Here is a situation: It's the summer of 2020. The death of George Floyd, Brianna Taylor, and others at the hands of law enforcement are fresh on our minds. Public figures and corporations are doing everything they possibly can to avoid cancellation during an election year. Some students at some colleges are threatening to abolish (historically white) Greek Life for their contribution to racial inequity.
Facing renewed criticism, your ghost-white fraternity leaders assemble a team of people with under-privileged identities to make things right. They say this committee or task force will address your organization's issue with race. Big announcements are made. The Fraternity/Sorority (FSL) professional crowd cheers. Everything will be better now, right?
A previous article on Fraternity Man suggests that historically-white fraternities maintained a covert form of segregation even after it was written out of their membership standards and ritual ceremonies. Fraternity leaders replaced objective, segregationist standards of membership with abstract, convoluted values and "standards of excellence" to maintain homogeneity. It's not a wild or unique hypothesis. Research by Matthew W. Hughey suggests that historically-white organizations maintain homogeneity through practices that discourage true racial integration. (Hughey, 2010)
Fraternities are discriminatory; that much is obvious. To discriminate is to choose between two things. It is not necessarily a bad word; any choice is an act of discrimination. As it relates to diversity, inclusion, and sometimes equity, however, your fraternity's task force must answer the following question:
Which practices need to change?
So far, the committees and task forces put together by fraternity organizations are recommending a few common solutions:
Diversity & Inclusion educational programming for student members (and possibly volunteers)
Permanent professional, volunteer, and/or chapter positions to monitor diversity and inclusion within an organization or campus community
Statements demanding diversity and inclusion enshrined into governing documents
Changes to how (mostly NPC) organizations treat legacy members
So, as usual, a fraternity problem is attributed to the ignorance of fraternity members, the lack of zero-tolerance policies, and a lack of professional advice. This is not surprising to anyone familiar with how fraternity/sorority leaders have historically handled publicity crises. The aforementioned "solutions" may silence enough of the angry mob to get by until it hungers again for urgent pacification.
That said, we should expect that those predictable solutions will not result in more diverse or inclusive "historically white" fraternities. Moreover, they may have the opposite effect. I am not alone in this observation. In an article on Psychology Today, David Rock points to studies of similar initiatives in the corporate space. He writes that decreeing or lecturing a group of people to accept and celebrate a "different" group of people can exacerbate "us-them" tribalism.
How can we make Greek Life more inclusive? Worry less about being "better."
I am not suggesting that your diversity and inclusion committee doesn't have the best of intentions. I can't say for sure that it will get everything wrong or that I am unquestionably correct. That being said, there is an obvious and simple way to make fraternities more inclusive: Make it easier for students to join, start, and lead fraternities.
Consider how the laundry list of requirements you probably call your "Standards of Excellence" make it difficult (or impossible) for students with jobs, with families, who commute, or who attend community colleges to join your organizations.
Consider how new programs and professional positions affect the time and dollar commitment of your student members (and how that relates to the previous point).
Does adding another officer or chairman position to the list of required positions mean that the minimum size to be a "successful" chapter has increased? How might that affect recruitment standards?
Will interfraternal organizations, councils, and leaders stop preventing students from creating new fraternity organizations? Are you addressing the fact that it takes less time, less money, less politicking, and fewer people to start a business than a fraternity chapter? Are we preventing students from creating modern organizations with modern values?
Do the expectations you set for members and chapters needlessly separate "Greek Life" from other student organizations on campus? How about having an entirely separate staff within Student Affairs to ensure compliance with such expectations?
Does your initiative tokenize non-white individuals to the extent that - as Hughey's research indicates - they are seen as less legitimate members by themselves and others?
Are all members subjected to the new requirements? (Lifelong, right?) Or are the requirements only required of those your school or organization can effectively coerce or threaten with a loss of membership?
Are your organization's governing practices anti-democratic? Do they allow the oldest, most senior members to covertly control who and what is discussed at inter/national meetings? Do they, as was the case prior to desegregation, enforce homogeneity at the expense of progress at the local level?
Those questions address the practices and policies that make fraternities and the fraternity experience needlessly impractical (or downright unappealing) for college students. Unfortunately, they may not even be on the radar of your fraternity's diversity committee. Why? Here's an experience-based guess: Fraternity leaders and campus professionals have no incentive to limit their role in your fraternity experience. That role and the costs associated with it certainly contribute to the problem of diversity and inclusion, but these committees were created in response to public pressure. They will not reshape how fraternities work, they will not affect the people in charge, and they will continue to serve the interests of those who profit from student dues.
Letting students create competitive alternatives challenges the clout of existing organizations. Allowing members to democratically debate legislation or inter/national candidates diminishes the authority of current leaders and staff. Having fewer standards, programs, and rules to enforce all but eliminates the day-to-day work of most campus-based Fraternity/Sorority Life professionals and topical "experts."
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe some diversity and inclusion committees will actually consider recommending that fraternities do less. Perhaps one or two will even consider letting students call more of the shots. Let's all stay tuned.
Fraternity Man is an ad-free and independent publication.
Help keep it going and growing by contributing as little as $2. (Links below will take you to a secure payment portal via Stripe)
A free way to support: Subscribe to the Fraternity Man newsletter for [very occasional] updates and giveaways.