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.



  1. John,
    I think this is a really interesting article and point. My men in IFC are becoming more and more self-governing. One thing I tell them is that, unfortunately because of the high profile fraternities have, either they self-govern and establish standards/trends or my office will have to. I don't like doing it; I'd rather have the chapters agree on what a fraternity should look like and be held to.

    One positive aspect left out is that when peers create standards for and with each other, they are more likely to hold one another accountable.

    Thanks for all you do and all you make us think!


  2. I’d agree that the trend is building momentum. Just this semester, the undergrad chapter I now advise became subject to “standards of excellence” for Greek orgs, which eventually will act as a checklist of minimums to maintain recognition. It was started by university staff, but the line items were compiled by student leaders to at least open the door to self-governance and peer policing.

    I also completely agree with you that the ideal position for third party advisers and oversight bodies should be to limit “building the experience for them” and allow the member’s leadership to be developed. At the same time, for those chapters not at the upper levels of achievement, can something that carries a risk of punishment bring focus to chapters that might be viewed as stumbling?

    - Wes