Student Choice: A New Era of Fraternity Accreditation. Think “Cultural Credits”

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While a student at Stetson University I was expected to complete a certain number of “Cultural Credits” to graduate. These credits were awarded for attending any number of programs or events within a week, including speakers or visiting a local museum. 

It was a perfect addition to a liberal arts curriculum, and many schools have similar requirements of students. Part of it’s success is that students have an open-ended opportunity to choose which types of cultural credits they accumulate – they are distinct from the academic requirements to complete a major.

Check out the website and look at the variety of cultural credits available during any given week: www.stetson.edu/cc

I’ve mentioned several times that I think that fraternity accreditation/standards of excellence programs, whether administered by a campus professional or a (inter)national office, are outdated and counter-productive to the historic purpose of a fraternity or sorority.

I’m not sure how we get away with referring to chapters as “self-governing” when we micromanage so many aspects of their day-to-day activities, and these programs often amount to a list of requirements which appeal to higher education professionals, look good for the news, and which pump up stats.

As I’ve written before, community service is not a self-help technique. Completing a certain number of hours, attending a specific diversity program, or hosting a specific type of event isn’t what makes a man or woman “better” or a better “leader.” Allowing students to lead and make their own decisions and mistakes; however, demonstrates the true character of any chapter.

The difference between my school’s cultural credits and a standards of excellence program that although both outline requirements, cultural credits take into account the unique values of each student or group of students, while most fraternity/sorority community standards programs focus on one understanding of the fraternity/sorority experience.

 

The Pyramid Program

During my final years of work at Delta Sigma Phi I oversaw our chapter support as well as our growth, which meant that I would also oversee the standards expected of existing chapters and the standards expected of new chapters wishing to receive a charter (or to re-charter).

We came up with the Pyramid Program, which is explained in this brief article of our magazine. Our previous accreditation process had existed for about a decade, and expectations accrued over the years, which is normal and to be expected. By 2015, it was a list of 30-35 objectives (many containing several parts), all of which were weighted equally.

Some chapters would achieve an 80% on our Accreditation, but would not meet requirements for membership size, academics, finances or risk management, and yet they’d “pass” based on the criteria laid out in our Fraternity Manual. Others would receive a 50%, for example, and would be at no risk of closure as their finances, size & risk were under control, but because they didn’t host a service event or one of the other equally weighted items, they’d technically be on “probation,” according to the manual.

Having had some experience with our national board, I came to understand the reasons a chapter would close:

  • Trouble with finances
  • Trouble maintaining a viable size/level of activity
  • Gross violations of risk management policies
  • Some combination of the above & concerns with the college/university

So we slimmed down the number of “requirements” to ten components focused on those areas. Basically as long as your chapter proved viable (along with a working new member program, presence of an advisor, etc.), you’d be “accredited” according to our manual.

Then we included a few expectations from our national list of initiatives: service, work with the Red Cross, officer transitions, leadership positions on campus, etc.

Finally, we included the Delta Sig version of “Cultural Credits,” a lightly weighted section including several options of components to complete called Elevation (UIFI throwback!). Chapters would choose which four meant the most to them, which four they could build a “brand” around, and complete those. [Check out the “documentation guide” here]

 

A Halfway Mark

Ultimately the Pyramid Program was a halfway mark to my ultimate goal, which is an efficient and relevant list of “standards” while emphasizing self-government among student chapters.

We based our list of “cultural credits” on what we knew chapters were already doing, but rather than simply mandating it of all chapters, we gave them a range of options to choose from. How they were evaluated and advised was based first on the bare essentials for any organization’s success, and then chapter-level goals, rather than a one-size-fits-all.

There was no need for a separate list of things for a new chapter to acquire a charter: they just had to prove “viable” by completing the same basic expectations as any existing chapter would.

It’s what we preach about New Member education: Expect of new members what you expect of everyone else. That’s easier to do when you’re focused first on what is essential to a chapter’s existence.

We also invited additions to that “pick your top 4” section. There were 7 to start, and a friend and current leader of the program mentioned an 8th had been added this year. Perhaps chapters will one day have 20 options to choose from! The goal isn’t to get them to do more stuff, but to get them to do things they care about and to do those things well.

At one point, an excellent chapter (according to our standards, of course), asked if completing more would be “extra credit;” the answer was “no.” They could certainly do as much as they wanted, but our emphasis was on programming to your members interests, not to get the highest “score.”

 

Self Government

We talk often of self government with fraternity and sorority chapters, but it doesn’t really exist. From one-size-fits all standards of excellence programs, to community-wide values, to excessively formalized recruitment processes and national umbrella groups preventing the growth of new local startups, the fraternity/sorority world is heavily centralized and our students are expertly micro-managed. 

Despite all of this, our problems persist, and I think that part of that is that we professionals can be unreasonably stubborn in requiring chapters follow our values, rather than create an enjoyable, engaging, and safe experience for themselves.

Our founders didn’t create our organizations with a checklist of things to do. They set a simple set of expectations, often explained through 2-4 “core values,” and focused on training young men and women to be well-educated and well-socialized for life after college.

Our educational programs too can follow suit, allowing members and chapters to guide our curriculums and allowing students to learn from their fraternity experience by giving them a wealth of educational opportunities to choose from. I advocated for this as a part of my “run” for my fraternity’s Grand Council. 

The era of micromanagement and centralization is coming to an end. Our standards processes and educational structures are stuck in the 80’s and 90’s, an era before the internet.

People learn through Youtube and TED. Our memberships are larger and more diverse than they’ve ever been, and now is not the time to demand an exceptional level of uniformity. Instead, we should choose a few things we can all agree to value as “essential” to the fraternity experience: the rest should be student choice.

Think about it like this: Isn’t it strange that many of us advocate for diversity but then require strict adherence to one definition of fraternity/sorority life? Keeping expectations simple and reasonable makes them easier to strictly enforce.