The sun was setting on the final day of my final Homecoming weekend as a student member of my fraternity. After spending hours baking in the Florida heat I decided to head back into our chapter house to change and prepare to escort some alumni into town for drinks.
Just before entering the door to the house I heard an unfamiliar voice say, “So you’re the one taking my job.” I had announced during our joint meeting earlier that day that I would be working for our national fraternity. I could not tell if he was serious – he had stopped working there long before I had been hired – but he had a determined, kind of scary expression on his face. “I guess so,” I said.
“The only thing that you will learn is that AX [our chapter’s “designation”] is the only thing that matters. That national stuff is bullshit,” he said. I cannot remember how I replied, only that it involved a cautious smile, a half-hearted laugh, and something along the lines of, “sure,” before walking inside. In my four years as a student I had committed fully to the cause of “fraternity,” as they say, and I knew that the national organization was very important.
I attended every program I had the opportunity to attend, poured most of my free time into every element of our chapter life, and burned a bridge or two in what I hoped was the process of setting our chapter up to be better off once I had left. This guy was just another one of those men who blame the national fraternity for their problems, I thought, and the moment was out of my mind by the time I finished my first whiskey with pickle juice.
I have love for my brothers at Stetson and across the country – many of which I worked with to establish, re-establish, or propel their respective chapters – but I grew out of any sort of allegiance to “the fraternity” as I came to understand the history and trajectory of the fraternity experience and the political scaffolding behind our current governing organizations.
My fraternity consists of men like Dallas, who reluctantly joined at the request of his girlfriend, promised me that he would not be involved, then later became Chapter President and joined our national office staff. There is John, easily the most intimidating student I have ever tried to recruit, and there is Vince, who I kept running into at national events while we were students and later worked with for much of my early professional life.
I recently visited our chapters at IUPUI and The Ohio State University to present on our history and ritual. I helped establish those chapters in the 11-12 academic year and felt as if I were returning to my home chapter at Stetson. That feeling didn’t come from our wearing the same letters, but from knowing many of those men personally and the desire to spend time exploring our fraternity together.
The key to making the most of a fraternity membership is to build trusting relationships.
That simple understanding often gets lost in the world of fraternity checklists. It is easy to demand more policies, more lectures, and higher dues as a fraternity man today than to advocate for more on-the-ground support and conscious use of student dollars. It is far easier to promote a suspension of a fraternity community as a progressive, preventative step than to talk directly with the students and persuade them to pursue a different course.
It is too easy to confuse those who demand control with those who know how to lead, and too easy to suggest that students are incompetent without our intervention.
Each fraternity man or woman swears an oath identical to that of any other member of that same fraternity or sorority, but each oath means something entirely different to each initiating member.
When an oath becomes nothing more than a bully tactic because our we are too concerned with what others think of us then members will pull away. Fraternity is nothing without friendship, and too many of our leaders demand loyalty to their impression of their oath without putting in the work to persuade others of its value. It’s a shame, because the daily decisions of our students determine our fate – not the myriad of fraternity structures that alumni have created to try to manage said student.
A common dedication to one another is the national fraternity experience, not some incorporated, 501(c)(7) organization in a far away town. You did not join a fraternity to be a nameless contribution to someone else’s research project or to complete a checklist aimed at fixing you. You joined because you liked the people and you felt it a good use of your time to spend it with them.
To be clear – that member who accosted me as I walked into the chapter house was wrong. My national fraternity is not bull[corn] – it is a gateway to an even greater and more impactful fraternity experience for me and thousands of other men (of all ages). That being said, if that gateway is used to exert control, rather than to fortify friendships, its true value is corrupted and it will be abandoned.
My fraternity, like yours, was established without a national organization, a campus professional or the NIC, and it can continue on without those things. Understanding that is the key toward offering lifelong value to our members.