What good does it do to tell the members of a chapter that they are 1.3% less likely to binge drink – based on self-reported data – than their peers? It might make the members of the chapter feel superior, but the information alone is of little practical use.
About 50% of the members of any chapter will be cycled out and replaced with new members every two years. Few organizations have legitimate target markets or niches. As I have noted before – fraternity recruitment (particularly formal recruitment) is more or less about personality, not long-term behavior.
Many fraternity leaders have proclaimed that it is time to make “data-driven decisions,” due at least in part to an uptick of hazing-related deaths. So, they study how fraternity students think and behave, then compare that to their peer organizations. Unfortunately, as with most inter/national fraternity initiatives, critiquing out the behaviors and beliefs of student members is the focus of such efforts.
It’s not the size of the data. . . it’s how you use it.
Some fraternity leaders may make great use of this information, and I am not suggesting that it is universally irrelevant. Speaking from experience and observation – data can be manipulated or used to justify existing practices, mindsets and power structures.
Take the “End All Hazing Act” or the “REACH Act,” two bills aimed at eliminating hazing practices on college campuses (yes, the name of the former is grossly misleading). Those federal bills, along with state legislation supported by the NIC and its coalition of mourning parents, would compel schools to implement a variety hazing prevention initiatives. Those initiatives have been in practice among fraternities for decades, and failed to slow or stop the number of deaths related to fraternity hazing.
Gallup once conducted an impressive, cross-generational study of fraternity men and women. The press releases from fraternity organizations touted that their members were better off after college in many ways. But fraternity members were more likely to suffer from alcoholism. That last point was a footnote. Something we ‘need to continue to work on,’ as leaders without legitimate ideas often suggest. But our approach to substance misuse has not changed in any meaningful way. Why don’t we make “data-driven” decisions with the data we already have?
Beyond that, why are we looking only into student behavior? Why are we paying no or little attention to the effectiveness of the systems we’ve created to track and alter such behavior? Where, for example, is the research into whether formal recognition from a college improves the output of its fraternity chapters?
Systems validated by ignorance, not evidence.
- Do “independent” fraternity councils and organizations retain and graduate fewer students than their “recognized” counterparts?
- Does university recognition improve academic performance, reduce hospitalizations, or improve involvement in the community?
- How do members generally feel about the requirements necessary to qualify for “recognition”?
- Is one standards of excellence checklist (Accreditation, foundations of excellence, whatever you call it) better than the others in terms of outcomes?
- Do the behaviors enforced through such checklists stick with members for life, or just their undergraduate years?
- Does the existence of a dedicated, on-campus Fraternity/Sorority professional improve outcomes? How about 2-5 professionals? When does the law of diminishing returns kick in?
Let’s expand the scope beyond university recognition …
- Which inter/national fraternity policies are adhered to, and why?
- Does an alcohol-free housing policy result in alcohol-free houses?
- Is zero-tolerance an effective approach to behavioral issues?
- Do state and federal rules written to criminalize hazing and to compel schools to provide defunct hazing-prevention education decrease the severity of hazing among fraternity chapters?
- Which types of educational programs – by which vendors – result in the promised outcomes?
- Are students better off paying for a conference or organizing a weekly discussion around a TED Talk?
- Is a President/VP/Treasurer governing model effective for chapters of all types and sizes?
- Do fraternity members make legitimate use of their legislative processes at the local and inter/national level?
He who pays the piper …
We don’t know the answers to many of these questions. At the current rate, we may never know. The reason is not a mystery: The majority of people who pay attention to fraternities and sororities have built their livelihood and reputation on the backs of such systems. It does one no favors to discredit their patron.
Consider this: Any time I write a post about the NIC, a barrage of [secret] support flows into my inbox. Why is it so difficult for others to make their opinions public? Surely many of those who agree with me have better reputations within the fraternity professional network. Many have the power to make unilateral changes or to inspire such change from their organizations’ legislative process in ways I couldn’t imagine for myself.
The answer is often simpler than peer pressure – non-defamation clauses are included in contracts signed between the NIC and third parties supporters/sponsors. So, many of us who preach that students “challenge the process” or “model the way” (including some who are paid to do so) are contractually barred from doing either. It’s not just the NIC. This is how fraternity and sorority life works at all levels. This is the business behind the values, the ritual, and the “benefits of membership.”
There is a simple solution: Members should have full access to the contracts signed between their fraternity organization/FSL office and third parties. Only then will general members have a true understanding of the business built around the fraternity experience. (What I call “Big Fraternity.”)
A tweet, a vote, or a boycott could change everything.
It would not be too difficult to gather support for such an idea in any one fraternity. Members routinely ask how their dues money are spent. Some fraternities have responded by publishing their budgets or offering webinar presentations on the matter.
The same public pressure which compels fraternity leaders to support poorly planned legislation, educational programs, or shame-the-student lectures can be used to improve how our organizations operate. Consider that my tiny, self-funded blog has, one several occasions, compelled organizations to change policies, alter press releases, or request meetings with me. Now consider the impact your chapter, region, and/or alumni could have on your organization.
Organize a resolution (or an amendment to your organization’s governing documents) requiring that contracts be distributed to fraternity officers/members for review. Submit a request to your central office or inter/national board. Reply to a tweet about a new “partnership” with a request to read the fine print. Trust me; it’ll work. You own your fraternity and your campus community, and fraternity professionals know it.
Idyllic, but realistic, outcomes
What we find in such contracts may not shock us, but transparency may alter the priorities of fraternity leaders when dealing with third parties. Your fraternity/umbrella association should not be bartering for bigger kickbacks or protection if the “partner” discovers poor practices. It should fight for better deals and outcomes for members like you.
Only then will researchers look at the complete picture of the fraternity/sorority experience. Then, educational programs not serve as merely a way to avoid liability. Beyond such practical applications is the fact that your organizational leaders have a moral obligation to represent you. It is not offensive or uncalled for to expect and request transparency. Trust is a two way street, and fraternity professionals have lucked out on the ignorance of members for too long.