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.