DIVERSITY, EQUITY AND INCLUSION

In light of escalating racial tensions across North America beginning in summer 2020, and with unanimous support from Beta’s Board of Trustees, on June 10 General Secretary Wayne Kay, Virginia Tech ’73, announced a new Commission on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. A first of its kind for the organization, Beta’s first Black initiate, Bill Lowry, Kenyon ’56, was appointed as chairman.
The following article, "Soul Searching," first appeared in The Beta Theta Pi magazine in fall 2020 and explains the commission's six months of work and outlines its final recommendations and next steps for the organization.

SOUL SEARCHING

Beta Looks Inward and Establishes Historic
Commission on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion
by Martin Cobb, Eastern Kentucky ’96

 

Following this spring's heartbreaking deaths of Black Americans George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, public cries for justice grew loud. As video recordings gripped millions and masses marched in the streets, calls rang out for individuals and institutions to search their own hearts and reflect on their roles in the building of a more inclusive world. 

Beta’s Board of Trustees did not demur.

Recognizing the sincere pain voiced by individuals of color, thousands of whom also wear the badge of Beta Theta Pi, on June 10 the 12-man body announced a unanimous decision — the establishment of a new Commission on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. It was a first for the 181-year-old organization.

Of course, most know Beta Theta Pi was founded on the belief that a man’s life is enriched when he joins kindred spirits who care for one another. Pledged to the notion that, “In Beta Theta Pi, brothers are brothers for life, and all stand on the same fraternal level,” from its inception Beta was uniquely void of White-Christian membership clauses that reinforced social segregation. Such policies were unfortunately common among Beta’s peers. 

Yet still, Beta Theta Pi has not been perfect nor inoculated from the world of which it is a part.

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The conditions and requirements for membership in our order promise still more. These conditions were founded not on wealth, not on social rank, but upon an active brain and a good heart."

Rev. Oliver A. Brown, Ohio Wesleyan 1866
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“This isn't about change. It's about growth. Beta Theta Pi isn't
coming from a state of depravity.
It can simply be better."

— Bill Lowry, Kenyon '56; Commission Chairman
A LOOK BACK

On one hand, Beta can be proud of individual and organizational actions that demonstrate the character of the Fraternity and its belief in the personal growth that comes to life when men break bread with those different from themselves. 

On the other, few can argue the Fraternity hasn’t had room for improvement in all aspects related to diversity, be it race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, etc., nor done all it could to help overcome societal barriers that undermine brotherhood and cultivation of the intellect.

“The Fraternity has many notable past achievements in this space,” said General Secretary Wayne Kay, Virginia Tech ’73, as he wrote to the Trustees and proposed the commission idea in early June. “But we must be humble and acknowledge that we could and should do more. Our brotherhood is deserving of concrete action informed by our members, volunteers and subject matter experts.”

Vice President Robert Beall, Oklahoma ’80, was quick to endorse Kay’s recommendation. “I fully agree,” he said. “What I have found in the past is that it is easy to stay with the status quo and unintentionally not see opportunities for inclusion. When there is intentional focus on the diversity issue, it seems opportunities for better inclusion present themselves.”

With the Trustees unified, it's not surprising Kay turned to an iconic symbol in Beta lore to serve as commission chairman, Beta’s first Black initiate Bill Lowry, Kenyon ’56. A former director on Beta’s Foundation Board with impeccable credentials and a lifetime trustee to his alma mater, Lowry is a reminder of the goodness that can flow to the Fraternity when brothers engage in hard work focused on brotherhood and integrity.

Wise beyond measure and grandfatherly to the core, Lowry's presence charted an optimistic tone over the fast-paced 60-day timeline upon which Kay asked him to have recommendations before the Trustees. Underscoring the importance of the work, he oversaw recruitment of 23 talented and diverse individuals to serve on the brain trust. Critical thinking was certainly necessary, as commissioners were pushed hard with hours of homework before and after each week's meeting. 

LAY OF THE LAND

During the first meeting on June 30, Lowry reflected poignantly on Beta’s past with an eye toward the future: “We say we strive for the greatest possible good in our collegians, alumni, chapters, volunteers and Fraternity. To me, that translates into humanity. As moral men, it’s time to demonstrate moral action.”

Internal data helped the commission understand chapter cultures across the land. In 2013, the Fraternity started collecting new members’ race classifications. At that time some 25% joining Beta were students of color. As recently as the magazine’s spring 2020 feature, “The Changing Face of the College Campus,” that statistic remains unchanged, although the Fraternity has evolved considerably since Lowry’s 1954 initiation.

Still, with college enrollments averaging 50% students of color – a trend only projected to increase over the next two decades, it's evident there are not only significant opportunities to enlist more diverse populations in the Fraternity, but long-term viability requires it. The moral duty before Beta Theta Pi
is unquestioned.

Fortunately, a recent study by Dyad Strategies indicates Beta – unlike most interfraternal peers – possesses just “minor” statistical differences in the sense of belonging its students of color feel in their chapters compared to their White brothers. There are many forms of diversity beyond race deserving attention, but it points to an encouraging sign that Beta chapters are fostering an inclusive experience for those admitted to the brotherhood. 

However, given the considerable disparity between campus enrollment trends of students of color and Beta chapters’ racial make-up, it begs the question if Beta is doing all it can to appeal to those same students on the recruitment front.

As St. Lawrence University President Dr. Bill Fox, St. Lawrence ’75, put it when talking with commission leaders: “Just like a campus’ student body should be reflective of the world, ultimately, we want our chapters to be truly representative of their campus. Diversity is our destiny, and no fraternity is better positioned to lead than Beta Theta Pi.”

robert_beall_2018

“It is easy to stay with the status quo and unintentionally not see opportunities for inclusion. When there is intentional focus on the diversity issue, it seems opportunities for better inclusion present themselves."

— Robert Beall, Oklahoma '80; Board of Trustees Vice President
Melissa Shivers Headshot

“Commission members quickly rejected quotas and checklists that simply pursue compliance over authentic conviction and empathy. 'This is about the heart. Connect Betas' hearts with their minds and the rest of the work will take care of itself.'"

— Dr. Melissa Shivers, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.;
Ohio State Senior Vice President of Student Life
NATURE OF THE WORK

The sensitivities that come with such subjects are of course well known. There's a natural skepticism of actions designed just for political correctness.

That's why Commission members quickly rejected quotas and checklists that simply pursue compliance over authentic conviction and empathy. Ohio State Vice President for Student Life Dr. Melissa Shivers, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., said it best early on in the proceedings: “This is about the heart. Connect Betas’ hearts with their minds and the rest of the work will take care of itself.” Undergraduate Commissioner Ian Ross, Michigan ’21, echoed, “This is as much about the intangibles as it is the tangibles.”

Prior to the commission's first meeting, the Fraternity created an open survey that invited feedback on how Beta could improve. Resulting in hundreds of observations, criticisms and ideas, submissions formed the basis for the commission's most difficult task: establishing a framework that focuses the Fraternity's attention. 

Leading to a model that prioritizes Language, Voices and Education, Lowry reminded commissioners that language and policies reflect an organization’s values and culture. And that culture is what fosters understanding of one another – understanding that warms hearts and melts away boundaries of tribalism. As the Beta Ritual prescribes, “Get wisdom, and with all thy getting, get understanding.” 

And, since an organization is only as healthy as its environment, Beta must view this whole matter through two lenses: the environment its chapters are creating internally and, outwardly, Beta's contribution to the world of which it is a part. 

The commission’s top recommendation called upon the Trustees to make a commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion via a standing committee – not an ad hoc body that evaporates as quickly as it came. One additional issue was identified as a real headwind if Beta seeks long-term relevancy on campus: affordability. 

Consulted on the inclusivity topic given his prosecution of Ku Klux Klan members as U.S. Attorney, U.S. Senator and former District Chief Doug Jones, Alabama ’76, sustained the affordability concern during a special session with the commission. Believing Beta must defy the financial trajectory that is pushing the experience out of reach for so many, he shared with conviction: "We don't want 'Men of Principle' to simply become 'Men of Privilege.'"

 

THE ROAD FORWARD

In what was a Herculean effort to meet the Trustees’ 60-day charge, Beta’s Commission on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion met the challenge asked of it: a framework for improvement that is rooted in serious reflection and humility. Simply the start of an effort that requires a commitment over the long haul, on August 12 the Trustees unanimously adopted the recommendations and, to make sure the cause isn't a side project, have woven it into the Fraternity's strategic plan. A body coined "Commission 2.0" has already started working on tactics via three sub-committees.

Aimed at inculcating a culture that is instinctively inclusive, expresses a genuine respect for difference and, above all, fosters a brotherhood that welcomes men from all walks of life, Beta is getting its arms around a new call of the times. As Chairman Lowry opined, “This isn’t about change. It’s about growth. Beta Theta Pi isn’t coming from a state of depravity. It can simply be better."

COMMITTEE RECOMMENDATIONS

 

1. Long-Term Commitment

Trustees shall authorize a standing committee to continue the valuable work of diversity, equity and inclusion.

2. Internal Language

Beta shall update all foundational, internal documents to include language that aspires for inclusivity, specifically in the areas of The Code, Beta Ritual and educational materials.

3. External Language

Beta shall update all public-facing documents to include language that aspires for inclusivity, specifically Beta’s Core Values, Strategic Plan and website, among others.

4. Recruitment

Beta shall seek a diverse collegian membership by addressing issues related to accessibility and affordability, the creation of merit and access-based scholarships for men from underrepresented and socio-economically challenged populations, and the Fraternity’s campus selection policy related to diverse communities.

5. Volunteers and Staff

Beta shall commit to the intentional recruitment of a diverse volunteer corps and Administrative Office staff.

6. Community

Beta shall explore opportunities for local chapters to engage their communities in advancing the important work of diversity, equity and inclusion.

7. Collegian and Volunteer Training

Beta shall develop targeted new member, officer, advisor, house corporation and General Fraternity Officer educational materials — including unconscious bias training — to promote a stronger culture of belonging at all levels of the Fraternity.

8. Historical Documentation

Beta shall research and author a complete history of the Fraternity’s actions and inactions as it relates to diversity, equity and inclusion and include it in educational materials for members, officers and volunteers.

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DEI Members

COMMISSION ON
DIVERSITY, EQUITY AND INCLUSION

Membership Roster

  1. Chairman: Bill Lowry, Kenyon ’56
    Beta’s first Black initiate and among the first of any NIC fraternity; former member of the Beta Theta Pi Foundation Board of Directors
  2. Trustee: General Secretary Wayne Kay, Virginia Tech ’73
    Chairman of the Board
  3. Trustee: Vice President Justin Foster, West Chester ’11
    Former District Chief, Chapter Advisor and Chapter President
  4. Trustee: Vice President Steven Cruz, Florida International ’12
    Former Regional/District Chief, Chapter Advisor and Chapter President
  5. Undergraduate: Undergraduate Commissioner Ian Ross, Michigan ’21
    IFC President and Former Chapter President
  6. Undergraduate: Former Chapter President Jeff Pioquinto, Iowa State ’21
    Current IFC Officer and 2020 Iowa State Chapter President of the Year
  7. Undergraduate: Pledge Class President Denzel Akuffo, Oklahoma ’23
    Newly Elected Philanthropy Chairman
  8. Undergraduate: Philanthropy Chairman Jaden Pitts, Chapman ’22
    Chapter’s First Diversity and Inclusion Chair
  9. Undergraduate: Chapter President Swochchhanda “Swoosh” Shrestha, MIT ’21
    Former Vice President, Risk Manager, Treasurer; IFC Sexual Misconduct Committee
  10. Undergraduate: Colony President Nestor Carrera, Embry-Riddle ’21
    Marine and Founding Father
  11. Alumnus: District Chief Malcolm Andrews, Virginia ’89
    Former Chapter Counselor, Current House Corporation Member and Father of Two Recent Beta Undergraduates
  12. Alumnus: Risk Management Advisor Rod Kelley, Florida State ’14
    2019 Florida State Advisor of the Year, Doctoral Candidate
  13. Alumnus: Bryant Fiesta, UC Irvine ’16
    Former Staff Colony Development Coordinator and Chapter President
  14. Administrator: Dr. Melissa Shivers, Ohio State University Senior Vice President of Student Life
    Former VPSA at Iowa, Dean of Students at Tennessee and Multicultural Program Director at Clemson and Georgia, Member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.
  15. Friend of Beta: Jennifer Zamora, University of Texas Director of Student Programs
    Award-winning Beta Chapter Counselor, Member of Delta Zeta
  16. Staff: Beta Executive Director Jeff Rundle, Kansas State ’03
    Chief of Staff, Legal Counsel, Former Director of Chapter Services and Colony Development Director
  17. Staff: Beta Editor & Director of Communication Martin Cobb, Eastern Kentucky ’96
    Former Director of Expansion, Men of Principle Initiative and Beta Theta Pi Foundation
  18. Staff: Beta Director of Chapter Services Erin McHale, Gamma Phi Beta
    Former Fraternity/Sorority Advisor at Kansas and Iowa, Traveling Consultant for Gamma Phi Beta

Commission Advisory Board

  1. St. Lawrence University President Bill Fox, St. Lawrence ’75
  2. Beta Theta Pi Foundation Chairman Mike Feinstein, MIT ’82
  3. General Fraternity House Corporation Chairman John Stebbins, Emory ’92
  4. Advisory Council Commissioner Mike Okenquist, Villanova ’94
  5. Chapter Counselor Jason Blake, Georgia Tech ’92
  6. Delta Upsilon Fraternity Director of Educational Programs Veronica Moore, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc.