An Open Chair Policy: Giving Students A Powerful Seat

posted in: Uncategorized | 2
In days of old, fraternities were created and run by students. Today, professionals tell us we need to go back to our founding values, but that students need not influence that process.

Last year I read a report about the CEO of Amazon that warmed my heart. He leaves a chair empty during meetings in place of their customer. All one needs to do is look to that chair to be reminded to consider everything being discussed from the perspective of an Amazon customer.

I’m not saying Amazon is a god among corporations, but many times those of us who work within the field of Greek Life forget to consider how students will perceive our actions. Perhaps we simply think we know best or we are in such a rush to make our profession less of a joke to the world that we forget to consider them all-together.

I’ve repeatedly witnessed and been a part of this ignorance. Chapters are volun-told to “pilot” new programs without their consent. We regularly create entirely new regulations, reforms, or partnerships without considering the burden on, or requesting the consent or input of, our students.

We often justify our actions by villainizing anyone who may question them or our motives. At some point, saying, “you took an oath,” can no longer be justification for ramming feel-good tasks down our students throats. Those oaths were created by men and women running what were not much more than literary societies which held secret mixers and meetings throughout the year to escape a strict and lifeless college environment of old America.

 “Whenever you consider the ideal anything, you should always consider the following:

Ideal for whom?”

Ron Paul

Having an open seat at our meetings would be fantastic, but we can do better. What if students could directly influence the development of our organizations? I mean really influence it, not just having a student who “gets it” serve as a puppet to convince his friends to like us or take a survey.

That, in a nutshell, is the Southeastern Inter-Fraternity Conference (SEIFC), an annual leadership program for men who serve as members of their local Inter-Fraternity Council (IFC) held in, you guessed it, a city in the Southeastern United States (also known as Atlanta). What makes SEIFC different from the other student conferences for Greeks? SEIFC is run entirely by volunteers and relies heavily on input from a board of students with regard to the development of its curriculum and the growth of the program. Attending councils are the members and elect a new board annually.

The students don’t make all of the decisions, there is still a board of professional volunteers selecting programs, coordinating meeting logistics and handling some long-term strategic planning for the conference. That being said, the fact that students have a voice at all is wildly different than most conferences. This isn’t just a follow-up “What do you think of what we created?” survey, either. Students are involved in all areas of planning and execution for the annual conference.

You’ll see them at the head table and handling almost all of the remarks during the closing banquet, kicking off lunches with speeches and introducing the educational programs. They reach out to IFCs to encourage registration and they are selected to positions by their peers, not some professional council. All men in attendance are trusted to make decisions, they are trusted to drink if they are over 21, but most importantly, they are trusted as members of the conference, not just its attendees.

. . . the fact that students have a voice at all is wildly different than most conferences

Does this make SEIFC the best conference ever?

I know folks who dislike it and others, like me, who adore it. That hasn’t stopped SEIFC from growing and innovating. Students now attend from as far as Tempe, AZ, which is not in the Southeastern United States for the geographically challenged. The organization just established a foundation and developed “C.O.R.E.” tracks, which offer an institute-style level of training for certain officers. There are no talks about how much worse the men are than the women (which is a common trait of almost any other fraternity-related program) and student interests influencing the program mean that awesome things, like Brooks Brothers staying open late to offer a 65% discount on winter apparel or discounted tickets to a red-hot Atlanta Hawks basketball game, happen and are widely attended.

The C.O.R.E. track is unique among even our professional conferences such as AFA and FEA Field Staff. The relaxed, law-abiding attitude toward alcohol allows us to encourage healthy habits and responsibility over hall monitors and Soviet-style spying and discipline. I’m not sure how the family-style, affiliation luncheon came about, but it is one meal I’ll never miss simply for the quality of conversation and the feeling of fraternity it inspires. The program has, in years past, incorporated philanthropy events directly into its curriculum.

Does this not sound like something more people should get behind? I can only hope that any organization which does not leave an open seat at the table for “students” at every meeting will learn to adopt that process immediately. This year Delta Sigma Phi offered a grant toward SEIFC’s educational programming for the simple fact that we know it is relevant to the students in attendance. We know that when fraternity men are trusted, they tend to make as great of decisions as our professional teams.

Bonus Points: Students, plan your next chapter meeting with a few empty chairs: One for a national representative, one for your college/university president and one for your parents. Consider each in every decision you make. This fantastic concept works both ways.


*This post is an updated version of a 2014 Fraternity Man post, transferred to our new sight with new insight!*