Monday, May 19, 2008

Elitism or Egalitarianism …

Bob Kerr is away this week, but he sent his post in ahead of time. More good food for thought.
Elitism or Egalitarianism ….

…seems to be one of the central debates in the North American Fraternal Movement. In board rooms, bar rooms and conference rooms can be heard the debate on this topic decade after decade. Are we elite by nature if not by action? Is the grand design really supposed to be egalitarian? Let’s take a walk down this path and see what we will see.

According to Webster’s Dictionary, the two words are defined as:
  • Egalitarian – Advocating full political and social equality for all people. One advocating this.
  • Elite - The group, or part of a group, regarded as the best, most powerful, etc.
Fascinating distinction. I wonder, if one excels at being an egalitarian, say someone like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. or Linus Pauling, does ones actions make them elite? Or does it make them egalitarian role models? But, these individuals performed after they left college. To really examine the debate we need to start at the very beginning of the collegiate process. Recruitment.

Recruitment for most colleges is driven by their stated purpose. My undergraduate campus states their mission as:
“…committed to providing comprehensive educational opportunities in an urban setting. Through teaching, scholarship, and public service, the University seeks to equip both students and the larger community with the educational and cultural tools they need to thrive in a complex world, and to achieve both individual responsibility in their own lives and effective citizenship in the local, national, and global community (complete statement available on the University Website. at
If we examine the inherent outcomes we see a thematic focus on the development of an effective citizen. This citizenship serves as the great goal for participating in the local, national and global communities. In essence to contribute to serving the needs of the markets we exist in while being conscious to the global impact of our needs.

Now, let’s apply these basic concepts to Greek recruitment.

As it is commonly defined, fraternity recruitment is searching for the best of the best. Virtually every chapter I have ever interacted with says this same thing. Yet, their selection process does not match the desired outcomes. Often the lowering of standards is seen as a survival tactic when it is actually diluting the quality of the organization and its ability to recruit qualified prospective members.

As I have experienced it, there seems to be three basic criteria for selecting prospective new members. The first criterion is academic performance. A common measuring stick is a high school GPA of 3.0 or better. The second criterion is a verifiable history of community service. Finally, some demonstrated leadership experience be it a part-time job, student government, athletics, debate etc. That is the formulae I have experience in the North American Fraternal Movement for four decades.

So, what are the outcomes?

The outcomes vary from campus to campus, chapter to chapter. So let me share some of the indices and let you do the discovery. First, is the all fraternity chapter GPA above the all men’s? Second, are chapters struggling to get members involved with chapter activity or otherwise engaged with a campus group? Finally, how many members are involved in leadership at the chapter, IFC, campus or work level? So, while you are doing that work, I will share a little from my current campus.

In the winter 2008 grade report, 7 chapters performed above the all men’s average while 17 chapters were below the all men’s average. This means that the average male on campus outperformed 70% of the fraternity chapters. The funny thing is, the all fraternity chapter GPA was higher than the all men’s GPA on the strength and size of the 7 chapters. So a lot of above average students on campus are clearly not fraternity men and we seem stalled in how to attract them to our organizations.

So, are we elitist or egalitarian? Let’s see what Cicero had to say.
“We were born to unite with our fellow men and to join in community with the human race.”
In his later years, Cicero devoted himself to writing and sharing his sense of duty that the Roman leaders owed each other and the citizens of Rome. His work was one of the elements of a classical education and many of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence were students of his work. Some argue this influence can be seen in the critical concepts in the Declaration. A sense of community and a sense of duty were two of the primary lessons I remember in college and in my fraternity. I was filled with a genuine sense of a responsibility to make a difference regardless of where I found myself standing.

So, the question remains, egalitarian or elitist? If we say elitist then building community will be difficult if not impossible. The perception that one chapter or the other should be the leader of all the rest because of size, GPA or length on campus is a difficult pill for others to swallow. Clearly our recruitment criterion is a standard that can be achieved by anyone from any background.

If we are egalitarian, then we can work together to build genuine community based on mutual trust and respect. We can learn to serve each other and the greater causes we all cherish. We can learn to be better leaders, followers and disciples of the teachings of our separate rituals. Perhaps we have a duty to each other, as interfraternal brothers and sisters, to guide and mentor our undergraduate brothers and sisters to be more cooperative and less combative. To seek to work together versus vanquish each other in every aspect of college life. Perhaps if we learn how scary we can be in our group behavior, constant rivalry and unhealthy competition, we can discover how to attract more qualified candidates to learn with us and join with us. Peace, positive tension and harmony are far more welcoming than bitter feuds started so long ago no one knows why we don’t like each other.

Make no mistake about it, I firmly believe we should have high standards. I also believe that we should resist every temptation to lower our standards. We should also expect our interfraternal brothers and sisters to maintain and preserve their high standards. But high standards do not make us elite or egalitarian. Only our attitudes and behavior towards each other reveals that distinction,

Bob Kerr
Coordinator of Greek Life
Oregon State
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