Fraternal Glory

The video clip below is from the movie “Glory.” Whenever I think of the sacrifice of soldiers, and the courage they are asked to exhibit, I remember this scene. The scene portrays the night before the 54th Massachusetts Infantry – an all-black regiment fighting for the North in the Civil War – would lead an assault on a Confederate fort. Due the circumstances of the battle plan, the 54th is almost assured to be decimated in the fight. Thus, the men you see in the clip know that they will most likely die the next day. However, because of their strong desire to make a contribution in this war, they turn their fears into pride. They know that their bravery, and their sacrifice, will mean so much to the cause they are fighting for.

The scene also reflects the internal struggle these former slaves had with their perceptions of themselves as men. For so long, they were considered inhuman – more like property or animals rather than men. As they bonded together, learned from each other, and were pushed by their leaders, they developed self-confidence and self-worth. The character portrayed by Denzel Washington struggles with this throughout the film, and the scene shows him finally voicing his understanding that he – and his fellow soldiers – are men who matter.

What does this have to do with fraternity? Perhaps not much. I see fraternity in this scene. I feel brotherhood through their singing. I see leadership flowing back and forth amongst the men. I see how supportive they are of each other.

We also should remember all of our members who fought for our nation, and those who fight today.

The struggles we face as Greek-letter organizations are nothing compared to what real-life soldiers face each day. We should never make that an even comparison. The black men who stepped up to fight for the country that had treated them so poorly are examples of selflessness and dedication that none of us will likely match in our lifetimes.

On this Veteran’s Day, we should all put our challenges in perspective. However, we can also learn from those who show bravery and courage through military service. As I hear undergraduates complain about the amount of work it would take to build a stronger fraternity or sorority, I often want to remind them that there are men and women of a similar age, who spend their days loading up a weapon, putting on a uniform, and stepping forward into a day that they may never see the end of. We owe it to them, and those who fought before them, to strive to be as courageous and dedicated in our dealings. They should inspire us to greater leadership in whatever cause we are a part of.

Morgan Freeman, through his character in the scene, references the impending battle as their great “gettin’-up” moment. What’s yours? It may be smaller than what these soldiers had to endure, but just like them, we shouldn’t shirk from that great and glorious opportunity.

Recruit Your Way Out

Below is a great new video from Phired Up Productions.

Thanks to experience, advice, and observation, I'm starting to believe that the only way to truly solve the problems we face is to recruit our way out of them. The folks at Phired Up refer to those who drive positive change in our chapters as "horses," and those who resist change as "mules." The horses have desires, wants, and visions for a better fraternity/sorority. They may be able to get some of the mules on board, but in the end, they will find far greater success by recruiting new members (new horses) who share their vision. Instead of focusing our energy on how we get the mules out of our chapters, we should just manage their presence and charge forward without them. "Get on board, or get out of the way" should be the battle cry.

What we focus on becomes our reality. How much time is drained by the energy we devote to the negative, apathetic, and uncommitted among us? What if that energy was focused towards those who understand the bigger picture and are ready to contribute? Or, those unaffiliated men and women who share our vision? NOTE: You need to have a vision first. Can you answer the questions that are posed at the beginning of the video?

The practice of Appreciative Inquiry tells us that if we focus on problems, that's what we'll find. If we focus on possibilities instead, then we may find that they are more abundant. As the video points out, those "possibilities" may be the men and women we have yet to discover.

Deferred Madness

Clearly, some colleges/universities just get it, and others don’t. The enlightened institutions among us have realized that the choice to join a fraternity is so profound, so complicated (and possibly so hazardous), that young and impressionable freshmen students should not be rushed into that decision. In fact, the smartest colleges/universities also realize that freshmen students are incapable of critical thinking and decision making, and thus need to be told when they can join a fraternity or sorority. I’m sure these institutions have conducted studies that confirm that a young man or woman’s decision-making skills are only effective and useful starting in the second semester. However, there must be some debate to this question – since some institutions do not allow this decision to be made until the sophomore year. The students they enroll must struggle to even know what kind of cereal to have in the morning!

The smartest of the enlightened institutions of higher education often realize that not only should freshmen wait to join a fraternity or sorority, they should be prevented from even having contact with a fraternity or sorority member until told otherwise. This is obviously because their students have the thinking skills of a gnat who allows itself to be drawn into the scorching death of a bug zapper.

It is most noble of these colleges/universities to look after their young neophytes with care and compassion. They’ve obviously discovered a truth that has been elusive for so many of us – first-semester college freshmen are pretty dumb. They need to be protected from their own stupidity. They cannot make a wise decision, especially when allowed to move at their own pace. So instead, let’s help them by adding structure. Yes – help them – that sounds nice! Let’s give them two weeks of quick meetings, funny slide shows, and fancy brochures. That will clearly allow for more controlled - er - I mean better decision-making.

By the way, this doesn’t apply to other student organizations. Students are free to join them at any time, since they are the kinds of decisions students can make quickly and without any thought.

I’m sure that there is research that proves that deferred recruitment results in greater recruitment numbers, fewer incidents of alcohol and hazing, greater alumni engagement, better academics for the members, and a greater commitment to founding values and principles. Just because I couldn’t find this research anywhere doesn’t mean it’s not there.

I want to thank these enlightened institutions for challenging all of our intuitive ideas and notions of common sense by proving that deferred recruitment is the way to go. Because of the inspiration of their example, I want to challenge them in kind. Since these colleges and universities have the best interests of students in mind, I’m sure they wouldn’t care if we prevented them from making contact with or actively recruiting high school students until the second semester of their senior years. In fact, we’ll just give them two weeks in August to make their case. After all, it’s such a big decision.


What Would Cliff Huxtable Do?

Have you ever just wanted to take a fraternity or sorority chapter, a student leader, or a brother/sister, who you know is capable of so much more than they are doing, and yell at them to wake up and try harder.

I love the scene below from The Cosby Show, one of the greatest television shows of all time. This is a scene from the pilot episode, and it’s a classic because of the unexpected way Cliff (Bill Cosby) reacts to Theo (Malcolm Jamal Warner) and his monologue about being a regular person. In the sitcoms of the 80’s and early 90’s, it was common to have a moral or lesson at the end of the episode, expressed by one of the characters in a stirring way, and punctuated by uplifting music and audience applause. Family Ties, Growing Pains, Full House, and Facts of Life all had these moments. The Cosby Show mocked this formula in its first episode, and the series became the gold standard for portraying family life for over a decade. Here is the scene, and my thoughts about its connection to fraternity follows...

I sometimes show this clip when I’m talking to alumni advisers because it portrays something very powerful – the importance of raising expectations. Theo thinks he is on the path to becoming a “regular person” and he has convinced himself that he actually wants this for himself. There's nothing wrong with the professions he describes (such as driving a bus), but he believes that having a goal like this absolves him of the need to work hard. Enter his very successful father who tells him point blank that it is not enough to just be “regular” and that he will work harder.

Cliff’s approach is very parental and we shouldn’t necessarily mimic his tone or language. Try the line “I brought you in the world and I’ll take you out!” at the next chapter meeting. It probably won’t work. The principle behind it is the important thing. Many undergraduates only expect and/or want a “regular” fraternity experience because that’s all they’ve known. For them, regular often includes accepting apathy, unethical decisions, and dangerous behavior. If regular is good enough, then it's natural for them to avoid the hard work required to build something grander. It’s often not their fault. They just haven’t been challenged. As advisers, friends, and supporters, it’s our duty to not allow them to be mediocre.

I learned a term in graduate school called “plus-one staging,” and I’ve built my work around it ever since. Plus-one staging means that a teacher should teach to a level one step above the standard expectation for their students. The theory is that you’ll better meet the advanced learners where they are, and the other learners will elevate their game to catch up. The opposite of this is teaching to the lowest learning level. This does nobody any favors, including the student at that low level. Advising at a lower level means saying things like "if it's worked in the past, let's do it again" or "some people are just lazy." Instead, think about what the students are capable of, and coach them one notch above that place. You might be surprised by the results.

This is applicable to peers leading peers as well. Lead at a higher level and quietly demand that your brothers or sisters get to that place with you. Don’t let them off the hook. Don’t believe them when they say that being average is good enough. They just haven’t had a “Cliff Huxtable” in their life to sternly tell them that they can and will do better. You can be that person.

We are dealing with the brightest and most capable young men and women among us. They deserve for us to teach, lead, and advise to a level that’s just beyond their reach – because they can get there. If we stop accepting that it’s just okay to work towards mediocrity, then hopefully those we lead will no longer accept it either.

Responses to Eliminating Pledging

I received some great feedback and opinions from the “No Pledging” post a couple of weeks ago. It helps me clarify my own thoughts to try and respond to some of the comments. I’ve written those responses below.

I should have added in the original post that I am looking at this from a macro level. I don’t think the fraternity movement will measurably advance without bold action, such as eliminating pledging. I also think a pledge-free experience is more true to our history. I recognize that pledging works for some groups. Many groups, in fact. I simply see a more successful future for the whole fraternity movement without it.

On to the comments…

I know you are going to advocate for a longer recruitment process in order to get to know the potential new members but from a formal recruitment stand point I am not sure how this would work.
You’re right. Formal recruitment encourages pledging. You wouldn’t be able to eliminate pledging without eliminating formal recruitment first.

More importantly pledging is a time for candidates to learn about the members and the members to learn about the candidates.
Shouldn’t that be what rush/recruitment is for? Besides, I was still learning new things about my brothers years after I was initiated. That’s the beauty of brotherhood. The problem with pledging is that it creates a power differential and a false finish line. I wonder if we ever truly get to know each other in that kind of setting. I knew great pledges that were terrible brothers.

Initiating men and women within 72 hours is a terrible idea. Groups would have to have several initiations per semester, maybe two in the same week. Don't get me wrong, frequent ritual is important but this would just get excessive.
We have a history of being fairly adaptable groups, and I think we’d figure it out. Why is having monthly initiations/Ritual ceremonies excessive, but having weekly social events okay (I know you’re not saying that)? If there are things we should be doing “excessively,” it’s Ritual and welcoming new men into our brotherhoods.

Great argument from the fraternity perspective, but what about from the recruit's? I needed the pledge period to learn what I was getting myself into. I needed to get to know all the brothers, learn what fraternity meant, and what was expected of me as a brother before making the plunge.
I think you can learn all of this during recruitment – if recruitment is not confined to one week of eating chicken wings and watching football. What if you find out you’re not a fit? It’s easier on you (the potential member) to sever ties with the fraternity during a recruitment process rather than in the 7th week of pledging.

You should do some research on this topic rather than making up statistics. 100% of chapters have a problem with apathy? You cannot tell me that came from a credible source.
Fair point. I didn’t mean for it to be taken as statistically accurate – I was just trying to be emphatic. I would add that I have facilitated conversations with thousands of students (especially when I was at the NIC). I often asked the question, “who has an apathy problem in their chapter?” I can’t remember ever seeing someone keep their hand down. You’re right – maybe more formal research on this question is warranted.

I don't see this working for women's/NPC groups, especially when the majority of new members enter through the formal recruitment process.
Perhaps not. My thoughts were focused only on men’s organizations.

Maybe we need a MORE structured and a consistent program from HQ’s…We need more structure not less.
Most HQ’s have a structured and consistent program, but enforcing that is difficult. If anything, better mechanisms for accountability are what’s needed. Then again – weren’t we founded as a means to escape rigid structure in favor of natural human relationships? Now we want more structure? Instead of more structure, let’s get simpler. Recruit well – Initiate – Repeat.

You're not smart are you?
Ouch! I hope that's not something you say to your pledges!

It’s Time to End Pledging

The onset of recruitment activities in fraternal organizations across North America leads to the onset of pledging activities. The former involves the best of fraternity – self-governance, building friendships, creating connections, etc. The latter, in my view, represents the worst of fraternity.

I believe it is time to consider eliminating pledging from the fraternity experience. Of course, this is a decision each fraternity needs to make on their own. However, it’s become ridiculous to see how much we bend over backwards to keep some form of pledging alive. 12 weeks, 8 weeks, 4 weeks. Instead of shortening the pledge periods, or trying to soften their effect by creating elaborate “member education programs,” I think we’ll solve many problems by just scrapping pledging altogether.

At least a couple of national fraternities have tried to eliminate pledging (most recently in 1989). Typically, these attempts are thwarted by alumni who couldn’t go along with the idea of a pledge-free experience. Zeta Beta Tau continues to be pledging-free. New members must be initiated within 72 hours of receiving a bid. I would challenge ZBT to more actively promote this, since it is a very distinguishable selling point.

Most fraternities hold tightly to pledging as if it was part of our founders’ vision. Pledging was something added to the fraternity experience much later, and we existed for many years without it. It emerged in the early 1900’s. How it came about is unclear. Some sources point to the influx of G.I. Bill students who brought military-style rites of passage into fraternities. Other sources claim it to be just an outgrowth of hazing activities older classes inflicted upon new freshmen (imagine kids wandering the campus wearing beanies). The point is, pledging wasn't there from the start, although we act as if it was. Pledging wasn't a necessary change or evolution of fraternity - it was an add-on. Add-ons can be removed.

Pledging has never served a critical purpose. The best pledging programs can be useful, and perhaps even beneficial to the fraternity. However, can these benefits only be gained by pledging programs? Do the positives outweigh the negatives? I cannot think of any compelling reasons why pledging is necessary for the health and sustainability of fraternal organizations. I can think several reasons why it could continue to be our downfall. Chief among these is hazing, one of the single biggest reasons men will not join our organizations.

My biggest problem with pledging is that it leads to apathy. Why would we take committed, eager, energetic young men, and right from the beginning of their experience, give them a finish line? That’s what initiation has become in most fraternities and sororities. It’s viewed as the end, and not the beginning.

Those that cling to pledging argue that it’s the best way for a new member to learn about the history and values of the fraternity. Really? I’d bet that in 90% of fraternities that use pledging as the primary educational vehicle, 90% of the chapter forgets everything they were taught in pledging. History can be conveyed to new members outside of the pledging structure. Values are taught through Ritual, which is something used continuously – again outside of the pledging structure. Pledging is not the only (or even the best) vehicle to teach history and values.

Proponents of pledging also argue that it creates pledge class unity. Why do we care so much about pledge class unity? We don’t need to force unity upon a group of men who will likely bond anyway due to their similar ages, class year, and life experiences. As Dave Westol and others have taught me, individuals join a fraternity, not a pledge class.

Finally, those who argue for pledging describe it as the best way to test the commitment level of potential initiates. If this were true, we wouldn’t have member apathy as an issue of concern in almost 100% of our chapters. Commitment can be judged based on a recruit’s past experiences (the best predictor of future behavior). Pledging is a false test of commitment.

So what should we do instead? Recruit better. We should employ effective, well-designed, and disciplined recruitment processes that allow us to investigate a man’s character before we offer a bid. We should take time to get to know his past accomplishments and his future goals. Maybe we should even demand recommendation letters from high school teachers or coaches? After we give him a bid, we should immediately assign him a mentor (such as a big brother) who helps him learn fraternity history, policies, and responsibilities. We should immediately include him in all fraternity activities except for Ritual activities. We should then initiate him as soon as possible.

I believe that the national fraternity that eliminates pledging, gains buy-in from alumni and undergraduates by arguing the points described above, and then promotes a pledging-free experience to potential members, will see immediate benefits. Alumni may be angry. Give them a fraternity that grows and excels, and they will get over it.

Let’s quit tinkering around the edges and instead, show boldness that would make our founders proud. It’s time for pledging to go. We don't need it anymore. Actually, we never did.


Just thinking today, in the midst of the current national discussion on health care, if national fraternal organizations would ever consider providing health insurance plans for their alumni members. One of the alternatives I've heard discussed in congress for bringing down costs is for trade associations to provide health insurance - so why not fraternities? It seems to me like it would be a great way to keep alumni engaged, and provide a value-added benefit to members. It would at least be more effective than the credit card offers we get from our national organizations now.

After some "google" investigation, I came upon this article which talks about how many fraternal organizations used to provide group health insurance for members. It seems this practice died out in the early 20th century. Perhaps it's an idea worth revisiting? Here is a link to the article (there is a political slant to the article, but I focused on the history). Below is an excerpt:

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of the primary sources of health care and health insurance for the working poor in Britain, Australia, and the United States was the fraternal society. Fraternal societies (called "friendly societies" in Britain and Australia) were voluntary mutual-aid associations. Their descendants survive among us today in the form of the Shriners, Elks, Masons, and similar organizations, but these no longer play the central role in American life they formerly did. As recently as 1920, over one-quarter of all adult Americans were members of fraternal societies.

The principle behind the fraternal societies was simple. A group of working-class people would form an association (or join a local branch, or "lodge," of an existing association) and pay monthly fees into the association's treasury; individual members would then be able to draw on the pooled resources in time of need. The fraternal societies thus operated as a form of self-help insurance company.

The kinds of services from which members could choose often varied as well, though the most commonly offered were life insurance, disability insurance, and "lodge practice."

"Lodge practice" refers to an arrangement, reminiscent of today's HMOs, whereby a particular society or lodge would contract with a doctor to provide medical care to its members. The doctor received a regular salary on a retainer basis, rather than charging per item; members would pay a yearly fee and then call on the doctor's services as needed. If medical services were found unsatisfactory, the doctor would be penalized, and the contract might not be renewed. Lodge members reportedly enjoyed the degree of customer control this system afforded them. And the tendency to overuse the physician's services was kept in check by the fraternal society's own "self-policing"; lodge members who wanted to avoid future increases in premiums were motivated to make sure that their fellow members were not abusing the system.

Most remarkable was the low cost at which these medical services were provided. At the turn of the century, the average cost of "lodge practice" to an individual member was between one and two dollars a year. A day's wage would pay for a year's worth of medical care. By contrast, the average cost of medical service on the regular market was between one and two dollars per visit. Yet licensed physicians, particularly those who did not come from "big name" medical schools, competed vigorously for lodge contracts, perhaps because of the security they offered; and this competition continued to keep costs low.

Confrontation: A Message for Advisors

I was asked recently by The Leadership Institute: Women with Purpose to design and produce a video for their Constructive Confrontation course. The intent was to deliver a message to chapter advisors about the importance of good confrontation.

Anyhow, I thought I would share the finished product (you may have to give it a few minutes to load up):

The Leadership Institute: Women with Purpose is a top notch provider of educational services to women's organizations, and have done a lot of work for national sororities. The courses I have experienced are some of the best I have ever seen. Here's a link to their web site:

The Wicked Fraternity

I had the pleasure recently of attending a performance of the musical Wicked in my hometown of Indianapolis. If you aren’t familiar with the story, Wicked is essentially a retelling of the Wizard of Oz through the eyes of the Wicked Witch of West. She was the villain in the classic movie, and like most villains, we saw her only as the purely evil antagonist to the sweet and heroic Dorothy. Wicked challenges these notions and offers a different view – that of a misunderstood woman, born with green skin, ridiculed for that and for her magical abilities. We see that her evil is really an activism against a corrupt Wizard of Oz and his plans to create a more conformist and passive citizenry. Basically, the musical reminds us that assumptions are a dangerous thing – and that there is often a hidden story behind those we deem to be wicked.

So what does this have to do with fraternity? I see three direct applications:

1. We need to be cautious about the labels that we give to fraternity or sorority chapters. This is a common practice among professionals and advisors. It’s not unusual in conversations for chapters to be called good, bad, effective, dysfunctional, well-behaved, lawless, strong, or weak. To be fair, it’s typically the chapters’ behavior that yields these labels. However, labels are difficult to shake. They may in fact become self-fulfilling prophecies. How many times can a chapter hear that they are weak before they give up? If we’re already defined as a “bad” chapter, then we might as well break the rules. When we see how the witch in Wicked was treated from the time of her birth, then her story as an outcast becomes predictable.

2. Another lesson is the notion of an unknown back-story. There are indeed fraternity and sorority chapters that engage in destructive behaviors and who often deserve the moniker of “wicked.” But what led them to that place? What pivotal moments, when strung together, brought about their dysfunction? Worse yet, which of those moments might we, as staff and advisors, be responsible for? What could we have done at the very beginning, or at the critical tipping points, to change the destinies of these groups? What did we do as undergrads that charted an improper course for these students? Perhaps we should consider these questions before bantering about our frustrations with these chapters.

3. A final lesson is to reconsider what we deem to be wicked. Fairly or unfairly, those in power often get to make that determination. In Wicked, we can see that the witch’s intentions are just, but she is acting counter to the conventional path. Thus, she’s a disruptor, and defined as evil. I think it’s normal for us, as advisors and professional staff, to get so bogged down with the volume and difficulty of our work, that treat disruptors in a negative way. Chapters that don’t get it, or don’t follow our prescribed path for them, are seen as annoying outliers. We then begin to compartmentalize them with those who are truly dysfunctional. This tendency may squelch honest and positive attempts to be different or revolutionary, and to challenge the status quo. Instead of celebrating that, I fear our messages and actions instead promote conformity.

Wicked offers us some great lessons to consider and argue about. I don’t doubt that there are many among us who’d rather have conformity; an Emerald City where everyone is indistinguishable. However, I remind them of our own history. It’s a good thing that our founders challenged the norm and had the courage to be outliers. Perhaps they were labeled as “wicked” in their day.

Powerful Videos

I was alerted many times by facebook friends to a very powerful video created by the IFC at the University of Missouri. Check it out...

Kudos to the creators of such a powerful message. The words ring true. The video theme is based upon an ad campaign from AARP, which is equally powerful. You can see that video here:

As you might know, I'm a BIG fan of creative expression through video, and these two are the best I've seen in a long time.

The Fraternal World Has Lost One of It's Old Guard

Each fraternity and sorority has them.  They are members of the "old guard."  Those who led our organizations for much of their lives, and then passed the torch to a new generation.  They appear at our conventions, and we feel blessed to be in their presence, to give them the grip.  Most of them have gray hair, walk a bit slower, and spend most of their time telling stories of days gone by.  If we're smart, we do whatever we can to get a bit of sage wisdom from them when we can.  If we're lucky, we end up seated with them at a dinner or other function.  For them, fraternity stopped being about all of our problems long ago.  They have transitioned into a state where fraternity is fun again - and the brotherhood and sisterhood is paramount.  All they want to do is celebrate being a part of one of the greatest organizational movements in the history of our country.  They talk with the enthusiasm of a grandparent describing life lessons to their grandchildren.  Their passion may be tempered, but is forever relentless.  

The fraternity world lost one of its old guard this past weekend with the passing of Howard Alter.  Brother Alter was one of those larger-than-life characters in Theta Chi fraternity, of which I'm proud to be a member.  Our top award is named in his honor, and Howard always found a way to make it to fraternity events.  He was well-known to even our youngest members.

I was invited once to speak at the opening of Theta Chi's convention, and after my brief remarks, I was beckoned over by Brother Howard, now using a wheelchair.  I bent over to hear him tell me how good I did, which was a surreal experience given how much I admired him.  I only wish that now I had spent just a few more minutes with him.  Perhaps I could have gained one more insight or pearl of wisdom to add to the thousands he provided our fraternity.  Howard Alter was a man in full, and I will never forget him.

If you are attending a convention for your organization this summer, find a way to spend some time with your members of the "old guard."  You never know when these legends will leave us.  Consider your own legacy as well - what can you learn from them?

Farewell Brother Alter.  

Celebrating the NIC’s First 100 Years

Count me among those who believe in the power of the fraternity experience to change individual lives, institutions of higher education, and the greater society in which we live.

Count me among those who ardently defend our constitutional freedom to associate and never hesitate to remind others of that right.

Count me among those who believe that the Undergraduate Interfraternity Institute has been the hallmark of fraternity education since its inception, and thankful that its teachings have been widely distributed.

Count me among those who believe that fraternity is a movement.

Count me among those who are enlivened by spirited debate, excited by diverse opinions, and inspired when uncommon entities can unite under a banner of principles.

Count me among those who believe in the teachings of Ritual.

Count me among those who believe in courageous acts that push boundaries and champion causes that may be unpopular, but absolutely vital.

Count me among those who feel that philosophical models, such has year-round recruitment, expectations for membership, standards of excellence, and values congruence, have elevated fraternities in permanent and powerful ways.

Count me among those who love my fraternity and the spirit of interfraternalism as well.

And count me among those who know that these beliefs have been promoted, sustained, and in many cases made possible by the efforts of the North American Interfraternity Conference, since its creation in 1909.  With admiration for all that’s been done, and excitement for what is yet to come, count me among those who proudly celebrate the NIC on its 100th anniversary.

Fraternal Relevancy that Matters

The word “relevance” seems to be all the rage right now.  I’m reading it and hearing it much more often, and I’ve spoken with many Greek Advisors who incorporate that term frequently into their discussions with undergraduates.  Many Alumni programs seem to grapple with the idea of relevance as well.  I have a few observations on that term and its use towards Greek-letter organizations.

When examining fraternal relevance we need to add the question, “relevant to what?”  A thing cannot just be relevant on its own.  It needs to be relevant to something else.   Greek-letter organizations can ask if they are relevant to any of the following:  host colleges/universities, individual members’ lives, and/or the growth of society as a whole.  I think most people are considering colleges/universities when they speak of fraternal relevance.  In other words, when asking about the relevance of college fraternities and sororities, they are questioning whether or not they are still pertinent to the host institution.  That’s fine – but we shouldn’t use that as our only measure.  If we determine that we are no longer relevant to host institutions, then is it over?  No.  We may still be VERY relevant to the lives of our individual members who will achieve great things because of their involvement.  Greek-letter organizations may still be VERY relevant to the growth of our society – particularly American society and its need for leaders and organizers.

If tomorrow, all host institutions decided to cut their ties with Greek-letter organizations, would we go the way of the dodo?  I doubt we would.  Instead, we would adapt.  For instance, we might transform into more community-oriented organizations, much like Kiwanis or Freemasons.  We would find a way to carry on.

I’m not making the case that we ignore our relationship with our host institutions.  In all possible ways, we need to nurture that relationship.  We should be actively concerned with how we impact the academic success of our members.  If we house students on a particular campus, we should ensure that we are creating safe and secure living environments.  Overall, we should act as good partners to these institutions, because partners are what we are.

I understand the need to play nice with our “hosts.”  I value the perspectives and call to action brought forth by the Franklin Square group.  But, I fear that in philosophical and tangible ways, we are handing over our right to exist to institutions of higher education – most of which never really wanted us to exist in the first place. 

In other words, the frenzy over trying to regain relevance to colleges and universities has to be tempered with the following question:  were we ever meant to be relevant?  Were we ever really meant to compliment the mission of the campuses where our founders happened to meet up?  I admit that I am not a “Bairds Manual” aficionado that can speak to fraternity history with precision.  However, my understanding of the founding of our movement is that individuals were looking for something that wasn’t provided in their college experience.  They wanted shared values, camaraderie, spirited debate, and fun.  I doubt they took much time wondering how these new organizations fit into the missions of their college or university.  My interpretation of our beginnings is that we were borne out of defiance to the host institutions, not in seamless companionship with them.  So while we should care about that relationship now, should it really define our right to exist?

Focusing on our relevancy to higher education also puts us on the defensive.  We are always stuck responding to someone else’s needs.  This results in a one-way relationship, with colleges and universities holding all the cards.  Simply by asking the question of whether or not we are relevant to our host institutions, we are positing the possibility that we are not.  We are falsely expressing that we might not matter.

We do matter.  We do make a difference - ask almost any person who has had a fraternal experience.  We have a story to share, and lessons to teach.  Our values are timeless, and every man or woman who passes through our organizations can be better off by having learned them.  If we are to dissolve, it will not be because we stopped being relevant to a university or a college – it will be because we stopped being relevant to those who are yet to join.

Let’s Start Calling Them Fraternity/Sorority Systems Again

I lived out my undergraduate fraternity years during a renaissance of ideas and principles. The shifting of Ritual as a ceremony to ritual as a living out of fraternal values was firmly taking root. The move from formal rush to year-round recruitment was being heavily promoted. And the role of alcohol in fraternity dwellings was on everyone’s mind. It was certainly an exciting time to be Greek, and I was swept up in these new thoughts and paradigms.

Another shift that I embraced was changing the language of Fraternity/Sorority System to Fraternity/Sorority Community. I recall this change as being as forceful as our residence life friends demanding that their inhabitants refer to their living spaces as halls, and not dorms. If you said system, you were quickly corrected. The move to community had started, and no one need stand in its way.

I embraced this change because I loved the principles that accompany one’s thoughts about community. Visually, I pictured mass gatherings of fraternity men all casting aside their letters so that they could join hands with their interfraternal brethren. Community means love, respect, collaboration, and kindness. It’s the best of humanity. It’s joyful and inspiring. It’s Sesame Street!

A system, on the other hand, is cold, calculated, and lifeless. I imagined the bland concrete of a highway system; the cold steel of girders and beams; the intricate wirings of our brains. A system was a way you classified something – not a way to live! There was no soul, no color, no hugs. Systems sucked. Communities rocked.

I’ve been thinking more about this lately – and I think we may have it backwards. We may actually be doing a disservice to our students by insisting on community versus system.  My mind started to grapple with this thanks to the old-fashioned American Heritage Dictionary. The dictionary spells out the definitions of these two concepts as follows:

a. A group of people living in the same locality and under the same government.
b. The district or locality in which such a group lives.
c. A group of people having common interests: the scientific community; the international business community.
d. A group viewed as forming a distinct segment of society: the gay community; the community of color.

a. A group of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent elements forming a complex whole.
b. A functionally related group of elements, especially:
  1. The human body regarded as a functional physiological unit.
  2. An organism as a whole, especially with regard to its vital processes or functions.
  3. A group of physiologically or anatomically complementary organs or parts: the nervous system; the skeletal system.
  4. A group of interacting mechanical or electrical components.
  5. A network of structures and channels, as for communication, travel, or distribution.
  6. A network of related computer software, hardware, and data transmission devices.
c. An organized set of interrelated ideas or principles.
d. A social, economic, or political organizational form.

I included four definitions for each, because like most of the English language, there are different meanings in different contexts. When I read these definitions, I was intrigued with how boring and basic Community really is: a place where people live; common interests; segment of society, etc. The definition of system jumped out at as much more interesting and applicable to fraternities and sororities: interacting, interrelated, interdependent, complementary, complex, network. I dismissed the references to the human body and mechanics at first – but after more thought – these references helped crystallize it even more. Think about the human body – which is one of the most wondrous things in the universe. It’s a system, and we’re okay with that. We don’t refer to our anatomy as a community of organs. Who cares if the kidneys and lungs like each other – as long as they work together. And mechanics – think about the connectedness and interaction that lifts a 390,000-pound Boeing 747 off the ground. Exciting things happen when systems are at work – and perhaps we need to let this term work for us again.

While the definition of community is weaker, the idea of community is much stronger. That’s because the idea of community includes the values and aspects that make for a strong and positive community. These values are what we hope comes from community. However, they are not necessary for community. After all, a community, whether it be Greek row or the neighborhood in which you live, exists independent of these values. It’s where you live. It’s a physical place. A system, on the other hand, doesn’t only exist – it is created for a purpose. The values we want our communities to have are actually inherent in systems (e.g., interdependence, working together, purpose, etc.). A system has a goal. It may be something simple, such as an efficient flow of traffic or the delivery of a package. Or, it may be the proper functioning of the human body. It may be growth and life – such as in ecosystems. A community may have a stated purpose or goal as well – but it can live without one. A system isn’t a system without a purpose or goal.

In short, a system is doing something. It’s dynamic and always in motion. There is a reason it exists.  

There is also something to be said about connections and interdependence. A system requires all its parts. A community does not. Remove the carburetor, for example, and the engine won’t function. Tear down one house, and the community still remains. An argument could be made that community makes more sense for Greek life, since chapters come and go and we don’t want the collective whole to collapse if this happens. Well, systems are adaptable as well. Changing environments and situations lead to tweaks and changes in the system. While each part of a system is valuable, the system can find a way to reconstruct itself without it. If a chapter leaves our Greek collective, and no change or adaptation is needed – doesn’t that say something powerful about the relevancy of that group? Using the system approach, we can better challenge our chapters to be relevant to others. Why are they part of the system? What purpose do they serve? What role do they play? How are they unique? Would we notice them if they were gone?

There can be outliers in a community. A community can become a shield for a poor chapter. A community can pull a struggling chapter along. In a true system, there can’t be any weak links or outliers. In order for the purpose of the system to be fulfilled, each part needs to step up and work. If your digestive system isn’t working well, you feel it. If a chapter is failing, the Greek system should feel it as well. It should slow the system to the point where accountability is no longer an option – it’s necessary for survival.  

Continuing to teach community most likely won’t harm our chapters, but it may not promote any advancement either. Returning to the term “system” can open us up to a whole new framework from which to work. Our goal shouldn’t be to get chapters to like each other and join hands, but to want to work together because they understand the greater purpose. They understand the part they play.

System might not conjure up the same kind of beautiful images that community does, but it could conjure up a better future for our fraternities and sororities.

Young and Stupid No More

In the interviews and press conferences that have followed the revelation of Alex Rodriguez’s steroid use, a common refrain has been “young and stupid.” Rodriguez has used this excuse repeatedly, as evidenced in the quotes from his latest presser:

“When I entered the pros, I was a young kid in the major leagues I was 18 years old right out of high school, I thought I knew everything and I clearly didn't.”

“I was 24, 25 years old. I keep going back to - I entered the game when I was 18.”

“I wish I went to college and had an opportunity to grow up and at my own pace. I guess when you are young and stupid you are young and stupid.”

“I didn't think they were steroids. That's part of being young and stupid.”

“I was 24, 25. I was pretty naive and pretty young.”

“My mistake came because I was immature and I was stupid.”
Way to throw an entire age bracket under the bus Alex! Both Michael Phelps’ and A-rod’s reliance on the dumb-and-young card got me thinking about how tired I’ve become of that excuse. It’s a prevalent excuse for college undergraduates to use to justify dangerous behavior. For example, it was rare for me to get through a session on responsible alcohol use without someone stating “but we’re young and should be allowed to make mistakes!”  

It’s true – young adults make mistakes (news flash: so do older people).  Mistakes are a part of life. However, in fraternity and sorority life, I think we’ve broadened the definition of mistake to include anything that a person should not be doing. A mistake is an accident – and usually a temporary or single-incident one. A mistake is locking your keys in your car. A mistake is forgetting to call your Mom on her birthday. A mistake is breaking a rule you did not know about. The important thing is that we never meant for these things to happen.

Underage drinking is NOT a mistake. It’s a choice. Any person with a pulse knows that the drinking age is 21. It’s time to stop using the “young and stupid” excuse to justify this behavior. My feelings about the drinking age will appear in a future essay. However, at this moment, it’s illegal to drink if you are not 21 or older. If you do, be prepared for the consequences.

Hazing someone else is NOT just a mistake. Nobody can ever say: “Whoops, I just accidentally hazed that person!” It is also a choice. At this point in our history, I don’t believe anyone can claim ignorance on hazing. Thanks to the media and active educational efforts by universities and headquarters, no fraternity/sorority member should be ignorant to the fact that hazing is in most cases illegal and in all cases wrong.

The same can be said for sexual assault, vandalism, drug use, and almost every other calamity that threatens fraternities and sororities. “Young and stupid” is not an acceptable excuse anymore. Young people may not be as wise as older people, but they are not stupid. They may be overconfident, or harbor feelings of invincibility, but they are not stupid.

Ignorance of rules can be a problem, given that there are so many nowadays. That’s why policies and rules should be shared in as many forms as possible, and as many times as possible. However, I don’t think we need to tell 18-year-olds that underage drinking is illegal more than once for us to hold them accountable to it. I understand some of the cognitive theories that have caused us to rationalize youthful behavior over the years, but I’m tired of how these have also caused us to lower expectations. Previous generations did not have the luxury to wait until they were 22 to be mature. I wonder sometimes if the 18-year-old brain today is only stupid, immature, or ignorant because we let it be. We shouldn’t be captive to our assumptions, or fearful of raised expectations.

If we view our actions as choices, and not mistakes, then maybe we can begin to return to an era of individual accountability. I was arrested for underage drinking when I was 19. I was young – but not stupid. I knew I was breaking the law, and I paid the consequences (including an excruciating confession to my parents). I don’t view it as a mistake. I made a bad choice and did my best to own it.

It’s okay to be young. It’s okay to be immature. It’s okay to be stupid. However, it’s no longer okay to rationalize poor choices because of those reasons. President Obama has called for a new era of responsibility and, in my mind, there is no minimum age to join this era.


Some thoughts on why "craziness" may be leadership trait most needed in this new era of fraternity.  

Let the Congregation Sing

In my world, there are two kinds of religious services – those in which the people sing, and those in which they don’t. The Catholic Church my wife and I attended for many years in Iowa fit the first category. There was a great deal of energy present during each service and it materialized in the voices of the participants. The first book the churchgoers grabbed was the hymnal. It was expected, that no matter how proud or self-conscious you were, you sang. It wasn't always harmonious (especially in my case), but the point was that you felt compelled to join in the chorus.

There is another church I attend frequently that is almost the complete opposite. When it comes time to sing, attendees just silently stare straight ahead. The hymnals go untouched. Not even the children sing, mostly taking the lead of their parents to simply sit and listen. It definitely diminishes the environment and almost sucks the life completely out of the place.

It’s always made me wonder – what compels a congregation to sing? I’m sure there are many reasons, but I’ve started to build a theory based on recent experiences.

The current church our family goes to is a wonderful and warm place, infused with a culture of singing. Last weekend, however, I looked around and noticed that hardly anyone was singing. On that particular day, a choir had been assembled at the front of the church, and they were doing a beautiful job. However, no one else in the room felt compelled to join them. We all just listened. The room was full of music – thanks to the choir – but there was a peculiar lack of energy in the room.

As I began to reflect on my churchgoing experiences, I began to separate the ones in which there was a choir involved from those in which there wasn’t. I determined, unscientifically, that the congregation seemed to participate more fully when there wasn’t a choir. I can’t fully explain why – but I tend to believe it is another reflection of a common quality of human nature: when someone else is doing the work for us, we tend to step back.

Whether or not this is definitively the case, it does raise an interesting parallel to leadership and fraternity life. When individuals feel as though someone else will do the “singing,” how likely are they to contribute?

There are various levels in the fraternity and sorority world where choirs can take over the singing for the congregation. For instance, a chapter’s executive board may act without input from members and subsequently, a culture of member apathy results. National headquarters can also overwhelm the undergraduates with policies that drown out their “singing.”

As I reflected on this analogy however, my mind went first to the set-up of university offices that oversee Greek-letter organizations. I have observed over the years that campuses with a small and efficient fraternity/sorority life staff tend to get more out of their undergraduates than staffs that are bursting with directors, assistants, and grads. In fact, the campus that I found to have the greatest student empowerment only had one full-time professional (at a large state institution). It seems to me that students voluntarily do more and take on more responsibility when they need to – which is the case when staff is stretched thin. Larger staffs can often take work away from the students because there is more capacity to do it, and we inherently believe that professionals can do it better. For example, the students don’t need to care much about Greek Week if it falls under a staff member’s job description. It’s almost become an expectation in our field that a bigger staff is better. Assessments always seem to mark that as an area for improvement. A common refrain at gatherings of fraternity advisors is “if only I had more staff…”

Should we always advocate for more staff? Well, is a bigger choir always a good thing? The music may sound more beautiful, but the congregation walks away feeling empty. It’s enjoyable to listen to music, but it’s much more meaningful to make it ourselves. How else would we ever learn the words? How can we gain kinship with our fellow churchgoers if we don’t all raise our voices? These are questions of engagement versus passivity; efficacy versus dependence; confidence versus fear; and spirit versus desolation.

We work too many hours in fraternity/sorority life. And, because of that, we tend to take on too much. A natural consequence is that we add even more hours to our week. Then, a logical solution emerges: more staff would reduce this overwhelming workload. Perhaps this solution expands the problem – by setting ourselves up to take on even more of the work. I think we need to constantly remind ourselves of what the students are capable of – even if they have failed before. Also – have we utilized our chapter advisors enough? Do we really need to be at every meeting? Can we do more with interns and practicum students? There are better solutions than just adding staff; solutions that can limit the “choir” effect.

I remember many moments in my past work in higher education when I didn’t believe in the students. Almost all of the time, they surprised me. It’s hard to fight against our doubts, and difficult to relinquish control. We can ensure that there will be some singing if we build a big choir. But is the singing as loud as it could be? In our good intentions, are we actually silencing voices? In our efforts to create something that sounds beautiful, are we forgetting the power of the unexpected?

You may not sing very well. But at least I can hear you. I know that I don’t sing very well. But I’m glad you can hear me. If given the choice, I’ll take the congregation over the choir any day.