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When I was a freshman at Lehigh, we started a fraternity. I became a founding father of Phi Delta Theta – Pennsylvania Eta. More specifically, I became a re-founding father, seeing as the fraternity had been around for a long time but was kicked off campus in 2001. My journey with Phi Delt transcended my education and absolutely transcended the stereotypes of Greek life.

I’m now comfortable sharing some of my undergraduate experience as it pertains to Greek life and especially as it pertains to being a founding father of a Greek organization. This post comes at a time where higher education is changing drastically. It also comes at a time where there is no healthy discourse around sorority and fraternity life. It’s either comedy or tragedy these days despite the fact that many people probably had a similar experience to me–some tough times, some fun times, and a lot of meaningful experiences.

As a little disclaimer, I’m currently on the Chapter Advisory Board for my chapter at Lehigh. I am a proponent of various reforms and some ideas that border on extremism, so, naturally, I am critical of establishments including Lehigh University, Phi Delta Theta’s national organization, and basically every business that takes advantage of college kids.

So, let’s get into it.

Context & Breakdown

For those who might not be familiar with some of the terms and concepts used up to this point, I will provide some context here. This should be enough to help you understand the rest of this article.

Every Greek organization at a school is known as a chapter. The vast majority of those are in some way under the jurisdiction of the school’s Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs or similar governing organization. The vast majority of those chapters are also associated with a national governing organization (for example, Phi Delta Theta’s General Headquarters). Then, most of those national governing organizations are members of multi-fraternity associations that attempt to lobby and enact broader initiatives (for example, the NIC or FLA).

Someone who has accepted a bid to join a fraternity but hasn’t been initiated is, generally speaking, a pledge. An organizational group that has received the initial blessing of the national organization but hasn’t yet become a full-fledged chapter is known as a colony, in PDT parlance.

Colonization

Colonization is the most brutal part of starting a new fraternity. In rare cases where a group of guys on campus (an “interest group”) decides they want to do things differently, they can petition a national organization to charter a colony for them. Generally, this requires the school’s blessing as well as other things like a minimum number of committed members (25 for PDT). You don’t hear about this happening very often.

More commonly, you’ll discover national representatives and/or affiliated alumni from nearby schools on campus aggressively recruiting people to join a Greek organization that has recently been colonized. When Phi Delta Theta returned to Lehigh, several things aligned:

  1. Phi Delt’s suspension at Lehigh from 2001 had expired
  2. Lehigh was looking to add an additional fraternity; interest in Greek life amongst freshmen was extremely high
  3. Phi Delt’s alumni were generous with their time and resources to help get things off the ground
  4. Phi Delt’s national organization was branded well and responded well to the opportunity

Recruitment

So, Phi Delt came to campus. They set up a little table in the dining hall popular with underclassmen and would strike up conversations with passersby before trying to sell them on the organization. That was only one facet of their salesmanship.

Having boots on the ground, the national reps visited each sorority and gave a presentation on what Phi Delt was about. Then, they asked for the names and phone numbers of men that the sorority members knew were unaffiliated and might exhibit Phi Delt’s values. No way around it, this part was genius. From there, they simply cold-called what amounted to probably 300 people across different classes and tried to arrange times to speak in person. Also, there were some small scholarships dangled. Altogether, this will work incredibly well no matter what school you try it at.

When the national reps spoke to potential members in person, it was actually an interview. It was fairly basic but, surprisingly, did disqualify the weirdest of the weird people. They did over-emphasize GPA and other traits, knowing that recruiting party animals won’t do them any favors at the national level. At the end, they kind of pressure you into signing a bid rather than thinking about it. Later, I read a book the reps recommended and it turned out that almost everything they did was straight from the book! Well, whatever. We had like 80 people sign bids and they seemed decent.

Yes, I joined a fraternity by passing an interview and signing a piece of paper.

Initial Formation

Bids were extended in a rolling fashion over several weeks in the Spring semester. I joined soon after some of my close friends and hallmates, so I had a pretty good idea of what we were working with. To continue the public relations press, a picture of each guy who signed his bid was posted on the Phi Delt Lehigh Facebook page.

Though the majority of people in the founding class were freshmen, there was a large group of sophomores, some juniors, and a few seniors. Better late than never, I suppose.

As with any motley crew assembled overnight, leaders emerged pretty much immediately. However, to formally assign executive board positions, an interview process was conducted and the national reps ultimately decided. I think this was incredibly fair, since, at this stage, whoever had the largest friend group would always win.

Most people were quite pleased with the selections that the national reps made. They continued to coach us through rules, regulations, what we had to do to become a chapter, Lehigh specifics, bylaws, and a ton of other stuff that was varying degrees of not fun, before leaving us to forge ahead without training wheels.

So, Who Actually Ends Up Joining?

Just like any company or team or group of individuals, the people are what make it. One characterization of new colonies–often enforced by pictures if that’s all you need to pass judgment–is that they’re made up of geeks and rejects. Think about it. From the national organization’s point of view, you want the safest possible group who will also, hopefully, be successful in becoming full-fledged chapters.

My feeling is that the majority of men on a campus where Greek life has some cachet all wish they were in fraternities. Having firsthand experience with some of the loudest critics that I knew, it was pretty easy to discover that they were anti-frat because they got kicked out of a party once, because a love interest was snatched up by someone who was affiliated, simply because the exclusivity bothered them–any number of things.

So when a new, blank-slate fraternity shows up on campus, people are going to come out of the cracks. I’m all for it–we ended up with a lot of diversity and perspectives that I value to this day. Generally speaking, though, the problem with it being open season and the bids being relatively easy to obtain, is that if there isn’t a strong core of people who legitimately could have joined other fraternities, you end up forming a “reject” frat. No reason to sugarcoat it.

Of the 70 or so people who joined, here’s my breakdown:

– 10% people who joined primarily for the scholarship money or other grandiose delusions
– 15% people who would not have had a reasonable chance of getting a bid elsewhere as freshmen
– 20% freshmen who rushed or pledged and did not end up joining other organizations
– 30% people who hand’t seriously rushed as freshmen
– 10% international students
– 15% seniors, athletes, and people who were ineligible to rush as freshmen for various reasons

This is extremely subjective and, in 2020, perhaps a little offensive. This is my estimation and mine alone. It was a solid group, just with a large number of fringey people who had unfounded ideas about Greek life.

If you’re early in your colonization or even if you are involved with recruitment at an established chapter, you might be wondering how you can minimize certain pools of individuals while maximizing your draw from others. International students often feel excluded from traditional Greek life, but I felt that most of them fit pretty well into our organization, and some are still great friends to this day.

A more major issue is people who have serious mental health and behavioral issues which you won’t discover until alcohol is present. Too deep for this post. Another thing is that you do get people who “sign on” for the wrong reasons and then contribute nothing and can get away with it because they are generally “chill,” bring girls around, or are just good friends with a respected brother. I’d rather take the “reject” who will live and die in the image of the fraternity over the “too cool for us” guy. Even as we become more established, we had to learn this lesson over and over again.

The Rest of That First Semester

Here’s where tensions will boil, alliances will form, rules will be broken, and people will start quitting.

My experience with the early colony was that there were a lot of pressures–things we had to do–that would take massive amounts of luck and effort. All while still getting to know each other.

Random Fees to Nationals

As you get on your way, you start getting nickel and dimed for various things. Right out of the gate it was a hundred dollars here, fifty dollars there, obviously without any of the fun stuff yet realized.

Calculating Dues

You have to come up with a plan for dues for the next semester. Except, since Phi Delta Theta is a nationally dry fraternity, you can’t just build your beer budget into what you ask for dues. Yet, on a very aggressive honor system, you have to make sure that everyone is paying their fair share for social events.

Okay, okay, well how much does Natural Light cost? What if we buy a half-pallet to start? How much does Banker’s Club Vodka cost? What? How does a company named “Banker’s Club” go out of business, anyway? At least mixers are cheap. Er, what do you mean there’s no generic alternative to $7/bottle Ocean Spray Cranberry juice?

Then you think you have your budget balanced again. Before you find out a semester’s worth of cups for table games will cost over $1000 even if you buy in bulk from the restaurant supply store.

You finally get your legit dues and shadow-dues numbers finalized… and it turns out that 20% of the new brotherhood actually didn’t seriously rush established houses because they’re on financial aid and might have trouble affording dues.

Democracy? 

Those chapter meetings and secret planning meetings of various factions will be a lot of fun. Even though some people have been placed in positions that are granted some respect, it’s still a free for all where egos just run wild. There’s no hierarchy of order or anything and people just say whatever is on their minds. Getting through those first bylaws meetings, the infamous dues meetings, the “how do we get an on-campus residency” meetings, is a serious accomplishment.

Then, you have your first party, your first “hazing” incident, your first girlfriend drama, the first keg getting stolen… We had so many meetings during that first semester that lasted more than two hours, and even more during the next fall that lasted more than three.

When people complain about brutal meetings in the real world, I just laugh. This was excruciating to go through, but there are so many examples that I look back on here and still extract benefits from. Many people go through most of their lives without having any meaningful experiences of this nature.

Your First Party

Unless you’re inept, you’ll put together something resembling your first party during your first semester. This is where any upperclassmen in the organization are absolutely crucial. You’ll need to use one of their off-campus houses.

Not to overemphasize this, because at the time we had no idea, but the first party is a dry run of most of what’s to come over the next year or two. Things to evaluate:

  • Who doesn’t show up?
  • Who shows up dressed like a dork?
  • Is there gravitational pull–do people outside of your organization want to be there?
  • Who doesn’t offer to throw money for booze or bring something of their own?
  • Are the fringe guys obsessed with talking about partying/women/Greek life or do they have interesting things to say?
  • Are any of the upperclassmen already trying to be father figures or preach etiquette?
  • Who cleans up?

That’s pretty much it. I can say with confidence that the guys who showed up to our early social events with a sense of purpose and an openness to meet new people all went on to become pillars of our new fraternity. Those who flaked or acted weird pretty much all fell by the wayside.

The Purgatory Phase

Here’s the truth: there are colonies that never emerge from the phase you enter during your first full semester on campus. It’s hard to determine how often this happens because colonies that don’t meet expectations or simply stagnate for years aren’t reported anywhere. It’s not worth the detective work. I have no idea how many colonies dissolve due to lack of membership, but it certainly happens. It almost happened to us.

Right into our first full semester on campus, people started leaving instead of paying dues. The task before us was monumental, and a lot of people just bailed. Some tried to take others with them, and at times it did seem hopeless. It was a calamity to the point that nationals sent a new rep over to help us try to straighten the ship.

If there’s one number you pay attention to, or one thing you remember from this post, it should be that, of our founding class of 70, only about 33 went on to get initiated and remain in good standing through graduation from Lehigh. Of them, 11 were freshmen when they joined Phi Delt.

Where did everyone go?

  • 6 transferred or never graduated from Lehigh
  • 5 had graduated already by the time we became a chapter and would have been eligible to be initiated but refused to pay initiation fees and complete other basic requirements
  • 1 person quit and re-joined later (as a pledge)
  • 15 quit at pretty much the beginning of the Fall 2013 semester
  • The rest “rage quit” or tried to weasel out of paying dues at various points before or after initiation

The reasoning was all over the place, but here’s how I’d summarize it:

  • Money was always a factor, even for the kids from wealthy families
  • A lot of people simply joined for the wrong reason
  • Many people had friends leaving or had unexpected opportunities to rush more established fraternities

The chunk we lost comprised a large part of the executive board, so immediately we were on a backfoot, with way less money having been collected than projected, and without even close to the number of underclassmen we’d need to fill a fraternity house if we were suddenly granted one.

Every colony will struggle in some way, and early success comes down to two things:

  1. Strength of first-year pledge classes
  2. To what extent underclassmen are willing to sacrifice

Recruitment

Chances are, your new fraternity won’t be able to compete on any of the typical metrics that make a fraternity stand out on a college campus. You won’t have a big, beautiful house. You won’t have well-known philanthropy events. You won’t be mixing with the top sororities. You probably won’t be all that plugged into the Greek life scene. Some of the existing organizations might actively dislike you if founders dropped their pledging programs to join (this happened to us).

You have to differentiate. Sure, if you have an exceptional group, you can take a stab at the vanity metrics that make a brotherhood popular or desirable, but it’s an uphill battle. You’ll get branded a tryhard either way.

There was a lot of uniqueness in our organization and that helped us recruit high-quality new members. I think we had about 20 new members join in the 2013/2014 school year, and most of those were from people who had made strong connections with just one or two brothers. They might have been on the same sports team, in the same major, in the same band, or from the same hometown, but it was crucial.

Truth be told, every bid we extended during the Spring of 2014 that went to someone who also received a bid from another organization was declined in favor of the other organization’s. That hurt. But every person who ended up joining that year truly wanted to be in the organization. That helped us move forward from the turbulence at the beginning of the year.

Reputation

Greek life is naturally quite vane and toxic. People say and do stupid, harmful things and a lot of decisions get made just based on reputation. I remember poring over Greekrank when I first got to campus because, obviously, nobody wants to join the loser fraternity.

Well, reality check, a lot of people end up joining fraternities that don’t have awesome social schedules. A lot of people end up joining fraternities that don’t have stellar reputations. Even more people waste time only rushing the absolute coolest houses just to find out that they aren’t cool enough. Then they become anti-Greek warriors. Sorry!

If all you care about is being cool, it’s pretty easy to get stuck in a cycle of reckless partying and recruiting reckless partiers that the fraternity becomes unsustainable and eventually gets kicked off campus. I saw this happen with several different organizations at Lehigh.

A more sustainable strategy is to just try to improve gradually. Things like encouraging people to go to the gym, to be more serious about schoolwork, to socialize in more healthy ways, and just holding each other accountable goes a long way. Funny enough, dropping the vanity metrics and emphasis on the vices, it turns out that just being a decent person who is dedicated to self-improvement will inspire people more than anything

Checking the Boxes – Sacrifice

If your fraternity doesn’t implode early on and you manage to recruit some decent guys, you are on a path to becoming a chapter within two years, depending on what your national organization and college have outlined for you.

During purgatory, any little ding will be something administrators will use against you for the coming years. But, along the way, there are many accomplishments that can’t be taken away from you. Some of these things are required by nationals, so it’s important that you reach for them.

Even if you have the guy who is obsessed with community service and the guy who is passionate about philanthropy, you still need a group effort to steer the ship. Amongst upper leadership, this means significant amounts of sacrifice.

For myself and many of the guys I was on the exec board with that first year, we all had horrible GPAs because we spent hours every day working on bettering the fraternity. Some focused on high-level administration, others focused on the social scene, one guy drilled into the bylaws and procedures, someone will be trusted to handle tens of thousands of dollars, and a small army needs to be recruiting at all times. It was exhausting and without any immediate rewards, but we all knew what we had to do. And, most of all, we don’t regret what we did.

You’ll Need to Kick Someone Out

If you do not bring someone up for membership review, your colony is a joke. That is how I feel. It’s always an emotional affair unfortunately swayed by leaders’ biases, but someone must be brought up for review. Membership review occurs at the confluence of someone going too far–maybe on purpose, maybe on accident–and others in the fraternity being willing to hold them accountable.

We had at least two membership reviews that I remember, both were intense. Neither resulted in the member getting removed, but the votes were close. Each brother charged made some effort to change behavior following the review.

Initiation and Installation

The stars align, you check all the boxes, and your colony finally gets upgraded to a chapter. This is the fun part. It’s where you officially become a brother, learn ritual, and can live in a chapter house if one is available. It’s more permanent and more respected. An accomplishment to look back on with pride.

Growing Pains

Such an overloaded term. One thing I need to wedge in here is that, if you’ve done everything right, the group of founding fathers should look like bozos compared to the majority of the brotherhood by the time you become a chapter. Not that we’re reverting to coolness as a metric, but you should feel like things have improved to the point that you might not even be good enough to join the house in its current state. This is a phenomenon that I’m sure has a name in the corporate world, but you’ll know what I’m talking about if it happens to you. It means you’ve accomplished something bigger than yourself.

One issue that we saw that I have to assume is common is that as the fraternity improves socially, there is a reversion to vices and other reckless behavior. As a founding father with a job lined up who spent a solid year pretending to enjoy shitty get-togethers, this was awesome. But for some of the more impressionable younger members, it’s really hard to instill “work hard play hard” if the hard work, organizationally, has already been completed. Further, there will be people who joined for one reason who will bemoan and fight the reversion to more base pleasures. No easy solution here, but we did have pretty clear factions during this transition.

Lack of Purpose

Once you work all the miracles, check all the boxes, and perhaps even get a chapter house, you realize that there is a massive target on your back. There is no incentive to be good as a Greek organization. Sure, every once in a while there is a common cause wherein the chapter will band together, but there’s not much organizational reward aside from a positive post on Facebook.

In my eyes, it’s all a facade. The national organization needs your money but doesn’t want you to be a liability. They absolutely do not want you to be the cool fraternity with the best parties. The school doesn’t like you at all and probably would get rid of you today if you didn’t have any donors alumni.

Meanwhile, when we talk about mission statements and values and all that warm, fuzzy stuff, it’s hard to ignore that there’s very little continuity on college campuses these days. Each year, students graduate. Each year, students enroll. Reputations fade and cherished memories of the past are forgotten. There’s less respect for what underpins each unique fraternity, and I think a lot of that is due to the fact that national discourse discourages compassion for Greek life. If you’re going to get kicked off next year, why immerse yourself in the history of your organization? Why craft something that will barely outlive you? Why bother?

Summary

This has been a long description of my experience as an undergraduate involved with Greek life. I re-founded an organization and saw it installed as a chapter in the shortest possible amount of time. What seems like a perfect story was actually fraught with difficulties and massive time investment. Hopefully, this post can help others attempting to understand whether to take the leap.

We Started a Fraternity