Whatever Happened to the Talented Tenth and NPHC Values?

Whatever Happened to the Talented Tenth? NPHC Values at Risk

I have to preface this piece by stating that I am not a scholar of sociology, anthropology, or student affairs. However, for the last 7 years I’ve been a member of a historically Black Greek Letter Organization. Additionally, I served as a graduate assistant, advising NPHC organizations.


A few weeks ago, my fraternity brother helped facilitate a discussion with a cohort of college chapter National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) members at our alma mater. At some point during the conversation he discovered the majority of the students, even brothers from our own chapter, were uninformed on the concept of the talented tenth. 

Although, this unfamiliarity may seem insignificant, the aspiration for 1 out of every 10 African Americans to gain the necessary skills to become leaders for social change, thereby uplifting African Americans, is a core tenet embodied in the origin of all 9 NPHC organizations. 

Of course it is impossible to relay every nugget of historical information from pledge line to pledge line, but I find it disheartening that such a significant piece was overlooked. Subsequently, if the students weren’t taught the idea of the talented tenth, there is no internal expectation for them to live up to it. With that, given my observation of National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC) culture since my initiation, there has been a noticeable departure from the values embodied in the talented tenth concept. 

If Black Greeks are not aspiring to be the talented tenth, then what are they aspiring to be? Click To Tweet

If the moral underpinnings of the talented tenth are absent from students’ reasoning, what is driving their decisions in terms of program planning, initiation processes and personal behavior? If Black Greeks are not aspiring to be the talented tenth, then what are they aspiring to be, and how are their aspirations manifested in their actions? Furthermore, why weren’t they taught this concept in the first place? 

That last question highlights a distinct and pervasive dilemma I have come to recognize in not only in the NPHC, but in several organizations which I’ve held membership. In organizations without well-established mechanisms for leadership transition and new member training there tends to be a disconnect in the transmission of values, traditions and cultural artifacts from one generation of members to the next. I call this phenomenon value decay. 

What is Value Decay?

Value decay results in the gradual disregard of original values in an organization, often replaced with less productive and at times destructive practices that counter the foundational values that shaped the organization. Taking this phenomenon into account, it is possible for years of history to be erased within the initiation of a few pledge lines. Therefore, it becomes easy for the lesson of the talented tenth to be omitted from a pledge class curriculum. 

The most obvious way to recognize value decay in NPHC organizations is to compare the mission statement of an organization against their current behaviors. A prime example is the standard of academic excellence that nearly all NPHC organizations espouse in their creeds and mottos, as compared to actual academic performance. Across the country, NPHC organizations produce paltry academic records, in direct contraction to espoused organizational values. Another example is in the anti-hazing intake policy shared by all 9 NPHC organizations. Although this standard was set in place in the early 1990s, over twenty years later, there is a steady stream of incident reports stemming from violent hazing practices associated with intake. 

The begs the question, what are these organizations without adherence to their original values? Unfortunately, many critics would say that these organizations have devolved into gangs, step teams, and party promoters. Furthermore, NPHC culture as portrayed in popular culture only goes to cement those opinions. Though this may be an unwelcome depiction, it is rooted in some shade of truth. Fortunately, I see an opportunity to gradually reverse these negative perceptions. One can’t lament upon a problem without taking the time to craft a feasible solution. 

Just as values can be decomposed, they can be constructed as well. With their construction, comes the responsibility of continued maintenance. With that, it is incumbent for college chapter advisors to take a larger role in serving as values managers for their chapters. 

NPHC Chapter Advisor Interventions

A small percentage of college members have the foresight to contemplate how their actions will affect the long term standing of their chapters. With this in mind, chapter advisors have to play the long game, maintaining a deeper outlook on how chapter activities and academic standing demonstrate organizational values. Therefore advisors must draw the line where chapter activities conflict with foundational values, like canceling step show involvement when grades are poor or removing bikini-clad girls from event flyers. 

Now I’m sure some will read this and insist that I am advocating for advisor dictatorships. Much to the contrary, I am suggesting that advisors firmly guide their chapters toward fulfilling the legacies of their founders. To do so, advisors must be willing to dive into the muck and make unpopular decisions for the integrity of their chapters. With that, I offer a few tactics to begin the process towards instilling foundational values back into your chapter.

Inventory Chapter Values

Take an honest inventory of chapter values then reverse engineer positive values back into your chapters culture. This simple activity involves writing out chapter activities and what type of values they demonstrate. For this to work, you have to be rigorously honest. For example, if the chapter hosts huge house parties once a week, then partying is a chapter value. Once you have an exhaustive list, compare those values to the founding values in your mission statement, creed and motto. 

If several of the chapter values conflict with founding values, think of ways to alleviate the divergence. If founding values are missing, think about what type of chapter activity would demonstrate those values. For example if “love for all mankind” is a foundational value, then helping senior citizens near campus with snow removal seems apropos. This activity should be done first by the advisor, then with the entire chapter, facilitated by the advisor.

Develop Training Workshops

Develop some type of chapter training for new members and newly elected officers. When I was initiated, I knew everything on record about the founders, and passed the history-based entrance exam with over a 90% score. However, I didn’t know anything about the national constitution, or chapter by-laws. Host some type of annual workshop to train new members and refresh older members, including yourself, on the operations and protocols for the chapter and national organization. 

For leadership positions, require new officers to submit plans for the upcoming year. This will get them thinking about what they want to accomplish. Another great leadership building tool is the Presidents’ breakfast. This is an informal gathering of several former chapter presidents to provide support, advice and leadership tactics for an incoming president. You can host this type of breakfast for each leadership position. Be sure to pick former chapter leaders that share your vision for the future.

Dealing With Pushback

Be willing to entertain respectful pushback from chapter members when making an unpopular decision. Though it can wear on your patience, people tend to harbor resentment towards authority when they don’t at least hear them out. Also, discussions tend to provide perspective more than edict. Talking through the rationale for a decision might actually help your chapter members see the error in their ways.

These tactics do not only apply to chapters facing dire straits. A consistent affirmation of why your values matter is good for any chapter. While these exercises aren’t likely to promote immediate change, they will however get the ball rolling towards foundational value construction. 

University Interventions

In line with chapter advisors, universities have to take more ownership of value construction in NPHC organizations. From my experience, universities have difficulty and confusion in managing Greeks, including NIC fraternities and Pan-Hellenic sororities. Adding the complication of racial dynamics associated with NPHC organizations at predominately white institutions (PWI) only increases the mire.

With that, university-employed fraternity and sorority coordinators are stationed on the front lines of a politically charged war zone, rife with land mines in university policy, student culture and job expectations. A few tactics to begin to turn the tide towards values construction follow.

Involve the Chapter Advisors

Host quarterly advisor workshops bringing together each NPHC chapter advisor to discuss issues of mutual concern, including changes to university policy, applicable news in high education or upcoming events so that consistent positive messages are coming to the students from multiple angles.

Although several NPHC organizations have strict requirements to become an advisor, they are rarely knowledgeable of specific university policies relating to fraternities and sororities, higher education student development theory and the university administration’s attitudes towards Greek Life. This type of on-boarding process would help acculturate advisors. 

Help Students Lead The Charge

Cherry pick the most receptive students to lead the values revolution. While, many students may be ambivalent to messages of values construction, some will latch on to the idea. Recruit these students to influence their individual chapters. In my experience, these students are ambitious leaders who usually become presidents of their chapters. Having them on your side can only further your cause.

Try To Understand NPHC Culture

Learn as much as you can about the NPHC and its organizations in order to challenge students, advisors and alumni on certain behaviors that fall out of congruence with an organization’s espoused values. This may yield surprising results as students will likely gasp in disbelief that their greek advisor knows their organization’s motto by heart. 

Although you can expect some pushback with any of these tactics, intuitively, the chapters with most resistant members or advisors are usually the worst performing. Anything they oppose is usually a contra-indicator, so you’re probably heading in the right direction. 

In Summation

Though NPHC organizations are in a state of flux nationally and locally, there are a wealth of examples, stemming from centuries of combined history from all 9 NPHC organizations to right our collective ship. The talented tenth is not some hyperbolized abstraction, but a real and achievable aim. As Black Greeks it is our responsibility to carry that aspiration to the next generation of leaders.

Published: December 14, 2014

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