This is the second in a series of articles by Bob Kerr, OGH and coordinator of Greek life at Oregon State University. Brother Kerr welcomes comments and discourse that either supports or challenges his point of view. This post is also linked in the sidebar section "Selected Op-Ed Posts."
Recently, there has been dialogue about the ongoing premise that fraternities no longer play a vital role in the lives of undergraduate college men
Pete Smithhisler, from the North American Interfraternity Conference, has publically indicated that the question seems to be cyclical. Dan Bureau suggests that student affairs professionals and those that work with these organizations (fraternities) must have the guts to close the ones that hurt us. I have known both men for over a decade and find it interesting that they continue to talk about episodic negative behavior, on a national scale, of fraternity men rather than openly addressing our history of “bad behavior”. This history can be traced back to the nineteenth century. As evidence, I highly recommend every fraternity man, undergraduate and alumnus, read the book “The Company He Keeps a history of the white college fraternity”, by Nicholas L. Syrett. As I read the book, it became apparent that the issues aren’t episodic bad behavior or the lack of control asserted by colleges, universities and headquarters. I submit, the question is “What identity of masculinity are fraternities developing today?”
As I have come to understand it, fraternity membership builds its idea of masculinity on the exchange of trust between members. By design, the secret ritual is a process which seals, and ensures, this bond of trust is never surrendered. Once trust is established, then the various programs and projects of a fraternity define the boundaries of masculinity for each new member. The “secrecy” protects each man from the mistakes and missteps that happen and ensures the reputation of the chapter and the greater brotherhood. Perhaps it is not our existence that is the issue but rather our secrecy?
One of the first real threats to “secret fraternal organizations” in America, came in 1826 following the disappearance and presumed murder of William Morgan.
It seems Mr. Morgan had threatened to publicly post the secrets of the Freemasons on a public meeting hall. Mr. Morgan then disappeared and rumors of his murder, at the hands of the Freemasons, spread throughout western New York state and New England. This sparked an Anti-Freemason movement that all but crushed the Freemasons. Though the Freemasons never revealed their ritual secrets, It would be years before they regained their membership and their effectiveness. Ultimately, the Freemasons transformed themselves to the highly regarded service organization we know today. Today, our version of posting ritual secrets on a town hall comes to us in the form of the internet and court proceedings.
Historically, social fraternities were secret because it was against the rules of the colleges and universities, at that time, for students to belong to any student organization without faculty supervision. Violating these rules could lead to expulsion. So in order to assemble and discuss the relevant issues of the turbulent year of 1776, the founders of Phi Beta Kappa organized as a “secret” Greek lettered society. They had a secret grip, motto and even cast a coin with the motto inscribed in latin, on one side, and greek on the other side. Thus was born, the fraternal movement we have now inherited. Clearly these forefathers had vision and a grasp of high ideals. But, this history is now common knowledge. It also suggests the evolution of “masculine identity” that has transpired from 1776 to 2011.
As a mental indulgence, I have constantly imagined what it would be like for my fraternity to have its ritual open for public consumption. What would it be like for parents, university faculty, administrators, community leaders and educators to partake of this moving and elegant process? Would the work of the fraternity be diminished in any measure? Would the right of individuals to enter into private agreements with others be impinged? Indeed, would the criteria for admission be lowered? All questions that I submit deserve a thoughtful dialogue . A dialogue that is important when one considers that Delta Upsilon, an international non-secret fraternity, has survived and thrived since 1834.
I have had the privilege of attending half a dozen initiations of Delta Upsilon on two different college campuses. They are a wonderful and familiar process to me and I am struck by the similarities to my own ritual oath. The one major difference is, now everybody knows exactly what the members bind themselves to uphold. Such transparency may well be a double-edged sword.
What do fraternities gain by holding on to their “secrecy”? What do fraternities gain by sharing their exquisite ritual ceremonies? What other institutions, who advocate for a life of high ideals, are dependent on ritual? What do they experience in the way of prosperity and community trust? What level of public accountability do we experience if we lay down our secrecy? If we live our lives in absolute accordance to our Oaths, what is our obligation to the greater humanity?
For those who have known me, and endured my idealism, I am constantly referring to the modern fraternal movement as an outgrowth of the Knights Of Chivalry. This suggests that our duty is to serve those less fortunate than us, to oppose evil and preserve freedom. If you look at the process that a young man undertook to become a knight, you will see a very familiar process. In fact, the evening before being dubbed a knight, a young squire would hold vigil over his arms and armor and pray to cleanse his soul. Once knighted, he was a servant of the king in service to the kingdom. Are we really any different that that lofty version of leadership?
In the contemporary film,” Skulls” the protagonist ends the film by saying “Anything secret and elite cannot be good”. This raises an intriguing point worth examination. I have chosen to toil in the fields and work with college age students as they search for their “male identity”. This work takes me beyond the boundaries of my fraternal membership and allows me to guide and support young men through their “male apprenticeship” known as college. The conversations I have shared explored such topics as “What does integrity require in the daily experience of life?”, “Who is responsible for upholding the standards of the fraternity?”, and “Are there limits to my responsibility to my brother?”.Such conversations operated outside the “secrecy” of my fraternity, or theirs. Yet, all the conversations dig deep into the very soul of secret fraternities”.
The field that I toil in is beset by all kinds of threats. There are those who come to hide behind the secret veils and continue their brutish behavior. There are those who expect the brotherhood to grant great reward for little work. Then, there are those who wear their Oath as a temporary adornment that is removed with ease. Naturally, these threats make it difficult to nurture those who come to us for the right reasons, and pursue, with diligence, the vision and mission of our fraternity. But, with a generation of students who are uncomfortable with confrontation and conflict resolution, it is easier to keep the “secrets” of poor behavior than hold poor behavior accountable.
I do not know if sacrificing our secrecy is an evolutionary step in the preservation of the North American Fraternal Movement or not. I do know that criticism about fraternities, and the tragic loss of human life that we have been responsible for, is a frightening trend that is over a century old. Having served on three alumni advisory committees, and accepting the difficult challenge of cleaning house, I know that those proceedings were effective because they did not operate in the public eye.
As these questions of the value of secret social fraternities ebb and flow, as it has for over one hundred years, perhaps we can step back and ask some very difficult questions. If we become transparent, then do we hold an even firmer standard of conduct for behavior? If we remain secret, are we willing to be more firmly engaged with the undergraduate operations and openly challenge other fraternities to do the same? Can we craft a contemporary male identity for our undergraduate brothers without a secret ritual? If so, how would the Balance Man program be affected? Does the secrecy hold a “magic bullet” for the development of an authentic and contemporary male identity? Will things be any better, in terms of risk management, if we were no longer secret?
These questions are part of an ongoing evolutionary process for the North American Fraternal Movement. Throughout my membership, I have heard countless undergraduates and alumni wish they could openly share the ritual with friends and family. I have yet to see an open dialogue on the issue.
I have always honored my Oath and sustained the secrets of my brothers. In fact, when I have faced the demons in my life, it was with the support and discretion of my brothers that helped me along the way. Still, I wonder what it might be if we could openly share our ritual initiation.
Robert J. Kerr
Coordinator of Greek Life
Oregon State University