Who Owns the Future of Fraternity?

The recent issue at Harvard, with the university essentially choosing to sanction any student that affiliates with a single-gender organization, has revealed a truth about modern Greek life that cannot be ignored by fraternity supporters: colleges and universities still own our future.

For as large as the fraternity and sorority industry has become, for as big as the education industry for fraternity and sorority members has become, for all the talk about trade associations, freedom of association, and all the rest, it’s still up to colleges and universities as to whether or not we exist.

And that’s becoming an increasingly precarious position to be in.

Yet it seems to be one that we’re embracing more and more.  And we’re preparing less and less for any result other than what we getting from the likes of Harvard.  In this day and age, national fraternities and sororities are trying to outrace each other in terms of who most nicely and neatly fits within the mission of higher education.  We each want to be the one they love the best. We work hard to “speak their language” with learning outcomes that sound like they fell out of a masters thesis. Our educator and consultant class (me included) comes from higher education and tends to only know how to help Greek organizations within that realm.

In a way, we have sold out to the idea that for us to be relevant and consequential, we need our friends in higher education to tell us that we are. 

For a long time, we’ve been focused on the idea of relevance. We want to ensure that Greek life continues to be a relevant force today and into the future.  The problem is that we usually think about relevance only in terms of our host institutions.  This means that we judge our success only by if colleges and universities think we’re okay.

But to be a relevant organization, we first need to answer the question: relevant to whom?  Yes, host institutions are one of those answers, but are they the only one?  Are they even the most important one?  In my opinion, it is more important to be relevant to two other audiences: our members, and society at large.

If we determine that we are no longer relevant to host institutions, or if they determine it for us (more likely), then is it over?  I don’t think it should be.  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 values-based leaders and organizers.

If tomorrow, all host institutions decided to cut their ties with Greek-letter organizations, what would we do?   We could adapt.  For instance, we might transform into more community-oriented organizations, much like Kiwanis or Freemasons.  We could find a way to carry on and still focus on instilling values in young men and women.

Just because we were founded at institutions of higher education doesn’t mean our destinies need to be intertwined.  But the sense I’m getting is that this is a very minority opinion.

I’m not making the case that we ignore our relationship with our host institutions as it stands today.  In all possible ways, we need to nurture that relationship, because it’s the business model we’ve chosen.  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.

We should pay attention to our present reality, but at the same time, imagine a future where a college or university isn’t the foundation of our existence, so that we’re ready if that day comes.  Whether or not we exist for our grandchildren relies more on innovative rather than subservient thinking.

Which fraternity or sorority out there will figure this out?  Wait – maybe NPHC groups already have.  NPHC alumni chapters, which you can join without being an undergraduate member, are often larger than their campus groups. 

I understand the need to play nice with our “hosts.”  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. And some, like Harvard, are finding creative ways to get rid of us.

The frenzy over trying to assert that we are relevant to colleges and universities has to be tempered with the following question: were we ever meant to be?  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?

Constantly kowtowing to higher education also puts us on the defensive.  We are always stuck responding to someone else’s needs.  We are always reacting by issuing statements about why actions by Harvard or Princeton or Dartmouth or Colorado are wrong.  But the actions continue.  In the end, it’s a one-way relationship, with colleges and universities holding all the cards.  We fool ourselves into thinking we’re on equal footing.  Is it finally time to worry about that, and respond in a substantive and innovative way?

Until that time, have your statements ready.  Who knows what’s coming next.