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?


  1. I think it's important to clarify that the AEPi chapter mentioned in this article has been unrecognized by the University for nearly 20 years while maintaining national recognition. In scenarios like this, how does this relationship change the conversation? When is the national organization responsible after the University and governing council has decided they no longer support the chapter?

  2. That's a great question and one that I think many people wonder. How many groups are kept open by their national organizations even when their campus recognition is rightfully removed? Every campus is different, but will (hopefully) treat Greek Life in a way that best serves their campus and community. So why keep a chapter open that is knowingly violating standards of the university, and likely the national orgs, in a severe enough manner for them to be removed? There are political, financial and historical aspects to keeping some of these chapters open but there needs to be a stronger standard set so that groups stop feeling entitled and "above the law" and start feeling like they need to earn their letters every day.

    I think there needs to be a stronger stance in national standards enforcement regardless of whether or not they are recognized by the university. If a group of Greek professionals or alumni can sit back and honestly assess a chapter and say that they are a good representation of their organization is about, then they should have no problem having a good relationship with their respective school and council. The bar that is set at each school should be met or exceeded by our own standards both nationally and locally. If that were the case then I think we would see fewer of these underground groups. At least ones that are still recognized by a national organization.

  3. I think thier should be a systematic structure. Like the federal statutes have supreme authority over state statutes, so let National Organizations set relatively broad principles to follow, delegating ALL OTHER authority to the colleges. That way, the national organization can govern thier chapters, and the colleges can impose additional "statutes" on the chapters if they wish. The chapters must then maintain both channels. In addition, the National Organization and college must agree on the National "statutes" before considering the chapter and expect the National Organization to uphold those standards, including consequences for chapters who don't uphold the colleges "statutes" as well, which would be a breach of procedural law.