It is fascinating how various quests for utopia can bring out the worst in people or groups. As many as 60 million people died in the Soviet Union’s experiment. The Chinese Cultural Revolution, in which dictator Mao Zedong endorsed violence to cleanse the population, killed millions more. Throughout history, the idea of a standardized, unified way of life repeatedly devolves into savagery.
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men…”John Dalberg-Acton (Historian, Politician, Writer)
The systems and regimes which have governed the fraternity/sorority space are showing their age. Associations developed for different needs in a different era are ripping at the seams. Ideologues who treat short-form tweets as gospel seek to hasten the breakdown. Perhaps they are certain that their “side” is “right” and will “win.” Maybe they can serve as the face of some breakthrough.
Above Their Heads & Above Our Pay Grade
Lost in the clutter are students, the supposed benefactors of our work. Ironically, ideological demands for inclusivity/equality among fraternities has made them more expensive and less accessible. For many years we waged a scorched-Earth campaign in the name of values. We targeted student and alumni members so successfully that the mere mention of a chapter closure earns cheers from Greek Life leaders and professionals in private Facebook groups.
We may not know why it closed, but are typically assured that they weren’t “living up to our standards.” But no one can live up to our standards. Professionals embezzle money from chapters, inter-organization councils, or even inter/national organizations. Some pose as students on dating apps to collect photos. Others transform from advocate to predator at professional conferences or online. Anti-bullies can easily cross the line to pure bullies.
Maybe it’s not the students who need to be micro-managed.
Trickle Down Drama
The high-level pettiness is far over the head of new members joining a group of friends. To thrive, fraternities must define what makes them essential to potential members. Students understand the maxim that “who you know is as important as what you know.” For most of them, fraternities are ways to meet new people and tap into a network. That is essential, especially at a time when so many of our relationships are nurtured or established through symbols on a screen.
Professionals eager to draw lines between students, pit them against one another, and wrap them up in petty politics, have muddied the value of fraternity. Alumni leaders and professionals, not students, are the greatest drivers of exclusivity. You may ask, “How?” Every demand we make of students pulls from their and their family’s resources. Our demands are unlimited, because who could oppose “higher standards” or “safety”?
Building Bubble Boy’s Bubble
We often conflate “more” with “better.” Suggest a strict but limited number of expectations or rules and you might be labeled as someone trying to “lower the standards.” Unfortunately, we are decades away from shipments of android fraternity men devoid of anything but that which makes for great press releases.* For now, we must deal with imperfect humans, their pesky human nature, and new technology/generations.
Monopolizing the fraternity experience eliminates expression and experimentation, limiting everyone’s progress. It also, as is the case with all monopolies, results in higher costs. Our monopoly is veiled under the term, “Community.” To oppose the Community – despite what we teach you at leadership programs – is cause for exile or cancelling.
The lack of competition mixed with resilient internal politics means no one needs to be concerned with making the cost affordable to students. For the purpose of this post, we’ll break “cost” down into three categories:
- Financial– Dollars pulled from the pockets of students and/or their parents
- Energy– Time commitments with little value, but which prevent students from more productively using that time
- Integrity– Our suppression of dissent and innovation in the name of an ideologically pure fraternity experience
The clearest indicator of our strategic failures are measured in dollars and cents. New policies, programs, and the silly assumption that more is better add a burden to the most indebted generation of students. “You can’t put a price on safety,” say the upper-middle-class-to-very wealthy parents who seem to be the unassailable faces of risk management.**
Well, yes, you can, because things cost money. Which things?
More Staff (Greek Life Fees, NIC Campus Support Model, Etc.)
Here’s what I have to say about the NIC’s campus support model and insurance offerings. In short: More money and more paperwork.
They aren’t alone, though. In fact, left to the devices of campus administrators and fraternity/sorority professionals, students will pay an even greater cost through Greek Life Fees. In these cases, schools eager to please upper-middle-income families charge students an extra $15-$300 (maybe more) to hire more staff and provide more lectures. Sometimes these staff positions remain unfilled for months or years, but the fees keep rolling in.
The NIC fees/rules are silly, but campus-level alternatives are more expensive and equally bureaucratic. Fraternity central offices are no different. If you want to pay people to take out your trash, you have to pay them. We need to teach responsibility, not assume responsibility.
Fraternity insurance designed as a “get out of jail free” card for inter/national organizations and forces rule-abiding students to protect chapters which would otherwise price themselves out of existence. The second problem with fraternity insurance is that it implies that inter/national fraternities are capable and should be held liable for the actions of individual members.
That is a pipe dream. Inter/national fraternities should never be in a position to surveil or pretend they could possibly surveil thousands of college students. Yes, local fraternities can and do acquire insurance. It is not as impossible as Big Fraternity would have you believe.
Campus professionals do not seem to care if something is effective. They ask to see positive survey results and a phat donation to the association or special interest of their choice. It’s as simple as that.
It doesn’t get much more compassionate at the governance level. Special interests turn into conflicts of interest with every national contract or mandate signed between a vendor and fraternity office. These are noticed at every level, but they’re easy to become accustomed to when you’re working on fraternities every day. (sidebar: Volunteers need to step up. It’s fun.)
Every dollar to swoon for a better reputation, the right to expand to a campus, or the right to monopolize the market comes from students or their sponsors.
Legislation & Policy Education
Let’s just give one example: The REACH Act, endorsed by your fraternity/sorority umbrella association, hazing “experts,” campus administrators and parents is, as a whole, irrelevant. It is an abdication of responsibility, plain and simple. Within that legislation is a mandate that publicly funded universities provide anti-hazing education to students. Sounds cute, right?
Well we haven’t really mastered that education, nor have we mastered anti-hazing policy. The proof is in the statistics for all you data buffs. So why write legislation mandating that universities pay (with tuition dollars or tax dollars) for educational initiatives we know to be ineffective? Is appearing busy more important than doing good work?
Students are not raw material to test out new projects and policies. They are not seat-fillers, hour-generators, or research subjects. Students are humans with human needs and desires. The greatest threat to those needs are community-wide or organization-wide standards/accreditation programs. They enable the uncreative to add “just one more” item to the list of things for fraternity men to accomplish every 365 days.
Checklists O’ Leadership
I can start a ski club with three students and an absentee adviser. We could watch ski movies once a month and party every weekend. At most universities, that isn’t a problem. Attaching Greek letters to your name; however, spells trouble.
To save students from themselves, we try to spell out exactly what every fraternity and sorority should do every year. Every item on the “energy costs” and “integrity costs” list, and many on the “financial costs” list, are affected by the never-ending scope of these checklists. It’s a shame, because we teach students leadership techniques which are ultimately of no use in managing their organization. Complete the checklist or you’re gone.
I was a swimmer. We would occasionally grumble when our coach wrote a difficult set on the chalkboard for practice. But each of those things – kick-boards, long swims, sprints, pull-buoys, my coach sinking to the bottom of the pool to observe our technique – contributed to the end goal of competitive swimming: go fast. There is no decipherable end goal for fraternities. The checklist accomplishments, and the awards which accompany them, are the be-all, and then they are forgotten.
For example, my fraternity recently amended an accreditation process our team tried to guide toward niche development many years ago. Now, if your chapter meets at least 20 times a year (no word on why that number is valuable, probably just some correlative data floating somewhere) it is one step closer to winning a trophy.
Meanwhile, the ski club is drunk off their ass at the local watering hole, relishing in their university recognition. (They don’t card there).
A standard item on every checklist is that students attend programs or training put on by student affairs professionals. It is usually something about leadership, diversity, sexual assault, risk management, or other things we have apparently figured out.
“If every senator looks into the mirror and sees a future president, then every president looks into that same mirror and sees himself on Mount Rushmore.”Richard Cohen
Most fraternity/sorority professionals look into the mirror and see a future speaker. Their audience cheers and shares photos retweeted tens of thousands of times. “I did it,” the professional dreams, “My lecture on consent made everything okay, forever!” The invoice reads, “90 minutes: $6,000 – book next year’s program today and save $500.“
(No this isn’t an attack on speakers. It’s a playful, completely serious argument against people who are screwing our students.)
Hearings & Accountability
During the Cultural Revolution in Mao Zedong’s China, students loyal to the party were given status high enough to reprimand (and even torture) other students and teachers. A teacher known to wear a western-style vest, for example, may be secretly tried for treason. Eventually, factions broke out, each claiming greater loyalty to the party than the other and killing millions in their quest for the position as Mao’s favorites.
That is the blind-spot of zero-tolerance prohibition: unserious things become serious, with dangerous consequences. As a member of an alumni board, I grew tired of getting calls from chapter officers alerting me that they must attend yet another hearing. Why this time? Someone on Twitter accused a brother of singing along to a Lil Wayne song with triggering language. A beer can was found near, but not inside, a trash can in the hallway.
Our cultural revolution is designed to instill fear in students. It pays no attention to human nature. The courts are symbolic. The harshness of the penalty determines whether one is loyal to the cause or a traitor.
Of course bigger chapters are less often in debt and have higher grades or morale – it’s impossible for a small chapter to complete the checklist(s). When we forget that fraternity is about friendship, we lose sight of our true brand: our members. As a result, recruitment becomes a matter of recruiting enough people to win.
From one side of our mouth we demand values-congruence. The other side; however, urges fraternity men to offer invitations to 100% of the men who are interested in joining. The goal is to increase the percentage of students who join fraternities, but the costs (time, financial, and otherwise) compared to the benefits are too high for most to consider membership.
Beyond that, formal recruitment is a dog-and-pony show and an unnatural way to meet friends. Deferred recruitment just extends the time and money required to recruit students. They spend even more time keeping their underground recruitment efforts a secret.
Funny thing about secrets: Sometimes you can keep a secret for so long that you feel your livelihood depends on maintaining it. Consider how difficult it can be for someone who is gay or lesbian to come out to the people they know best. Many keep it a secret forever, contributing to a hyper-sexualized, underground community. It is all too easy for a young man, ashamed of what he might be, to fall victim to predators, depression, and suicide.
I say this because my blog emphasizes the value of free speech and expression. Greek Life professionals who cheer when someone supports the LGBTQ+ “community” occasionally label my support for free speech as anti-progressive. One referred to people who support free expression for fraternities as a “knuckle-dragging, red-hat-wearing, freedom of association flag-waving, campus-crashing bunch.”
The reality is that free speech, association and expression are fundamental to all human rights. To deny that unconditional right is to deprive a human of their identity. Instead, it selfishly labels them with your own identifiers, subliminally instructing others how to treat them. It’s a tactic of the right, the left, the up, the down, and anyone else who assumes that everyone on their team is better because they are on the same team.^
I can start a ski club which doesn’t actually ski at almost any college/university in the country without trouble. My business was established in a few hours. Starting a new chapter of a fraternity is an expensive, time-intensive endeavor. The hoops are endless.
If we were less concerned with our checklists and the size of each chapter we may have a fraternity community of chapters appealing to dozens of niches at even the smallest universities. That means students have more options to fit their interests, values, and life goals. It means more co-ed organizations and a greater opportunity for students to put those leadership lessons to good use.
It may result in some bad apples, too. But show me where closed or hoop-riddled expansion policies prevented a chapter from being one skin color. . .
“They do things their way,” is the crummiest excuse for historically black and historically white fraternities to remain segregated. A sorority hasn’t joined the historically-white National Panhellenic Council (NPC) since before the Civil Rights Act.
To support the status quo at the expense of students is to block the modernization of the fraternity/sorority experience. We need to lean things down and allow people to experiment with whatever data or intuition they see fit. Then we can rebuild new structures around modern technologies to carry us through the next couple decades.
The Exclusive AFA
The annual meeting of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors typically breaks down into some sort of virtue-signalling pageant. A common topic for debate is whether people who work for inter/national fraternities should be full members in the association.
Well, what is a consultant, traveling all year to impart wisdom to young fraternity men, but an adviser? Better yet, shouldn’t an association for advisers be open to all advisers – including unpaid ones? The problem with AFA (and most associations in turmoil) is not that it doesn’t appeal to its most hyper-partisan audience. Its leadership is limiting the members’ opportunity for debate and competition. The best ideas don’t rise to the top because they are incubating somewhere far away from the table.
Let people in, if you wish to be inclusive, and allow them to be them.
* When fraternity man androids do become available, know that we will spare no expense to buy them. Because safety.
** This is harsh. I understand that. The only reason such attacks aren’t lobbed at our new parent coalitions is because they are advocating for the policies peddled by those who benefit from such policies. Benneficiaries include leaders seeking to delegate liability, punish fraternity men, or sell their services. I can’t imagine what it is like to lose a child, and I would not wish it on anyone, but that does not an anti-hazing policy expert create.
In no way should this be taken as my saying that those voices are irrelevant, or that humans can’t learn. An addict, for example, can recover and help others. Still, we must acknowledge the limitations of our realities. To grant anyone a free pass is to grant them absolute power, which corrupts absolutely.
^I too am human and succumb to this nature. Within this post, those who agree with what I say may find reason to target “professionals,” “parents,” or “fraternity leaders.” That is not the intent. My critiques of the NIC, for example, are not critiques of Jud Horras (the CEO). They critique the systems which need reform.