Students Are Superficial, Combative & Ignorant Because We Are.

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Here and there, things go wrong. Many of us find ourselves in positions of leadership in these situations, and many of us reflexively move to cover our tracks. 

I remember a time as Chapter President, when a report had been filed that our chapter threw a party. Specifically, the campus safety officers who had come to our chapter dormitory (“house,” but honestly more of a dorm) for a regular walk through noted that a few guests on the balcony began to blow whistles when the officers arrived, that a series of whistles went off inside the house, and that the interior was decorated to fit a beach theme. 

We did have a party – it was our biggest of the year – and we were actually lame enough to outfit certain monitors with whistles, but when Nik the Chapter President showed up to the Vice President of Student Affairs’ office the following week the point made was, “You don’t have any proof.”

Perhaps it is just my imagination, but there was disappointment in his eyes. The VP was relatively new to the school, the rest of his staff introduced me as a high caliber leader, and he had to sit in a room and pretend the truth was untrue because no one would admit to it.

Things Don’t Change. . . 

Working on a fraternity staff helped me empathize with the VP.

Students would hide and conceal the truth from me, the Fraternity Professional, just as me, the Chapter President, had done a decade ago. It was never truly a secret – we all knew what was going on – and it was such a shame to be unable to talk about fraternity issues as a fraternity professional because it might result in someone admitting a policy was violated. 

“There was a time when men were afraid somebody would reveal a secret that was unknown to their fellows. Nowadays they are afraid to name what everybody knows”

Francisco d’Anconio

It is more apparent now as a volunteer alumnus for my fraternity and a few others.

Conflating Writing A Rule With “Leadership”

I often focus on the unintended consequences of prohibitive policies [1] [2] [3]. Sure, the policies can be overbearing, and it doesn’t make sense to risk a charter because someone shotgunned a beer, but perhaps there is more to why students spend more time contemplating how to cover their tracks than how to change their behavior. Let’s explore that:

When a chapter brother is accused of sexual assault, why is he suspended from his lifelong membership? Will that help him?

When a group of young men embark on dangerous behavior, why are they stripped of their group, their membership, and – occasionally – their college experience? Will that help them?

What makes prohibitive policies worthy of applause? What is courageous about the North American Inter-Fraternity Conference’s decision to ban hard alcohol from member fraternity houses? That “tough” decision would generate just the right kind of hard ass, tough-talking press release to please parents, the media, and campus professionals. 

Our students and alumni learn to cover their tracks and call it leadership by watching us – the leaders of the fraternity/sorority world. They see how we act, act in the same way, and we lecture them for it.

A Microcosm Of Political Culture

Politicians, celebrities, and fraternity leaders often present themselves as nearly ideal specimens worthy of being cherished as national treasures. They point out every possible flaw in their opposition and struggle to avoid any association with normal human failures. 

It is not bad to learn from the people we see in the public spotlight, but we cannot so easily dismiss our own influence and the negative repercussions of mimicking their damaging behavior or qualities just because we are not famous.

“It’s as if they heard that there are values one is supposed to honor and this was what one does to honor them”

Hank Rheardon (Character from Atlas Shrugged)

Our students know that they will be dropped by their “insurance” if they violate any fraternity policy when the unthinkable happens, and so they find it more important to cover their tracks than change their behavior.

That makes students sound devious, but what is fraternity insurance other than a way for national corporations to cover their own tracks? Students learn to circumvent responsibility in response to a system designed to circumvent responsibility. . . put that in your policy education lecture!

When advisers tell students how to stay out of trouble, rather than how to deal with it and improve, those students apply that knowledge to the rest of their life’s work.

When students see that they are cherished for doing the most (*cough* Standards of Excellence *cough*), then they come to see “success” as “doing the most.” When they move into roles in the fraternity/sorority profession they then do “the most” without offering any creativity or valuable leadership.

What we reinforce will show up in how they present themselves on social media, how they operate as an employee/employer, what they teach their children, and what they expect of others.

There is so much that is right about the fraternity experience, but we must  stop blaming our students for all that is wrong about the fraternity experience. They learn to be superficial, combative, and ignorant not only from their friends or alumni, but from their campus professionals, (inter)national leadership, and umbrella association leadership.

It bothers me to think of the times where my insecurities or anger overwhelmed my common sense when making decisions. It also bothers me, as a fraternity man, to deal with policies which I find to be stupid, ineffective, and truth-deterring. 

Who are we trying to fool? We all know what’s up and which special interests affect how fraternities address challenges. Will there ever be a point where we could be honest?

[This reality may not apply only to leadership within the fraternity and sorority world, but it is our risk-evading leadership which demands our students hold themselves up to a higher standard, and our risk-evading leadership which should lead that change.]

Questions or Thoughts?