Self-Government: Teaching Students Responsibility Without A Safety Net

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Okay guys, the Athenians aren't coming. We're fighting the Persians alone. Don't eff it up.
Okay guys, the Athenians aren’t coming. We’re fighting the Persians alone. Don’t eff it up.


Some people build entire careers out of working with students who choose to join a fraternity or sorority. It is to be expected that those people want to do what they can both to help and protect the fraternity or sorority experience for every student, and who is to say that these people haven’t served as the only reason our organizations still exist.

Still, I often wonder what would happen if national headquarters and campus Greek Life advisers disappeared or simply pulled back. We are often vilified by students as money or power-hungry and we do regularly use the words “self-governing” when referring to chapters and “student empowerment” when incepting ideas into students’ minds. What if chapters were really self-governing and what if student empowerment meant leaving it to the students?

One falsity passed as truth is that a fraternity experience requires a union of fraternity and sorority headquarters and a corresponding office on a college campus. That to me is much like the argument that every child needs a married mother and father to lead a respectable life. It may be beneficial to have a stable, friendly relationship between one’s overlords, but it isn’t the only path to a decent fraternity or sorority experience.

Most of our organizations began in secret, without any professional supervision, and fraternities regularly operate without recognition from universities or their national headquarters. I once gave a tour of our headquarters to men who claimed to be from a chapter that doesn’t even exist as far as our organization was concerned (it was my second week on the job, I didn’t know!). It appears that there are student chapters that self-govern and manage to stay out of detectable trouble.

How often do unrecognized chapters make the news? How often have you heard of lawsuits stemming from colleges or universities where Greek-letter organizations are not officially recognized? While its true that the ratio of recognized (exists with permission from a school and headquarters) to unrecognized (exists without permission from a school and/or headquarters) is probably something like 50-1 (who knows, if the groups really are secret they could be far more pervasive than I think), but how are we sure that recognition and support equate with a better “fraternity” experience?

Take the fraternities at The University of Colorado in Boulder. I am not a part of that community, though I know that the fraternities operate unrecognized from the institution. Conversations are happening to regain recognition and rebuild the relationship, but for a little over a decade, the fraternity men have operated in an “unrecognized” state.

They hired an Inter-Fraternity Council adviser, they’ve added fraternities to their community, they have even revoked IFC recognition of a couple fraternities. Imagine that! The undergraduate chapters, along with their hired professional and alumni volunteers, actively maintain a level of order within their community that is no more wild than most major public institutions.

The fraternities in Boulder supposedly built a relationship with the police department in lieu of equivalent campus resources. Some members do ride-alongs and the police meet with chapters or officers on what seems to be a more regular basis than comparable institutions. Their website contains the information that just about any good IFC website would contain, and they perform on par with other IFCs academically.

Okay guys, we beat the British. There's no safety net, it's time to start a legit country. Don't eff it up.
Okay guys, we beat the British. There’s no safety net, it’s time to start a legit country. Don’t eff it up.

Another example would be the South Eastern Inter-Fraternity Conference (SEIFC), which is similar student leadership conferences like AFLV, NGLA and a slew of other acronyms. The difference is that for SEIFC, student board members have responsibilities like recruiting IFCs in the region to attend the conference, organizing awards and the such. They’re not completely autonomous, but the lines are defined, and I think the conference is better off because of that.

I recently typed against Greek Life Fees on LinkedIn, and the reason I disagree with the fees is that the students are being asked to pay for something they often have little genuine control of. In the case of schools like CU Boulder, students not only pay for their adviser, they have the right to fire that adviser if he or she isn’t suiting their needs and protecting their interests.

Please don’t confuse “protecting their interests” with “sweeping bad things under the rug.” Remember, the students, their hired professional and alumni took part in the closure of poor-performing chapters in an effort to protect their interests.

One of the books on our reading list is called “The 48 Laws of Power” by Robert Greene. In it, he suggests that it is always a terrible idea to share a title and responsibilities with another person. I learned this the hard way my second year on staff when I shared a role overseeing our expansion team and process.

It creates confusion and the required coordination between two leaders with the same role always makes decision-making slow and ineffective. Blackberry, the phone maker with the best keyboards on Earth (BBM 4 lyfe), went down the tubes partly because it had two CEOs so obsessed with the company they built that they failed to properly react to challenges by Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android OS.

We should take a look at communities like CU Boulder and Gonzaga University. I’m not suggesting that IFCs disaffiliate with their university or headquarters nor am I suggesting the inverse of that scenario. I’m suggesting that we draw thick, black (i.e. not grey) lines between the responsibilities of students and the responsibilities of professionals.

We should respect the limitations each of us have in creating the right fraternity experience. Students with fewer safety nets seem to perform just fine. It might actually be the safety nets that we provide that encourage the ridiculous behavior we see here and here.

Perhaps when students are faced with legitimate failure (their chapter crumbling, their being sent to prison, their being the only person on the hook for a student who overdoses on cocaine at a chapter party), they take this stuff even more seriously than we fraternity/sorority professionals. As a professional it’s always sad to see a chapter close; I can certainly sympathize with the students and alumni who could have and should have had a better experience. But the closure of a chapter to me is not nearly what it is to the men who lose their undergraduate experience or the alumni who lose the legacy they spent years caring for and building.

Let’s give students one less person to blame for the closure of their chapter by giving them some real autonomy. Once that is understood, once everyone knows where their power begins and ends, we may see everyone putting in the effort that the experience provided by Greek Life needs to stop becoming such a joke in this country.