Tuesday, April 24, 2012

UNDergroUND

A few weeks back, I read a newspaper account of horrendous fraternity hazing.  It was the stuff of movies: pledges were naked, shivering, and duct-taped in the basement.  The article then went on the reveal that the fraternity in question was an underground version of Alpha Epsilon Pi.  It was not a recognized fraternity on the campus.  Stupidly, I felt relieved.  Haven’t you before as well?  After all, underground fraternities are rogue groups acting on their own behalf, and we shouldn’t have to answer for their idiocy.  

It led me to think more about underground groups.

First, remember that we all once were underground.  The earliest fraternities and sororities were not welcomed, and did not exist in the eyes of the colleges at which they were founded.  That rebellious streak still permeates our organizations today, even though we now have built relationships (albeit eternally-fragile) with institutions of higher education.


This is likely not what your average underground fraternity is doing


Secondly, think about your definition of an underground fraternity or sorority.  What comes to mind?  When I thought about it, I defined them as groups that have lost recognition because they violated some policy or standard, were ordered to disband, and instead decided to carry on their activities in secret. 
Except, that they aren’t really secret.  Undergrads know they exist.  They chuckle about them, and secretly admire them for the freedom they now have.  In a way, this may actually empower these groups to last longer than they should and thus allow them to wreak havoc that the rest of us have to deal with.  

Do you think Joe Public makes a distinction between an underground group and a...err...well...an “aboveground” group?

But here is a much more complex question: who has the authority to disband an undergraduate chapter in the first place?  Whose can decide who is recognized or not, thereby pushing the first domino that can lead a group to go underground?

Do colleges or universities have this authority?  Well, yes.  Should they have it?  Not really.

The primary group that should have this authority are the national organizations that govern their campus-based chapters.  In other words, Tau Epsilon Phi, by way of their national staff and volunteer leadership, should decide if the Tau Epsilon Phi chapter at Shertzer State University (that has a ring to it) has met the standards that allows for their charter.  This is self-governance 101.

However - they are not alone.  Tau Epsilon Phi, like 99.9% of greek-letter organizations in our society have made the choice to exist at colleges and universities.  Those are the places at which they want to expand their franchise.  It’s important to call this a choice, because no one is forcing them to exist on college campuses.  They could go set up shop elsewhere - such as at military bases, or community centers, or even penal institutions.  But TEP has decided that they want to be where individuals pursuing higher education are.

Because we haven’t figured out another way to do it, we are creatures that must latch on to other organisms in order to thrive.  We always have a host.  Well, if we’re going to climb on the back of the turtle to get a ride, we shouldn’t be surprised if that turtle wants to walk a different direction.

So, we need to accept that the institutions themselves have some say as to how our groups interact with their campus.  However, there is a right way and wrong way to do this.  The wrong way is for the university, through some blue-ribbon commission or task force, to establish a set of standards that the fraternities or sororities have to adhere to or else.  This is authoritarian governance.

The right way is to use the Interfraternity, Panhellenic, and/or National Pan-Hellenic Councils (or any other student-led governing council).  They are the groups that should - through representation from the chapters themselves - collectively agree upon a shared set of standards that would allow for fraternity or sorority chapters on a given campus to be affiliated with the institution.

If self-governing is truly something we value, it is these entities (national organizations and campus councils) that should set the only standards by which fraternities and sororities adhere, and thus the only entities that should be empowered to take recognition away.

The problem is, the campus councils are unwilling to accept this responsibility.  Instead, they abdicate it to the university.  I guess they’re too busy planning the next Presidents' night at BW3.

Undergrads - if you accept that you should be governing yourself, then underground groups should piss you off.  They violated your standards, and now they’re circumventing your authority.  Instead of laughing at them, pretending that they don’t exist, or even empowering them by attending their events, you should be doing what you can to accelerate their dissolution.  Sometimes, it’s as simple as ignoring them.

So consider who really has the authority to call the shots on recognition for your campus.  If it’s not your governing councils, then why do they exist?

It's about reclaiming self-governance. If your campus doesn’t have a governing council, get one.  If your college or university won’t allow it, get one anyway.  

Whoops - did I just encourage you to go underground?

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

It Takes Responsible Men and Women

Guest essay by Jimmy Cox
(NOTE: This post serves as a continuation of last week's essay "Fraternity and Freedom."  As a new professional in higher education, Jimmy gives his thoughts on how our organizations can be forces for building responsible men and women, especially through event planning -- John) 

Student organizations come with a lot of responsibility. I believe fraternities and sororities have some of the most responsibility out of all of them. Every member of a fraternity and sorority understands that stereotypes are one of our biggest hindrances. There are many positive things done by the fraternity and sorority community nationwide. However, our negative actions whether it is hazing, alcohol and drug abuse, racism, property damage or something else will always garner more attention. Yet, since I have started working in higher education and student affairs, I have noticed that besides the community service, philanthropy and other positive activities chapters conduct, their responsibility in event management and planning is phenomenal.

In my current job, student activities and orientation, part of my work includes advising student organizations. One of our policies at Marian University is that if student organizations take a trip, they need at least one or two advisors accompanying them. On the trips that I have been a part of, I did not really do much of anything. I had the utmost confidence that if I had not gone on the trip, the student organizations could have handled any problem. This got me thinking about how fraternities and sororities are treated when it comes to advising. The events that are attended most by advisors are probably chapter meetings and recruitment events. Whether it is a social event, community service project, retreat, formals or a philanthropy project, chapters plan and coordinate the events without the help of an advisor. Even in the event of an emergency the chapter may give us a call, but they have to take care of the problem at that moment.  

Formals and retreats are an excellent example. In most of these instances, the chapter must organize transportation, reserve a location, put together a guest list and have policies in place in case of an emergency. These are not easy tasks and they require a lot of work. There are certainly cases in which things have gone wrong. We have all heard horror stories of hotel rooms being destroyed, drunk driving, underage drinking and chapters being barred from returning to a venue, but you never hear the successful stories. My chapter recently hosted their winter formal back in December. They rented a bus, reserved a ballroom and a block of rooms at a hotel to stay the night. The event had a cash bar and the men hired a police officer to act as security. The only minor issue they had was being told to keep the noise level down at the hotel. The next week they even wrote cards expressing thanks to the formal site and the hotel for letting them use their property. As a member of our advisory board, I could not have been happier. They worked hard to plan and manage an event that could have very well had a number of things go wrong. However, they put responsible members in charge who were able to plan the event well, manage it effectively and ensure that afterwards, the proper people were thanked. They represented themselves, their fraternity and their school to the best of their ability. 

The funny thing out of all of this: they did not even recognize what happened. To them it was just another formal that they had hosted. Members got together, had fun, and then went home the next day. What really happened? Officers planned well in advance an event in another city that required responsible budgeting and risk management.  They reserved a location and transportation, acquired security, and saw to the details of food and entertainment. All of this was done without the help of an advisor. Our men and women are very capable of accomplishing these tasks all on their own. It comes down to recruiting the right people and giving them the resources to be successful. The worst thing we can do as advisors is micromanage them by holding their hands throughout the process. There were not advisors to our men and women when they started our organizations. Look at what we have become now. 

I am not in any way advocating that advisors are of no use.  They most certainly are. If my chapter had asked for my help, I would have offered my advice and suggestions. If an emergency occurs, our advisors are made aware almost immediately.  Probably the most important use of our time is to be someone the students can vent to and someone who will extend support in difficult times. However, the moment when we begin to micromanage the organizations and take away the students’ autonomy, is the moment when they begin to rely on us rather than trust their instincts.  It prevents them from learning from their mistakes and fully developing as men and women. 

My challenge to our undergraduate men and women across the country is to realize the responsibility you have. Understand that when it is used correctly, it can outweigh many of the negative stories out there about our community. It may not get publicized on the evening news, but there are those of us out there watching and it makes us very proud. By succeeding at your events and programs, you are ensuring that the ones who came before you are able to return to relish in and congratulate you on your successes. The next time you are successful at recruitment, plan and manage a responsible social event, organize a community service project or just put together a nice dinner for the chapter next door, remember that it takes responsible men and women to do these things.  



Jimmy Cox is a 2009 graduate of Purdue University and a member of Theta Chi Fraternity. After graduation, he worked for two years as a Leadership and Education Consultant for Theta Chi. Currently, he is working on his master's in higher education and student affairs from Indiana University. He is employed at Marian University-Indianapolis working in student activities and orientation. Jimmy's thoughts are his own, and not necessarily a reflection of the institutions for which he works or volunteers.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Fraternity and Freedom

I’ve heard it said that when America was formed, it was held as a grand experiment in man’s ability to govern himself.  Models of self-government were mostly theoretical at the time, and so this country became the first to really test that idea.  Although there have been many stumbles along the way, I think the experiment has worked pretty well.

I’ll let the politicians and pundits debate whether or not we’re drifting closer to, or further away, from that ideal.

Nonetheless, if America can be judged as an experiment in self-government, then I believe that the American fraternity or sorority can be judged as the same - albeit on a smaller level.  Our earliest forms were established by men and women without the permission of the colleges they were attending.  Back then, students did not have to submit paperwork to a campus office in order to gain “recognition.”  If they felt something was important enough to establish, then they went forward without apologies.  Now, it’s fair to say that our earliest groups also didn’t want or expect anything from the colleges.  We weren’t looking to compliment the mission of those institutions back then.  We wanted to be left alone.  We wanted to govern ourselves.  That spirit remains, but is being challenged.

I wrote an essay once that argued that fraternities and sororities (and thus their members) have defiance in their DNA.  There is a natural and embedded distrust between the fraternity man and his/her national headquarters and/or campus Greek Life office.  That goes all the way back to our founding.  And it’s proper to be skeptical of the institutions to which we are connected.

I believe that one of the chief reasons for the longevity of the fraternity/sorority movement is the spirit of self-government.  Not only have our organizations been a place for young people to find enduring friendships, service opportunities, academic support, and great memories - they have also been a place for young people to find freedom.  

Freedom and self-governance go together.

The benefits of self-governance can be profound.  Our society needs more individuals who can act upon their convictions, who will question authority when necessary, and who can simply manage their own problems and concerns.  Our world needs the strength that comes from individuals who are unwilling to let others control their destiny.  Self-government creates personal responsibility and nobody I know thinks we have enough of that in our world today.  

And so, we arrive at yet another reason why the fraternity and sorority is an absolutely relevant organization today: we create generations of responsible citizens through the practice of self-governance.  Our society should be cheering our ability to inspire young people to contribute more than they take.

Yet, we are not embracing this.  Because, we are not embracing self-governance.

Is fraternity/sorority self-governance under attack?  Possibly.  Colleges and universities seem to be laying out more and more requirements on student organizations.  Think about the following trends and developments, which many of you will see as progress.  When viewed through a lens of self-governance, and all the benefits of that principle, maybe that assessment should be reconsidered:
  • Colleges/Universities choosing to move fraternity and sorority dwellings on-campus, in new facilities that can be managed by the institution.
  • More requirements on groups with housing needing to have live-in advisors.
  • Headquarters and universities requiring reports on minimum expectations/criteria to be recognized.
  • Academic requirements for members to affiliate or organizations to be recognized.
  • Service hour requirements from HQ or the university.
  • More and more mandates on when a person can join, when they can live in the house, etc.

In an era when the relationship between universities and fraternities is more seamless than ever, it can be justified that colleges and universities have the right to do all of the things mentioned above.  However, for the sake of student learning, efficacy, and empowerment, justifying that they should do these things is not as easy.

Just because fraternities and sororities have allowed entities such as their headquarters and campuses to exert more control over their destiny doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.  In my opinion, it certainly cannot be described as progress.


We were meant be organizations that allowed young people a chance to build something together. They were able to learn from experience, achievements, and mistakes. Now, we are trying to build the experience for them and asking them to just ride along. 

For professionals who work in this industry - we were all once collegiate members.  We likely learned tremendous life skills from the autonomy of that experience.  I invite you to wonder (as I have on many occasions) why then we spend so much of our time now thinking about ways to limit that autonomy? How many of us quickly jump to policy when trying to solve an issue?  How many of us have spent a Friday night driving around Greek row looking for rule-breaking behavior? 

Comparisons between a campus chess club and a college fraternity are often made in jest and as a way to show to unique significance of the fraternity/sorority experience.  If we’re not careful, the day when the chess club has more self-governance to speak of than we do, is not too far away.