structure of the organization. The chapters correctly focused on fostering strong and close friendships. Not burdened by houses or other financial obligations, the members were able to concentrate on brotherhood and true fraternalism. Another reason Psi Upsilon was so popular was its internal structure, which encouraged involvement on the part of every member. The original constitution created a role for each brother, placing responsibility for the success of the chapter on the shoulders of all. Everyone had a job to do and, as a result, everyone stayed involved. Instead of a probationary period, such as that dictated by many of today’s pledge programs, the new members received on-the-job training. After all, brothers were friends with the new members before they were initiated and were eager to make them members of the Fraternity. All of the founders, with the exception of Stewart, lived to see the maturation of Psi Upsilon. Barnard lived until 1855, when there were eleven chapters and 1,660 members. Harvey, who died in 1866, saw growth to nineteen chapters and 6,600 members. The last surviving founder, Martindale, lived to 1904 when there were twenty-three chapters and more than 11,000 members.

At the time, Psi Upsilon was a leader in the world of fraternities. Psi Upsilon has had, during its 180-plus years, a distinguished history. We have set the pace for the fraternity movement, being the first to:

  • Hold a fraternity Convention (1841)
  • Print a membership catalogue (1842, photo)
  • Print the faternity history (1843)
  • Print a fraternity songbook (1849)
  • Issue a fraternity magazine (1850)

The years between the Civil War and World War II were particularly glorious for Psi Upsilon. Herbert W. Bridgman, Gamma 1866 (Amherst College), was first elected to the Executive Council in 1877, and then served as its president for forty years, until 1924. Herbert Bridgman is probably more responsible than any other single individual for the character of Psi Upsilon during this period.

After the American Civil War, the United States and Canada began to receive the first stream of new immigrants from Europe and elsewhere. As the country’s population grew, the small rural colleges in which Psi Upsilon had found its place became less rural. Some of the towns became cities. Some of the colleges became universities.

With the changing and growing student populations, it became difficult to rely on legacies, alumni recommendations, and personal knowledge of candidates for establishment of new chapters and for recruitment into existing ones. Many of our chapters elected to remain small as a result. With an emphasis on societal connections, our roots as a fellowship growing out of a literary society were somewhat less important during this era than at our founding or today.

Also during this time, Psi Upsilon changed the way it admitted new chapters. In the early years, a brother, or a friend of a brother, would simply begin a group at a good college. During the Bridgman years, the new standard was to allow only strong established local fraternities into the fold. As a result, Psi Upsilon was enriched by the addition of outstanding chapters, some with local traditions and ceremonies so impressive that they were adopted by the fraternity as a whole.

[photo: 1889 Petition from the Theta Phi Fraternity, a local group at the University of Minnesota. The local became Psi U’s Mu chapter.]

Alumni from this period are legendary. They include two United States Presidents, Chester Arthur and William Howard Taft. Other prominent alumni from this era include Horatio Alger, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Nicholas Murray Butler, Llewellyn Callaway, Robert Anderson, Thomas Watson, Amos Alonzo Stagg, Henry Stimson, Averell Harriman, John Paul Stevens, Jay Berwanger, and Nelson Rockefeller. These alumni helped maintain the image of Psi Upsilon as one of the most prestigious of all fraternities.

The greatest challenge that the brothers of this period faced were the changes caused by the construction of chapter houses. Until that point, chapter operations had been fairly simple. Recruiting new members was based on how many the brothers felt comfortable in taking. The Fraternity’s only concern was brotherhood. Houses changed all of that. With houses came enormous financial responsibilities and the need to consistently initiate large groups of new members, year after year, to meet financial obligations. In a very different era, the chapters of Psi Upsilon were able to rely on the exceptionally strong leadership of local alumni to help undergraduates face these challenges. Although most fraternities established central offices during this period to train, coordinate and assist alumni volunteers, Psi Upsilon did not find it necessary to take such action until the second half of the twentieth century.

The chapters of Psi U built magnificent houses. In addition to bedrooms, each of these houses had elegant living areas, accommodations for servants, and secret ceremonial areas. They were opulent mansions, often considered to be the most significant building on each of our campuses.

Since the houses had many bedrooms, they had to be filled. Membership recruitment evolved from an individualized process of making friends to a formally structured “rush” to find people to meet housing requirements.

Problems with this membership selection process soon arose, as some new initiates did not meet the expectations of membership. As a result, around the turn of this century, fraternities began what was at first an informal probationary period. By World War I, this probationary period had become formal, creating different classes of membership in Psi Upsilon. The potential new members were known as pledges, and the probationary time was called the pledging period.

The concept and practice of pledging therefore was not officially planned. The loose nature of the process led to difficulties in all fraternities, including Psi Upsilon, particularly after World War II when hazing became more common.

World War II was different from any war the United States or Canada had ever fought. The entire continent was mobilized for five very long years. All industry was redirected to the war effort. Food and fuel were rationed. Many colleges, if not most, shut down for the duration. Needless to say, there was little fraternity life during World War II. The mobilization brought new challenges to Psi Upsilon, especially to those chapters that had houses to maintain. A few chapters, such as the Omega, were able to rent their houses to the Army as barracks and offices. The rental income these chapters received allowed them to survive. Other chapters, such as the Lambda, could not afford the taxes and upkeep on an empty house and had to sell. Still other chapters, like the Eta, sold their houses or land to the college.

The effects of the war on Psi Upsilon continued long after the peace treaties were signed. First of all, Psi Upsilon had missed an entire generation. There were few alumni from the 1940s to take over the job of advising the undergraduates. Secondly, many of the undergraduates, particularly in the early 1950s, were much older than the traditional 18-year-old college student. They were often veterans of World War II, and did not need and did not want advice from alumni. For the first time in our history, and in every fraternity’s history, undergraduates were left to themselves, without the benefit of alumni advice and guidance. Most fraternities had a national headquarters and staff that could assist a chapter in trouble; however, the void was not completely filled.

The 1960s was a time of introspection and change for the United States and Canada. Because 18 to 21-year-olds were being drafted to fight in an increasingly unpopular war, fraternities seemed less relevant and important to many students of that era. Membership in all fraternities declined and many alumni chose not to remain involved. Since Psi Upsilon had no international office or professional staff at the time, chapters were often left without essential guidance and assistance. An alarming number of chapters in all fraternities, including Psi Upsilon, shut their doors.

From the time of our Founders, brothers with remarkable leadership and foresight have guided Psi Upsilon. Recognizing that times had changed, the Executive Council hired professional staff and established a central office to assist chapters. At first the office consolidated initiation records and address lists, published The DIAMOND and secured the fraternity’s historical artifacts. Over time, the staff’s size, function and expertise grew. Young alumni were hired to visit chapters as educational and leadership consultants, reviewing chapter operations and suggesting ways to improve. Leadership training was developed and expanded, regular conclaves began to be held to train officers and alumni, and an annual leadership institute was created to inspire all brothers to greatness. Handbooks were published for each officer position and for general programs, such as alumni relations, chapter publications, membership recruitment, new member orientation and ritual. Alumni associations were given professional advice on fundraising and house renovations. From a low point in Psi Upsilon’s history, our undergraduates and alumni rose up to reinvigorate and modernize our society, making it stronger than it ever was before. Within 12 years, five chapters were reactivated and four new chapters were chartered. Expansion brought new vitality as well as new ideas to Psi Upsilon, and the fraternity has continued this progressively conservative expansion ever since.

Despite top-quality undergraduates and strong alumni leadership, Psi Upsilon, like all fraternities, faces significant challenges today. Illegal drugs, underage drinking and other risk management concerns continue to be a distraction from the heart of our fraternal experience for some chapters. Colleges have often thrust the burden of supplying social life onto fraternities, and in response, fraternities have all too often taken it upon themselves to serve as campus taverns, in violation of both the laws of the land and the laws of common sense. In the Northeast, some of the small liberal arts colleges which host Psi Upsilon chapters, have become hostile environments for fraternities; some have forced coeducation upon their Greek organizations, while others banned them altogether. Elsewhere public opinion has turned against fraternities and their members. The scourge of hazing, which was almost unknown until the 1950s, has not yet been completely eradicated. Psi Upsilon has faced challenges of this magnitude before and triumphed. The responsibility and legacy of each new member is to face these challenges head on, and to leave Psi Upsilon better and stronger than before. That has been our unbroken custom since seven young men with an inspired dream came together in 1833.

Membership, Expansion and Growth

In Psi Upsilon each chapter may determine its own qualifications for membership, as long as there is no illegal discrimination. In fact there has never been any discriminatory language of any kind in the Psi Upsilon Constitution. The Constitution simply states that to become a member one must be a student in good standing at the college or university where the chapter is located. As there has never been any gender restriction in Psi Upsilon, several chapters initiate women. Female members have the same rights, privileges and responsibilities as every initiated member and are called brothers.

All healthy organizations are in a continual process of growth, not only in size but in philosophy as well. Psi Upsilon’s relatively conservative expansion policy has yielded the chapters that today comprise our chapter roll. Psi Upsilon continues to grow for several reasons. Foremost is the fact that our members have benefited from their fraternity experiences and feel strongly enough about those experiences to want to share them with others. A second reason is that the resources of the fraternity, both financial and human, grow in proportion to the size of the fraternity membership. An increase in our resources is used to provide greater resources to our members.

This does not mean, however, that Psi Upsilon is involved in a headlong rush to become the biggest fraternity. Expansion is a carefully considered program designed to improve both the quality and quantity of our membership. It is expected that the members of the new chapters will perpetuate the ideals and traditions established by the Fraternity for its members and the communities where they are found. Each colony or provisional chapter must meet stringent standards before it is eligible for a charter of Psi Upsilon.

In 1837 Psi Upsilon began its expansion with the founding of the Delta chapter at the City University of the City of New York (now New York University). The third chapter, the Beta, was instituted at Yale in 1839, followed by the Sigma in 1840 and the Gamma in 1841. Two more chapters, the Zeta and Lambda, were formed in 1842. In the next year, Psi Upsilon grew to ten chapters by expanding to Bowdoin, Hamilton, and Wesleyan. Within a decade of its founding, and well before many fraternities were even in existence, Psi Upsilon had become a widely recognized intercollegiate fraternity. Before the outbreak of the Civil War, Psi Upsilon boasted of having a dozen chapters.

The forty years leading up to the semi-centennial of 1883 saw the addition of the Alpha, Upsilon, Iota (first in the “West”), Phi, Omega, Pi, Chi, and Beta Beta chapters. Transfer students and friends of Psi Us at other schools established many of these chapters. From 1883 until 1949 the fraternity experienced a period of expansion to notable schools, including the establishment of chapters at Lehigh, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Cal-Berkeley, Illinois, Williams, University of Washington, Toronto, McGill, British Columbia, and Northwestern. Because of a conservative expansion policy, many petitioners were denied charters during this period. Since 1949, Psi Upsilon has added fifteen chapters to its roll, and is at present actively and aggressively pursuing expansion to the finest schools in the United States and Canada.

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