The Men of Principle Initiative
The following article, "The Men of Principle Initiative ... 10 Years Later," first appeared in The Beta Theta Pi magazine in fall 2008. Within, author and former Director of Men of Principle Martin Cobb, Eastern Kentucky '96, provides an in-depth road map of the effort's first decade.
The piece continues to serve as a reminder of the commitment to fraternal values that inspired the award-winning program that has now been a staple of the Fraternity's reputation for more than two decades.
"We can look to the future pondering with wide-eyed wonder, but we are here, and it is now, and something must be done."
Such a concise, compelling quote may do more to explain the impetus for the Men of Principle initiative — and the resulting evolution of Beta Theta Pi over the last 10 years — than any other study, speech, video or personal interview. Interestingly enough, it made its way to an Administrative Office staff member as an email footnote from an energetic, yet frustrated, chapter president.
It was five o’clock in the morning, and he was tired. He was exhausted.
What caused his frustrations is really no mystery. And, at this point — on the 10 year anniversary of the establishment of the Men of Principle initiative — it is really not important. What a young chapter president experienced as he tried to mobilize a group of difficult, uncooperative peers toward a more positive Beta experience, was actually occurring all across North America. It was happening in Beta Theta Pi and in 70+ other inter/national college fraternities across the land, too.
There’s a Scene
The year was 1998, and Beta Theta Pi was about to embark upon what would become arguably one of the most pivotal moments and periods in the Fraternity’s history. The founding in 1839, the acclaimed Beta Firsts of the 1870s and 1880s, the establishment of the first administrative secretary and Administrative Office in 1949, and the long-awaited new Foundation and Administrative Office of 1994 were significant, grand achievements. They were major culture-shaping influences of Beta Theta Pi, for sure.
But it would be Men of Principle, the organization’s first culture-reversing initiative, which may prove to be the largest of tasks, the most difficult in terms of achievability.
As is often suggested, “facts are stubborn, stubborn things.” So it is important to remember the context of Beta Theta Pi — and the entire fraternal movement, for that matter — in the early-to-mid-1990s. Fraternities were hemorrhaging from all angles in terms of academics, recruitment, risk management, housing infrastructure, alumni involvement, institutional support, public relations, etc. To suggest the whole fraternal community was in a state of disrepair would be a gross understatement. Disarray was more like it, and Beta Theta Pi, in many respects, was no exception.
Perhaps more important than the most easily-identified bullet points that roll off the tongue when talking about serious fraternal issues, one word seems to sum it up better than the rest: relevance.
Beta Theta Pi was slowly yet surely becoming irrelevant throughout North America, and the data supported that fact from every perspective.
Some call it providence. Others call it luck. A few even suggest it was a calculated, deliberate strategy. Each perspective is somewhat true — depending upon who is doing the viewing. Regardless, Wooglin surely smiled on Beta Theta Pi in the mid-90s and early 2000s. The fact remains that, at that point in time, there were multiple, independent forces stirring. Restless forces that would indeed influence a cultural revolution within Beta Theta Pi. It would be a revolution of epic proportions.
In August 1996, E.B. Wilson, St. Lawrence ’53, chairman of the board for St. Lawrence University, wrote a “Letter to the Editor” challenging Beta’s leadership to be more active in the identification of Beta’s true mission and vision, and work aggressively toward actually implementing policies and programs to achieve both.
“I would strongly urge that Beta Theta Pi take a position of fraternal leadership with the publicly stated objective of reforming the Greek presence in the academic community,” noted Wilson. He advised that form should pursue at least five initial goals:
Define in contemporary language the base case for membership in a Greek society
Make academic performance an explicit commitment and find ways to demonstrate that membership in a Greek society enhances academic achievement
Establish and self-enforce a code of conduct which makes the Greek societies the paradigm of responsible social behavior
Build a program that encourages broad-based opportunity for leadership training, within the Fraternity and in service to the community at large
Connect these attributes of Greek membership to the outcomes of professional careers and in life-long participation in a global society as an engaged citizen.
Almost simultaneously, members of the Fraternity’s staff in Oxford were gathering weekly during a summer book-club review of Kouzes and Posner’s best-selling book The Leadership Challenge. Led by then-Administrative Secretary Bob Cottrell, Miami ’54, the Fraternity’s chapter management consultants began voicing concerns that what they were studying in Oxford was not the reality of the Beta experience on campus. Chapters lacked consistent standards of accountability, alumni involvement, leadership training, resources and opportunities to operate and foster a healthy chapter culture — one centered on academics, brotherhood and the best of the Fraternity’s traditions.
As a result of those challenging sessions in the basement of the Administrative Office, Jason Bennett, Georgia ’96 composed a white-paper that suggested, “Mutual aid and assistance, devotion to the cultivation of the intellect, and unsullied friendship and unfaltering fidelity are still as critical to building better men in today’s society as they were in 1839. Like America’s founders, Pater Knox and his associates chose our founding principles wisely. It is now our charge to see that we transmit these values to future generations using current wisdom and methodology.”
The primary suggestion emanating from those discussions was that, “it is not that Beta’s principles are irrelevant on campuses today. It’s just that so many of our practices and actions are.”
Thankfully, as so often happens in organizations when the overly-inflated egos of a few take priority over the masses, Beta Theta Pi’s leadership — led by General Secretary Jerry M. Blesch, Centre ’60 — did not brush aside these offerings of constructive criticism. Actually, he and the Board of Trustees did just the opposite: Brother Wilson was engaged professionally to lead his own Fraternity through a high-level, comprehensive strategic planning exercise. Likewise, Brother Cottrell continued hiring talented young men right out of college to the Oxford staff, giving them the ownership and freedom to develop programs and implement ideas that could improve the manner in which the General Fraternity supported the on-campus Beta experience. His actions were followed closely and perpetuated aggressively by successor Stephen B. Becker, Florida ’69 (administrative secretary, 1998-2007). “Recruit and retain the best” became the mantra at 5134 Bonham Road.
An Unconventional Experiment
While risky and without precedence, a $200,000 allocation from the Baird Fund was approved by the Board of Trustees as a means to the end of saving Beta Theta Pi through a high-quality, comprehensive, extended planning effort. The strategic exercise would take nearly 12 months to complete and, following a year’s worth of piloting in the 1998-99 academic year with three strikingly different chapters at Nebraska, Georgia and Pennsylvania, the Men of Principle initiative was formally introduced at the 160th General Convention in Oxford in 1999. It was a remarkable occasion; most notably because the organization had little more than a simple Mission and Vision Statement along with Nine Goals (on a few sheets of paper) — and only a year’s worth of three pilot campus experiences from which to draw.
There were no defined formulas, no pre-existing Beta programs, no recipes or manuscripts on how best to bring the Men of Principle initiative to life. It was little more than a concept; little more than a possibility.
It is amazing what happens when men and women come together and act on the belief that there’s nothing they can’t accomplish. Courage tends to do that to the fearless — and the threatened.
What was learned as a result of the Nebraska chapter’s efforts to rebuild after a reorganization that reduced the Chapter to a dozen or so young men on campus; Georgia’s successful implementation of a completely alcohol-free recruitment period, and Pennsylvania’s struggle with membership and overall chapter operations would be the launching pad to a decade of listening. Ten years of clawing through difficult issues — one after another — by humbled, driven Beta volunteers and staff.
From the beginning it was clear: no long-term success could be experienced without engaging the undergraduates from all corners of North America. An undergraduate-focused cultural change effort would require the involvement and leadership of undergraduates. It would be the proving ground for the critically acclaimed Men of Principle initiative. Ownership, involvement and relationship development was the name of the game.
Former Men of Principle director, Scott J. Allen, Minnesota ’95 commented, “It was a fun time to be on staff and in the Fraternity. We were moving at a rapid pace and there was a strong sense of team among all involved. It was new ground for our organization, but Beta’s most talented volunteers, undergraduates and staff were committed to making it work.”
Thankfully, it was also through the work of Donald G. (Dipper) DiPaolo, Michigan ’78 that the intensity of Beta brotherhood at the General Fraternity level began to change. Advisory Council member and former General Treasurer John Stebbins, Emory ’92, remarked, “Under Dipper’s unique facilitation abilities, we finally started having deep, meaningful conversations — conversations that mattered and that connected us more strongly to the Fraternity and one another. All of a sudden, Beta became bigger than what she had ever been — and it happened right before our eyes.”
Eventually, as those sentiments became a shared reality, more and more chapters would sign on and embrace the tenets and expectations of the Men of Principle initiative, which were essentially nothing more than a contemporary restatement of the Fraternity’s founding principles, obligations and public objects of the 1800s.
But hope is not a strategy, and establishing a foothold in the culture in order to shift its focus back to the founding values of the Fraternity would require intense, courageous, principled leadership. Leadership that would agree to four non-negotiables for chapters choosing to sign-on to Men of Principle:
A five-person trained and active advisory team
Elimination of the rogue “National Test” (also known as “The Shep Test”)
Commitment to a 100% hazing-free pledge program
Ultimately, to be a fraternity of integrity and relevance at the turn of the century, Beta’s record must match her rhetoric. We could no longer claim to be one thing, yet act like something completely different.
The philosophy of the Men of Principle initiative was strikingly different from most fraternities’ membership programs that were rolled-out during the ’90s — namely because every Beta chapter and colony was encouraged to take ownership for developing their own customized annual plan, and to select resources and participate in programs offered by the General Fraternity based upon the unique needs of their own chapter’s culture. UCLA’s needs may be different than those of Maine, and the needs of our Washington chapter could be quite distinct from that of Central Florida.
Recounted former staff director, David Rae, British Columbia ’00, “I vividly remember Vice President Pete Morse, DePauw ’90, on stage at the 2001 Convention charging the undergraduates toward a more full understanding of Men of Principle and Beta as a unified Fraternity of all chapters: ‘We don’t care how you get there. Just get there!’”
And so it was. A plan more concerned with substance over style, function over form.
Chapters that embraced the Men of Principle philosophy would, week-by-week, continue to add momentum to the revolution, as young Betas everywhere chipped away at the negative aspects of their own chapter culture by engaging in hard, difficult conversations. Aided by encouragement from their trained local advisors and district chiefs, intense staff support from Oxford, and a growing menu of experiential leadership programs and operational resources provided by the General Fraternity, they would:
Understand and accept the fact that the genius of Beta Theta Pi at the undergraduate level rests upon the concept of self-governance and personal responsibility
Strengthen internal accountability measures for all brothers through proper and purposeful use of the Eye of Wooglin and Kai Committee
Prioritize academics as an important value of Beta membership and use it as a singular most-important measuring stick during recruitment
Reach out to alumni, advisors and the General Fraternity for genuine coaching and advice on how better to run their local chapter
Participate in new leadership programming being offered by the General Fraternity and consider it a prerequisite for current and up-and-coming chapter leaders
Genuinely engage their university or college’s Greek advisor as a friend and advocate of Beta Theta Pi, and practice a long-held Beta tradition of interfraternalism