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Evolution: Where Do We Go from Here?

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In today’s university environment, we often hear the question, “Are fraternities still relevant?” While the question of “relevance” may create discomfort for some, it is a fair thing to ask and important to consider. Why? Because as a Greek-letter organization, we have stated missions, value systems, and self-governing policies to which we are accountable. If we believe in these stated objectives, then we must be willing to hold ourselves accountable and accept that others will do the same. It is our professed missions and the accountability to those values that create and sustains relevance.

Since their inception, Fraternities have been intrinsically tied to universities through a shared investment in the student body. As major historical events reshaped the world of education, fraternities also adapted to the changing times. The college and university environment, along with its associated Greek-letter organizations, is a subset of society and therefore reflects its own complexities and often the need to change to fulfill students’ interests and educational objectives. In many respects, this is a reciprocating cycle where evolution is necessary to maintain relevance, and new relevance is borne out of innovative adaptations. As part of that cycle, fraternities have often held too tightly to many of their traditions and rituals – some of which date back more than a hundred years – but in other ways, they have come a long way since their origins. To really appreciate and understand the question of relevance and whether the Greek community has value today, let’s take a peek at the past and how distinct periods of time experienced change and ensured relevancy.

Before the Revolutionary War, Latin societies existed for the purpose of scholarly debate and forum discussions. They were seen as places to engage and debate with other students on key issues such as religion and politics. Over time, secret organizations were created for those that saw benefits to more selective communities. These new organizations thrived until popular opinion shifted and students began to question the societies’ level of influence in the educational sphere. This concern spawned fraternities whose practices were public and membership less guarded. They provided a chance for a greater number of students to join and used transparency to create trust. There was also an increased emphasis on fellowship among members, as opposed to hosting scholarly debates on hot-button issues.

With the onset of the American Civil War, education as a whole was brought to an abrupt stop, resulting in the closure of many fraternities. However, when the war ended, and many men were looking to return to college, committed brothers worked to reopen their fraternities creating a welcoming place of fellowship. There was also an increased demand for education across the country as new colleges and universities began to open, giving fraternities an opportunity to expand. Soon, there was a desire to escape the daily stressors of academia, and participation in the Greek life community was well-positioned to meet that need. Taking advantage of this momentum, fraternity members began solidifying their physical presence by renting rooms in boarding or coach houses to live with one another and host meetings. Over time, this transformed into chapters renting, then purchasing, and ultimately building their own chapter houses. Today, chapter houses are practically synonymous with Fraternity life, but when they arrived on the scene, the concept was revolutionary and marked a major milestone for Fraternities.

Together, higher education and the Greek-letter organizations continued progressing alongside one another as religious and racial diversity began to influence the cultural landscape. As an example, in the early 1900’s the popularity of fraternities on campuses across the country would continue to grow as more and more individuals attended university, and this growth resulted in the need for more centralized national governing models to guide their activities. However, this popularity would plummet with WWI and WWII, as young men were drafted into military service. With chapter houses empty, the facilities were sometimes lost, used as barracks, or taken over by universities. After the war, many students returned to continue their education, college enrollment increased, and fraternities rebounded.

Over time, higher education has continued to showcase its resilience by adapting to society’s ever-changing philosophies and demographics. Upheavals in politics such as the Vietnam War or the social justice reform of the Civil Rights Movement have continued to challenge institutions by asking them to re-examine their values and practices. Fraternities have also experienced these shifts – membership requirements were revised to be more inclusive and transparent while new organizations with more targeted focuses also emerged, such as academic, business, and service fraternities.

In early 2020 COVID-19 became the greatest new obstacle to institutions around the globe. Without the ability to meet safely in person, higher education, fraternities, and businesses were forced to innovate and make drastic changes to their models and practices. There have also been multiple social justice movements creating new and renewed dialogues for change. During this time, the lack of in-person contact also exposed an innate human need for socialization and support, leading to an increase in conversations around physical and mental well-being. In response, higher education and fraternities had to evolve once more. Classes became remote and social gatherings existed in solely virtual spaces.

The need for fraternity was reframed as brothers realized it is not the chapter house or the campus that makes an organization… It is the bonds that exist between its members.

COVID-19 may be the most shocking change in recent history, but it has not been the only one. Even before the pandemic and its resulting ripple effect, higher education has seen a significant increase in tuition, decreased funding, and a new emphasis on trade schools or career training. Internship and study-abroad opportunities have also become major components of the collegiate experience today as post-graduation jobs and careers have begun demanding more prior experience. All of these trends directly impact the student body and their interests as they plan for their futures. This has required colleges and universities who also want to ensure relevancy to invest and evolve both academically and culturally. As the world changes and higher education experiences the same trends in overall diversity, campuses have to reevaluate the support systems they can or should provide.

For fraternities, it means that our role in student lives cannot look the same as it did a century or even a decade ago, because the world in which they live today is dramatically different. While guiding principles and core values may remain the same (community investment, honor, and trust et al), the infrastructure supporting those values must evolve. That includes addressing and eradicating the actions and behaviors that are out of alignment with our mission which create risk to our members’ lives and the health of our organization overall.

Current and prospective members, as well as alumni, can positively affect a cycle of growth and improvement by looking to the future while studying the foundation that prior generations built.  Institutional memory establishes the context for past successes and failures while helping create usable blueprints for the road ahead. Acknowledging that there is always room for improvement is the first step towards taking action and building something that future generations will look back on with gratitude. Supporting and contributing to positive growth should not be seen as an act of survival but as a way of honoring and showing thanks to all those who preceded us.

The original question still remains: “Is Fraternity relevant today?” The reality is the Fraternity experience is always relevant as it continues to recognize its responsibility to evolve and support students in ways like never before. Moving forward requires embracing one of the most fundamental aspects of Fraternity life: being part of something larger than any one individual member, chapter or organization.  

By adapting to the challenges presented by the pandemic and recognizing the ongoing changes in higher education, Delta Tau Delta is focused on programs based on member feedback and the needs of today’s undergraduates, supporting the health and wellness of members and the continued training of our volunteers and officers. 

Our Fraternity, the opportunities we provide to our brothers, and the life lessons they learn through membership are more relevant now than ever and crucial to members’ success as students and young men.

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