A freshman from a suburb of Denver, Colorado, Michael Herbert ’16 first stepped onto campus as a student last fall. In the middle of his first semester, Herbert began thinking of re-establishing a chapter of the Chi Psi fraternity at Yale, which dissolved in 1963. Chi Psi at Yale is now an officially registered fraternity — in fact, the only registered fraternity on campus — and boasts 26 new members, including 4 juniors. How did a freshman start up a successful Greek organization in less than a year? What are the next steps? Herbert tells WEEKEND how he initially got interested in the idea of starting a new fraternity, and how he hopes the organization will develop.
Q. How did you get into the idea of starting a fraternity at Yale?
A. It started with my friend at the University of Colorado at Boulder — we’d gone to high school together, and we speak often. He’s something of a mentor to me. When I first got to Yale, I was talking to him about frats and he started talking to me about Chi Psi. He suggested that I start it up and got me in touch with the central office [of Chi Psi]. Then I got in touch with some close friends — from there on, it kind of snowballed. I’d ballpark that this was around October. I started talking to my closest friends and said, “Hey, I’m thinking of starting a frat.” It’s an exciting thing — the kind of thing that people make movies about, such as “Old School.” When people hear of opportunities to do things like that, to build a legacy, to build something historic, they get excited. Because we had that core, that group, it became realistic to other people, and they started reaching out to other people, and we started evaluating other people while keeping that core group. Our central national office has allowed us to continue and provided us with assistance when it’s been needed.
Q. How did you recruit so many people to join — especially the juniors?
A. It was a situation where we’re starting it up, we’re refounding it — because of that, there are a lot of freshmen in leadership positions, and sometimes it can be difficult for upperclassmen to walk into a situation like that. But the juniors also see an exciting opportunity because they’re aware they can actually be a mentor. One of our juniors, Tim Westcott, is a transfer student from the University of Michigan, and he wants to help us replicate the experience he had at his other school.
Q. How difficult was it to form the organization from scratch?
A. Certainly you have your challenges — it’s not a situation where the thing is totally established. As a result of that, you have to make sure that people remain aware that it’s a real thing, it’s not a situation where someone’s just kind of blowing smoke or speaking nonsense — there is actually a substantive organization being built. We certainly had rough patches along the way, but we’ve always had people who were committed and excited about it. I think what we’re pitching is something that appeals to people, and as a result we’re able to overcome those challenges.
Q. We noticed that you distinguished your frat as a non-“party-oriented” one. Did you consider joining Beta Upsilon Chi (BYX) rather than starting up a new frat?
A. We are a social fraternity, but at the same time Chi Psi is unique in that it was the first frat founded based on the idea of brotherhood. I think that’s something very, very important to keep in mind at the core of what we’re trying to do here. I like to describe it as a group of people becoming the greatest friends that ever lived — maybe that’s a little ambitious. At the same time it speaks to the potential a group of men can achieve. Going back to the Christian frat, I don’t want to talk about other frats, but at the same time we want to make sure we’re reaching a diverse group of people, that we’re not closing our doors to any people, that anyone has the opportunity to join the frat.
Q. What’s it like being the only registered frat on campus?
A. I think the biggest thing as far as being officially registered with the Dean’s Office is that we’re trying to make sure we have a positive relationship with the University. We’re not looking to replace the Yale experience, we’re looking to add to it. We want to make sure we’re doing that. It’s just a matting of wanting to work [with Yale administrators]. All the people involved in Greek life love Yale — it’s just a matter of us having that relationship to make sure we’re working with Yale. That goes back to creating a Greek life that’s thriving within the University, not outside.
Q. We’ve heard that some national Greek organizations are hesitant to start a chapter at Yale because they view the Yale administration as unfriendly or overly strict toward Greek organizations. How did you build a relationship with Chi Psi nationals?
A. For Chi Psi, usually when national organizations are starting new chapters, what they’ll do is they will come out and try to start the new chapter. Our situation has been different because we reached out to them before they reached out to us. They sent representatives last year to explore and see what a chapter at Yale would be like — whenever Chi Psi starts anew, whether they send representatives or someone reaches out, they want to make sure they have a positive relationship with the university. They have found new chapters are more likely to succeed when the relationship works. I don’t know for sure why they didn’t establish a chapter last year — as far as I know, that was an exploratory visit, not an expansionary visit. Presumably, they would have come out later again, if we had not reached out to them. But now it’s a win-win.
Q. If you’re a freshman, and most of your frat is composed of freshmen, didn’t the creation of your frat violate the University-wide ban on freshman fall rush?
A. We didn’t rush, and we didn’t actually have any formal activities at all — it was more discussion-based. So as far as rush and those things go, we haven’t actually done anything of that nature yet. That stuff’s all going to happen in the future. That was not a problem for us.
Q. Has it been difficult being a leader as a freshman?
A. I haven’t found it too difficult — I’ve been very fortunate just to have a great group of people. It’s been a joy every step of the way. A lot of people have stepped up, so it’s not just me doing everything. There’s been, I think, great group collaboration. It can be difficult at times when you’re trying to start something brand-new, I’m sure a whole bunch of people would agree. Whenever you start something new, there can be challenges — but being a freshman is not necessarily additionally difficult. Like I said, the opportunity to play a mentorship role has been big for the juniors.
Q. What will your frat’s philanthropic focus be?
A. We’re going to do that as well. This semester we’re hoping to get a project in. We have one member who is actively involved with at-risk youth in New Haven, and he’s working on planning out something to do with them. It’s harder to plan a project for this semester, but I think you hit on an important point, which is service and community outreach — that’s going to be an integral part of what we’re going to do. In the fall, we’ll have a more positive idea of who we are.
Q. Finally, before you created the new chapter of Chi Psi, did you ever consider rushing an existing fraternity at Yale?
A. Not really, because I started working with the Chi Psi central office before there was really an opportunity to begin joining another frat. Considering those things, it never really got that far for me. What I will say, though, is the idea of being in a frat did appeal to me — not before I even got here [to Yale], but going back to that conversation that I first had at the beginning to conceive the idea of starting Chi Psi up. I think Greek life has a lot to offer, and that was something I had as an idea going into it.
Q. What is your relationship with other fraternities and sororities on campus like?
A. So far, because we’re just getting started, we haven’t done anything like [mixers or meetings] yet. We just got officially recognized a month ago. But obviously we want to have a positive relationship, and something else is, I want to see a Greek community that’s thriving at Yale. I think that’s going to be good for both Chi Psi and Yale. I think people can get a lot out of Greek life — from statistics, people who go into Greek life are more likely to graduate, to give back to their school and achieve more things beyond school. I hope Chi Psi will be a part of that.