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Barriers to Greatness:

Using the concept of fraternal relevancy to create urgency for change – Dan Bureau


ociety influences organizational change. Shifts in the external environment force organizations to reply with different tactics to remain relevant. As external influences continue to dictate how people perceive fraternities and sororities, our greatest challenge lies ahead of us: how do we sustain relevance and gain credibility? This article provides 10 areas that merit our attention as ways to maintain relevancy on college and university campuses. This, however, assumes we already have relevance. For some, fraternities and sororities are completely irrelevant and always have been. Persons invested in fraternal organizations perceive fraternities and sororities as crucial to creating connections to college and university campuses, which positively impacts retention. We see how fraternal organizations contribute to the betterment of society through acts of service and charitable work. We look to the sometimes amazing curricula focusing on personal and professional development that shape many new member and intake programs. There are many things we believe our organizations do well, but fraternities and sororities do not have the market cornered on these outcomes. What else challenges the niche we have on college and university campuses? Living and learning communities nurture personal development and create connections to institutions through meaningful involvement with faculty and cohort-like experiences (think of new member education with a more intellectual twist). Many campuses have service and collaborative learning initiatives connecting students to community agencies in need of support. Leadership workshops and courses are offered to aid in student development. Career centers provide training to help students meet their professional goals. Ultimately, our contribution to any relevancy movement is examining how practitioners do our work and what can be done differently to make the experience better than it is today. Being the same will render us increasingly irrelevant. We can continue to exist on campuses even as the most irrelevant organizations out there, but the manner in which we are supported by institutions will determine our fate. How do we increase the relevancy of fraternities 

Perspectives / Winter 2007

and sororities in 2007? We must tackle issues differently than we have.

Embrace Change

First and foremost, relevancy is about change. How fraternities and sororities change with the times will reflect our ability to maintain, increase, or lose relevancy. Good models to examine when considering change efforts to maintain viability and relevancy are seen in the business world (Collins, 2001; Overholt, 2004). Companies such as Starbucks maintain relevancy through change. The largest retailer in the world, Starbucks saw an opportunity to expand its market to the music business. While they made this leap, they remained true to their mission and values. Howard Schultz, CEO, stated, “Great companies recognize who they are and who they are not. But they must have the courage to examine transformational opportunities” (Overholt, 2004). If this ability to transform is an indicator of relevance and vision, then fraternal organizations are failing on the whole. While some change initiatives have been embraced, our members hold on to traditions that have no place in fraternal organizations: underground pledging in NPHC organizations and excessive alcohol use in NIC and NPC organizations are two examples. Helping students and constituents understand the environmental factors influencing change initiatives, as well as education regarding how to implement change in tradition-laden organizations is one way practitioners can aid the fraternal relevancy movement.

Tackle hazing

The literature on hazing in fraternities and sororities is extensive (Association of Fraternity Advisors, 2004; Nuwer, 2004; Nuwer, 1999). It is deeply woven into the fabric of some organizations (Kimbrough, 1997, Reed Jr., n.d.; The Gordie Foundation, n.d.). Hazing hinders relevancy in numerous ways. It creates dissonance from the mission and values, jeopardizes the health and welfare of persons who choose to join these organizations, and negatively influences the perceptions (and sometimes confirms the suspicions) of people outside of the fraternity and sorority community. All of these factors force fraternities and sororities to the margins as some people dismiss them

as gangs and cults rather than values-based organizations. Practitioners can challenge this by addressing issues of how hazing fails to create and undermines the relationships we advocate, rather than solely focusing on the legal aspects to deter hazing practices.

Address alcohol misuse and abuse

While numerous studies indicate fraternity and sorority members drink more than other students on campus (Griffin, 2006; Pace & McGrath, 2002; Spratt & Turrentine, 2001), the issue is not only about the individual consumption of alcohol, it is the manner in which alcohol controls the organizations we support. Fraternities and sororities are collectively held hostage by alcohol, and it is vital to tackle this as practitioners. The actions of members impact the culture of the organization, creating an environment where constituents such as campus professionals, headquarters staff, and alumni are always responding to alcohol issues, which minimizes the time available to address other important aspects of the fraternal movement such as leadership training and program development. Fraternity and sorority students focus community building on alcohol activities (Bureau & Barber, 2006). Such dependence forces the responsibility to manage abuse and misuse to those involved in the community. Accountability becomes difficult when those managing the process appear to frequently violate socially acceptable alcohol use, unable to enforce policies they cannot follow. Relevancy is often jeopardized when people cannot understand the reasons behind a decision. Increased attention to explaining the reason policies exist over explanation of the policy itself may help us send a caring and developmental message and aid in the efforts towards increased relevancy. The issue of alcohol leads well into our next area of relevancy.

Hold persons accountable

In fraternal organizations, systems must be developed, maintained, enforced, and evaluated to hold members accountable. Fraternity and sorority community norms and policies are frequently disrespected by fraternity and sorority members, when in

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AFA Perspectives Winter 2007  

Perspectives provides a forum for research, innovative ideas, and information related to the advisement of fraternal organizations. It promo...

AFA Perspectives Winter 2007  

Perspectives provides a forum for research, innovative ideas, and information related to the advisement of fraternal organizations. It promo...

Profile for afa1976