Local Chapters: Advising the Advisors
Michael Taddesse, University of Texas at Arlington
When Phi Beta Kappa was founded at the College of William and Mary almost 234 years ago, the organization bore most of the earmarks of our present-day social fraternities; they established an Oath of Fidelity, a motto, a grip (secret handshake), and a Ritual. This first organization held their members to the highest ideals of morality, scholastic achievement, and fellowship (Phi Beta Kappa, n.d.).
Over the years, as more and more fraternities and sororities sprung forth from various institutions of higher learning, the notion of expanding a particular organization from one campus to another began to take hold. Looking back at the chronological timeline of the fraternal movement, it is clear to see that the idea of expansion is responsible for the explosive growth of modern day inter/national fraternities and sororities. However, not all of the emerging fraternities or sororities subscribed to the expansion model that was helping to spread other groups across college campuses, and these groups have become the model for the local chapters in existence today.
Many local chapters today belong to the multicultural community; a fast-growing segment on many college campuses. While some campuses have local chapters that have been in existence for 50 years or more, anecdotally, there are many local chapters have only been in existence for the last 15 years. During a period of time when traditional fraternities and sororities were being viewed as irresponsible, elitist party groups, several college campuses began to see the emergence of locally-based organizations that had no intention of aligning themselves with an inter/national organization.
One of the central ideas behind the formation of local chapters was their independence from the current fraternity/sorority community. A glance at the treasure-trove of information that can be gleaned from a popular site dedicated to all things Greek (greekchat.com) shows how these organizations believe that their existence is predicated on the notion of being better (i.e., more responsible and more inclusive) than the current fraternities and sororities in their respective communities.
The formation of local culturally based chapters, particularly Latino organizations, also subscribed to the aforementioned notion. Many of the founding fathers or mothers of these organizations were either once potential new members of an existing inter/national organization or simply did not feel that the current groups were inclusive or inviting. Moreover, another common theme shared by founders was that the existing inter/national organizations did not share their same value system.
With these local chapters emerging, many campus based professionals have tried to help their respective local chapters assimilate into the existing fraternity/sorority community. This attempt has had varying degrees of success on college campuses. Local chapters that made the decision to integrate themselves into their campus fraternity/sorority community have, by and far, become successful and thriving chapters. However, not all local chapters have seen the merits of becoming a part of their respective fraternity/sorority community, and some have proven to be a scourge on an otherwise successful and well-intentioned fraternity/sorority community.
One of the most recent cases where a local, unrecognized chapter made headlines for all the wrong reasons happened in 2003 at the State University of New York at Plattsburgh. The unrecognized local chapter Psi Epsilon Chi fraternity was involved in a hazing incident that, ultimately, led to the death of a student. The subsequent legal action taken by the student’s family resulted in a $1.5 million wrongful-death award in 2007. The University also punished 21 students in connection with the death of the student (Huckabee, 2007).
The subsequent documentary Unless a Death Occurs: Hazing Examined (2004) chronicled the SUNY-Plattsburgh case in detail and became a shared resource for campus-based fraternity/sorority professionals. The fact that the chapter in the SUNY-Plattsburgh case was an unrecognized local chapter really served as a wakeup call to campus administrators across the nation.
A Campus Approach to Local Organization Support and Accountability
At the University of Texas at Arlington, a thriving fraternity/sorority community of 28 chapters exists on the campus of almost 33,000 students. In 2005, the Office of Greek Life collaborated with the Office of Student Governance and Organizations to add a small but impactful requirement to the existing Handbook of Operating Procedures for all registered student organizations. The added requirement stated that any single-sex, fraternal organization on campus had to apply for and become a member of one of the four existing governing Greek Councils (i.e. the Interfraternity Council [IFC], the Multicultural Greek Council [MGC], the National Pan-Hellenic Council [NPHC], and the Panhellenic Council [PHC]). The intent behind this requirement was to ensure that the existing chapters would all abide by University policy. The University could also now ensure that chapters could be held accountable if necessary.
The University of Texas at Arlington is a good case study campus for the successful integration and governance of local chapters. Of the 28 aforementioned chapters, three chapters are locally based organizations that have thrived on this campus. In 2005, the campus had a total of five local chapters, but when the two other chapters failed to fully align themselves with the existing fraternity/sorority community, it was not long before membership dwindled and these two chapters ceased to function on the campus.
In the last five years, many lessons have been learned on how to approach the advising and guidance of local chapters. All campus-based professionals must remember that for many chapters, the respective local chapter exists because the members want to do what is right. While the chapter may not have the resources an inter/national organization can offer, the campus professional needs to see the chapter for what it has to offer.
Campus professionals should make a list of resources that most inter/national organizations use and forward this list to the local chapter so that the group can work towards developing similar resources. This not only provides the local chapter with much needed tools for success, but it also shows the local chapter that the campus professional cares about their success and well-being as an organization.
The biggest lesson learned from advising local chapters is that many share the same ideas, values, and rituals as inter/national organizations. The local chapter has simply not had the benefit of expansion to provide the resources the majority of inter/national organizations enjoy. Fully including and assimilating the local chapter into the everyday activities, programs, and events of the existing fraternity/sorority community is the single most important thing a campus professional can do to ensure the success of the local chapter.
Sharma, A. (Producer). (2004). Unless a death occurs: Hazing examined [Motion picture]. United States: Mountain Lake PBS.