Social Sciences & Fraternity

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This is a contributor post by Kameron Johnston St. Clare. Kameron is an alumnus of Delta Sigma Phi Fraternity and Stetson University in Deland, FL.

It’s no secret that Greek-letter social organizations don’t have the best reputation in the public domain. And it’s also no secret, at least to many if not most who are involved with a fraternity or sorority, that the stereotype is more the exception than the rule. Sure, there are problems that Greek Life is plagued with and there are certainly bad apples but they’re outliers, and Greek organizations and universities go to great lengths to tackle the issues that threaten them from within. Or do they?

Now, not myself being a Greek Life professional or higher education administrator, I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know all that goes on behind the scenes. I don’t know the various special training such professionals receive. I don’t know what research is done to find effective solutions to our problems, how that research is conducted, or what the results might be.

But I know my experience as an active member, as an alumnus, and as one observing from the outside. So it is from that vantage point that I will speak here.

. . . and Greek organizations and universities go to great lengths to tackle the issues that threaten them from within. Or do they?

What I don’t plan to do is criticize individuals doing the best with what they have to make the system work. And I don’t want to attempt to speak for the professionals in the proverbial trenches. But I do believe than when you’re inside a fish bowl, it can be pretty difficult to see the water.

As a proud member of a fraternity, I want to challenge the idea that what is done now is effective. And as a social scientist who is now on the outside of day-to-day campus Greek Life looking in, I want to offer some suggestions for how professionals might take steps to turn the tide. From my vantage point, the tools currently employed by many Greek Life and higher education professionals for the express purpose of helping students grow and reducing undesirable behavior are failing.

In one recent post, Mr. Koulogeorge stated:

“We live in a fantasy world where the people we hire as Fraternity and Sorority Advisers accept and often advocate in favor of policies and reality tunnels that threaten the very existence of the organizations they claim to elevate.”

As I see it, there are two levels of problems here. The first level contains problems like reducing sexual assault or preventing binge drinking. But I’m interested in the second level of problems — the problems that lurk behind all the others. I’m interested in the problems that prevent professionals from producing the results they want.

So, what are these problems? I’ll look at two.

First: Is vs. Ought.

It’s no grand revelation that a large number of people who work in higher education (including Greek professionals) are something of idealists. And they’re fantastic people, many of them; inspiring a shared vision and working hard to make the world a better place.

But there’s a risk here to forget that there often exists a gulf between what is and what ought to be. The is must inform how we strive for the ought. If we fail to recognize this, we risk treating real world people like they’re already part of our ideal world, and that’s a recipe for failure.

I don’t mean that you can never hold people to a higher standard, but when you’re trying to help them rise to that higher standard, you need to first understand them as flawed. Otherwise you end up telling someone “Binge drinking is wrong” and think that moral argument is sufficient to change behavior. It’s not. The first step is to come to terms with this fact and make sure that we’re not failing to see students as human beings.

Second: Deciding what you want.

Whenever a negative new story about a fraternity or sorority surfaces and down pours a torrent of public outrage, administrators and professionals, universities and organizations all seem eager to take swift public action to correct the problem. And whenever this happens, I’m left wondering:

“Is it a short-term goal or a long-term goal?” and, “Which problem is being targeted?”

Namely, is the goal to solve the public relations problem or is it to prevent future such improper action on the part of students?

You can probably guess how it usually comes across. All too often, it seems to me that bad behavior is met with either overzealous and unjust sweeping punishments or gimmicky pledges and partnerships that ignore the underlying cause of the first level problem at hand.

To me, these tactics are the Greek Life equivalent of, on the one hand, zero tolerance policies and mandatory minimums in the criminal justice system, and on the other hand, NBC turning their logo green to look more environmentally conscious. Both approaches make for good speeches and solid press releases, but at the end of the day our streets aren’t safer and our carbon emissions aren’t lower.

The trouble is that while universities and organizations obviously have a legitimate interest in protecting their image, the actions that calm the pitchfork-wielding mob aren’t necessarily the actions that would prevent the next pitchfork-wielding mob from ever lighting their torches. In other words, sometimes, what works isn’t very showy and what’s showy doesn’t work.

Both approaches make for good speeches and solid press releases, but at the end of the day our streets aren’t safer and our carbon emissions aren’t lower.

Now we can’t do anything with effectiveness in mind until we understand more about what might work. The bad news is that for many behavioral problems in the contexts we’re imagining, it’s not clear that we even do know what would be effective. The good news is that there are ways to figure out what methods work, or at least refine current methods.

Unfortunately, finding out the long-term methods that will be most effective requires experimentation. And experimentation means failure. Probably lots of failure. And failure isn’t good for public relations.

The question becomes: What is our goal in taking action?

I argue that the second step is to answer this question and then own it. If short-term public relations are the primary problem we want to solve, then not a lot needs to change in terms of reactions to negative press. But if what is sought is long-term solutions to the underlying problems, then it might be time to fully examine what that means and how best to achieve it.

So, where to go from here?

Once professionals, universities, and organizations choose to see people as people, and once they sort out their priorities, the next step must be to learn more about the problems they face without being slave to what will or will not look good. My admittedly bold call to action is as follows:

1. Study the facts that matter:

Higher education and Greek Life professionals should accept that they play a part in the creation of the system that exists, and that they are not omniscient angels who can steer the ship from on high. And the appropriate research should be conducted to determine relevant factors.

2. Identify solutions:

Once pertinent variables are identified, the next step is to look for possible solutions that are based on plausible scientific foundations.

Part of this will mean giving up sacred cows, which are indicative of ideology, not fact. And players must stop looking for individuals or groups of individuals whom they can blame. Except in cases where there is a clear perpetrator of some crime, blame isn’t likely to be much help.

Likewise, critics of Greek Life should be held to the same standards. We must raise the level of discourse, while engaging openly and honestly with critics. We should recognize where ideology taints critique and push back accordingly. If radical activists have political ulterior motives when they lambast fraternities with questionable statistics, question them and their goals. Criticism rooted in bad data, rigid ideology, or the desire to assign blame for its own sake should not be accepted.

And we must be pragmatic instead of dogmatic — we must shoot for what works. If self-defense training reduces rape on campus, we should favor it on pragmatic grounds instead of dismissing it on ideological ones.

3. Strategic variation:

Once promising solution candidates are identified, the next move it to implement a variety of strategies in something as close to a randomized trial as is possible given the numerous constraints.

Here it will also be important for national organizations to refrain from assuming that a strategy that works for a campus in California will be the same as a strategy that works for a campus in Texas. And the same will be true over time. The point is that different environments may require different action/intervention.

By selecting effective strategies from this sort of trial process and reapplying them as a method of refining them, professionals can truly hone their skills and approaches so as to provide effective guidance and programming.

4. High standards and openness:

Throughout such a process, it would be crucial to keep in mind that the goal was to find solutions, not to make good press. In order to maintain integrity, the process must be held to the highest standards — the same standards as would ne expected of a high-quality professional social scientist.

When a solution is identified, the research side should aim at disconfirmation to make the solution as strong as possible. The goal should be to produce research good enough to be published in a leading social science journal. And the data should be made public not only to ensure accuracy, but also to build trust with the public.

Now, I can’t promise that the above thoughts and recommendations will work, and certainly social scientific methods are not infallible, but I think what I’ve sketched here is a step in the right direction. What I can say is that current practice is at best hit-or-miss, it’s too idealistic, it’s too public relations conscious, and it doesn’t seem to be rooted in good data or hard science.

If campus and Greek Life professionals want to make long-term changes to improve Greek organizations and the Greek experience, then they will need to know more about that experience than they do now and they will need to be more strategically focused on finding what works.

As the mathematician, philosopher, and hedge fund manager, Nassim Taleb, said, “We don’t need moralizing. We need a set of tricks.”