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.

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.

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

 

In most cases, those teaching “leadership” to our students have had little leadership experience outside of the fraternity and sorority world. Some may have last held a position while a student and many have only studied leadership since then.

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?

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.

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).

True leaders need to put concepts into practice, and to do so may require that we leave more decision-making to our student members. That can be a tough pill to swallow. It requires mentorship, lots of organization, and the risk of students making decisions with real risk. Still, what better place to provide such a real-world testing ground?

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.

That said: 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.

In many cases, as much as half of what students pay to their national organization is simply to cover the cost of insurance. Even then a chapter is not covered by 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. These are policies new members probably don’t know until after they’ve made their first payment.

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

Far more decisions are made at the suggestion of those who have built professions out of risk management/insurance than those paying for such services. It’s understandable to listen to experts, but there are likely better approaches we avoid for the sake of simplicity.

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 and that many who work at a college, university, fraternity or sorority utilize assessments as a form of appeasement, particularly when times are tough.

We must accept and understand that any 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). I’ve witnessed first hand that reports can be manipulated to protect certain interests.

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 educational ventures.

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 pandering and egos are playing a bigger part than a commitment to existing excellence.

At the end of the day, every organization collecting donations will attempt to create value that it believes its donors want to see. That inevitably means that those who do give receive an amplified opinion. It’s not necessarily a bad or destructive opinion, but it’s something we should all be aware of. It is reality.

If an organization lacks integrity or a solid foundation, the donors will dictate the terms of their donation to attempt to make it valuable. Nobody wants to donate to a bad cause.

Still, organizations can and occasionally will develop statistics, or manipulate statistics, to attract donations. The number of students attending programs is only as relevant as how effective those programs are in affecting behavior. Don’t take statistics at face value.

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.

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 likely uses student dues to pay for membership to an umbrella group, and you can be certain that there is a lack of transparency between actions of the umbrella groups and the students paying for them (at least until after the actions have been taken).

That’s not necessarily the fault of the umbrella organizations themselves, but rather the national/international fraternities and sororities and the consistent desire to bypass an organization’s governing body for the sake of expediency.

Beyond that these umbrella groups have effectively turned the entire higher education landscape against local fraternities and sororities and, in the case of the historically white sorority umbrella group, prevented the rise of newer, more modern organizations.

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.

Unlike the governments of the world, there is no wikileaks-styled watchdog pointing out conflicts of interest within our national or international governing structures. The data that dues-paying members receive is not necessarily objective, and is very often a form of marketing to support the actions of those elected or hired to organizational positions.

The only way to ensure that you are getting the best bang for your dollar is to make sure you have a say in how to spend your dollar. That may require decentralization, legislation within your organization or something else. Here are some tips [click] and a toolkit [click] to help you rise as a fraternity activist.

Update: I recently shortened this post and updated several links to connect to newer content on FraternityMan.com. Enjoy!