by Matt Mattson
I’m proud to be a member of a fraternity. I’m prouder still to be an active member of the larger fraternity/sorority industry. But sometimes (i.e. lately) it’s hard to remember why. We do a lot of dumb things. Fraternity men (especially) and sorority women – my brothers and sisters throughout North America – have earned the reputation we have. Sometimes those dumb things are more than just dumb things – in fact, far too often they include hurting people, humiliating people, intimidating people, ostracizing people, sexually assaulting people, raping people, and killing people. Read that sentence again. Sometimes we’re no better than a bunch of war criminals, and it must seem from the outside that we are nothing more than organized crime for young people. God. That hurts to write. It’s embarrassing and sad. So, when someone writes an article in INSIDE HIGHER ED, The Atlantic, or any of the other highly publicized features asking “SHOULD FRATERNITIES AND SORORITIES BE BANNED?” it’s a valid question.
So, should fraternities and sororities exist?
We should be able to answer that question. If you’re a member, and especially if you work in this industry, you should be able to answer that question. I don’t know the RIGHT answer, but I do know my answer. I’ll share it proudly and publicly below.
Personally, my undergraduate fraternity experience with Alpha Sigma Phi at GVSU was incredibly positive. We were dumb sometimes, but overall I was a part of a fraternity chapter that fostered healthy, positive, inclusive male friendships; moreso it challenged its members to develop a lifestyle of confident leadership and generous community stewardship. But other clubs do that… So, WHY DEDICATE A LARGE PART OF MY CAREER TO THE ADVANCEMENT OF THIS FRATERNAL MOVEMENT THING?
Two reasons top my list of why fraternity/sorority matters greatly in the modern collegiate environment.
My first reason… Fraternities and sororities offer a spiritual outlet in a secular setting. Most people don’t think of fraternities as “spiritual.” But leaders of our fraternal community – the ones who have gotten the most out of these organizations – will all nod their head in agreement at this one. Personally, my fraternity was one of the first environments in my life to a) force me to consider and discuss what I consider the important stuff in life, and b) challenge my behaviors against my stated beliefs.
With an American populace that is less and less engaged in religious communities, fraternities and sororities are a place that offer an opportunity for often privileged young people to discuss virtues like silence, charity, purity, honor, patriotism, beauty, moral rectitude, courage, faith, etc. I certainly wasn’t discussing those things with my non-Greek friends in college. I wasn’t exploring them in class. And as someone who didn’t attend a religious congregation growing up, there were minimal non-parental conversations about these topics of great weight. Fraternity is the place that gave me a shared spiritual compass to point me toward a life well-lived, along with a group of peers who raised their right hand and promised to keep me traveling in the direction of our shared beliefs.
Most modern fraternity chapters (albeit, not all) are open environments for young people of varied religious backgrounds and belief systems. In those somewhat diverse pools of young men, truly important subjects are discussed. It may not be done with the poetry and grace of the members who founded our original literary societies in the 19th century, but it’s still at the heart of fraternity and sorority. And That doesn’t make the news, of course, but it is my number one reason for being so dedicated to this work.
My second reason… Fraternities are a unique and important place for young men to explore manhood. Sororities are a unique and important place for young women to explore womanhood. The fact that our organizations are single-gender is an important cause of several of our biggest problems, but it is also one of the most important reasons for their existence.
I won’t claim to know what a “real man” is. Perhaps that concept is outdated. I will, however, proclaim that my undergraduate fraternity experience along with my 14 years of alumni membership greatly shaped the man I am today. Fraternity was the ONLY place I know of on my college campus uniquely designed to develop male students to be modern men.
As a participant in today’s world of higher education, it almost feels brave to say that I believe in manliness, that I believe in SOME traditional concepts of masculinity. I recognize the target I’m painting on my back here. However, those who know me, I think, would consider my definition of manhood to be nuanced, evolved, and yet to be complete. The fact that I think about it at all, the fact that I have discussed it in groups of other men (in more than just grunts) and amongst non-men, the fact that I relate a healthy development of my identity as a man with my fraternity experience I hope offers some validity to my position that fraternties are unique and important places for young men to explore their manhood.
I can’t speak personally to the sorority experience and how being a part of a women’s-only group helps collegiate females explore womanhood, but I’m confident that the readers who identify as women can.
I’ll say again. Our single-genderness is often problematic. Further, this aspect of our organizations often creates environments that are uncomfortable, unsafe, and undesirable for people who do not identify as “males” or “females,” and that is a major problem our organizations are only now starting to deal with. But fraternity and sorority has evolved over time. We, like so much of society, have transformed ourselves because of the brave voices within our organizations.
Along with my answer to “Should Fraternities/Sororities Exist?”, I’d like to share someone else’s. In a side conversation this fall, I challenged my friend and co-worker Vince Fabra to write down his response to that question. I love what he chose to focus on…
“COMMUNITY – Fraternities and sororities create community for their members in college and in life after college. I honestly feel this is the only advantage to joining a greek lettered organization. Don’t get me wrong, I am not so naive and narrow minded that I believe fraternities and sororities are the only groups providing community on college campuses. Of course, hundreds and thousands of organizations provide a community of friendship, personal development and cherished memories. My strongest collegiate community just happened to be my fraternity.
I felt like I had a rich, robust collegiate experience. Pi Kappa Phi was not the only thing for which I had passion. I was on the orientation team, I was in student government, I was connected to student activities and residence life organizations, but my deepest relationships are still connected to my fraternity. This fact did not reveal itself until recently. I graduated from college in 2008. Since then, I find that my friends from student government, orientation, student activities and residence life are no longer the wonderful relationships they were in college. There was no great falling out, no argument or pettiness that led to the deterioration of these relationships. Simply, our COMMUNITY was left in Hattiesburg where we attended college. The relationships that still receive love, care and maintenance are ALL (with the exception of one or two) connected to my fraternity experience. The fraternity COMMUNITY has stuck with me, has followed me after graduation and grows stronger as my college days drift farther and farther into the past.
I guess my argument is not as much “PRO GREEK” as much as it is “PRO COMMUNITY.” My community just happened to come from Pi Kappa Phi. You can certainly find an experience like the one I had outside of Greek Life. All I know is that millions of people have found theirs as proud members of fraternities and sororities.
That’s why fraternities and sororities should exist.”
Fraternity and sorority is such a beautiful concept. It is often uglied by the many demons that collegians face, but I am committed to lifting up its potential. I love fraternity and sorority. I know I’m not alone. I believe that it is an amazing experience for hundreds of thousands of men and women, and it is also a dangerous, torturous, filthy experience for some too. I want to be a leader in the fight to create the fraternity/sorority reality that I know I’m not alone in envisioning. I believe in fraternity and sorority. We have work to do though.
This fall, we surveyed students at a handful of schools who were NOT affiliated with fraternity/sorority life why they haven’t joined and what we learned might surprise you.
There are a few core major lessons here that include the following: