Growth and Expansion: The Dance Between Campuses and Headquarters

by Dr. Spencer A. Long

Prior to coming to work at a Fraternity Headquarters, I spent ten years working on three different campuses in three different states, serving in the areas of student activities, civic learning and democratic engagement, commuter and off-campus programs, residential life, orientation, student leadership development, volunteering and service learning, and I even spent a short stint in Fraternity and Sorority affairs. My focus was always working to find a way to say yes when a student came to me with an idea for something new they wanted to try or an organization they wanted to start. Although this was not always an easy task, and sometimes the answer was no, my philosophy was to engage as many students as possible in some meaningful activity to build an affinity with the institution.

Recently, I have been spending a great deal of time reflecting on the various expansion processes I have been a part of to try to understand why each is so different. I have been trying to understand why some institutions lean more toward the yes column, and others lean more toward the no column. Having now worked with over forty different institutions in my headquarters capacity, I have been trying to understand why the process has involved anywhere from a three-paragraph letter to providing a nearly 400-page packet of documents. With my professional philosophy of working to engage as many students as possible and having not been a part of these processes prior to my current role, I started to ask “why.”

To aid in my reflection process, with the agreement of anonymity, I recently chatted with three Fraternity and Sorority Life professionals on the “why” of their expansion process, and what I learned was very interesting. Without question, it was clear that each professional had what they believed to be students’ best interests at the core of the process. Each also identified the same key components they wanted to learn through their process:

  • What does/will alumni support look like for the group;
  • Why this specific campus/institution; and
  • How does the organization support and help the group?

Beyond that, each institution was different. Most interestingly, one of the professionals interviewed shared that they had worked on four different campuses, and all four were different. With this in mind, I started to dig a little deeper.

The first big takeaway from these interviews was context matters. In some cases, state laws, institutional culture, or recent current events drive their expansion process more than anything in the Fraternity/Sorority Life professionals’ control. In some cases, the institutions make the process what it is to weed out groups who are not truly committed to the expansion or the institution. In another case, the expansion process was defined as, “This is what every other school does, so that’s why we do it,” without any real understanding of why they ask for what they do or why the process is set up the way it is. In one interview, I learned that some of the information requested is simply “fun and interesting” for the review committee and has no real significance or impact on the decision-making process.

The most interesting thing I learned in these conversations was that each of the three professionals if given the opportunity, would change their process. One would take many of the things they ask for away as they really only want a highlight reel of the organization and can find much of the information on their own. One would make the process less ‘legal’ and find a way for organizations to really highlight who they are rather than simply producing several documents. The last would work to find a way to take personal bias out of the equation.

As a Headquarters professional, having been able to chat with each of these individuals, my takeaway is that although each institution has a different process, most of them have a contextual reason why. Additionally, I learned each of them has items they are asked to provide that are out of their control, and although it may seem ridiculous, there is a reason it’s being requested. With that in mind, my plea to campus-based professionals overseeing these processes is that you take the time to review and read all the requested materials. In almost every one of the expansion processes I have been a part of, it has been evident that the packet was not reviewed from the types of questions that were asked during the expansion presentation. My additional plea is to use the information you have requested in the decision-making process. All too often, when being informed why the organization is not moving forward in an expansion process, the feedback given has nothing to do with the information that was provided/requested, but rather it has to do with information reviewers found and interpreted on their own without the opportunity to engage in any dialogue about it. For any of these partnerships and relationships to work, there needs to be a collaboration and true partnership between both organizations. If an institution is going to allow information from outside of its process, why is there a process at all?

No matter how you look at growth and expansion, there is a great deal of time, money, and effort spent on each process. From these conversations, it is clear that for any expansion to work, there has to be a true partnership with open and honest dialogue for it to be successful. Or in other words, you need a good dance partner. Additionally, as student affairs professionals, we must remember at the core of our roles, we are here to develop students. This may mean finding more ways to say yes. This may mean finding ways to work with all our organizations to help them grow and thrive. As quoted by William S. Burroughs, “When you stop growing, you start dying.”

 

About the author

Dr. Spencer Long serves as Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity’s Chief Operating Officer. He is responsible for the oversight of chapter services, growth, accountability, and educational programs. As a student affairs professional, Spencer works to transform leaders and develop lifelong active citizens who work towards creating positive social change.

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