How Special Interests Affect Greek Life

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The classification of organization most resembling that of a fraternity is government, and we share the same blind spots. 

National and international fraternities and sororities are governing structures for the chapters of their component chapters at colleges and in cities across the United States and world.

Members are elected to positions of power and given an opportunity to craft policy for the organization and hold its component groups accountable. Life would be simpler if that was their sole focus.

As shared here, fraternities and sororities are riddled with bureaucracy, as are colleges and universities, and the good intentions of empowered individuals often distract from the purpose of an organization. We hear time and time again to return to the vision of our founding members forget that our founding members often just wanted to network with people like themselves.

I have many friends who, like me, work within and in relation to fraternities and sororities. Speaking outside of personalities; however, it’s important to note that the money we most readily deal with is that of our students and is often, like taxes, determined and enforced at a governing level.

My personal hope would be for students and alumni to have a more heavily invested attitude when it comes to how their national organizations, local governing councils and colleges/universities are spending the students’ money, and so we must look at who is vying for that money and for which causes.

A special interest, for the sake of each of our egos, is not a negative thing. In most cases, a special interest is merely a person or organization who has a product to sell. The trouble comes in when a select few use the bureaucratic power they’ve been granted to choose products based on their interests/values, not that of the membership they represent.

This could be an Inter-Fraternity Council determining to spend dues collected from all members of all fraternities on a campus to pay for a particular speaker or to donate to a particular cause.

My philosophy is and always will be that the expenditure of money is best determined by individuals. Seeing that such is not reality, let’s look at some of the “special interests” involved in Fraternity & Sorority Life (Greek Life).

LEADERSHIP PROGRAMMING

 

As mentioned here, in most cases, those teaching “leadership” to our students have had little experience outside of the fraternity and sorority world. Some may have last held a position of “leadership” in their chapter while an undergraduate student, and may have only studied it since.

Hermione Granger of the Harry Potter series knows all of her spells and history books inside and out, but that doesn’t make her a better witch than Harry Potter is a wizard. Similarly, knowing and understanding all of the concepts and tactics of leadership doesn’t make someone a great leader. Putting those tactics and concepts into practice does.

We encourage the theory that leadership can be taught. . . and it probably can. Unfortunately, millions of dollars are being spent across the board on leadership “training” and where are we? Perhaps we can spend a fraction of the cost identifying those with leadership talent and incubating their talent (as we could with all members’ individual talents).

Chapters are still in debt. Members are still failing to create, let alone live up to, standards of membership. Entire organizations are absorbed with public relations and risk management as opposed to making any sort of progressive advances in the world.

Leadership education is probably valuable. That doesn’t mean it’s effective in its current form.

True leaders need to put concepts into practice, and to do so, it’s best to have long-term consulting and support. That’s difficult and expensive to provide on a large scale, and so our best bet is to simply leave more decision-making to our student members.

At least that way students can actually practice things without our micromanagement of everything they are supposed to do.

RISK MANAGEMENT/LEGAL COUNSEL/INSURANCE

 

I genuinely believe that it’d do us a world of good to remove insurance coverage from the expectation of national governing organizations.

To suggest that it should remain with those entities would be like suggesting that each country or state be liable for everything every individual within that country do; it’s a conflict of interest. In other words, if I were to rob somebody, they would sue me, Indiana, & The United States. Unless there is a botched investigation, the U.S. is not responsible for my decision-making.

Individuals and companies offering risk management services (such as preventative programming or responsive programming) legal counsel or insurance, find it easier to deal with a national body with a few key decision makers than working with individual chapters, alumni boards or IFCs.

When an entire national organization accepts liability for all of its “self-governing” component chapters, it’s a necessity that they invest in these services with money collected through dues.

As much as it is a necessity, we should take this for what it is: Organizations and people do profit off of the fact that fraternities are risky ventures.

Those organizations and people are rightfully going to figure out how to get the most buck in the simplest manner possible, which happens to be convincing old people far removed from the component chapters that they should be at risk because they are mature and have a responsibility to the kids.

In many cases, as much as half of what students pay to their national organization is simply to cover the cost of insurance. A chapter is typically not covered by insurance if they violate national policies such as BYOB, guest lists, holding a guest’s alcohol behind a table, hiring security, having members check I.D.’s, etc.

So what ends up happening is:

  1. A chapter gets in trouble
  2. The governing organization & college/university hire legal counsel to find a way to get out of being liable
  3. The organization/college/university hires professionals to work with the chapter to meet criteria imposed by the school or national organization to say that the situation was dealt with
  4. The process repeats when the chapter, whose members are not the ones reading the fine print of insurance contracts and whose non-leadership membership is often unaware of all risk policies, gets in trouble again because none of the liability actually rests on their shoulders.

This has resulted in a series of “best practices” that have yet to make a dent in the image of fraternities as party monsters. Again, the services can certainly be necessary or valuable, but their effectiveness has yet to be convincingly demonstrated.

Just look at how many chapters are making the news or getting shut down each year. Keep in mind, closing a chapter does nobody any good and likely hurts an organization or product-seller’s bottom line. . . even those who make money off of chapters getting in trouble. They really want us to get better, act responsibly and be safe.

RESEARCH & ASSESSMENT

Excuse the expletives, but this scene from Always Sunny in Philadelphia is probably the best defense of faith that I have ever seen.

 

What happens when you have a ton of leadership programming and risk management programming and expenditures and little real-world value to show for it?

You hire individuals to either find value in your product, find some sort of unexpected value (“It didn’t do what we wanted, BUT this happened so it’s still okay!”), or to make recommendations based on research to make a product valuable.

The trouble here is that there is a lot of pressure in all scientific ventures to find something of significance. If scientists conducted studies yielding unwanted results or results considered insignificant, they wouldn’t be paid. There is a little bias in every experiment; we are humans after all.

What this means is that when an organization hires a person or organization to conduct studies into the practices of the organizations, one must understand that the study is conducted with some level of bias either in the way it is conducted or the manner in which it is reported (if it is reported at all).

As with all special interests, those who make a living off of it are going to advocate for their product, and they likely trust that they do a good job. The question is not whether there is value in assessment, but whether that value is being dutifully demonstrated by those with decision-making powers.

DONORS

The poster-children for villainized donors: Charles & David Koch

 

Most fraternities, sororities, colleges and universities collect donations to fund their ventures. Unlike TED Talks, these donors often have an active role or voice in how their money is utilized.

Call it a void in leadership, but organizations seem more than willing to do whatever is asked of by a big-name donor. When is the last time a college or university collected donations based solely off of the integrity of its programs and a donor’s willingness to continue those programs? When names end up on buildings, scholarships or programs, it can be assumed that some level of pandering is afoot.

At the end of the day, every organization collecting donations will attempt to create value that it believes its donors want to see, but also to create pseudo-products for donors to “purchase.” You are not just giving cash, you are purchasing the rights to name or dictate the direction of an organization, building, program or platform.

Again, let’s not claim that special interests are the devil, the real issue here is the manner in which donations are collected, the integrity of the organization, and whether or not statistics are being used to increase donations or to report what is actually happening. If what a foundation does is of noticeable value, the donors will willingly give.

If it is not, the donors will dictate the terms of their donation to attempt to make it valuable. Nobody wants to donate to a bad cause.

The need for donations is what is a cause for concern, because it encourages organizations and schools to create statistics to facilitate donations, and donors are often left in the dark as to the validity of those statistics.

OTHER FRATERNITIES/SORORITIES

 

Given that most of our national/international organizations are involved in umbrella organizations such as the North American Inter-Fraternity Conference (NIC), it should be expected that those organizations and those who serve the NIC have a vested interest in each organization.

Certain standards govern how organizations interact, and expectations to act in unison can often have the effect of making the collective voices of our organizations less powerful. The NIC, NPC (National Panhellenic Conference), NPHC (National Pan-Hellenic Conference) and others have initiatives and programming of their own.

How might this affect your fraternity or sorority? Some organization’s leadership play the game well. They invest and participate where their colleagues are expected to invest and participate. Some don’t. In any case, if your organization is a member of one of these conferences, it has another layer of expectations, outside of its own membership, to work through.

The intent of these conferences is to advocate for and support each of the organizations within its membership, but even NIC 2.0 makes use of partners to provide educational programming or services to chapters across the country. Given that each of the conferences are funded with dues from national organizations, which collect dues from students, they represent another layer of governance for students and alumni to pay more attention to.

SPECIAL INTERESTS

In the end, anyone who can conceivably make a profit or build a platform from a governing organization would be considered a special interest. As members of fraternities and sororities, and students or alumni of colleges and universities, our attention should be paid to how contracts or investments are being managed, not whether or not they occur.

It is far more reasonable for an organization to hire a professional to provide a benefit from its membership than it is for each organization to attempt to provide those benefits in house. It is, or at least should be, required that said organization accurately reflect on whether or not that money is well spent.

Unlike the governments of the world, there is no wikileaks-styled watchdog pointing out conflicts of interest within our national or international governing structures, and most of the data we hear regarding where our organizations, colleges and universities spend money are from those who require our approval to maintain their livelihood and position. Data is not necessarily objective; it is often just a marketing tool.

In today’s United States, where we have twice now elected Presidents specifically because they were the opposite of what we perceived to be those in power, our leaders should be ever aware of our younger members’ thirst for transparency and open communication.