This might be a great post for those who are advising for the first time, who want to switch up their practices for a little while, and for student leaders – particularly chapter officers – as they navigate the space between formal responsibility.
I focus most of my attention on maximizing self government and niche development in fraternity chapters. Those are two general ideals I found through my time as a student leader, fraternity professional and volunteer adviser to be the most essential to a chapter’s long term stability. Everything I teach, from recruitment to budgeting, is shaped by those ideals. We can call these an Advisory Compass; they define the direction you wish for things to move.
This is no different than what I teach chapters in terms of managing their operations. There are so many different functions of an advisory position or a chapter leader that it is helpful to select some guiding themes (values) to align with. Just offer advice that heads in the direction of your guiding principles.
Choose Your Direction In 2-3 Words
When offered the position of an adviser take time to define 2-3 key ideals to focus on. As I mentioned I chose self-government and niche development. They aren’t exclusively mine. . . please take them, but you can choose those which fit your experiences. What have you noticed as necessary to the success your students are looking for?
These ideals will serve as your directional compass; they are things that you ultimately want to move toward even if progress is minimal. Whenever you make a decision, consider first the limitations of your role and then what you can do to keep things moving toward one or more of those ideals.
Establish Trust – You Might Change Nothing
Students might ignore your advice. Sometimes it happens on accident and sometimes whatever you say didn’t connect at the right time. Respecting that the decisions to be made are ultimately those of the students is the first step toward establishing real, persuasive trust – an essential tool for any leader or adviser.
There is an old saying that if you presume someone to be a thief that you will be more perceptive to those qualities which confirm your bias. Be mindful to build your own relationships with those you advise. If you walk into a meeting or conversation with a preconceived idea of where your conversational partner is coming from then you are going to be ineffective when you try to offer advice. Accept that your students might differ from you philosophically.
Communicate Your Direction
Being open and honest with the direction in which you wish for things to move is an important step in furthering the trust you establish. You might feel as if it puts you in a box, but as long as students see that you are willing to meet them where they are at, they don’t mind – and might reach out to you specifically because of – the values that go in to making your decisions. You will notice if your ideals are getting in the way, and that means a re-calibration of those ideals or your role might be helpful.
Students spend less time wondering whether you are delivering a canned response handed down from someone higher up on the ladder when you are upfront with your intentions. If I visited a chapter with a strained relationship to our national office I would always begin with some ritual, how students shaped our fraternity, and then would answer their questions as candidly as possible. You don’t need to drop f-bombs and Billboard Top 40 songs to connect with advisees; just respect them.
Ask, “Is That Workable?”
Sometimes people will nod without understanding or agreeing with what you are saying. This might be because they are embarrassed to admit that they do not understand what you are talking about (something many of us experience when visiting a doctor’s office) or because they do not take your advice seriously.
A great workaround is asking whether or not something you suggest or offer is “workable,” and the reason I choose that word is because it requires that a student (or prospective customer) considers what you are saying to be within the realm of possibility. If there is too much hesitation, ask what could make something “more workable.” If there is an outright denial then ask what would be workable.
Gossip Kills Trust. Do Not Do It.
Be who you are no matter who is in the room. Change your delivery to fit your audience, not your Advisory Compass. Sometimes we act a certain way in a student’s or another adviser’s company, but speak ill of them to other students or advisers. All this does is create doubt about whether or not you are trustworthy.
Just as you need to form your own judgement of students based on your personal experiences with them, you should give them the opportunity to form their own opinions of others rather than fanning the flames.
Acknowledge When You Are Not Breaking Through
There will be one or many students/colleagues who do not agree with the direction in which you would like to move or who just do not like you. It happens. If you are meeting lots of resistance then you might need to find a worthy substitute, move to a different role or adjust how you word your advisory compass.
It is best to work where you can find common ground then to exhaust yourself trying to convince someone to change lifelong habits and beliefs. They may one day come to appreciate your way of thinking. . . or you might one day come to appreciate their way of thinking.
It is nice to talk to and vent with other fraternity/sorority advisers or leaders, but there are exceptional ideas and tools to build your advising capabilities outside of the limited scope of fraternity work. Try to read one book or complete one personal-development task aligned with your ideals throughout the year to keep your mind sharp and the ideas flowing.
Also – take a break every once in a while. It is good for the soul. Find a substitute if you don’t want to leave your students or chapter without an adviser or officer for too long.
Turn Your Students Into Educators
If you are a Chapter President, for example, teach some members to teach your newest members how chapter meetings work. Pair them up with an initiated member and follow up when all is done to see how things went and if anything else should be done to help the new members feel comfortable and confident during meetings (They’ve only got 3.5 years, don’t waste time).
If you are an adviser then invite students to help you plan your personal goals and objectives. Ask them to hold you accountable to your ideals and to come up with ideas for things you can do. None of this needs to be related to those you advise – it could be your career or educational goals. This gives them practice in developing and using ideals to guide decisions and is an easy thing to recall when advising them to do so.
You want students to trust your advice. You must follow your advice and demonstrate that it is not only workable, but helpful. Keep your word – Do What You Say You Will Do.
What advice do you have to share?
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:
- 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).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
Getting On Track: Overcoming Our Fraternity Chapter’s $18,000 Debt
In the fall of 2010 I was elected to the position of Chapter President. I was elected via tie-breaker against another brother (who happened to be my little). It was an embarrassing display of a lack of confidence.
Within the first few days of my presidential term I learned that we were $18,000 in debt to our national office. It turns out that our chapter’s desire to have a semi-formal a year prior set us on a path of collecting dues early from some members and not collecting them at all from others. Long story short we ended up with an $18,000 hole in our budget, a bunch of members who had paid their semester dues in advance, and a bunch of members who were hundreds or thousands of dollars in debt to the chapter.
The newly elected treasurer and I set out to make sure the debt was paid, and we managed to close that $18,000 hole in four months. The basics of our approach were simple: Spend less, collect more. Our chapter collected a little more than double what we owed to our national office, and we needed to pay off the balance within a few months to be eligible for our Fraternity’s top award. Here’s what we did:
- Out-Of-Pocket Semester: Any expense which wasn’t absolutely necessary was converted to an “out-of-pocket” expense. Our spring formal, our big brotherhood retreat, our philanthropy events and our social functions. Nothing for any of those was paid with chapter dues. We found a free space to use for the retreat, our formal was more or less a well-coordinated weekend getaway, and our social events required some creative recycling as decor. In eliminating these expenses we freed up enough of our dues to make serious payments toward our debt.
- Eliminate Unnecessary Expenses: It can be difficult to overcome a debt when your chapter is paying for services which do more harm than help. We collected internally to avoid credit card fees through a payment processor, downsized our composite, and cut off our group voice message app in order to avoid spending money where it wasn’t needed.
- New Legislation: Among those who owed debts to the chapter were several members who had graduated and many who were going to graduate at the end of the term. These members had no reason to pay and so we passed new legislation which barred members from receiving alumni status, receiving an alumni jersey and participating in our alumni ceremony (more here) if they owed any sum to the chapter a few weeks prior to graduation.
- Alumni Board: In my fraternity the alumni corporation board has the power to expel undergraduate members, and Stetson’s Homecoming was (at the time) held in the spring term and just a week before our payment deadline. Our alumni members were, of course, caught off guard by the debt, and so we worked out a deal where they would hold expulsion hearings for any members with more than a $400 balance come alumni weekend. This prompted payment from many brothers, particularly when we warned them that the alumni didn’t care much about their feelings.
- Honesty Is The Best Policy: Part of our problem was that this $18,000 debt was not explained to the chapter back when it was a $10,000 or $4,000 debt. We had never before discussed it in a meeting. Our alumni, too, seemed mostly unaware. The only way we could get our chapter to take this seriously was to speak honestly about the situation and what we needed to do to avoid a suspension. People appreciate knowing what is going on.
Having debt as a chapter is not fun. You are constantly receiving notices from alumni, your national office and perhaps your school. It’s important to get the debt cleared early, as it can easily grow out of control (just a year later the chapter was back in debt for another 3 years!). It may seem difficult, but cutting your budget and sticking to your guns are the most effective ways to clearing bad debt as quickly as possible.
Although we paid off our debt, we were 1 day late on our final payment after that Homecoming weekend. That single day suspension (basically the time it took the money to transfer) prevented us from winning our Fraternity’s top honor even though we scored a 98% on the accreditation packet. . . That was basically the day I realized that fraternity/campus standards of excellence programs are faulty measurements of success or excellence.
Staying On Track: The Power Of Responsibility & Incentives
Fast forward to 2015 and I am promoted to the Director of Fraternity Growth & Services. In that role at our fraternity’s national office I oversaw 15 staff (approximately half of our national staff and just about everyone under 25 years of age) and managed the budget for two departments responsible for approximately 50% of our Fraternity’s strategic plan. It was awesome.
I received many suggestions regarding the budget of our department, and given an increase in risk incidents all of our budgets were tightened during my first year. Still, my liberty-loving self wasn’t going to give up on my principles, and so I managed my budget by managing less of it. At the end of the year my departments were the only ones to come in under budget (that’s not a slight on any of my former colleagues, there were other circumstances which caused their budgets to bend such as aforementioned risk incidents). Here’s how I maintained our strong budget performance:
- Look At Previous Years: Some items on our budget had been there for quite some time, and many of the expenditure items of our budget didn’t match with the way our departments operated or were structured. I was able to eliminate a few line items which didn’t fit or within which we didn’t spend money in previous years. Looking at past budgets helped me find some early breathing room.
- Responsibility: I left the budget for one department entirely up to my Associate Director to manage. We would check in quarterly or so. For our traveling consultants, I took the budget I had allotted for their use, divided it amongst the chapters of the Fraternity, and then gave them each set amounts based on the number of chapters they worked with. It was then their goal to remain within those budget constraints while planning their trips. Staff could notify the assistant director of that department if they needed to go over.
- Cushion: From those unnecessary expenditures I had built in a little cushion room just in case either department went over its budget, this was ultimately where our savings came from.
- Incentives: I restructured our bonus metrics to include budget management. The team would get a bonus if we all came in under budget and each individual would be graded on their budget management performance. We included in our summer training the best practices to budgeting for trips and distributed worksheets to help staff track the cost as they booked travel.
- Decision Rights: Who has the right to make what decisions? In previous years a supervisor might have to take note of whether individual expenses (hotel rooms, flights, car rentals) went over established caps. I decided that the only decision I would make was the total budget allotted to each staff member. He would then have control of how the money was spent so long as he remained within his overall budget. We provided guidelines, and so the staff largely stayed on track without my having to monitor how much everyone spent on every hotel room. Time is money, and wasting time on the nitty gritty of money didn’t matter to me. We did set some triggers. . . if a flight was over $500, for example, approval would be needed, but this ultimately freed up the number of questions I received to go over the hotel limit in big, expensive cities.
- Defined Expenditures: I had done the work of allotting a certain amount of money per staff member, per chapter, and so it was important that I shared how I came to that figure. We set up some standardized expectations of the length and cost of a chapter visit to serve as a template when staff planned their own travel.
Simply put, I gave my team budgets to work within and a little more freedom in terms of which purchases needed approval and we managed our budget pretty effectively. Not only did our consultants visit more chapters than in years prior (consistent with the trend of the Fraternity), but we ended up shaving off about 10% of our expenses from the previous year.
Whether you are dealing with $18,000 or almost $500,000, the vision and direction of ones work does not need to be complicated. Focusing on a direction (greater freedom, fewer expenses, personal responsibility) frees one up to try more tactics – all of which can lead to needed progress.
If you are facing a large debt or if you are in charge of managing or downsizing a budget, try some of the tactics mentioned above. That said, always focus your efforts on getting more bang for each buck and try to stay in the black. It is okay to go over-budget from time to time, particularly if there are unexpected but necessary expenditures, but you might actually do yourself a favor by not stressing out, setting some simple ground rules, and sticking to them.
Even when our chapter was $18,000 in debt we managed to put together about $2,500 to pay for recruitment, our homecoming weekend, a composite and our senior wills space. Beyond that the semester went particularly well for us.
Do you have questions about managing your chapter or professional budget? Tweet them to @FraternityNik.
Also, check out this post about my experience running Stetson’s biggest philanthropy event, Greenfeather, and cutting it from 14 days to 3 days, all while increasing our fundraising by 50%!
I was at The Ohio State University working to re-establish a chapter of my fraternity in the spring of 2012. It was an interesting recruitment campaign as it was one of the rare instances where our entire team of five worked together to set up one chapter.
In our 2nd or 3rd week of the campaign, Woody Woodcock from Phired Up visited to offer coaching support to our team. Our recruiters were trained in part by Woody and his colleagues, and we had built a fraternal bond with one another over the course of our fall term – Phired Up staff would visit twice during each of our expansion campaigns.
Woody noticed some disorganization and distractions among the members of our team, so one evening he asked us to meet in one of our temporary apartments. We entered into a dark room, the only light coming from candles set on a table in the shape of our letters. The six of us stood around the table while Woody spoke. Some of what he said was written on a piece of paper, some of it may have been improvised, but the purpose of it was to reconnect us to why we were setting up a new chapter and the bond we all shared as fraternity men.
We repeated that ritual with new members over the following years as a sort of mini-initiation to the team. It helped us build on the unique bond one forms with fraternity brothers who work together at a fraternity national office.
As we alumni seek to standardize much of what students are taught as well as much of what they are meant to accomplish during their four-ish years of college, I wonder if team-building, healthy, occasionally silly rituals are too easily dismissed as distractions from our wide range of fraternity community goals.
A tradition of we who advise fraternity men is to warn them of the consequences of tradition. We may like the tradition we are hearing of, but our response is typically measured with some far off warning of how things could “go bad.”
Still, small moments like that shared within our expansion team boosted our morale and faith in one another and our mission. Something as simple as sitting all of the brothers in a room and taking turns to acknowledge what each brother has going for him or offering advice to problems can have a profound impact on chapter morale and connectivity. Perhaps a tradition is as simple as shaking hands when passing a brother (or softly bumping fists in the case of our . . . quirky team).
I would like to see more chapters of my fraternity (and fraternities in general) implement more “ritual” into their day to day life. I would like to see more brothers exchange secret grips during intramural competitions or sitting in formation for a meeting, even if the meeting consists of just an executive board or a random group of six brothers after dinner.
I would like to see more brothers gathering spontaneously when they see a brother is struggling with school or a relationship, turn off the phones, light a few candles, hear him out and help walk through his problems. I would be elated if advisers – members or not – took the opportunity to identify when a little ritual would be best for the good of a group as Woody had done with ours.
Creating a better, stronger connection among members doesn’t require a major retreat (though that’ll help) and doesn’t require mega-ceremonies (though they will help). It requires regular interactions with meaning attached to them.
As our senior class graduated from my chapter at Stetson University we did what many chapters do: we hold a willing ceremony. Here the senior members will down their fraternity belongings to members in the chapter, often explaining why certain items would go to certain brothers.
New initiates into our chapter are given their “letters” ( a cotton football jersey with raised letters on the front) by their big brother, who also chooses the nickname and design on the back of the jersey. After a graduating member has willed his belongings, his little brothers or those he’s closest with present him with a new set of black letters and a new nickname. Only alumni members wear the black jerseys, and the new nicknames often represent how they may be remembered by the chapter.
It’s small; it’s simply organized; it can get silly, but it is a place where all of our members gather to show love for one another, and that’s important. Sometimes a member makes a video and other times there is an impromptu rap battle. Those are the moments I remember from my undergraduate fraternity experience – the ones that felt special and uniquely our own.
Little, local rituals are important. Dinner with 3-XX brothers is a great place to start.
I enjoy digging through fraternity and sorority archives to learn more about our past, and I can no longer accept how readily we ignore the shame we feel beneath the glowing reviews of our histories.
As I mentioned in my last post (and several others), the founders of our organizations really didn’t care about the things we care about today. They didn’t care about tracking statistics and making the news for a new-old policy or a new-old leadership program. Our founders wanted to build social clubs, and in creating national and international fraternities they became laser-focused on quality members and first amendment protections. Although we still reference our founders to rile up support, our student members are actually far more in line with the vision of their founders than most fraternity leaders or professionals – in my perspective.
While looking through the Stetson University digital archives for what feels like the hundredth time I came upon an image of some brothers from the mid-40’s raising a Confederate flag outside of their house. There were several photos of several Stetson fraternities from that same era with that same flag raised high and proud above their living facilities. I am not making a statement about Confederate flags, but could you imagine any fraternity or sorority sharing this photo on their social media today? Even to acknowledge a well-known piece of their history as once exclusively-white organizations?
This was not the first time I came across this photo, but I failed to accept this as a part of our history, the part where we were exclusively Christian and white and where several chapters were former Ku Klux Klan organizations. It may be touched upon, but the more I hear fraternity men talk about themselves, their organizations, and their histories, the more I realize that we have a deluded sense of who we were. Perhaps that is a response to the obsessively critical tone many fraternity professionals and the news media take toward our histories of privilege – they are wrong too.
Fraternity leaders want and expect students to learn our history and past, but omit important elements of it. For so many years I wondered if my fraternity’s history was “murky” due to a lack of information. That is a factor and what we would tell our students, but it’s untrue.
We have rows of filing cabinets packed with photos, correspondences, meeting minutes and newspaper clippings. We know all too well who we were, and because it is not representative of who we are and what the world wants of us in 2018, we breeze over it as if it were a meaningless bump in the road. But, racial prejudice has been a key element of the fraternity experience since its development. Our founding members may have had intentions for diversity, but those intentions went unrealized for many decades.
I am not of the belief that you can know someone from a single point of view. For too long, the stories of fraternities and sororities have been painted by those who hate us or those who love us, and lacking from both sides is a taste for realism or objectivity.
I have also tried to make this case regarding collaboration between historically white, historically black, and culturally-based fraternities and sororities. There are invisible divisions representative of our old selves which force us to think of one another as “others.” Sororities and fraternities bicker about who does things “right,” black and white organizations complain that the other isn’t open to collaboration, but are too obsessed with what makes them different from one another to move forward (“They do intake, we do rush”). We do not need to adopt the resentment those who came before us had in discussing racial/societal issues. . . that is all.
Students are told of the wonderful and idealistic goals of their founding members in depth. What attention is paid to the time between the moment their organization was founded and their organization today is a Cliff’s Notes version at best. They are not encouraged to explore how desegregation was a student-led movement, which came from challenging toxic, top-down, “zero-tolerance” policies and going against the wishes of many big name alumni members. We are ignoring important elements of the fraternity story, elements which many are ashamed of, but elements which humanize us and our organizations and help us fit in with the greater story of the United States of America.
Most organizations seem obsessed with presenting a clean, unified message to the outside world. Members are widely encouraged to vote “yes” on whichever slate from whichever committee is before them at a national meeting. Everything they are to do and value in their fraternity experience must be ratified by a small group of approved alumni and professionals. It is a sanitized process top to bottom, and we are teaching students to operate in the same way, but no one connects with that. Fraternity men were Instagram before Instagram was Instagram – it’s just a game to make your life look neat and petite without a care in the world.
Until we face our demons and tell our stories truly and accurately – stories which still contain the fantastic elements we share today – we may never get beyond our modern challenges. There was a point when fraternities were “zero-tolerance” when it came to initiating black students. In Delta Sigma Phi, chapters were required to send a testimonial and photo for each of their pledging members for approval from the Executive Secretary (old name for the Executive Director/CEO). That was to make sure that the men recruited fit the agreed-upon standards of the Fraternity, and one of those standards was to have white skin.
Understanding our past of racial prejudice and how students pulled us through that may help modern students feel inspired and engage more deeply in the fraternity process. That’s important, because fraternity/sorority professionals, leaders, legislators and the news media are failing to move us forward, even as they assume greater ownership of our undergraduate societies.
What would your founders think of the way your fraternity or sorority operates today? We ask that to students, and I’d like more students to ask it of advisers and fraternity/sorority professionals. Here’s why:
Beyond the tens and thousands of volunteers across the fraternity spectrum, many organizations have grown dramatically since their undergraduate founding members created the first of their local societies.
We ask students to imagine what the founders of their fraternity would think if they saw what those students were doing – it is (admittedly and unfortunately) often a way of guilting them out of doing something bad and guilting them into doing something good. I’ve already written about this, but few if any organization’s founders would have imagined, for example, that fraternities would ever depend on university recognition for validity.
Few would have imagined professional staffs of dozens of people orchestrating intense public service campaigns around hazing and alcohol use. Few would imagine that any cause other than the fraternity itself were necessary to make fraternities a moral contribution to society.
That last point was italicized – I’d like to focus on it.
Many if not most organizations rally around a national philanthropic partner for which their component chapters (well. . . their student component chapters) raise funds and volunteer time. But this was almost never an element of our founders’ respective visions. It seems to me that most fraternities were established with the expectation that they themselves were a service to the community.
Imagine if the American Red Cross were so unsure of its own charitable efforts (blood collection, disaster relief, fire prevention, etc.) that it diverted half of its energy, focus, and resources to a literacy nonprofit. While still noble, that diversion would take away from why people give to and volunteer for the Red Cross, would it not?
Whether it was putting on functions for campuses which had not yet developed an entire student affairs and programming industry or providing a home away from home for young men and women attempting to launch the next phase of their lives – fraternities themselves were crucially important to the founders of those organizations.