Note: This narrative is going to focus on fraternities but in some cases it certainly applies to sororities as well as many other organizations on a college campus.
I’ve spent more than 30 years involved with the Fraternity and Sorority system as a chapter officer, chapter advisor, regional volunteer, foundation board director, house corporation board member, and president of a company that focuses on alumni/ae and parent relations as well as fundraising. I met my wife through my fraternity. My son is a fraternity brother. My best friends are almost all fraternity brothers. My fraternal experience has been more than rewarding.
Having said the above, I believe the time has come to either close the doors of fraternities, or make the changes needed to ensure that they remain relevant in 2017 and beyond.
Do I really believe fraternities should be closed down? Unfortunately, yes, many chapters should be closed and/or members should be removed. Will it be painful? Yes. If suspect chapters continue the downward cycle in the positive reasons why fraternities should exist, then my guess is at least one-third of the membership in the majority of chapters should be asked to leave their fraternity. There might even be a need to close 25% or more of chapters to “jump start” the cultural changes needed.
That statement above is pretty strong for someone who has spent my entire college student and working life involved with fraternities, yet, I believe that if a fraternity is done right, then it could become the most relevant experience a young man can have during his undergraduate years. The possibilities are almost endless. Great fraternities teach leadership, organizational, and social skills. Members learn how to collaborate and motivate others. Members learn sales skills. Most learn the importance of service. Members are much more likely to achieve higher grades than the majority of students on campus. Critical thinking skills are tested. Lifelong friendships develop. An affinity to your chapter and the campus often leads to higher rates of giving and volunteerism. Great fraternities are often the best learning incubators on a college campus.
So what is wrong with us fraternities? We have become less about developing young men, fostering a sense of belonging and brotherhood, and creating lifelong friendships, and much more about the chapters “social pecking order” on campus. The chapter energy is focused on remaining in the top social tier, or in how to the climb the social ladder and not about how to help our young members develop into fraternity men and not frat guys. Members in my chapter hear me say often: “are you in our fraternity or is the fraternity in you?” We have too many members using the chapter for their social gain versus understanding the fraternity is a lifetime commitment and one that is looking to develop a young man into a future leader. Yes, we are social organizations and should have some fun. Expecting college students, whether they are in a fraternity or not, to never “push the limits” is unrealistic. Underage drinking has existed for more than a century. I even think it ok for a chapter to focus on their social ranking because they learn very valuable marketing and social skills in this process, while forming some great memories. However, we need our members to understand that the social budget should be no more than 25-50% of who we are and not 90% of who we are or think we should be. Additionally, the shift some of our members and guests have taken to drinking hard alcohol until they are “blacked out” is not acceptable.
A fraternity that is good for the college campus and for the young men that join it, meet these standards:
Their grades are higher than the campus average;
80% or more of the members are involved in a campus organization;
Nearly all members serve as a chapter officer, committee chair, or as an assistant on a committee;
The chapter membership is providing no less than 40 hours of service per year per member and contributing no less than $25 per member per year;
Juniors and Seniors remain involved in the chapter because they see more meaning to the fraternity than just a social outlet for Freshmen and Sophomores;
The membership program is teaching academic integrity; how and why to provide service to others; how to be an effective leader and follower; how to achieve goals; how to follow our passions and live balanced lives; how to manage our finances; how to hold our members accountable for their actions; how to ask for help when needed; how to show respect for the houses they live in and the people they come into contact with; why alcohol abuse, drug use and hazing have no place in our chapters; how “no means no”; how to sell themselves and the chapter; how and why to participate in activities with members outside their clique and those outside our chapter doors; how to be competitive yet humble; how to listen; how to be creative; how to have fun but be safe; and why lifelong commitment to our chapter, national organization and university is the right thing to do.
And yes, it provides a social outlet for the members.
So is the above even achievable? Yes, but not without a true partnership between fraternity undergraduates; alumni; fraternity and sorority headquarters; universities; and legislators.
Undergraduates must be committed to creating a culture of excellence or they should expect that their membership and/or chapter’s existence will end. They must ask the right questions when they recruit members to ensure they will fit the culture of excellence for the chapter. As stated earlier, the budget must reflect a balanced chapter and not one that is 90% social. They need to think of “social” as much more than just a big party with alcohol and a large number of girls. This is a great critical thinking and creative skills building opportunity for them to develop a social program that members “buy-in” too that checks all the boxes for safe risk management. Undergraduates and the volunteers that work with them, must be committed to developing young men who are good students; who care and respect others; who value service; who learn leadership skills; who are career-ready; and who are willing to remain committed to the fraternity and university for their lifetime.
Alumni must remember it is a lifetime experience and that their time and treasurer, as well as career connections, are the key to the success of the chapter. We should be able to remove an alumnus from membership just as we do undergraduates if they are not meeting the standards of involvement. Why are less than 1% of the alumni doing all the volunteering and less than 15% making annual financial contributions? If it is truly membership for life, alumni need to reflect that core value. Alumni, your chapters really could use your involvement. It’s not just advisors and house corporation volunteers we need, but alumni willing to even just spend a day per year at chapter providing life skills and career advice. For those of you not involved, find the way back to serving your chapters.
Fraternity headquarters must be willing to close chapters that do not meet their standards and remove members who are not reflective of our values, even if it impacts the financial bottom-line. They need social policies that are consistent among all organizations so our members and campuses can enforce a simple set of rules. They need to focus their enforcement on requiring security and servers, and having strong sanctions for chapters that allow hard-alcohol at events since a majority of our problems occur because of hard alcohol abuse. They need to make it easier for undergraduate officers and alumni volunteers to suspend and expel members to ensure a culture of excellence. Finally, they need a much better way to evaluate the individual progress of our members. The more we can see that our members are excelling academically, providing service, participating in leadership positions on the campus and in the chapter, and are learning the skills to get them career-ready, the more we will know what chapters truly are providing an experience worth keeping the doors open. Maybe chapters who on average are not seeing 80% of their member’s meet some set standard are given one year to get back on track or are closed. I believe if chapters knew they would could lose their charter for more than just serious alcohol and hazing violations, they would do a better job with recruitment, member education, and in holding members accountable to ensure they are meeting the standard.
Sorority headquarters must quit “sitting on the sidelines” when it comes to alcohol and social activity. The current campus conditions leave most of the decision-making and risk management to 18-21 year old men. Passing rules that do not allow your chapters to co-sponsor events with alcohol has maybe reduced your liability but it has not stopped your members attendance, and it has only turned the social events into “open parties” with no accountability or leadership from the sororities participating. We need sororities to be 50-50 partners and return to the days of co-sponsored events or fraternities need to have the courage to become alcohol-free housing (not my first or even second choice). The best option would be that the drinking age is back to 19 and that fraternities and sororities focus at events is about the safety of their guests and not managing the risk of getting caught for underage serving. Knowing that the drinking age is not likely to change, sororities need to accept the responsibility of being a “true partner” in the social and risk management programs on campus. Find a way with your chapters to reduce the risk the men must accept. Yes, fraternities could just follow the rules but the experience on most campuses is that the girls go to the chapters that provide the alcohol and quit spending times at those who will not. Expecting 18-21 year old men to choose between following the rules and having hundreds of young women at their social events is an easy choice for them, as it has been for a century.
Universities need to create policies that create good learning outcomes. They need to quit hiding behind their strict policies to try to avoid legal liability, and focus their education and sanctioning on student safety. They need to hold individual members accountable for their decisions and only close chapters that do not meet a pre-set standard of excellence and who are not holding their individual members accountable. Is the university closing other campus clubs & organizations and sports teams when they are caught for alcohol or drug use and hazing, or are they mostly sanctioning the individuals? We know that answer. There needs to be a consistent set of rules for all students and organizations. Universities need to focus their attention on what will make the students safe: security, servers, drivers, and the removal of hard liquor at events. When sanctioning does occur, it needs to be immediate and more short-term in most cases. An immediate big fine and 2-4 weeks of social probation is way more effective than a delayed investigation that leads to a semester or more of social probation that the chapter is not likely to follow and the university is not likely to enforce. It’s not teaching the students about being accountable for their decisions.
Legislators must be willing to pass the Collegiate Housing & Infrastructure Act. Gifts are already tax-deductible for other areas of campus housing. Allowing gifts to be tax-deductible for Greek Housing will make it easier for us to provide better living-learning environments. They must pass stronger laws on hazing such as the REACH Act to ensure members are held accountable for any hazing that risks the safety of our members. They must ensure that educational programs are in place at the elementary and high school level focused on stopping the culture of hazing that begins at this much earlier age. They must enact laws enabling amnesty for college students for alcohol and drug emergencies. Finally, and I know what I am asking for, they should return the legal drinking age to 19, but also have must stronger laws relating to hosting and use of hard liquor at facilities not licensed for alcohol.
I challenge all stakeholders to make the difficult changes but mostly, I challenge my fellow brothers to recruit and educate for excellence. Undergraduates need to quit selling the chapter’s social status during recruitment (that is a given). They need to sell how the chapter will help them academically and in preparing them for their future careers. They need to share with potential members about campus and chapter involvement, intramurals, service, and how joining the fraternity is a lifetime experience. They need to need to ask “recruits” what they are looking for in a fraternity. They need to ask them to describe examples of their academic, extracurricular and service successes. They need to ask them how they would respond if they saw a fellow new member being hazed or if they saw a member who may be in jeopardy because of drinking too much. Alumni volunteers need to do whatever it takes to ensure our members are receiving the education to develop a “better man” and to ensure that hazing, along with alcohol & drug abuse has no place in our chapters. Alumni need to do all they can to develop a since of lifelong belonging to the chapter. If an alumnus is not prepared to give some of their time or treasurer, they should resign.
We can recruit to fail or succeed. We can educate to fail or succeed. The choice is ours.