Examining Patterson Court Service

Bristow Richards – Patterson Court prides itself on service and philanthropy. Patterson Court Organizations (hereafter referred to as PCOs) reported some 12,000 hours of community service during the 2014-2015 school year – about 10 hours of service per member – and raised nearly $200,000 for philanthropic funds. These are impressive statistics, but I have some concerns regarding the way PCOs handle service and philanthropy and want to start a conversation about how to make them better.

For context, PCO members typically must meet a quota of service hours, some of which must be related to the organization and its philanthropy. For example, Warner Hall House requires 7 hours of service; 5 must be related to its philanthropy. Phi Delta Theta (PDT) and Turner House require fewer service hours but have larger punishments for not meeting quotas: Turner fines heavily, and PDT unconditionally prohibits brothers from going to the next formal. Other hour requirements and punishments vary between PCOs.

I want to address four issues regarding PCC altruism at Davidson. First, PCOs are limited in their capacity to influence members. The only incentives PCOs can offer are social pressure, fines, social probation, or service hour credits. (Social pressure is weak at best in Eating Houses and larger fraternities due to the sheer number of members, and e-boards can only officially use the latter three.) Ethically speaking, fining members for not doing service opens up the door for students to hypothetically “pay” in order to avoid service. Of course, using social probation as a sanction could let students who don’t attend social events also avoid service. While I seriously doubt most Davidson students would abuse these rules in such a way, I am concerned when PCO e-boards turn the table and offer service hours for things that aren’t service. Although I’m sure this isn’t rampant in PCOs, I was disheartened to hear that one eating house offered members a service hour for submitting two recipes to a house cookbook. PCOs could find new incentives for fun but non-service related activities, such as letting members work off fines by contributing to cookbooks. However, under no circumstances should “service” be cheapened to a meaningless incentive device.

The second issue is how measuring service conflates high-impact and low-impact labor. Some jobs are more impactful by their nature, and not all students are equally skilled in accessible kinds of service. Since PCOs only require a certain number of hours of service, there is no way to distinguish how much impact a student has and where that impact will be. Effort is essential, but I believe impact is ultimate. PCOs should set limits to how many service hours members can earn in low-impact labor like managing tables in the union. As critical as those tables may be, we can pursue better.

Thirdly, it is important to distinguish between intermediate labor and community service. Any work that goes towards a philanthropy event is “intermediate” in the sense that is integral part of the event but not a direct form of aid. The amount of money a philanthropy makes can be considered a collective wage for the collective labor the PCO contributes. Therefore, to say some philanthropy benefits the community by $5000 and 300 hours of service is incorrect and disingenuous. Philanthropy work is hugely important, so it’s better that PCOs encourage intermediate labor with service hours than nothing at all. However, it may be more honest to limit the number of hours that members can earn in philanthropy-related work, since PCOs already report that work when they report the amount of money they raise. This policy would be a logistical nightmare considering how most PCOs currently operate. Still, Patterson Court needs to be honest about how much it values service outside of philanthropy overhead and what it actually means when it reports service hours.

Which brings me to my fourth point: what does “service” mean? Typically defined, philanthropy is giving resources to others whereas service is spending time doing things for others. Let’s define time and labor as resources, just like money and canned food. Then we can define service as labor-philanthropy; brick-laying is like a charitable donation in which the laborer “donates” his or her work. Under this framework, inefficiency becomes a problem, because some students might impact the community better by having a private job and donating wages instead of giving their labor to a service organization. To counter this line of thinking, it’s important to remember that service does more than just allocate labor to recipients: it fosters relationships between students and community members. To this end, I think PCOs should be mindful of the kind of service they encourage their members to perform, giving more emphasis to opportunities that let students collaborate with the community and build social capital. This could involve encouraging more “continuous service” like volunteering weekly at Ada to develop strong connections with institutions and causes off-campus.

Don’t get me wrong: Patterson Court does a lot of good for the community. I think that with some more open and honest policies, along with a renewed emphasis on social engagement, PCOs could broaden their impact even more, benefiting the campus and the community at large.

Note: I reached out to representatives from various PCOs, but not with enough time for everyone to adequately respond to my questions. Therefore, this discussion primarily focuses on Patterson Court’s IFC Fraternities and Eating Houses.

Bristow Richards ’19 is a Political Science major from Columbia, South Carolina. Contact him at brrichards@davidson. edu.