The Right Questions of Relevance

Below article, as published in the Association of Fraternity and Sorority Advisors Essentials E-Newsletter. Essentials is a monthly educational e-newsletter provided to AFA members to learn about a variety of topics. The Essentials Editorial Board plays an important role in the Association’s Strategic Plan and ongoing efforts to provide excellent resources and services to members. If you like the article below, you should consider subscribing to Essentials for $45 per year.
by:John Shertzer, Leadership Ventures
August 2009

Questioning the relevance of fraternities and sororities is a powerful approach for catalyzing change. We, as members and advocates for fraternal organizations, should always be concerned with relevance. However, exploring this topic is not without its dangers.

When examining fraternal relevance we need to add the question, “Relevant to what?” A thing cannot just be relevant on its own. Fraternal organizations can ask if they are relevant to any of the following: their members, their future members, and the growth of society. Our relevancy to institutions of higher education should also be considered, but this is far less important than the others.

Take first, the question of whether or not we are relevant to our current members (both undergraduates and alumni). We do not exist without our members, and they will only stay invested if they find their organizations to still be relevant to their lives.  Are we contributing something to their lives that would not otherwise exist? Are we making our members better? Are we instilling transformational values?  Are we developing their leadership capacity? Are we providing them with a band of brothers/sisters that pushes them to be more than they otherwise would be? The ideal fraternal experience should grow an individual in all of these areas – but that assumes all men/women start their journey at the same developmental place. Of course, this is not the case. To borrow a baseball analogy, if our goal is to help young men/women reach home plate, we should remember that some start on third base, while others are only in the batter’s box. In addition, many will not reach home plate until they are alumni. Regardless, the relevant fraternity can demonstrate that the individuals who took the oath of membership were changed in a positive and substantial way.

What about future members? We are membership-based organizations, and thus, the greatest determinant of our sustainability is our relevancy to future generations. Colleges and universities could tell us to go away tomorrow, yet we could survive if unaffiliated men and women still saw us as relevant. Is this not how many NPHC organizations are able to grow their rosters significantly outside of the walls of higher education? To determine our relevance to future members, fraternities and sororities need to ask the following question: Do we offer a choice to men and women that is so compelling and so unique, that they feel something will be missing from their lives without it? A fraternal organization that can answer this question in the affirmative can then build a confident recruitment plan. 

If we can achieve relevance to our members and future members, is that enough? Not quite. We do exist within a larger entity, and thus, we must ask ourselves if we are meeting the needs of that entity. You may be thinking this entity is higher education. I would look beyond higher education and see our “host” as society at large.

We have been connected to colleges and universities since our founding, and it would be foolish to ignore that relationship. However, I think it is fair to wonder if we would have come about even if colleges and universities never existed. If our values are timeless, our lessons are transcendent, and our fellowships are lifelong, I believe society would have found a way for us to exist regardless. Our connection to colleges and universities brought about the Greek letters that give many of our organizations identity and has always provided us with the opportunity for more academic discourse. We are stronger organizations because of the resources provided to us by colleges and universities. In addition, since we draw almost exclusively from college student populations, we would not be fulfilling our relevancy to our members if we did not help them achieve their scholarly goals. 

In our earliest beginnings – starting with Phi Beta Kappa at William and Mary – we were founded to add something that was not available elsewhere. The men who started this movement, which eventually would lead to the Union Triad and Miami Triad, did not ask permission from their institutions to exist (Anson & Marchesani, 1991). Neither did the women who bravely followed suit some years later. The idea of fraternity was such a powerful idea that, like the inalienable rights for which our nation’s revolutionaries fought, this idea deserved a right to exist. I wonder if we have forgotten this and have fallen victim to the idea that we have to continuously justify our existence. Our right to exist is defined by whether we are still relevant to our members and the larger society. With all due respect to colleges and universities, who give us so much, it cannot be truly up to them to decide. They can make it far more difficult for us to exist, which is why we nurture the relationship.

Ask yourself if you believe a fraternity or sorority to be just a part of a college or university, or if you believe a fraternity or sorority to have its own place in the world? Belief in the former is a belief that we go wherever colleges and universities wish to take us. Belief in the latter is a belief that we go wherever our purpose allows. Our organizations are one of the greatest social inventions in human history, deserve to exist at no one’s behest but our own, and will persevere as long as our purpose, our members, and society want us to exist. 

The tension between fraternities and their “host institutions” has always been present (as demonstrated by the Great Snowball Rebellion of 1847) (Anson & Marchesani, 1991). This tension, if managed and balanced, actually helps both sides. In some ways, fraternal organizations provide colleges with a “voice of the people” and colleges challenge fraternities to raise their standards. This tension is becoming increasingly imbalanced in favor of higher education. Much of this started with the work of the Franklin Square Group, in which fraternities and sororities gave far too much away to college/university presidents. Ever since then, umbrella organizations have been reacting to the demands of presidents, all the while asking for very little in return. By allowing that group to affect so much, and to take the reigns on the discourse, we may have betrayed our founders by implicitly asking for permission to exist.

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 – now more than ever.

I do not propose that we fight against institutions of higher education whenever we can. We should do everything we can to build a bridge, since that will ultimately benefit our members and make us stronger. However, we should be careful to tie our relevance (and thus our destiny) to institutions that did not really want us to exist in the first place. What can we give our members? What can we give our future members? What can we give our society? Those are the questions of relevancy we were meant to answer.

Anson, J., & Marchesani, R. (Eds.). (1991). Baird’s manual of American college fraternities. Indianapolis, IN; Baird’s Manual Foundation, Inc.

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