Kappa Alpha Exceptionalism

By David T. Finkelstein, MD, VP ’87

It is great to be a Kap! So also it is to be a national officer of The Kappa Alpha Society Executive Council. What isn’t so great is the negative reactions to such status sometimes engendered in fraternity and sorority outsiders! I have been told that I was nuts, or part of a problem, or somehow guilty of one thing or another for helping lead a Greek Letter Society.

This becomes more of a problem whenever the press sensationalizes incidents involving other national fraternities. Recently we’ve gone through a cycle with allegations of rape, videos demonstrating racism, more hazing deaths, vandalism, and the terrorizing of homeowners who live next to chapter houses. The bad reputation of fraternities as raucous and uncontrollable centers of chaos is exacerbated by such stories and also by Hollywood through various movies and TV shows.

The general public, including the press and college administrators, tend to lump all fraternities and fraternity members together as if the Greek letters and their underpinnings are interchangeable. This is far from correct.

There are about a hundred national fraternities. Different groups of students at various colleges and universities founded these organizations for various, different, and unique purposes and to promote various, different, and unique principles. Each is unique unto itself, and should neither be beholden to, nor responsible for, any other such group.

There are commonalities. Most use Greek letters to represent some identity or statement of purpose known only to those initiated. Most have a need for new members to be voted in by the current active members and then go through some form of education before initiation. Most have branches at various colleges and universities where members share common living and social spaces. Most need to hold events on their campuses to gain visibility for recruitment. Unfortunately, most are at schools where administrations have yielded to them control of campus social life.

While each national fraternity is unique unto itself, there is one significant historical tie they all share. Each was founded in imitation of, or competition with, or opposition to those fraternities already on its campus, or nearby campuses, or campuses in the hometowns of its founders. Those fraternities that served as inspirations were in turn founded in imitation of, or competition with, or opposition to other, still older organizations. If one works back through all the degrees of separation, one finds that all ultimately were founded in imitation of, or competition with, or opposition to what happened at Union College on November 26, 1825, with the founding of Kappa Alpha.

Our Kappa Alpha Society was first. We originated the college fraternity as it exists today. Certainly, there were other organizations that used Greek letters before us, but they were not social student brotherhoods. Phi Beta Kappa inducted upperclassmen into what immediately lost any social pretense and was co-opted by faculty into the honor society it is today. The first Chi Phi at Princeton was a faculty-student social club that quickly became defunct and has no historic ties to any groups that used its letters later and found its records after. There was even another Kappa Alpha before us. The Kuklos Adelphon, however, seemed to be a community phenomenon in the antebellum South that happened also to have branches on a number of campuses.

Being first means that the entire Greek system is a byproduct of our founding and existence. Some say it was a remarkable byproduct, others toxic. Still, it happened. We did not plan it. We did not seek it. We did not initiate it. Others wanted what we had, or opposed it, and reacted to it with copies. We are not responsible for them or their innovations as fraternities. In fact, we are not a fraternity, we are a society. The word “fraternity” as a descriptor of our type of group was coined later.

The problem with copies, and copies of copies, is that after a while, the product looks less and less like the original.

Why was Kappa Alpha founded? What were its inspirations? First, consider the close, inter-generational, ties of brotherhood promoted by the Freemasons. Then consider the social and club-like aspects of the earlier Greek letter groups. Add to that the historic and cultural underpinnings of using the Greek alphabet and the offerings of the ancient civilization that created it. Next, consider the intellectual and academic aspects of the faculty sanctioned Literary Societies that were then en vogue. Finally, consider the desire of the students of the time to break free from the restrictive control of faculties as to what might be studied, and to have an early form of student rebellion. Mix that all together and you just might end up with The Kappa Alpha Society.

Kappa Alpha was founded to be an independent, student run, fun and entertaining, literary society reflecting on Classical Greece, promoting lifelong bonds of friendship and brotherhood among its members, and centering on values of honor and respectability. Today, we are still that! Some of our competitors and imitators seem to offer something completely different. Some seem to be organizations that have high talk about lofty values and brotherhood, enshroud themselves in mystical hokum, while in reality show themselves to be only focused on the social aspects of the fraternity concept, and prove to be nothing more than bars with dorm rooms attached. This may be perfectly fine for their members, but it is not Kappa Alpha!

There are many ways that Kappa Alpha differs from its incidental progeny:

We were by choice, from our early days of expansion, to remain small. Since 1825, we have only been in 15 schools. Subtracting currently moribund chapters, today we are active only at nine. We are at one extreme of national fraternities. Consider the other extreme. There are nationals with more than 200 chapters. They are constantly founding new colonies. The effective difference is startling.

If a large fraternity loses a chapter or two, it is not that big a deal. It doesn’t change the nature of the organization, and besides, there are the new colonies that can replace them. For a small fraternity like ours, every chapter is precious and adds to the flavoring and coloring of the whole. Every founding and re-founding is momentous; every closure, disastrous.

A large fraternity can generate a lot of revenue and throw it at expansion. We need to be selective and creative with the use of our resources. This often leads to expansion centered on individuals. It is all about the founders and re-founders of our chapters, not professional recruiters.

In a large fraternity, the individual members can get lost in the crowd and be invisible outside their own chapters. Certainly, the people at the national level cannot know everyone currently at dozens if not hundreds of chapters, let alone what is happening with them. At Kappa Alpha, every member is important to the national and to every single chapter. We are all in it together and communication is important. At Kappa Alpha, we take full advantage of the intimacy offered by being small to encourage ties among our chapters.

In most fraternities, a member may meet those at other chapters incidentally if they encounter someone wearing the letters, or else meet them at a national convention. At Kappa Alpha, we have a full calendar of events that pull the active membership together. Each chapter hosts at least one such event at its annual reunion weekend. We have our annual leadership training Concilium and our annual New York City Dinner. A Kap is welcome in any of our Lodges, and on entry is often surrounded by familiar faces.

In many fraternities, alumni are present briefly twice a year at Homecomings and Alumni Days. They show up expecting to be fed at a reception and have willing ears to hear about how things used to be. At Kappa Alpha, we have volunteer alumni leaders at each chapter, there to advise on Society affairs and mentor where appropriate. More chapter alumni regularly show up to actively participate in the literary and ritual exercises. In addition, the national officers are not just names on a letterhead and bylines in a newsletter, but are frequently present and known.

At Kappa Alpha, we like to think that we don’t contribute in any significant way to the reputation of fraternities as centers of chaos on campus. For example, a first major criticism of fraternities is hazing. While it is true that Kappa Alpha was responsible in part for the tragic deaths of Mortimer Leggett in 1873 and Edward Fairchild Berkeley in 1899, we have not had any such issue since. We learned our lessons. One incident was an educational experience gone awry due to poor choice of locale and the other a routine chore assigned to a reckless young man left unmonitored. Our activities then, just as now, were not true hazing. Hazing is something we do not condone.

A second criticism of “fraternities” is on the treatment of women: from excluding them all the way to being centers of date rape and gang rape. Rape is horrible, and no one should ever experience such an atrocity anywhere. We can proudly say that no allegations of such have ever been made toward a Kappa Alpha chapter. The simple fact is that nothing in our history, our ritual, or our tradition promotes any disrespect toward women. There is nothing about women, or anything gender specific whatsoever. While we are not running monasteries, we have Lodges where our actives live. For us, this has worked.

Today, our chapters only initiate men. This is an incidental byproduct of the fact that our founding and most of our chapter starts occurred when the colleges and universities had not yet started admitting women, and the only students available for membership were male. In the recent past, Kappa Alpha did admit women and had two simultaneous co-ed chapters. Why this experiment failed and whether there is wisdom in trying again is a subject for a later column and later debate. The main point is that Kappa Alpha did try!

Fraternities are often accused of being elitist and exclusionary. Yes, we were once an A list fraternity, where white Protestant males rushed, leaving all others to the B list houses. This was not due to any restrictive covenant on our part, but to the environment of the Greek systems of the times. To our credit, it was something Kappa Alpha bucked as soon as possible. Today, our chapters are incredibly diverse with a wide selection of people from many races, religions, ethnicities, sexualities, and classes. Some of our chapters have become incredibly international with brothers from all over the world. Further to our credit, many of the recent chapter presidents have represented such minority and international populations. The face of the Society today is one of diversity.

A diverse population adds to the educational prospects of the Society where young people can learn from others unlike themselves. We have simultaneously had Irish Catholics and Protestants, Greeks and Turks, Israelis and Arabs, and Koreans and Japanese in our chapters. What better way to learn tolerance and acceptance than to embrace one of “them” as your brother.

The founders of Kappa Alpha were Protestants, many of whom went on to be ministers. Yet, unlike other fraternities, we are not based on Christianity, but on older roots of Western Civilization making for universal appeal. What was founded is a Society welcoming to all, be they Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, or Atheist.

A final, but major, criticism involves alcohol and substance abuse. Today, higher education in the United States is drowning in booze. This is an issue on almost every campus and not restricted to the fraternities. The closeable doors of a chapter house do, however, draw in and concentrate a problem that they did not create. It is up to the nationals to not act as enablers, which, unfortunately, many seem to do. It is up to the nationals to discourage substance abuse, which, unfortunately, many seem unable to do.

We at Kappa Alpha are not running a temperance society, and our organization cannot survive as a dry island in an ethanol sea. Still, our founding was over a repast of baked potatoes, salt, and apples, not brew. None of our rites, especially pledging and initiation, require alcohol. At every meal we proudly sing our Dinner Song, which includes the verse: “Then let us banish hence the bowl, for Bacchus hath no part.” Alcohol is neither central to nor required for the Kappa Alpha experience.

John Hart Hunter and his eight colleagues created a synthesis of what had gone before and invented the modern college fraternity. The Society they formed was repeatedly copied with diminishing results by organizations that zigged where Kappa Alpha zagged. While we, as the first fraternity, are classified and grouped with the rest, we are truly unique with distinctive strengths and advantages firmly fixed in our structure at the onset. This sets us apart from our imitators.

It is one thing to be a fraternity member, a brother, a Greek; but it is something else, something special and great, to be a Kap.

Dr. Finkelstein is Secretary of The Executive Council of The Kappa Alpha Society. This article was originally published in the 2015 Summer edition of “The Kap Key, Newsletter of the Kappa Alpha Society”.