Working for a fraternity is difficult to explain. Higher education professionals claim that we are higher education professionals. Others say that we are non-profit organizations. Most of the general public assumes that working for a fraternity’s central office means drinking a lot of booze. None of these assessments are wholly accurate.
National and international fraternities and sororities are governing structures of their component chapters. Fraternities and sororities are, like religious organizations, behavioral governments. Members join, earn some form of representation, and must follow a set of rules or face penalties.
With this in mind, we can assume that fraternities and sororities receive the benefits of governing organizations. We can also assume that Greek Life can succumb to the same blind-spots as politics.
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 with a cause or product to promote. As authority is centralized, aligning with certain special interests risks creating conflicts of interest. Special interests lobby decision-makers. Lobbying becomes more competitive and expensive when fewer people make bigger decisions.
We see this in fraternity all the time. A national board implements policies at the advice of an “expert” without consulting those who elected them. Campus professionals use funds collected through councils to pay for speakers who speak the right lingo or who hit on a buzzy topic. Umbrella associations like the North American Interfraternity Conference (NIC) endorse potentially unconstitutional bills on behalf of all fraternity men.
Let us look at some special interests which influence fraternity activity and policy. Keep an open mind: Almost no human operates out of ill-intent. I hope this post encourages leaders at all levels of all organizations to consider and discuss potential conflicts of interest.
How did fraternities come to be associated with leadership? It is simple to anyone with basic skills in analytics. Fraternities built networks of well-educated people at times when attending college was not a basic expectation of American life. These individuals, already many steps ahead of their peers, went on to start businesses and run governments. That correlation of members rising to positions of power encouraged fraternities to suggest that they in some way contributed to that rise.
We believe that leadership can be taught. Still, even though we probably “train” more people in leadership today than at any point in history, most seem to agree that our American society lacks credible leadership. This could be due to many things, but the greatest issue of all is that the people teaching us leadership are not credible leaders themselves. A PhD does not a leader make.
The Effects of Lecture Leadership
Chapters are still in debt. Members are still failing to create, let alone live up to, standards of membership. Inter/national organizations and leaders operate out of an obsession to protect their public image, and fall into the trap of placing blame and virtue-posturing.
So yes, leadership education is valuable, but we are by no means the experts in that field. Training more leaders ultimately means that those who teach leadership benefit. Those who teach leadership often advocate that every member be taught leadership. There is where the special interest can become a conflict of interest.
Leadership surely requires practice if it can be taught. What few, if any, educators provide is long-term coaching. And, no, digital resources and click-through courses do not qualify as “coaching.” The best way to achieve that is to target leadership training to potential coaches within and around chapters. If alumni volunteers and chapter leaders are taught to exemplify and teach the practices of leadership, we may more effectively spend our dollars.
Risk Management & Governance
Near the end of the 20th Century, fraternities established their own insurance mechanism. The idea was that chapters were considered to expensive to insure and so we took matters into our own hands. Although the action may have been necessary at the time, we would be fools not to consider how centralized insurance exacerbates our problems.
The greatest effect of such a change is that distant, national bodies are expected to manage standards at a personal and local level. It makes no sense for an insurance company to deal directly with fraternity chapters in 2019. The same can be said for anti-hazing or risk management experts.
An inter/national organization must invest in risk-prevention services when it assumes liability for its “self-governing” chapters. Risk management professionals most often sell directly to these central organizations. The result is that services are less personalized and almost never democratically elected. Even in the cases where a fraternity or fraternity council votes to adopt a policy, that policy is almost always within the worldview of the professionals lobbying in its favor.
More Money, More Problems.
What are the results of this system? Fraternity members are paying more in insurance than at any time in history. Incidents are as deadly and numerous as ever. Fraternity members are also paying more for risk education than at any time in history. In summary: We are paying more money and nothing except the rules and the amount of time we spend discussing them is changing.
When we look at how to avoid the cyclical nature of fraternity risk management (incident, blame, new rules, education), we need only observe the leadership section of this post. Risk education, like leadership education, relies on well-prepared members stepping in. Inter/national leaders and campus professionals cannot be present for every meeting and ceremony, so the goal should not be mass-produced lectures, but targeted training and coaching.
Education must be localized and adapted to the chapter in question. More importantly, fraternities should not purchase anti-hazing or risk management services from professionals who repeatedly trash the very students who pay for their services. Respect for the rules comes from respect for one’s leaders, and many risk experts treat students like chess pieces.
Research & Assessment
Fraternities spend more in leadership and risk management education than ever before due in part to the lobbying success of special interests. So, what happens when you spend more than ever and have little real-world results to show for it? Well, speaking from observation and experience: you craft a survey to prove that the money was not wasted. (Read: The goal isn’t necessarily to prove that the money was well-spent, only that it wasn’t wasted)
Assessment is valuable, and you will find few fraternity men who beg inter/national leaders to listen to their members as often as me. Research, data, and assessment; however, are powerful buzzwords utilized to imply authority on a topic. Statistics can be bent to the will of any moderately capable marketer.
Science is the Art of Inquiry, Not Objectivity
Every study is conducted with some level of bias. That bias appears in the way the assessment is pieced together (questions asked with certain outcomes in mind) or in the way it is reported (if it is reported at all). I have witnessed first hand that reports led by capable individuals can be manipulated to protect certain interests.
An example comes from the NIC. When a study of Miami University students suggested that fraternities were detrimental to their members academic performance, the NIC pounced. Within their rebuttal was a statement that fraternities provide $70 million+ in the form of academic scholarships to students. I replied, via Twitter, noting that most of what fraternity foundations raise goes toward internal programming, not scholarships, and NIC promptly corrected its statement.
I asked where the data came from, and the response was a study conducted by a well-known fundraising company. The study and its results; however, were private. Without access to raw data, students – who pay for the research – and alumni members cannot verify the findings. Let us all be cautious when closely held data is used to make sweeping decisions at a campus or inter/national level.
I donate directly to my chapter’s alumni board and to our chapter’s leadership fund. I hope that my money is used well. Perhaps that’s why I donate to funds over which I have some oversight. Many individuals give more money with one check than I have in my 12 years as a fraternity man. None of us should be so ignorant to assume that such money comes without strings.
Perhaps it is due to the void of leadership addressed in point #1, the paranoia of closure associated with point #2, or the need to make money matter recognized in point #3, but fraternities are all too eager to slap someone’s name on something for a dollar. When was the last time the integrity of a fraternity or university program merited a donation? To place your name on something often comes with the expectation that you have some influence.
Every organization collecting donations will attempt to create value that it believes its donors want to see. We hope that donors act in good faith and that organizations treat those donations with respect.
Still, organizations occasionally create and manipulate statistics to attract donations. For many years my fraternity cheered that we had more “educational touch points” than at any time in history. What was a touch point? It could be a student sleeping in the back of a room during an educational program. Regardless of intent, a statistic was manipulated to attract donors. . . now we see the problem, right? (That’s one example, there are many professional posturers in the fraternity world)
Most inter/national organizations are involved in umbrella organizations such as the NIC. As the NIC expands its authority (again, at the expense of students), its member organizations jockey for the position of, “who can impose one style of leadership on the most fraternities.”
How might this affect your fraternity? There are currently 66 members of the NIC. They pay dues to the NIC with funds typically acquired through membership dues. Still, as is the trend with most fraternities, the NIC does not factor student opinion or insights into their decisions. Legislation is endorsed and fraternities sign agreements to adopt policies before consulting their legislative bodies.
That’s not necessarily the fault of the umbrella organizations, but rather the national/international fraternities and sororities. Things in nature tend to move in the path of least resistance (think rivers). Leaders with too many decisions to make will happily defer responsibility (and feedback) to a more distant, more centralized entity if it gets some of the heat off of their back.
How does this affect you? First, as mentioned above, you are quietly endorsing legislation you have likely never read. Second, despite their assertion that umbrella associations fight to preserve free speech, they have done more to stifle startups and local organizations than they have to preserve them. Umbrella associations have turned the world against local fraternities and have put a glass ceiling over entrepreneurial college women.  
So. . . Special Interests
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. New hazing laws are not inherently good because they are new and because they are anti-hazing laws – for example.
Unlike the governments of the world, there is no wikileaks-style watchdog pointing out conflicts of interest within our national or international governing structures. The data that dues-paying members receive is not objective. More often than not it is a form of marketing to support the positions of elected leaders and those who lobby them.
The single most effective reform a fraternity can make in the 21st Century is to pump the breaks when it comes to centralization. Structural inefficiencies and poorly-distributed decision rights are the silent catalysts behind our greatest threats. Not everything is a matter for an inter/national fraternity CEO.
Update: This post was re-written and re-posted in 2019. It was originally published in January, 2017. Thanks for reading :).