Why We Are Failing?

Editor Note: This blog has merged some narratives from an old blog and combined with some new messages.

Fraternities have been around since 1776 and sororities since 1867. Clearly, we have done something right to have been around for centuries. Yet, our continued existence is being discussed on a daily basis. Why? Before I answer this, I’d like to share my story.

I can state without hesitation that I would not be the person I am today without my fraternal experience. I joined my fraternity in the 1980’s really not knowing what a fraternity was. I joined because a few friends convinced me it would be fun and worth my investment of time and dollars. It was a leap of faith for me. Neither of my parents had gone to college and what money my parents had was to pay for housing, to put food on the table, and somehow pay for college tuition for my brother and me. To this day I’m still not sure how they did it. The funny thing is, I never felt poor and always seemed to have what I needed. Looking back, my parents sacrificed a lot to provide for my brother and me.

What was college and my fraternal experience like? I could write a book on my near 35 years. The fraternity was and still is, a learning incubator. I developed social, organizational and leadership skills through my experiences. I was surrounded by members rich and poor, athletic and not, smart and academically challenged, local kids and those from across the U.S., and members from many different ethnic backgrounds. Like all organizations, there were leaders, followers, and non-performers. Most were there for the friendships and fun, many liked the opportunity to lead, and some were not good characters that eventually would leave or be asked to leave the chapter. I learned how to socialize with fellow members and interact with those of the opposite sex. I served as an Alumni Relations Chair, Little Sister Chair and Vice President. Those experiences taught me how to communicate, motivate and manage people. I met my wife in college at one of our events and my son joined my same fraternity 29 years after I did.

Since those undergraduate years I have spent 30 years involved with the Fraternity and Sorority Life (FSL) as a campus volunteer, chapter advisor, regional volunteer, foundation director, house corporation board member, and president of a company that focuses on alumni/ae and parent relations as well as fundraising. My best friends are almost all fraternity brothers. My fraternal experience has been more than rewarding.

Having said the above, I believe we are failing to adjust to the world we are in today. Alcohol, drugs and hazing have been around for two centuries. Young men and women having been learning or not learning by their mistakes since the beginning of time. College students, not just fraternity and sorority members have been following the motto “party hard and study hard” since the day colleges opened their doors.

So why now is there such a rush to rid our campuses of fraternities and sororities? It’s because we are in a “Perfect Storm.” Young people are hard-wired differently because of technology. There is high use of prescribed and not prescribed drugs as well as high rates of depression and suicide. Entitlement and safe space have over-taken our campuses. Smart phones are really “dumb phones.” Social media is involved in a vast majority of the poor decisions made by young members. Society is much more litigious. Responsible students seem to lack the ability to hold members and guests accountable for their poor decisions. In many cases, chapters are devoid of enough responsible, caring adult volunteers to mentor and listen to students. Laws and policies, along with how to enforce them, have not kept up with today’s world. And finally, and most important, we as organizations, need to do a better job with recruitment, leadership development and code of conduct/judicial accountability.

My company is hired by local chapters to manage their alumni & parent relations, career networking, and fundraising. That had on the most part been 90% of my focus during my first 25 years in business. Now in the last five years I’ve spent 50% of time addressing what has gone wrong with our chapters and members. I’m a baseball guy. We can stand in the batter’s box and keep taking a 3rd called strike or we can get the coaching to change our swing path and succeed or at least fail trying to do the right thing.

Why are we failing? We are failing because we are not controlling what we can control. I could write hundreds of pages on how society let us get to this point but I’m just going to focus on what we national/international organizations, universities and local fraternities/sororities need to address:

  • How are we marketing and recruiting members?
  • How we are educating them?
  • How are we teaching accountability and removing members from our chapters that are not upholding our values?
  • How staffing and volunteering needs to change?

Young men in my chapter hear this message from me all the time: “Is the fraternity in you or were you just in the fraternity? Did you have the type of experience that will lead to you giving some of your time and treasurer the rest of your life or did you just pass through our doors partying for a few years?” My chapter members have both failed and succeeded at this over the last 30 years.

We Must Recruit Differently

We must reduce the size of our chapters and/or find ways to recruit more members that meet our fraternal values. Recruitment videos that do not reflect our values and especially ones focused on parties start us out on a wrong foot. Check out companies like Phired Up who seem to have the recruitment game down. We are who we recruit.

We must recruit members that meet the following criteria:

  • High academic success. While it’s ok to recruit members who had a 3.00 GPA in high school as long as they are strong in all the other areas, we really should not recruit many members with a high school GPA under a 3.3 and university GPA under a 2.75. Note: there are students with learning disabilities that work incredibly hard on their grades and may not achieve these grades, but they are the exception.
  • High involvement success. We are looking for those who were really involved in campus clubs and sports, as well as outside organizations. Even better, we want the leaders in each of those groups. We need to ask the questions to determine who the best of the best, are here.
  • High service success. We want members joining our chapters that care about others. Members should not be providing service because it is a requirement by our national/international organizations or universities but because we want to make a difference. Again, ask the right questions to determine who really enjoy serving the community.
  • Highly motivated. We want members who are joining our chapters with the goal of making us better organizations as well as developing them into future leaders. Ask the questions to see how highly motivated they are. These members will succeed in life and make a difference in our chapters and universities. Their affinity to the chapter, national/international and university will lead to time and treasurer from them.
  • Highly diverse. We need to stop recruiting members that just look and act like us. The world is a diverse place in many ways. We should not just be recruiting to meet diversity but recruiting to meet our values and with that will come more diversity.

We Must Educate Differently

We must do a better job of on-boarding our new members for success; understanding the needs of freshmen, sophomores, juniors and seniors are different; and transitioning our seniors to life as an alumnus. While we must avoid over-programming our members with too many requirements from the national/international and university, we must ensure that we have a 4-year leadership development program in place. If we recruited the right type of member they will thrive in a leadership development program.

Our programing must focus on:

  • How to have a successful new member experience.
  • Local chapter, national/international organization and university history and traditions.
  • Understanding the meaning behind our ritual.
  • Personality profile; core value assessments; and leadership assessments.
  • Building trust exercises.
  • Bonding members with the whole chapter and not just their new member class.
  • Personal and chapter responsibility.
  • Goal setting as an organization and individuals.
  • Academics – note taking and test preparation as well as tutoring.
  • Learning how to communicate; delegate; manage change; motivate; problem solve; sell; and be more creative.
  • Chapter and individual financial responsibility.
  • More interaction between members and alumni/ae, parents and faculty/administrators.
  • Career preparation and networking.
  • Introduction to lifetime commitment to the chapter, national/international, university and society in general.
  • Importance of fitness and healthy living; living with balance in our lives.
  • Teaching life skills like how to cook; invest your money; buy or rent; purchase insurance; etc.
  • Teaching safe sex and respecting others.
  • More service and philanthropy.
  • Alcohol, drug and hazing education (though this we already do in abundance).
  • Safe social events through effective risk management.
  • Asking seniors to give advice to young members and welcoming those seniors to the alumni/ae ranks.

Also, I heard this from another volunteer. How about the university giving class credits for chapter officers and key chairs for meeting the goals of their position? This will encourage more quality members to seek leadership positions and create an incentive to achieve their goals.

We Must Approach Accountability Differently

First, if we recruited and educated our members the right way, having to hold members accountable for poor decisions should get easier. It will never go away, but we will have less members to fine, suspend or expel. Having said that, I’m not sure 18-21 year old’s have ever been very good at accountability.

What can we do to improve in this area?

  1. All chapter judicial boards need to have an adult providing advice and chapters that house 20 or more members should have on-site house directors.
  2. Consistency in sanctions needs to be there at the chapter, national/international and university level for both chapter and individual accountability. This means having a pre-determined list of sanctions should be there for many behavioral infractions.
  3. National/international organizations need to make it easier to remove a member: just a simple majority vote of the membership as well as allowing alumni/ae volunteers to step in where needed.
  4. National/international’s and universities need to incentivize chapters to hold their members accountable. Take the fear away of self-reporting.
  5. Post on headquarters and university websites chapters of excellence, promise, probation or suspended.

A special note here: hazing, hard alcohol, drugs, and sexual assault are the areas we must continue to focus on. Problems in these areas exist outside of Fraternity and Sorority Life (FSL) as well but it is up to us to create an atmosphere where are members and guests are safe.

We Must Develop a Stronger Staff & Volunteer Model

The old school model of university staff advising mainly chapter officers and chapter volunteers being available when asked (but mostly on a monthly basis or when there is an incident) does not meet the demands of today. There are more chapters, more members, more reporting, more programming, and more judicial issues. I think it is worth considering the following:

Chapter Volunteers – Our chapter volunteers need to be in monthly contact with regional volunteers and university staff; bi-weekly to monthly contact with the membership as a whole; bi-weekly contact with other advisors and/or house corporation members; and weekly contact with our chapter officers. This does not even count reporting and programming needs of the university and national/international, as well as if any judicial issues come up. Each chapter is supposed to have an advisor working with each officer. Is this model sustainable at every chapter? While some chapters are blessed with a group of committed volunteers, most do not. Is it time to look at a paid staff member to support the volunteers and officers (at least at our big chapters who have the revenues)? Also, I think we need to consider having an advisor focused on alumni/ae and parent engagement and an advisor focused on the upper-classmen to keep them involved, especially seniors. It’s time to start advising to member needs and not just chapter operations.

Regional/National/International Volunteers & Staff – Our regional volunteers need to talk with their chapter advisors at least monthly and attend an officer and chapter meeting at least once per semester (and if there are not enough committed volunteers they need to spend time recruiting and training). Headquarters staff need to talk to regional volunteers at least monthly and they should probably hold a video conference call with regional & chapter advisors at least once per semester. Additionally, the staff should hold a video conference call with chapter officers and other key committee chairs at least once per semester. This does not even count all the regional and national/international conferences and reporting. While some organizations have the funding to meet this staffing need, many do not. How do we address this? Also, we need regional volunteers focused on the senior experience as well as alumni/ae and parent engagement.

University Staff – We need to get the university Fraternity & Sorority (FSL) staff out of the office and into more contact with all chapter members and volunteers in every chapter. “Boots on the ground” that partner with headquarters to ensure all chapters have the volunteers in place to succeed is a key. Greek Life staff need to be more focused on alumni/ae and parent engagement, building strong volunteer teams at each chapter in a partnership with national/international staff, and leadership development at the chapter level. Maybe we need a university and national/international staffing plan that hires campus advisors who each work with 5-10 chapters. For this to succeed the national/international and university must be much stronger partners than they are now.

It’s time for everyone to standup and make a difference:

  • Undergraduates officers need to lead their chapters in the right direction;
  • Chapter volunteers need to provide the guidance that the undergraduates need, but also set and hold them to a standard of excellence (and not be afraid to remove officers, expel members, or even recommend closing their chapters if that is what it takes);
  • Headquarters need to find a way through staffing and volunteers to ensure that their local chapter represents their brand, and if not, provide the resources to help impact the change or close the chapter;
  • Universities need to either be “all-in or all-out.” They need to be willing to try a different advising model that ensures weekly contact with chapters.

We can choose to keep doing things the way we always have and fail, or we can think “outside of the box” and provide the support our members need to succeed. What do you think?