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
- Alcohol-free recruitment
- 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.