3 Things I Learned From Dark Fraternity History

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No fraternity would share a photo like this on “Throwback Thursday,” but photos like these are just as much a part of our past as head shots of our founding members. (From the Stetson University digital archives).

Today is my Fraternity’s “Founders’ Day,” and so I and many others have enjoyed watching friends and unknown brothers from across the world share what Delta Sigma Phi means to them. Like all fraternities, our national organization is also hard at work to raise funds for the Foundation and, by extension, our organization’s educational offerings.

This is not unique to Delta Sig, and many organizations place a Day of Giving on or around their Founder’s Day to capitalize on nostalgic appeal and drive donations (and, in a way, a renewed vow) from members and friends of the fraternity experience.

Like all history, fraternity histories are influenced by those who tell them. American history, for example, is from a predominantly New Englander point of view (They effectively started public education and have been on the winning side of the most impactful movements/wars in American history). I wrote about this in another post and suggested that our telling of our collective fraternity history contains too many redactions.

There is a religious, almost supernatural zeal in our tales of our founding members and in the development of our national brands. This is only offset by the media’s opposing stories which trash fraternities to “shed light” on things we all know took place.

Most founding members of fraternities and sororities were just kids looking for a support system, but I make an effort in my History/Ritual workshops to explain our founders’ visions in the context of the time period, the location, how each of those things impacted the development of our ritual, and the setbacks we faced in the 119 years after that glorious moment on December 10, 1899.

It is from the often overlooked elements of my fraternity’s history that I have come to better understand how progress works and why it can be so frustrating to reform anything in the modern fraternity system – even if one seemingly has the support of a plurality or majority of the members. Here are a few of those moments and lessons.

1. Progress Often Occurs At A Glacial Pace

My fraternity was established by a group of men who sought a fraternity which would allow both Christians and Jews to join. Finding none at C.C.N.Y. in 1899 they chose to create their own.

As the fraternity grew; however, some chapters found it hard to maintain appeal among students at other universities. The presiding practice of the day was to not intermingle and that extended beyond interracial intermingling.

The intention of the men at C.C.N.Y. did not match well with the local fraternities they had absorbed at other schools in other states, and in 1914 the national body determined that it would no longer initiate Jewish men. Several predominantly Jewish chapters broke away and Delta Sigma Phi remained Christian and white until the Civil Rights Era of the 1960’s.

You may experience similar periods of regression, even within your own chapter, particularly after periods of explosive growth. That is why it is important to practice “Good Growth.”

2. Those At The Top Are Often The Last To Acknowledge The Need For Change

That change didn’t come about because the Fraternity elected a National President who decided it was time for change; it happened because students began to demand the change. In fact, the larger and more centralized a governing organization is, the more difficult it is for its progressive components to “model the way.”

Our chapters in California and our chapter at Wittenberg University were among the first to initiate black men, and the decision to remove discriminatory restrictions from our governing documents was ultimately driven by more than a decade of regular debate and ultimatums from state and federal governments.

The system is not any different today. Our greatest accomplishments in addressing our most challenging problems will come about through student activism once they recognize their rightful position as the leaders of our organizations.

3. Changing Rules Does Not Initiate Progress

In the early 20th Century my fraternity banned Hell Week. In the early 2000’s it banned alcohol. Although students voted to enact these efforts, those votes are often coordinated by national committees and boards. Sig Ep, for example, passed a similar alcohol-free housing policy and marketed it as the “New Normal” in 2017.

The fact is that prohibitive policies do not change behavior and may actually make dangerous behavior more deadly. Change happens when trusted leaders invest time into and learn from student and alumni members.

My fraternity may no longer restrict its membership to Christian white men, but I cannot suggest that the policy change resulted in a flood of black, latino, or Asian-American members. Policy only goes so far, and while I would never suggest that a chapter is unsuccessful or “bad” due to a lack of diversity, I have written about some deeper, institutional, racial divisions at the higher levels of fraternity+sorority politics. (again, progress is held up at the highest levels)

Takeaway: Embrace All Of Who You Are

Each of those lessons, some of which I came to better understand through my own failures as a leader, professional and all-around human, helped me figure out how to pursue progress. Not everything that trends on Twitter has lasting power, and those men who have stuck around and contributed at the local level are often the ones who help inspire nationwide reform.

I am writing this to encourage fraternity and sorority members to embrace the less glorious elements of their respective organization’s past. Those moments can offer enlightening insight into how we’ve gotten into our current problem-solving cycle of condemnation, prohibitive sanctions, and lecture tours.

They also offer the greatest insight into how change occurs in governing bodies as a whole (#America). The more effort we put into helping students understand those moments of progress, the better chance we have of them putting what they’ve learned at all of our leadership programs to use for the greater benefit of the fraternity/sorority experience.