Reimagining FSL: Implementing a Functional Area Based Staffing Structure

by John W. Keith and Jennifer Pierce Thomas

It has become imperative to adopt fresh approaches to address the evolving landscape of sorority and fraternity life. With emerging trends and nuances within our communities, we require, now more than ever, proactive education, development, engagement, and intervention to meet the diverse & changing needs of today’s college students. Managing sorority and fraternity life (SFL) can be a daunting task, no matter the size of the community. This is where functional staffing models can be helpful, as they offer an efficient and effective way of meeting the needs of our members.

A functional staffing model is a system in which staff members are organized based on their area of expertise, rather than on a chapter-by-chapter or council-by-council basis. This approach ensures that each staff member has a specific area of focus, allowing them to become subject matter experts in their area of responsibility. This expertise enables them to provide more targeted and efficient support within the SFL community and provides teams with the framework necessary to implement wrap-around support for SFL students in innovative ways.

The Office of Sorority and Fraternity Life at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville has been shifting from the traditional staffing model to a functional area-based model. This approach, while not entirely new, has yielded positive outcomes for the community as it enables staff to delve deeper into their specific areas of focus. In the traditional staffing model, each chapter or council had an assigned advisor who was responsible for providing support and guidance to the members. Advisors were often stretched too thin, with too many chapters to support, and may not have had the necessary expertise to address every issue that arose. Additionally, this model can lead to a lack of consistency in the support provided to different chapters and councils, as well as an increased risk of burnout for staff. While previously using the council-based approach, the staff and the community in Knoxville often operated in silos, allowing for different expectations, training, and procedures to happen which resulted in creating varying experiences for members based on the skill level and expertise of the professional support.

With a functional staffing model dividing staff members based on their areas of expertise, it became possible to provide more specialized support to chapters and councils. For example, the staffing model within the Office of Sorority and Fraternity Life at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville is now divided into five critical components; community and stakeholder engagement, facilities support and assessment, risk and harm reduction, leadership development and training, and council advising. While the council advisors are working with the council and chapter leadership through their day-to-day, they also have the support from staff who have expertise in content areas of sorority and fraternity life. Creating elevated roles has allowed for the office to approach issues such as risk and harm reduction from a community lens and provide similar experiences and training for all organizations.

An example of how functional staffing has positively impacted our work is through relationships with chapter presidents and advisors. Through assessment efforts, we have learned that this model allows our entire team to have stronger relationships with these critical stakeholders. Programs and initiatives that support potential new members, emerging leaders, officers, council leaders, and senior leaders within the chapter have all cast a larger net for student interactions, educational development, and ensuring that more students feel as though they matter & belong within the community. Due to the shift, gone are the days of students making a bee-line to a particular office thinking that they can only be assisted by their council advisor. Instead, students meet with and are supported by multiple staff members so regularly that they feel supported by the entire team.

An additional benefit is the creation of clear pathways for professional development, promotion, and retention; allowing staff to take on more significant roles and responsibilities as they advance their skills and competencies. In a field where turnover is often high, creating these paths provide staff opportunities to focus on professional competencies, such as supervision, data collection and assessment, and cultural competency and inclusion; this sets staff up for success in taking on these elevated roles. Further, it provides tiered levels of responsibility which helps to reduce burnout.

Implementing a functional staffing model is not without its challenges. Universities may need to restructure their existing staffing models, which can be a complex and time-consuming process. Additionally, ensuring that each staff member is adequately trained and supported in their area of expertise can be a significant undertaking for area managers. However, the benefits of a functional staffing model far outweigh the challenges. Ultimately, the functional staffing model is an investment in the success of sorority and fraternity life programs, allows campuses to better meet the needs of today’s college students, and enables practitioners to do great work all while robbing themselves of the illusion that they have to/can be all things to all people.


About the authors

John W. Keith: John currently works as the Director of Sorority & Fraternity Life at the University of Tennessee Knoxville. In this role, he oversees the programmatic and community-wide initiatives of the office, provides direction and support for all programs and course offerings related to the social/service Greek-lettered experience, engages campus and community partners on topics ranging from joining processes to leadership development and harm and risk reduction, and provides strategic visioning to a community that represents 26% of the undergraduate student body. Prior to working at UT, John worked at a number of institutions including the University of Cincinnati, Louisiana State University, Valdosta State University and Augusta University, where he had the opportunity to see fraternity & sorority life through different lenses. He believes that those varied experiences make his take on Greek engagement unique and he is excited to share his approach to providing support to fraternal organizations. John is a two-time graduate of Georgia Southern University, a soon to be two-time graduate of Louisiana State University and a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.

Jennifer Pierce Thomas: Jennifer currently serves as the Associate Director of Sorority & Fraternity Life at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville and is celebrating her ninth year being on Rocky Top. In her role, Jennifer provides strategic direction and oversight of the fraternity and sorority on-campus facilities, oversees the data collection and assessment for the office, assists in the development of the overall vision and strategy for community-wide programs and initiatives, and provides supervision for other full-time staff members. Prior to coming to Knoxville, Jennifer professionally supported the fraternity and sorority communities at both Ball State University and Western Carolina University, where she also received her Masters in Higher Education Administration. Jennifer currently serves as a board member for the Association of Fraternity and Sorority Advisors Foundation and is a member of Gamma Phi Beta.

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