I’m a Fraternity Man

This is a response to the video found in this tweet.

I am a fraternity man. I joined a fraternity when I was at Westminster College in Fulton, MO. The college has a long history with fraternities. Many of the several fraternities on that campus had alumni who financially bailed out the school at one point or another. The chapter of the fraternity I joined, Phi Delta Theta (PDT) – Missouri Beta, was chartered by Robert Morrison, who was the main founding father of the international fraternity. He also provided much-needed financial assistance for Westminster College. He spent the rest of his life in Fulton, MO and is buried there. Members of Phi Delta Theta come from all over the country, and Canada, to perform ceremonies at his grave and learn more of the history of the end of his life in the town of Fulton.

Robert Morrison and 3 of the other 6 founding members of the fraternity ended up being Presbyterian pastors. I did not know this when I pledged to the fraternity, but I do not take it as a coincidence. I grew up Presbyterian. I chose to go to a college affiliated with the PC (USA). I joined this fraternity. I have now graduated from a PC (USA) seminary and am looking to be ordained into the church. Joining the fraternity of Phi Delta Theta is a part of my life that almost helps me believe in predestination (at least earthly predestination).

The founding fathers started this “secret society” in response to the president of Miami University in Ohio shutting down Beta Theta Pi and Alpha Delta Phi and expelling most of their members when they “rebelled” against the school’s administration. Robert Morrison, John McMillan Wilson, Robert Thompson Drake, Ardivan Walker Rodgers, and Andrew Watts Rodgers started meeting in Wilson’s college dorm room to start Phi Delta Theta. In these meetings, these men decided that Phi Delta Theta should have the principles of, “friendship, sound learning, and moral rectitude.” That is, the fraternity was founded in order to provide a social way for its members to become better men.

As I learned about my fraternity and talked to other young men in my college class who were joining other fraternities, I learned that most of these institutions had similar stories. On our campus, we had the fraternities Delta Tau Delta, The Kappa Alpha Order, Beta Theta Pi, Phi Delta Theta, Sigma Chi, and Sigma Alpha Epsilon. Each fraternity had its own national reputation and each chapter had its own reputation on campus. Sometimes, these reputations were perfectly in sync. Sometimes, they were starkly different from one another.

But, despite whatever reputation, there is something very important we need to understand. Most of these fraternities, like the ones on my campus, were founded by privileged, white men with the intent of “improving” privileged, white men. And, I believe, this only got worse before it got better. The military calls of the First and Second World War, and the subsequent return of college men to the institutions they left. The military influence of returning G.I.’s made the fraternity system much more patriarchal and, frankly, dangerous. It is my own hypothesis that the effort to prove one’s “manhood” in the military had a direct correlation to systematic hazing in fraternities in North America.

All the while, fraternities aimed recruiting based around people that would benefit the system. If you were rich and had ties through your family to a set of letters, fraternities knew about you before you even stepped foot on campus. If you seemed “cool” enough, you were bombarded throughout rush. If you did not fit in, you were simply discarded. The system, as so many others like it, found ways to establish and benefit themselves.

And I would like to tell you that with the integration of universities and colleges around the USA and Canada, that this got better. In some instances, it really did. Fraternities have become more diverse on some campus. But on many other campuses, fraternities only became more segregated. On campuses in the South, for instance, black fraternities had to be established on campus, because the traditionally white fraternities simply did not recruit black men. Sororities have the same narrative.

And, really, is it such a surprise? Robert Morrison, while he lived in Louisville, edited the True Louisville Presbyterian, which was suppressed twice for its staunch, pro-Confederacy views. I never knew that. I never knew that, because it is something we do not talk about inside the institution that is Phi Delta Theta. I would be willing to put money on the idea that most of the other fraternities that I mentioned had founding fathers that had similar views. And, we find ourselves surprised when a chapter of one of these institutions says or does something racist. Kappa Alpha Order chapters still have “Old South” parties. The chapter on my campus did it every year I was there. Members dressed up like Confederate generals.

Look, I honestly believe that most members of these fraternities are good people. I know a lot of people who were SAE’s at Westminster College, and I would not speak poorly of them or their chapter. I have met several members of Phi Delta Theta from the University of Missouri and University of Arkansas, and with just a couple of exceptions, I have not been impressed by their members.

The overall problem I have with the fraternal system at colleges and universities is this: these institutions have been entrenched in a certain way of thinking for so long, that it will take monumental effort to reverse the old way of thinking. On the surface, I know this seems like it is happening. Almost every major fraternity has a “no hazing” policy in place. But, I guarantee you that if you could see the system of pledging that still happens on campuses, it would shock you. Phi Delta Theta has a policy for all of its chapters in the U.S. and Canada that requires them to be substance free. Yet, the larger chapters have so many members and collect so many dues, that they can simply ignore this policy and pay whatever fine comes their way. It is hard to beat the system when you have so long been the ones perpetuating it. As a privileged, white man, I know this firsthand.

I will end by saying this: I do not think the fraternity system is necessarily bad. I believe that if we take the ideas of, “friendship, sound learning, and moral rectitude,” and apply them to ourselves, then they can be quite beneficial. I think having a close-knit group of friends to grow with during college can be extremely important. The community services that these groups can do (not all fraternity chapters do a lot for their community) can be invaluable to the colleges and communities in which they are located. And, housing in these buildings can be cheaper than living in a college dorm. It was at Westminster. But, despite the potential positive benefits from these organizations, much of the system that has been set up only benefits a few. There is much work to be done if these organizations are going to rediscover their relevance and start to affect more positively than negatively.



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