The word “relevance” seems to be all the rage right now. I’m reading it and hearing it much more often, and I’ve spoken with many Greek Advisors who incorporate that term frequently into their discussions with undergraduates. Many Alumni programs seem to grapple with the idea of relevance as well. I have a few observations on that term and its use towards Greek-letter organizations.
When examining fraternal relevance we need to add the question, “relevant to what?” A thing cannot just be relevant on its own. It needs to be relevant to something else. Greek-letter organizations can ask if they are relevant to any of the following: host colleges/universities, individual members’ lives, and/or the growth of society as a whole. I think most people are considering colleges/universities when they speak of fraternal relevance. In other words, when asking about the relevance of college fraternities and sororities, they are questioning whether or not they are still pertinent to the host institution. That’s fine – but we shouldn’t use that as our only measure. If we determine that we are no longer relevant to host institutions, then is it over? No. 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 leaders and organizers.
If tomorrow, all host institutions decided to cut their ties with Greek-letter organizations, would we go the way of the dodo? I doubt we would. Instead, we would adapt. For instance, we might transform into more community-oriented organizations, much like Kiwanis or Freemasons. We would find a way to carry on.
I’m not making the case that we ignore our relationship with our host institutions. In all possible ways, we need to nurture that relationship. 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.
I understand the need to play nice with our “hosts.” I value the perspectives and call to action brought forth by the Franklin Square group. 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.
In other words, the frenzy over trying to regain relevance to colleges and universities has to be tempered with the following question: were we ever meant to be relevant? 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?
Focusing on our relevancy to higher education also puts us on the defensive. We are always stuck responding to someone else’s needs. This results in a one-way relationship, with colleges and universities holding all the cards. Simply by asking the question of whether or not we are relevant to our host institutions, we are positing the possibility that we are not. We are falsely expressing that we might not matter.
We do matter. We do make a difference - ask almost any person who has had a fraternal experience. We have a story to share, and lessons to teach. Our values are timeless, and every man or woman who passes through our organizations can be better off by having learned them. If we are to dissolve, it will not be because we stopped being relevant to a university or a college – it will be because we stopped being relevant to those who are yet to join.