Freedom Of Association – Our Apex Priority

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Do you remember when Hewlett-Packard announced in 2004 that it would sell HP-branded iPods and pre-install iTunes on each of its computers?

It is okay if not; that deal collapsed within 2 years. The reason for the collapse was simple: Despite promises of better profit and better business, the relationship created more hurdles than it did progress. 

HP iPods could only be fixed through HP’s customer service (even though they were identical to Apple’s iPods), and the iPod itself improved sales of Apple’s computers and facilitated the download of iTunes onto PCs. Apple’s brand was stronger and better without the agreement and it did little to improve HP’s profits or standing among competitors.

Fraternities, like Apple, must reconsider their desire for university recognition at the expense of their brand and freedom of association.


Ask any fraternity official and they will tell you that the freedom of association is an essential priority. I’ve seen staff from the NIC present at a variety of fraternity educational programs and national meetings on their current initiatives. University recognition and free association both claim status as “priorities,” but they do not work well together – and the time is coming when we must choose one or the other.

Why Is Recognition Valuable?

Fraternities were established as experiences tied to education but operating adjacent to the structure of the university. This is in part because colleges and universities had not yet established a student affairs industry complete with mandatory “fees” to pay for on-campus entertainment. For a time, fraternities provided all of the extra-curricular activities a student could want with the people they wanted to do those activities with. 

As the fraternity experience grew, national structures were established and expanded in the name of protecting members’ freedom of association. Fraternities have always been a nuisance to university administrations (who were at one point in history focused on providing quality education to qualified students), but they also helped keep students in school and resulted in alumni who were better committed to the college. One of the basic expectations of my fraternity, for example, is to support our nation’s constitution and educational systems. 

What could schools gain by recognizing fraternities and spending school resources on them? Bringing fraternity operations in-house meant that colleges and universities could invest directly in fraternities or sororities to ensure that they captivated students, kept students around (tuition $), and then kept them engaged as donor alumni. This “in-house” process began with some hired advisers to work with fraternity and sorority chapters on any given campus.

Now; however, many schools have separate staff, fees, standards and expectations for fraternity chapters. I have written about this since I began writing fraternity blogs, because the result of university recognition is that students have another layer of authority to which they report. Modern fraternity chapters are not so much about “fraternity” as they are training grounds for careers in regulatory compliance.

Recognition in the 2010’s

What are the results of recognition? Fraternities and sororities have grown, they have become increasingly accessible and an entire industry has been established around catering to fraternity and sorority chapters’ needs due in part to the investments from colleges/universities. Unfortunately, recognition can come with many strings resulting in some unfortunate side effects – including:

  1. Common visions, expectations, recruitment practices and standards for all chapters are typically worked out at the campus/council level in addition to what’s required of a national organization. No other student group faces the level of micro-management that fraternity chapters face. They are the least self-governing student groups on college campuses today (besides NCAA athletics – another casualty of obsessive alumni professionals). 
  2. Colleges and Universities have, in the name of recognition, assumed the role of gatekeeper to the establishment of fraternities, the disbanding of fraternity chapters, and the suspension of entire fraternity/sorority communities. Remember, these are self-governing, “student” organizations.
  3. Fraternity expansion to new campuses costs more than ever as advisers and councils encourage national organizations throw favors to campus professionals in order to win the right to establish a chapter. It’s the equivalent of Dunkin Donuts asking for Starbucks’ permission to open a new store. 
  4. Conflicting policies result in confusion among students (who typically choose to follow the priorities or policies which result in the greatest freedom – hence the case of a student death at a school with a lax alcohol policy as a member of a fraternity with a zero-tolerance alcohol policy)

It is time that people who love fraternities advocate for “mutually beneficial collaboration” instead of “university recognition.” There is no need for a college or university to approve of a fraternity chapter or to monitor its activities; it is a costly burden faced by no other student organization.

Finally – An Example Of Some Spine

Now, I had been planning to write something to this extent for some time but it’s a touchy subject among fraternity/sorority professionals. Many readers of this blog and fraternity friends have expressed a feeling that we are receiving a lot of lip-service about our organizations’ willingness to protect our right to association. The legislation endorsed by fraternities in lock-step with university administrations often seems to undermine our independence. But then, today, something glorious happened.

I saw the following on my Twitter feed:

This is not a typical fraternity press release – you know those apologetic, long-winded, wandering scripts which ultimately say nothing and do nothing but condemn students. This is a tactful defense of the chapter’s first amendment rights and the fraternity’s value to society. Every Kappa Alpha man should be proud of their fraternity in this moment. Even though this is part of why we established national fraternities, I can say that this is not the norm: 

Update: to learn more about what’s happening at WVU, where at least 2 fraternity chapters (with support form their national organizations) renounced their university recognition, click here.  As they say and as I’ve said on this blog for many years: He Who Pays The Piper Calls The Tune. 

I remember a call a colleague and I took while I worked at my fraternity’s national office. Some students from a high-performing chapter claimed that a university vice president was aggressively targeting them. I suggested that they take notes during meetings with the VP and that they otherwise communicate via email so we could reach out to the VP if necessary. My suggestion was walked back and overruled by my counterpart, who suggested the students simply lay low and respect the authority.

After ending the call I  said, “I feel like they asked for our help and that we didn’t help them.” The response was a shrug and, “What can you do?” Students who paid my salary were asking for help and advice and the most I could do was tell them to “deal with it.” That’s not right.

This is not just within my organization. Attend a meeting of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisers (AFA) or the Fraternity Executives Association (FEA) and you will quickly pick up that any mention of an “unrecognized” chapter is met with eye rolls and condemnation. Fraternities which choose to operate some or many chapters without university recognition are the punching bags of the fraternity/sorority professional world (almost as much as local fraternity chapters).

At places like the University of Colorado, where fraternity students hire their own IFC advocate (after a split with the school in 2005), many assume without any first-hand experience that things are worse off than if those chapters had university recognition. In reality, the only thing they can’t do is access university meeting spaces. They have managed to make do and were recognized for a collaborative (read: not mandated) sexual assault prevention programming relationship with the University and have established strong ties to the local police department. 

Recognition is nice, and positive, collaborative relationships with colleges and universities are preferred to antagonistic ones. At some point; however, alumni who love the fraternity and sorority experience must acknowledge that many university administrations (in addition to fraternity/sorority professionals) can be antagonistic to fraternity students. We must recognize that in those moments, free association is of greater value than university recognition.

It is not okay to tell students to “deal with it” because doing so would make things simpler for fraternity alumni leaders. We fail our student members if we continue with that approach.