It's time to take out the old wallet and pull out the chapter dues for the year. And that got me thinking. We like to brag to white fraternity and sorority members that the difference between our organizations and their organizations is that we belong to our organizations beyond college. We’re supposedly active from the day we’re initiated to the day we die because of the importance our principles and deeds hold in our lives.
And for many of our members, that is true. They’re dedicated to their organizations, donate countless hours toward the work of the organization, and put in a yeoman’s effort when others are too tired to try. But what we don’t like talking about is the fact that for the great majority of fraternal members, their fraternal experience ends when they leave their college campus. So if that’s the case, if they’re not going to do the work of the organization, shouldn’t we consider ending their official association with the fraternity or sorority? Maybe it’s time to revoke the automatic lifetime membership and make members earn it through their lives?
For all of the talk about the importance of making people pledge in order to get into the fraternity or sorority, we as members are remarkably silent on keeping the people who are already members accountable. Yes, we like to spout the cliché that the ‘real pledging begins once you cross’ but in reality, that’s not the case. Once you’ve been initiated, there’s really nothing anyone can do about making you actually work for the organization. Yeah, there’s peer pressure, and no one wants to be termed a ‘shirt wearer’, but the reality is that despite everything, the overwhelming majority of members are not financially active. They are frat and sorors in name only.
Over the past 30 years, the financial activity rates for black Greek members have been abysmal, with one in 10 fraternity members staying active, and about four in 10 sorority members remaining active in their organizations. This number transcends the argument that the pledge system is to blame for the inactivity rate, since the numbers have pretty much remained consistent, whether it was the aboveground pledge period of the 1980s or the Membership Intake Process of the ‘90s and ‘00s.
And over the years, we’ve developed varying rationalizations to excuse the numbers by blaming everything except the inactive members themselves. We have the people who say that their organizations are too expensive when it comes to dues and other expenses, yet didn’t balk when they were asked to pay to get on line. We have others who proclaim a difference between being financially active and being fraternal, and will yell from the rafters that no matter how much their inactive members shirk their responsibility, they’re just as valuable as the financial members. Or they deny that being financial is actually important, that it’s only one element of being a brother or sister. And that one can be fraternal without it.
And yet, it is because of these legions of inactive members that dues are extraordinarily high, and the expenses for convention, particularly for black fraternities, which have only a few thousand registered attendees compared with the tens of thousands of registered attendees at sorority conventions, are astronomical. It is because of these inactive members that community service projects are less effective, and fundraising remains rudimentary at best.
So what is the solution? How about making membership contingent upon how financially and fraternally active you’ve been? Perhaps every five years, you’ll sit before a board and they’ll assess your continued commitment to the organization? If you fall short, then the organization has the right to either demand payment for the short fall, or they can permanently revoke your membership. If you have extenuating circumstances, like loss of a job or other circumstances, you could then go on a probationary period. The idea is that if the organization is no longer working for you, and you don’t believe in the organization enough to pay or work for it, you no longer have the right to call yourself a member.
Maybe each organization can have a drop squad rapid reaction unit, where they come to your house and buy back your para? Your membership is being foreclosed on, and you now must now say that you “were” a member of XYZ fraternity or sorority, versus that you “are” a member, because you let your membership lapse.
And what if you want to get back in the good graces of the fraternity or sorority after you’ve had your membership revoked? Well, we can have a new process where you have to demonstrate that you understand the history and requirements of the organization. And you have to show up for X amount of community service events and demonstrate the principles and ideals that you’d originally dedicated yourself to. Pay your dues and your back dues. And after that, you’d be allowed to retake your oath and be put in good standing within your organizations, with the caveat that this is your second and last chance.
The glossy numbers we in the Divine Nine like to trumpet as our total membership don’t look so good when you account for the dead weight. Perhaps it’s time to get the attention of the inactive by letting them know that membership is not a right, but a privilege. Now the cliché of pledging begins after you cross just might come true.
Lawrence Ross is the author of the Los Angeles Times best-seller The Divine Nine: The History of African American Fraternities and Sororities. His newest book, Blackballed: The Black and White Politics of Race on America’s Campuses, is a blunt and frank look at the historical and contemporary issue of campus racism on predominantly white college campuses. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.