Thursday, February 9, 2017

My Dad the Feminist

You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but my old man is a feminist. You read that right – John McCreary, the pipefitting, bass fishing, skoal dipping man who calls me his son is one of the biggest feminists I know.

About five years ago, my older sister, younger brother and I were all home for Thanksgiving, sitting around Dad’s kitchen table playing cards. We are a card-playing family. Our rook games are epic battles known to stretch into the wee hours of the morning, with nothing but bragging rights at stake. Our card games are great because, in addition to giving us an opportunity to scratch our “McCreary Competitive Itch,” it also gives us a chance to talk, laugh, connect and, as we often do, reminisce about funny stories from our childhood.

On this particular evening, we began questioning my Dad on his parenting philosophies. Neither of my parents graduated from college, but it was never a question that us kids would go to college. All three of us graduated from college and two of us have advanced degrees. I suspect that we all take some measure of pride about our blue-collar rural upbringing and the fact that we all turned out to be successful, well-adjusted (most of the time) adults. Dad (and Mom) had high standards for all of us, but my brother and I will be the first to admit that our older sister was held to the highest standards of all.  In fact, she was held to what some might call ridiculously high standards. She once brought home a B+ for her first six-week report card in her high school Health class, and was grounded for the remainder of the semester to ensure that she got an A in the class (which she did, and later graduated with a perfect 4.0 and got a full honors scholarship to East Tennessee State University). She had a strict curfew, was rarely allowed to spend “alone time” with boys (much to Mack Raines’ and Kent Leach’s chagrin), and she had a weekly list of household chores that would rival that of Cinderella’s (pre-glass slipper, of course).  By comparison, my brother and I had more than our fair share of weekly chores on the farm, but we were able to generally come and go as we pleased, and the occasional B on the report card was no reason for any cruel or unusual punishment. We were held to high standards, but were under considerably less scrutiny than our older sister.

We asked Dad that night “why were you so much tougher on Jennifer that you were on us?” Honestly, I expected his answer to be something about her being the oldest child and him just getting a little more laid back as time went on, which is typically how parents behave when multiple children are in the picture. The story of the over-programmed oldest child, the lonely, attention-starved middle child (i.e. me), and the baby who gets away with murder is so commonplace as to be cliché, and I expected that Dad’s answer to our query would fall within that familiar narrative.

I was wrong.

Here is what he said:

“I knew you boys would be OK no matter what happened. If college didn’t work out you could find a good job working construction and everything would be fine. But I knew that Jennifer’s only chance to get out of here (here being Campbell County, TN) was to go to college and be able to support herself. I didn’t want her stuck around here having to be dependent on some loser from Campbell County. I pushed her really hard because I wanted her to be able to live the life she wanted to live without having to depend on someone else.”

See, I told you he was a feminist.

I think my Dad, when he was in his 20’s and 30’s raising my sister (he was only 20 when she was born), probably had no idea he was a feminist. Hell, at 60 he still may not consider himself a feminist, but his way of thinking about raising his daughter speaks right to the heart of the feminist movement.

Feminism is not the ultra-left-wing, man-hating, baby-killing, angry, purple-haired lesbian movement than many in our society have made it out to be. At the heart of the feminist movement, as far as I can tell, are three simple beliefs:
  1. That every woman should be in charge of her own destiny
  2. That we should not have a society or an economy designed around the concept of a woman being dependent on a man (or anyone else, for that matter) for her happiness and well-being
  3. That all women deserve to be treated like humans with equal rights to men and not merely as objects of sexual desire.

Find any father who has a daughter, and ask him whether or not he believes that his little girl should be in charge of her own destiny, whether or not he wants his daughter to one day be completely dependent on a man, or if he likes to think about his daughter as a human being or a sex object. By those three standards, I would like to think that 99.9 percent of the fathers in America would define themselves as feminists. My old man is not an oddity – I choose to believe that most fathers in America would share my Dad’s goals for his daughter with their own.

So why such hostility towards the feminist movement? Why the Republican animosity towards the recent women’s marches across America? Why don’t more fathers, husbands, and brothers in America consider themselves feminists? I can answer that question with one word – abortion.

The right to choose has been at the center of the feminist movement for at least 50 years, if not longer. It is the line in the sand that the feminist movement has drawn – when it comes to abortion, you are either with us or against us. There is little room for wavering, and a lot of fathers, husbands, and brothers – those who might otherwise consider themselves feminists but are opposed to abortion – are unable to take up the feminist cause.  And in our polarizing society, if you do not consider yourself a feminist, you generally then must consider yourself “anti-feminist” and therefore deride and dismiss things like women’s marches. I think it is sad and unfortunate that abortion has become the dividing line that has kept otherwise feminist men (and women) from being part of the feminist movement, leading to fathers, brothers and husbands voting against the best interests of their daughters, sisters and wives (not to mention the women who vote against their own interests for the same reason).

While I am often frustrated that abortion becomes a line in the sand for the feminist movement, I understand why such is the case. If you fundamentally believe that women should be in charge of their own destiny, and that they should not ever be dependent on a man for their well-being, then you must be, by definition, pro-choice. The choice to have a child or terminate a pregnancy has much more impact on the destiny and well-being of a woman than it does on the man, even though he is equally responsible for the pregnancy. Beyond the obvious physical impact, it is incredibly difficult for young women, particularly low-income women from marginalized communities, to establish paternity and enforce a paternity ruling in this country in order to gain financial support for a child born out of wedlock. District Attorney’s offices are woefully understaffed, and enforcing paternity suits are not among their top priorities. 

The fact is, if a woman chooses to have a child, or is forced to have a child, the chances are high that she will end up bearing the overwhelming majority of the cost and burden of raising that child.  It will impact her ability to continue her education. It will impact her career choices. It will completely and fundamentally change her life. The decision to have or not have a child impacts a woman’s destiny in very real ways, and in ways that it does not impact a man. One cannot say “I think women should be in charge of their own destiny, and should determine the course of their own lives without being dependent on a man or on the government, but if a man gets a woman pregnant through mutual carelessness, the woman must be forced to have that child.” Those two ideas are not reconcilable with one another. We cannot say that a woman is in charge of her own life and destiny, but then mandate that if a man carelessly impregnates her, she must have that child. In other words, one cannot be a feminist and be anything other than pro-choice.

I think this concept is where the abortion rights movement has lost its message. The most common message we hear from the pro-choice crowd is “my body, my choice,” which is countered by the pro-life crowd with “abortion is murder.” I would argue that “my body, my choice” is a lousy slogan precisely because it ignores the fact that another “body” is at play here. We can have an intelligent, thoughtful conversation about when life begins (conception, birth, or somewhere in between), but even the staunchest pro-choicer is forced to admit that the pro-life crowd has a good point. A strong argument can be made for life beginning at conception, and if such is the case, there is more than one “body” involved in the decision to terminate a pregnancy.

If you’ll pardon me a little “man-splaining” here, I think a much better slogan for the pro-choice movement would be “my destiny, my choice.” By using the word “destiny” instead of “body,” we elevate the conversation to a much higher plane. The word “destiny” covers not only the physical impact of a pregnancy, but the entire gamut of issues involved in what might happen if a woman chooses to terminate, or not terminate, an unwanted pregnancy. Whose destiny is impacted by raising the child? How will that decision impact one’s life and career goals? Financial goals? Who ultimately faces the moral and ethical consequences of the decision to terminate a pregnancy? All of these questions, both practical and moral, must be considered when making the decision to terminate a pregnancy. Ultimately, a woman making this decision has much more at stake than her body. The decision to have a child, or not have a child, impacts the entire course of her life in ways that it would never effect of impact a man’s. And we can’t truly believe that women should be treated equally, that they should be in charge of their own destiny, and that they should not have to be dependent on others for their well-being if we do not believe that she has the ability to choose whether or not to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term. I think some subtle shifts in messaging might create an opportunity for more men and women to come on board the feminist movement, despite their well-founded moral and ethical concerns involving abortion.

In writing this, it is important to point out that I am not “pro-abortion.” I think there are tremendous moral and ethical decisions at play when making the decision to terminate a pregnancy. But I don’t think it is my job, or the government’s job, to make that decision for someone else. If I believe a woman is in control of her destiny, then I trust her to make that decision on her own. My Dad shares this belief.

I want to live in a world where more men, AND women, describe themselves as feminists. I want to see men AND women continue to stand up to a President who has made the objectification of women part of his life’s work, not to mention his campaign platform. I want to live in a world where my sister, my nieces (whom I adore), or my future wife or daughter are truly in control of their own lives and destinies and are never dependent on a man for their success or well-being.

I am a feminist, and I come by it honest. You might say it runs in the family.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Five Rules for Managing Organizational Misconduct

Over the last few years, as I have traveled the country helping colleges and universities improve their ability to investigate and adjudicate hazing, I have noticed a disturbing phenomenon; most college campuses are incredibly ill-prepared to address misconduct involving student organizations and varsity athletic teams.

Take a look at the NASPA Fraternity/Sorority Knowledge Community page, or the ATIXA listserv, or the ASCA Facebook group and you’ll notice the same glaring trend – LOTS of questions about how to handle organizational investigations and adjudication. As I work with campuses on these issues, I see a lot of common mistakes, many of which I now address in my training. In this post, I want to address some of those mistakes and offer “Doctor Gentry’s Five Rules for Managing Organizational Conduct.”

Rule #1 – Have an Organizational Conduct Policy that Is Separate from Your General Student Code of Conduct

This is the first rule, because it is the most common mistake that campuses make. Many campuses treat student organizations no differently than they treat individual students. In doing so, they only have one policy (a student code of conduct) laying out prohibited behaviors, procedures, and student rights. As many campuses eventually discover, this “one size fits all” approach rarely works cleanly with student organizations.

Campuses would be wise to adopt a separate set of policies related to managing organizational conduct. These should include a specific set of processes related to organizational investigation/adjudication procedures, a clarification of roles/responsibilities in the process (more on that later), and options for formal or informal adjudication (also more later). In addition, some prohibited behaviors also warrant their own separate policies. Almost all campuses now have Title IX/Sexual Misconduct Policies that lay out prohibited behaviors and procedure related to sexual harassment and gender discrimination on campus. But what about a hazing policy? Most campuses only mention hazing in the list of prohibited behaviors and never get into the details of how hazing will be investigated/adjudicated. Campuses would be wise to adopt a stand-alone hazing policy laying out these procedures. At NCHERM we have adopted a model hazing policy that we provide as a resource to the campuses with whom we work.

What should these separate policies include? Generally speaking, as an institution, you need to “give yourself permission” to use specific investigative tactics. For example, if you are conducting an investigation into hazing and you want to lock all of the pledges in a room and keep them there, restricting their communication until all have been interviewed, can you do that? Does your policy allow for that? Or if you want to require students to undergo a medical examination to examine them for signs of hazing (bruising, burns, etc.), does your policy allow you to do that? My guess is than 95 percent of current student codes of conduct do not address these issues, which could leave campuses in a legal quagmire if they attempt to implement these practices during an investigation. Campuses would be wise to write these polices in a manner that gives them wide latitude in conducting organizational investigations.  

This is why a separate organizational policy is important – there are some basic due process rights that are consistent (because they have come largely from the courts since Dixon vs. Alabama) across institutions when it comes to individual students and the conduct process. But the courts have been largely silent on issues of organizational rights in campus disciplinary proceedings. Generally speaking, a campus can create any system it wants to adjudicate these cases, so long as the process is not arbitrary or capricious. When campuses use individual rights to frame organizational due process rights, they are only making the organizational investigation/adjudication process more difficult than it needs to be. Campuses can do, in essence, anything they want with student organizations, so long as they are following their own policies. So a good organizational process begins with having good organizational processes that are spelled out in a separate organizational policy.

Rule #2 – In Your Policies, Clearly Delineate Roles and Responsibilities

When an organization on your campus is accused or suspected of wrongdoing, who investigates? Who adjudicates? Who hears appeals? Do these responsibilities lie with a single individual? A single office? Or are these responsibilities shared across campus based on the nature of the violation or the accused organization? Can the student conduct office “sanction” a varsity athletics team, or are those responsibilities vested solely within the athletics department? Who has the authority to issue interim sanctions or cease and desist orders, and can those be appealed? If so, to whom?

These are questions that often come up when I’m training campuses on organizational conduct. And they are all good questions. I could give you a list of “best practices” to answer those questions, but I’m not going to. Besides, what makes a practice “best” and who makes that decision? The short answer is this – every campus needs to address these and other important questions in the manner that makes the most sense on that campus.

As you come up with those answers, here are some guiding philosophies that I would suggest you apply:

  • The key to any investigation is that it is fair, impartial and unbiased. Thus, those closest to the team/organization should not be the ones investigating. The campus fraternity/sorority advisor should not be investigating alleged misconduct of campus fraternities for the same reason that the soccer coach should not be investigating alleged misconduct of the soccer team. Those working with these groups on a day-to-day basis are incapable of impartiality (I’ve written more about this topic here).
  • Investigations involving varsity athletics teams should involve investigators from both inside and outside the athletics department. Someone inside the department is critical in these investigations, as they will understand team culture and traditions better than others. But it is also important that these investigations not be seen as insular. Imagine if an allegation is received, and the athletics department conducts a thorough investigation of a team and is unable to substantiate anything. Then, the following year, a student on that same team is injured in a hazing incident. Regardless of how thoroughly the prior investigation was conducted, the appearance, from both a legal and PR perspective, will be that the athletics department knew there was a problem and did nothing about it, and only used inside people to conduct the investigation. Having an athletics representative as part of the investigative team also makes the sanctioning process much easier.
  • Only senior staff should be able to issue interim sanctions/cease and desist notices for organizations, and these should be used sparingly (more on that later). In assigning these roles, it is important to build a firewall between the adjudication process and the appeals process. For example, if the VPSA is the appeals officer, he or she should not be the one to offer interim sanctions. That responsibility should be designated to a Dean of Students or equivalent position.  Fraternity/sorority advisors or other campus organization advisors should not be responsible for issuing cease and desist notices, as this can jeopardize their ability to work with accused groups in the future. 

Rule #3 – Self-Governance Should Be the Goal of Organizational Conduct Processes

The entire organizational process should be centered around one goal – to promote and encourage organizations to self-police and self-govern. This theme should be woven into the investigation process, the adjudication process and, most importantly, the sanctioning process. Here are a few ideas that encourage self-governance:

  • Self-Reporting Policies – our model hazing policy at NCHERM has a clause for self-reporting. The idea behind this clause is that you give organizations an incentive for reporting individual misconduct violations (particularly helpful in hazing, Title IX, and other serious crimes – less helpful with alcohol and other minor violations). The clause basically says this – if an individual in your organization violates a policy, and you address it and report it, we will work with you to address JUST that individual and will not sanction the entire organization. To borrow the “carrot and stick” analogy, self-reporting provides a great carrot aimed at getting organizational leaders to draw clear lines of acceptable and unacceptable behavior in their organizations.
  • A Partnership Process – Out of all of the campuses I have worked with, LSU probably does the best job of giving student organizations an incentive to self-investigate, and on the back end does a great job working with organizations on “outcomes” as opposed to “sanctions.” You can read more about their process here.
  • Students Play a Role – Auburn University has done an excellent job integrating students in at every level of the organizational adjudicative process. All investigations (with the exception of Title IX) are conducted by a trained student/administrator team, and students are involved in the adjudicative and appeals processes as well. By creating transparency and involving students in the process, student organizations are much more likely to buy in to self-regulation and have a more favorable attitude towards the investigative/adjudicative process.
  • Create Incentives for Self-Governance Through Outcomes – When you develop educational sanctions (or as I like to call them, outcomes), you should do so with the goal of creating opportunities for students to self-govern in the future. Here are some examples of process outcomes designed to promote self-governance:
    • Working with the group to overhaul its internal conduct/standards process and ensure that members and advisors receive regular training related to member accountability
    • Working with the group to develop clear and articulated membership standards and behavioral policies
    • Having social restrictions tied to demonstrations of self-governance (i.e. if a chapter hits certain benchmarks related to self-governance, some of its social activities can be restored) and providing incentives for future self-reporting/self-governing

Rule #4 - Campuses Should Invest in Training Investigators

Campuses need to invest more in having a team of trained investigators for organizational conduct cases, particularly those involving victims (hazing, sexual or physical violence, etc.). By allowing novice investigators with no formal training investigate these cases, we do a tremendous disservice to victims. Hazing cases, in particular, offer the biggest challenge for new investigators. Think about this – in a Title IX case, the hardest thing an investigator will ever have to do is make a credibility determination. Based on evidence gathered from third parties, whose version of events do I find more credible. This is difficult to do, but not impossible. Hazing cases, on the other hand, involve a concerted effort, even by the victims themselves, to provide misinformation to the investigators. A large percentage of hazing cases end with administrators being unable to substantiate the claims of the case. Investigators need to receive training on how to handle these cases. In a separate blog post, I’ve offered some advice on how to conduct these investigations in a manner more likely to result in a finding of the truth. Campuses who fail to invest in training their investigators will yield the inevitable fruits of that decision – dead end investigations and continued misconduct.

Rule #5 – Cease and Desist Orders Are Last, Not First, Option

I have worked with several campuses in the last few years whose automatic default, any time they receive an allegation of potential misconduct, is to place the organization on a cease and desist (the organizational equivalent of interim suspension). I think cease and desist orders should be used sparingly in order to have the most impact and to avoid creating unnecessary animosity between the students and the administration. Issuing cease and desist notices are appropriate when failing to do so could place students in harm’s way. In any sort of serious hazing case, or in cases of serious physical abuse or sexual misconduct that is clearly organizational in nature (like the Kappa Delta Rho case at Penn State last year), a cease and desist is the appropriate response. But many campuses have now taken the step of issuing a cease and desist for almost all cases, regardless of severity. A campus recently called me about a Title IX case they were investigating, in which an alleged sexual assault may have risen out of a fraternity party. The case was completely individual in nature, and nothing indicated that the chapter knew about, condoned, or was in any position to stop the alleged assault. The investigation had revealed that there were some other issues related to the party (namely distribution of alcohol) that may eventually lead to charges against the chapter, and the campus administrators asked if a cease and desist was appropriate. I responded, as I always do to this question, with a question of my own – “If this were just a standard run of the mill alcohol case, not involving a Title IX investigation, would you offer a cease and desist?”  The answer to that question being “no,” I proceeded to my next question. “Then why would the fact that this information came from a Title IX investigation and not some other type of report cause you to order a cease and desist?”

If an organization’s continued operation poses a threat to student safety, then a cease and desist is appropriate. Short of that, it is not appropriate and should not be used. Just because a fraternity or sports team is indirectly involved in a potential Title IX violation does not mean that the organization poses a threat to other students. Would we temporarily kick all of the students out of a residence hall if a sexual assault occurred after a floor meeting? Would be suspend the entire chess club if a student was sexually assaulted by a member of the team after a match? Did anyone propose suspending the entire Oklahoma football team after Joe Mixon punched a woman in the face at an off-campus restaurant? I ask these rhetorical questions to illustrate a point – holding entire organizations responsible for individual acts of misconduct is rarely, if ever, appropriate. When cease and desist orders are used as a punitive measure, and not because of a genuine concern for student safety, then they become problematic. They should be used sparingly, and only for the purpose of promoting student safety.


Organizational misconduct can be difficult, but if you follow these simple rules, these cases will be much easier to manage, you will be more likely to impact the negative behavior you are trying to address, and you will build trust instead of animosity as you navigate the organizational conduct process. 

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Vulnerability and the Creation of Belonging

*This post is the second in a series of three related to belonging in the fraternity sorority experience.

Let’s take a walk back in time, shall we? Think back to your own fraternity/sorority experience. For some of you this may be difficult due to the passage of time and the onset of old age (looking at you John Mountz and Tim Wilkinson), but for most of us we can easily put ourselves back in the chapter room and remember the faces and the spaces that shaped so much of our experience as undergraduates.

I want you to think of the person in your chapter who you would say was the “best” member – that member of your chapter who you would say all other members of your organization should have aspired to be more like. This person may or may not have been a leader in the chapter, but they displayed all of the qualities that you would say are indicative of a good member of your organization, and they took an active interest in the life of your chapter. I want you to picture this person’s face in your mind.

Recently, I have taken to asking current undergraduates to participate in this activity. When they select their “ideal” chapter member, I ask them to describe this person to me. Inevitably, the answer goes something like this:

“He/she is always there, doing whatever they can do to help the chapter. They care so much about their brothers/sisters, they are always willing to help someone out or do whatever needs to be done for the chapter. They give so much of themselves in order to make the chapter better.”

These responses may or may not also include a list of the ideal member’s virtues – their honesty, integrity, or character. But, without exception, these members’ commitment to the chapter and its goals are always the center of the discussion.

Once a few students have discussed the virtues of their exemplary chapter member, I ask them a second question: Why do you think the person you have named is so committed to the chapter and its success? Why do you think they care so much?

That question, and its answer, has provided a crucial pivot point upon which I have been able to explore the power of belonging, and those conversations have illuminated for me a truth that is as simple as it is powerful: Commitment comes from belonging, and belonging comes from vulnerability.

The people who care the most about their chapters – those exemplar members who go above and beyond to support the chapter and its efforts – are those who feel the strongest emotional connection to the organization. As I discussed in the previous post in this series, brother/sisterhood based on belonging is the most powerful predictor of both affective (emotional) commitment and normative (obligatory) commitment. As that sense of belonging increases over time – as a student truly sees their fraternity or sorority as their home away from home where they feel valued and appreciated – so, too, does that member’s commitment to the organization.

In this Socratic conversation with students, after helping them understand the connection between commitment and belonging, I ask them to reflect back on their own membership experience, and to describe to me the time when they first began to feel that deeper sense of emotional connection to their group. Specifically, when was it that they first began to realize that their fraternity/sorority was more than just a place to have fun, and a group of people to have fun with? When was it that they found that they were becoming emotionally connected to their brothers or sisters?

Inevitably, one of the answers I always receive goes something like this:

About halfway through my new member experience, there was an activity that we did at our pledge retreat where we had to talk about really personal stuff. The conversation got really deep – we were sharing things with one another that you don’t normally share with people. I’ll never forget how I felt after that conversation. I felt so much more connected to my pledge class…”

Sometimes these deep meaningful conversations happen as part of a planned activity, but sometimes they happen more spontaneously. In a workshop with a fraternity recently, a member shared a story of a freshman-year road trip – he and five of his pledge brothers had decided to ride together to an away football game. Five pledge brothers riding in a car together for several hours. He described that they started playing a “question game” and that the questions started out as funny and silly (i.e. “would you rather”), but that, at some point, someone started asking deeper, more meaningful questions. The member telling me this story stated “I’ll never forget some of the things we talked about in that car. We just totally opened up to each other and shared things that we’d never really shared with anyone else before. The five of us were so close after that experience.” These five guys, all seniors, were all still active in the chapter, and, not coincidentally, were sitting together at the meeting and “dabbed it out” as their brother shared the story of their car ride. The connection was clearly still strong, four years after that car ride had taken place.

More Than Just a Buzzword


Vulnerability is a word that has been in the student affairs lexicon for a few years now. Since Brene’ Brown released her TED Talk on the topic, vulnerability has been all the rage among the AFA crowd. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a facilitator at a leadership program encourage students to be “authentic and vulnerable.” For years, I have rolled my eyes and even made little jokes privately among my friends about being “authentic and vulnerable.” I had written vulnerability off as just another student affairs buzzword – a favorite of the “toxic hegemonic masculinity” crowd who seemingly have difficulty connecting with the average college fraternity member.

But then I started asking fraternity and sorority members these questions about belonging and commitment, and I kept getting the same answers. Even the most masculine of fraternity members were sharing stories of times when they were vulnerable and opened up to their brothers about things going on in their lives. And I realized that what I was finding in my own qualitative research was incredibly consistent with what Brene’ Brown has found in hers.

If you are unfamiliar with Brown’s work, she has spent 20 years trying to understand human connection, and her research has led her to an understanding that, in order for meaningful connection to happen, people must allow themselves to be seen. What she has found in her research suggests that people who feel a real sense of belonging and connection share four traits in common. First, they demonstrate courage by sharing with others who they really are. Secondly, they demonstrate compassion, towards both themselves and others, accepting their own flaws and the flaws of others. Next, they demonstrate authenticity – they are comfortable with who they really are and do not feel the need to pretend to be something or someone that they are not. Finally, they are vulnerable – they demonstrate a willingness to share things about themselves with no guarantee of how people will respond.

And in story after story that fraternity and sorority members have shared with me in the last year, I have found pretty much the same thing. Individuals who feel a deep sense of belonging and connection with their brothers and sisters all share that they have had experiences where they had to be truly vulnerable in front of their brothers and sisters, demonstrating courage in sharing their true selves, and demonstrating compassion towards their brothers and sisters as they demonstrated courage and vulnerability in sharing things about themselves. Sometimes these settings are contrived and planned (i.e. the darkened room, passing around a candle, sharing deep, dark secrets), but often they occur naturally and spontaneously (i.e. the five guys on the road trip). Regardless of the planned or unplanned nature of these conversations, they serve the same purpose – creating meaningful connection and planting the seeds of a brother/sisterhood based on belonging.

Belonging and New Member Education


When I discuss these types of “connecting conversations” with new member educators, what I find is that these “planned” conversations often only take place once or maybe twice during the new member period, usually at a new member retreat (i.e. standing around the campfire) and very frequently in the days leading up to initiation in a more formal, esoteric ceremony (i.e. passing around the candle in a darkened room). Understanding the impact of those types of conversations, imagine how much deeper the sense of connection would be between and among new members if these conversations happened not only once or twice, but regularly throughout the new member period and beyond. Imagine the inter-class connections that could be forged if you invited upper-classmen to take part in these conversations as well. The opportunities for deeper connection and belonging abound, and the more we take advantage of these opportunities, the more our new members will feel a sense of belonging and, subsequently, a feeling of emotional commitment to their organizations. If you can create that sense of belonging in your new members, there is a good chance that each of them will be just as committed as that “ideal member” we discussed earlier.

When it comes to building brother/sisterhood through the new member education process, fraternities and sororities both often fail to focus an adequate amount of time and energy on belonging. Instead, we often see fraternities over-emphasize solidarity as a mechanism of brotherhood, and we often see sororities over-emphasize the social nature of sisterhood.

Fraternity new member educators commonly make the mistake of assuming that they are building committed members by using hazing as a means by which to create solidarity. The mentality is “If we put these guys through a really difficult experience, they will grow together as a pledge class, becoming a bonded unified group, and will become committed, dedicated brothers.” But if they have failed to create the emotional connection along the way, the sense of solidarity will not result in a lasting commitment to the organization. The new members will come together, demonstrating solidarity in the short-term as they work together to overcome the adversity of pledging, and upon initiation will have a euphoric sense of achievement. We made it through! We did it!

But after that post-initiation feeling of euphoria subsides (often after only a few weeks), the new initiates are left to grapple with the realities of fraternity membership. And those fraternities most at risk for experiencing the “sophomore slump” are those in which the focus was on a difficult pledge period designed to produce solidarity, but who failed to help their new members develop a real sense of meaningful connection to their brothers. They will realize that, because of the hazing, they actually feel alienated and isolated from most of the chapter, but may not feel comfortable enough with their pledge brothers to discuss those feelings of isolation. Many of the members will, in short order, become apathetic, stop coming around, and gradually drift away from the chapter and their brothers. No belonging yields no commitment.

Sororities, on the other hand, tend to focus more on the social side of sisterhood during new member education, with the idea being that “we want these girls to get to know each other and be comfortable around one another.” Ask a sorority new member educator or sisterhood chair about the different types of “sisterhood activities” they have for new members. Inevitably these are designed to be “fun” events that provide new members with opportunities to socialize, but rarely push the new members beyond very surface level conversations: popcorn and movie nights, mani/pedi night, yoga with the sisters, etc. There is nothing wrong with these types of events – creating fun opportunities for engagement can make the sorority experience a better, more enjoyable experience. The mistake that sororities make is assuming that these activities are leading to a deeper connection to the organization, but that is rarely the case. Women join sororities craving a deep sense of connection and a place where they can be themselves, but rarely receive that as part of their new member experience. New members are showered with gifts and fun social opportunities, but are often now showered with opportunities for deep, meaningful connection. If they fail to develop that connection, once the “fun and excitement” phase of being in a sorority wears off (usually after the freshman year) and being in a sorority starts to feel more like work, they will gradually drift away from the organization as the mani/pedi nights become less and less important to them.

Conclusion


Phired Up Productions has published some excellent research related to the reason that fraternity and sorority members quit their organizations, finding that lack of connection and misaligned expectations are the most common reason that members leave. Students join expecting the experience to be one thing, realize that it is not what the thought it would be, and they leave. I would advance that research by suggesting that members join looking for a place where they will find a group of people with whom they will truly belong – a place where they will feel connected, valued and appreciated. The members who leave are those who do not find that place of meaningful connection. The greatest unmet expectation in the fraternity/sorority experience IS the expectation of belonging.

Recently, I have had the chance to interact with professionals from college counseling centers on two different campuses, and have taken advantage of those opportunities to discuss the issue of belonging. In both cases, they have affirmed, based on their own clinical experience, that the fraternity and sorority members who they see are seeking therapy because they do not feel a meaningful sense of connection with their brothers/sisters. They joined their organizations craving belonging, but did not find it. These are the members who drift away, who become apathetic, and who eventually leave the organization.

The single most important thing that fraternities and sororities can do to address apathy issues, retention issues, or motivation issues is to focus more time, energy and effort on the creation of belonging. By providing more opportunities for members, especially new members, to engage in deep conversations – conversations requiring courage, authenticity and vulnerability – our fraternity and sorority chapters will see less apathy, better retention, higher motivation and overall happier and more connected members. And the most important work that we, as professionals working with fraternities and sororities, can do is to help provide the guidance and frameworks that will allow chapters to develop more brotherhood and sisterhood programs designed to foster vulnerability, meaningful connection, and belonging.


The final installment of this three-part series on the power of belonging will investigate the peculiar problem of belonging in sororities. 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Power of Belonging

*This post is the first in a series of three posts related to brother/sisterhood based on belonging. This post will cover the reasons why belonging is such an important part of the fraternity/sorority experience. The second post will discuss what we have found are the best ways to foster belonging at the chapter level. The final post will explore the particular problem of belonging in sororities.


For the last four years, Josh Schutts, Sarah Cohen and I have been engaged in an in-depth study of fraternal brotherhood and sisterhood. In our research, we have discovered that men and women experience brotherhood and sisterhood in different ways, and that the degree to which they experience the various elements of brother/sisterhood powerfully predicts a variety of other outcomes related to the fraternity and sorority experience.

During that time, as we have developed curriculum related to brother/sisterhood, we have tended to focus most of our efforts on boosting brother/sisterhood based on accountability. Being the most altruistic form of brotherhood, and perhaps of sisterhood, it made sense to us that if we could only help more chapters become more comfortable holding one another accountable, all of the problems in fraternity/sorority world would be worked out. What we have discovered in the last four years is that before students can become comfortable holding one another accountable, they must first become comfortable with one another. In other words, students must feel a sense of belonging before we can expect them to master the art of accountability. Belonging, not accountability, is the most important aspect of brotherhood and sisterhood, because without belonging, accountability is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

To be clear, accountability is still important. In fact, ALL of the schema of brotherhood are important – not just those which are the most altruistic. As we have observed in our conversations with chapters over the last few years, a deficiency in ANY aspect of brother/sisterhood can have detrimental impact on a chapter. But over time, we have observed both quantitatively and qualitatively that belonging plays a critical role in a chapter’s overall brother/sisterhood profile.

Think about it – most students join a fraternity or sorority to find a place to belong on campus. The need to belong has been the lifeblood of fraternities and sororities over the years – it is THE driving force in membership recruitment. Students looking for a place to meaningfully connect with like-minded others have flocked to fraternities and sororities for nearly two centuries. This seeking of belonging is not a frivolous pursuit that fraternities and sororities provide for only the most affluent students. Rather, belonging is a fundamental human need. If you are a student of Maslow, then you know that, once basic survival needs are taken care of, the most basic human need is a place to belong. As humans, we crave connection. We are social creatures, and our evolutionary instincts have driven us to play well with others so that we will be accepted and loved by our respective tribes. A need for a life of connection, rather than a life of isolation, has driven this phenomenon for generations. The need to belong is not new.

As we have analyzed larger and larger datasets over the years (we have now had over 20,000 women and 15,000 complete the Fraternal Brotherhood and Fraternal Sisterhood Questionnaires), we have noted five important findings that illustrate why belonging is the most important aspect of brotherhood and sisterhood:

1. Belonging explains the most variance in the overall brother/sisterhood models


All of the schema of brother/sisterhood are positively correlated with one another. If any one goes up or down in a significant way, we would expect to see the other schema impacted in some way. But when completing a confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) on the overall brotherhood/sisterhood models, we find that belonging explains the greatest variance in the overall models for both brother and sisterhood. In other words, belonging is a powerful driver of all of the other schema of brother/sisterhood. As belonging goes, so go the other schema. A chapter that measures high in belonging will likely measure high in the other areas of brother/sisterhood. A chapter measuring low in belonging will likely struggle in other areas of brother/sisterhood as well.

Conceptually, this makes sense. It is hard to imagine being part of a group where you do not feel like you share meaningful connections to other group members, but feel like you are supported, feel like the experience is fun, or feel comfortable holding other group members accountable to the groups expectations. Without belonging, we really don’t have brotherhood or sisterhood. Brother/sisterhood may not end with belonging, but it most definitely begins there.


2. The strongest predictor of the most altruistic versions of brother/sisterhood is belonging


Of all its relationships with the other schema of brother/sisterhood, belonging has the strongest correlation with the two most altruistic schema. For men, belonging is the strongest predictor of brotherhood based on accountability (correlation of .346). In women, belonging is the strongest predictor of sisterhood based on common purpose (correlation of .78).

Consider the practical implications of this. For men, this tells us that the more that fraternity members feel connected to one another, the more likely they are to hold one another to the chapter’s standards and expectations. The less men feel a sense of belonging, the less likely they are to hold one another accountable. Before men are comfortable enough to hold their brothers to mutually agreed upon expectations, they must first be comfortable having deep, meaningful conversations with them. Vulnerability and connection comes first, accountability comes second.

For women, belonging is an incredibly strong predictor of sisterhood based on common purpose. If sorority members do not establish meaningful connections to one another, it is unlikely that they will develop meaningful connection to the organization’s purpose. As we have learned in our conversations with sorority women, belonging comes from authenticity – a feeling of “being able to be myself in front of my sisters” instead of having to wear a mask and “pretend that things are always great, even if they aren’t.” The data suggest that until women feel they can be authentic with one another, they are much less likely to feel comfortable holding their sisters accountable or buying into the organization’s purpose and mission.


3. Belonging powerfully predicts organizational commitment


In our research, we have studied organizational commitment in a variety of ways, but the two that seem to make the best connection to the fraternity/sorority experience are affective commitment and normative commitment.

Affective commitment is best described as an emotional commitment. A person measuring high on affective commitment has a deep and abiding love for their organization and the people in it. Because of that emotional connection, they are committed to the organization. They stay involved, support the organizations efforts, and attend organization events because of their feeling of love for the organization and its members.

Normative commitment is best described as a sense of obligation. Someone measuring high on this construct would likely say “I feel like my fraternity/sorority has given so much to me. I feel obligated to give back to the organization because all I’ve gotten from this experience.” They stay involved and support the chapter’s events because of that feeling of obligation.

Both of these constructs are predicted by a number of things we have studied, but the most powerful predictor of both affective and normative commitment, for both men and women, is belonging. The more you feel a meaningful connection to your chapter brothers/sisters, the more committed you are to them and the organization. Because of this, chapters measuring high on belonging should also expect to have better membership retention, as commitment is a strong predictor of retention. The more committed you are, the more likely you are to stay around. The less committed you are, the more likely you are to leave. And nothing predicts this commitment as powerfully as belonging.

4. Belonging powerfully predicts Organizational Identification


Imagine that member of your chapter who never leaves the house without wearing letters. Shirts. Hats. Sandals. Letters on their can. Hell, maybe even an ankle tat.

When I think of that person in my own chapter, I always think of Johnny Barnes. In four years, I don’t think I ever saw Johnny wearing anything other than AGR letters. He bought every single t-shirt that was available. He had at least six hats, a fleece jacket, a pullover, letters on his car, and if memory serves he had a tattoo as well. He literally never left the house without repping the letters of our beloved fraternity. AGR was an important part of Johnny’s identity on campus. He did not want people on campus to know him as merely Johnny – he wanted to be known as Johnny the AGR. The fraternity was fully and completely intertwined in his personal identity.

The “Johnny Barnes Phenomenon” is something we have actually studied in our research, through a construct called Organizational Identification. Fraternity/sorority members measuring high on Org ID make the fraternity/sorority a big part of their identity. They wear letters. They attend events. They want to see the organization succeed, because when the organization is successful, they are successful, because the organization is a part of them.

Belonging is the strongest predictor of Organizational Identification for both men and women. The more you feel a sense of belonging and connection to your brothers/sisters, the more likely you are to make the organization a big piece of your personal identity. Like both affective and normative commitment, Org ID is also a powerful predictor of member retention. Chapter members measuring high on Org ID would never dream of quitting, going inactive, or otherwise leaving the organization, because it is such a big piece of who they are. After all, if you are “Johnny the AGR,” then not being at AGR is almost inconceivable.

My guess is that every chapter has a Johnny Barnes. But imagine a chapter filled with members like Johnny Barnes. That can happen only when chapters work hard to make sure that members feel a deep sense of connection and belonging.

5. Belonging is the most powerful predictor of overall satisfaction with the fraternity/sorority experience


In our recent research with some of our national fraternity and sorority clients, we have begun asking students to respond to a single survey item asking them, overall, how satisfied they are with their fraternity/sorority experience. Using regression analysis, we have then looked at the variables that predict this satisfaction item. Even when controlling for every other variable that we measure (generally between 30 and 40), belonging explains over 30 percent of the variance in overall satisfaction with the fraternity/sorority experience. It is by far and away the most powerful predictor of satisfaction – the next closest variable is affective commitment, which explains a mere 16 percent of the variance in satisfaction.

Think about the implications of that for a minute. Exactly 1/3 of a fraternity or sorority member’s overall satisfaction with their experience is explained by a single variable – belonging. Its importance in the fraternity/sorority experience cannot be overstated. Belonging, simply put, is the single most important aspect of the fraternity/sorority experience. Members who feel they belong are more committed, happier, more satisfied with their experience, more likely to embrace accountability, and more likely to persist within the organization through graduation compared to members who do not feel that same sense of belonging.

Belonging’s importance in the fraternity/sorority experience cannot be overstated. Every campus, and every fraternity and sorority HQ, would be wise to commit time, energy and resources helping their chapters create spaces where members feel valued, connected and appreciated. In the next installment of this three-part series, we will explore strategies that we have seen work best at the chapter level in creating that sense of connection and belonging. Stay tuned!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Alumni Advisors as Mandated Reporters

As I travel and speak with my colleagues in fraternity/sorority advising, I am frequently asked questions about the intersection of Title IX and fraternities and sororities. In the last year, I’ve noted an alarming trend – more and more campuses are naming non-employee student organization advisors as Campus Security Authorities (i.e. mandated reporters of sexual violence). The rationale for this movement is to increase reporting of sexual violence, and by making alumnus advisors mandated reporters, so the thinking goes, institutions may learn about incidents of sexual violence about which they may not otherwise learn.

Generally speaking, most fraternities and sororities, in addition to an on-campus or faculty advisor, will have a host of alumni members who serve in a variety of advisory roles. Some chapters may have a singular alumnus advisor, some may have an advisory board containing multiple advisors providing general oversight to the chapter, and some may have advisors assigned to particular chapter officers (i.e. new member education advisor, recruitment advisor, etc). These advisors may or may not be alumni of the institution, but very few are actually employed by the institutions themselves.

Requiring alumni, non-employee advisors to serve as CSA’s is not a good idea for three reasons:

1.    Lack of accountability – The premise behind a “Responsible Employee” or a “Campus Security Authority” is based on accountability. If an employee fails to meet their responsibility as a mandated reporter, the institution has some recourse to address that behavior. For a non-employee, this is not possible. The institution has no recourse if it finds that a non-employee has not fulfilled their mandatory reporting requirements. This unenforceable policy exposes the institution to increased liability. In addition, because of the variety of advisory structures and roles, it may be difficult to clearly delineate which advisors are CSA’s and which are not (i.e. an alumna/mother of an active member who serves as an assistant recruitment advisor and is only around the house during formal recruitment – CSA, or not a CSA?).

2.    Conflict of interest – in many cases, an organizational advisor may be a trusted, confidential source of support for a member of the organization. This is especially true for sorority members. If a sorority member is assaulted, a mandated reporter policy would place the advisor in a conflicted position – unable to serve her role as confidential advisor to the student because of her reporting requirements.

3.    Burden on chapter to recruit advisors – Chapters have a hard enough time recruiting and retaining good chapter advisors, and we know that a strong advisory team is a strong predictor of a chapter’s success and positive organizational culture. Adding mandated reporting requirements to advisors (which also places increased liability on them) makes it that much harder for chapters to recruit and retain alumni members to be involved with their chapters.

So how should we handle the issue of student organization advisors and mandated reporting? Many campuses are already requiring all registered student organizations to have an on-campus faculty or staff advisor. By definition, these individuals (as college/university employees) are CSA’s as defined by Clery, and should also be considered Responsible University Employees under Title IX. If you require organizations to have these on-campus faculty/staff advisors, they should be the mandated reporters. As institutional employees, they can be held accountable for these responsibilities, and their roles are often clearly distinguished form those of the alumni advisors.

These faculty advisors are actually valuable assets for a variety of reasons. In addition to being mandated reporters, they are also excellent channels for sharing information that may be FERPA protected and that could not be shared with non-employee advisors. Imagine, for example, that a member of a fraternity was accused of sexual assault and was placed on interim restriction from the campus. Imagine that the fraternity member lived in an off-campus fraternity house that was not covered in the interim restriction. How would we get this information to the organization without violating FERPA? Through the organization’s faculty advisor, who clearly has an educational need to know in this hypothetical situation, and could then pass along relevant information to others as necessary.

We have even heard of some campuses attempting to make student leaders (i.e. fraternity/sorority presidents) mandated reporters. Again, for all of the reasons outlined above, this is not a good idea. There are many ways we can increase reporting and make our campuses safer without extending our mandated reporting requirements beyond what is reasonable for us to enforce and in ways that create undue and often conflicting burdens on our student leaders and volunteers.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

A Fraternal Law of Natural Selection

Over the last two years, I have talked with fraternity and sorority members from all over the country about brotherhood and sisterhood. These conversations often take on a familiar tone, as most chapters struggle with the same issues – fraternities struggle with accountability, and sororities struggle with cutting through the superficiality and making members feel valued, connected and appreciated.

Inevitably, these conversations often turn to a long discussion about recruitment – who are we recruiting, and how are we recruiting them? How are we “selling” brotherhood and sisterhood to prospective members? I have written previously of this concept and its importance in advancing the cause of fraternity.

I was recently facilitating the Wooden Institute for Beta Theta Pi, and a conversation among some of the facilitators came up about negative campus cultures and the pressure that many “good” chapters feel to conform to the norms around them. I’ve written about that regression to the mean before, which you can read here. Simply, it is hard for “good” groups to stay good for long, because eventually they conform to the pressure of being more like the groups around them. This is true with the campus social culture, and it is true with new member education and hazing. The conversation that night got me thinking that it is also true with recruitment. Chapters who want to recruit “the right way” soon feel the pressure to recruit “the wrong way,” particularly if they feel that other chapters are gaining a competitive advantage with the “always joiners” by showing them a good time and feeding them lots of alcohol during the recruitment process. 

During this conversation, one of the Beta staffers said “I wish our chapters could recruit every year the way we recruit for our expansions.” In other words, what would it look like if chapters did expansion every year instead of participating in a campus formal recruitment process? Instead of sorting through the always joiners, recruitment could consist of chapters going out and setting up shop in the student union, getting referrals from faculty and administrators, meeting a lot of maybe or never joiners, having conversations with them, and getting the right guys to join for the right reasons.

This conversation led me to a fun thought experiment – what would it look like if we just got rid of formal recruitment and let each fraternity do recruitment in the manner they saw best?

I have a theory as to what would happen if we got rid of formal recruitment – McCreary’s Theory of Natural Selection. For the sake of this post, I’m only going to speculate on what would happen with IFC fraternities – I doubt the NPC has any plans to scrap the formal recruitment process any time soon, and certainly the membership intake process deserves a blog post of its own, so we’ll just talk about IFC fraternities for the remainder of this post.

Here are the three main postulates of McCreary’s Theory of Natural Selection:

Postulate #1 - Time and Pressure Are Inversely Correlated. The less time you give fraternities to make decisions about new members, the more pressure they will be under to conform and “recruit like the other groups.” When given only a few weeks at the beginning of a Fall semester, there is a mad dash among fraternities to go out and woo the “always joiners” who sign up for fraternity recruitment. Knowing that, often, these students are seeking to join for social reasons, recruitment quickly devolves into a race to see which fraternity can show prospective members the best time, showcasing only the social elements of brotherhood, with the result being the wrong people joining for the wrong reasons. However, if fraternities are not working under such a tight time frame, they will be under less pressure to conform, more comfortable doing recruitment in the manner that is more natural and comfortable for them. This recruitment may take on a social flare, with some chapters choosing to continue using alcohol to recruit, but fraternities looking for other ways to recruit won’t feel as much pressure to conform and can take their time in finding the right members.

Postulate # 2 - Pressure and Variance Are Inversely Correlated. As far as I can tell, the formal recruitment process is primarily designed to eliminate as much variance as possible within a given fraternal community. This works exceptionally well with sororities – our research on brotherhood and sisterhood is a perfect demonstration of this. The sisterhood profiles of the sororities on a given campus all look fairly similar – there are only small differences between the various sororities in a given campus community. The entire statistical model behind sorority recruitment is designed with this end in mind – no sorority can get that much bigger than the rest. Everyone gets basically the same experience in every house, and the sorting of women into the various houses relies more on math than it does on culture or fit. The result is a fairly uniform experience with only minor differences between chapters. Ask a sorority member on your campus and she’ll tell you (if she has any objectivity at all) that she could see herself being happy in most of the sororities on campus.

In the last 30 years, with the onset of the campus-based fraternity/sorority advisor, many campuses have imposed a sorority-esque style of recruitment on the IFC fraternities, and my guess is that the long-term results of this have been disastrous (on another day we can discuss whether the fact that 65 percent of entry-level fraternity/sorority advisors are female and are merely replicating what they know has anything to do with this shift). We have slowly diminished the variance in our fraternity communities, and not in a good way. The “always joiners” who buy the stereotype are presented with no (or very few) alternatives to the stereotype during a very brief and contrived recruitment process, and the result has been entire fraternity communities that exist for no other reason than to provide a social experience for members. The variance has been eliminated, which means that the “best” fraternity on campus is often indistinguishable, or barely distinguishable, from the worst.

I theorize that if the pressure to recruit as many members as possible as quickly as possible were eliminated, then we would begin to see more variance within fraternal communities. Chapters who wanted to recruit the right people the right way would have more time and opportunity to do so, and the chapters who wanted to recruit with alcohol could do so and face the inevitable consequences of that decision. Fraternities could take their time, really getting to know potential members and the reasons they seek membership. Similarly, recruits would be under less pressure – they would have more time to evaluate their options and choose the group that best resonated with the experience they were seeking. The resulting fraternity community would be multi-tiered, with roughly equal portions of “good” chapters providing a values-based experience, “mediocre” chapters providing a hybrid values/social experience, and “bad” chapters providing only a social experience.

Once this sorting takes place (which will take several years), campus communities can then do a better job of recognizing and rewarding the “good” chapters, improving and assisting the “mediocre” chapters, and closing, reorganizing and fixing the “bad” chapters. In today’s climate, this formula is fairly difficult to follow, either because the differences between good and bad are often small, and/or there is a disproportionate number of bad chapters, and/or fraternity communities have become so stagnant and under-performing that our idea of what a “good” chapter is even supposed to look like has become terribly skewed.

Simply, we need to interject more variance into our fraternity communities, and getting rid of formal recruitment is the best way I know to do it.

Postulate #3 - Left To Its Own Devices, Variance Will Again Diminish Over Time. This isn’t just me saying this – it’s a statistical law. Regression to the mean is a natural phenomenon. So, after artificially injecting variance into our communities through an elimination of formal recruitment, and then shifting the “mean” of a fraternity community positively by rewarding “good” chapters, fixing “mediocre” chapters and eliminating “bad” chapters, the chapters in a community will once again begin shifting towards the mean. The difference would be that the mean they are regressing towards would be a much different mean. In a period of 5-10 years, we could drastically change what the “average” fraternity in a given campus community looks like. And once “good” became the new normal, the intrinsic motivation and inherent competition in these new communities would propel many of these chapters to not only be good, but to strive for greatness. Then, we would have a mean that is not only high, but gradually drifting upwards, instead of the gradual downward drift that we see now on many campuses.

I call this a “Theory of Natural Selection” because, as you can see, only the strong will survive. Some chapters won’t make it without the crutch of IFC “formal rush” and the pool of always joiners from which to choose. Good riddance. Many bad chapters who choose to recruit the wrong way will need to be closed and then re-opened. Again, good riddance. But, to use a fishing example, when we restock our stream with recolonized groups, we will not be putting them back into the same dirty stream from whence they came, but into a new clean river with positive social norms and a healthy culture.

Formal recruitment is bad for business. It is an obstacle standing in the way of transforming our fraternity communities into what they can and should be. It forces fraternities to conform to unhealthy norms, resulting in the perpetuation of negative stereotypes and the gradual assimilation of every “good” chapter on our campuses to the mediocre or shitty campus norms. Formal recruitment facilitates the wrong people joining for the wrong reasons. If we want to change our cultures, we need to give our chapters every opportunity to recruit the right people seeking to join for the right reasons, reducing the pressure to conform by injecting more time into the process. Getting rid of formal recruitment is an important first step we need to take in making that happen.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Subtle Art of Creating Unsafe Spaces

College campuses are changing. For years, faculty and administrators have lamented the lack of student activism on campus. This lack of activism was generally regarded as student apathy – a feeling that most students cared more about getting drunk on weekends than in fighting for causes. From the end of the Vietnam era through the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, college campuses were places of relative calm where only the occasional “fringe group” spoke out on important issues of the day.

Not anymore. After 40 years of apathy, a new generation of student activist has emerged. These Millennial protesters have been praised by many for their willingness to stand up and be heard, and have been derided by others because of their need for “safe spaces.” Those on the left have been quick to jump on board this new wave of activism, joining students in their demands for more inclusive campus environments. Those on the right have been even quicker to call these students coddled crybabies and to issue warnings that they’ll never make it in the “real world” with their victim mentalities.

Notably absent from these conversations, particularly in student affairs circles, has been any reference to student development. And that should strike us all as problematic.

Coincidentally (or not) these changes on campus have coincided with a change in how we prepare student affairs professionals. About the time I was finishing graduate school, a handful of higher education/student affairs graduate programs began incorporating social justice education into their curriculum. Initially, the schools doing this did so in order to distinguish themselves from the pack, but the trend proved popular and soon caught on in most other programs. Now, 15 years later, most higher education/student affairs graduate programs boast of a curriculum with a “social justice emphasis” and, in fact, many of these programs offer and/or require more courses on diversity and social justice than on student development. Simply put, social justice has eclipsed student development as the focal point of many student affairs preparation programs and, subsequently, many student affairs professionals. As a result, we now have more and more new professionals working in this field who appear to care considerably less about student development than they do about social justice work.

Let me be clear – a focus on social justice has been an important step forward for our profession, and has recruited a highly motivated new generation of professionals into the field. Additionally, the results on campus have been positive – we now see universities doing more and more to support social justice, dismantle institutional racism, and provide resources for oppressed minority populations. All of us can agree that these changes have come about at least in part because of the social justice focus that has taken hold within student affairs in the last decade and that these changes have been a good thing.

Like any great shift in philosophy, however, there are unintended consequences. I would argue the greatest consequence of the shift in focus away from student development and towards social justice is this:

As a profession, our priorities have shifted away from the creation of carefully constructed learning environments (unsafe spaces) and towards the creation of carefully constructed echo chambers (safe spaces).

This ideological shift could have long-lasting ramifications, not only on our profession’s place within the academy, but for the well-being and success of our students.

Whenever I think about the safe/unsafe space dichotomy, I always think of Nevitt Sanford’s theory of Challenge and Support. It states that, in order to progress along any developmental trajectory, students need a healthy balance of challenge (unsafe space) and support (safe space). Too much unsafe space, and students may regress to previously held, less developed beliefs. Too much safe space, and students will never be exposed to the different ideas and worldviews necessary for them to grow and develop. In order to develop, students need to experience challenge and support, a healthy balance of unsafe space and safe space.

I fear that, as a field, we are forgetting and/or neglecting the subtle yet important art creating unsafe spaces.

When we consider Sanford’s theory of challenge and support, we must always think about it in connection with some other developmental theory (I’ve written about the frequent misuse of Sanford here). In conversations around student activism and political engagement, the logical theory to apply is Perry’s Theory of Intellectual and Ethical Development.

In our world of social justice-focused practitioners, writing Perry off has become a favorite pastime of many in our field. Perry did most of his research on white men at Harvard – the most privileged of the privileged. Despite those shortcomings, Perry’s theory has stood the test of time and has been empirically validated across cultures, classes, and nationalities. Perry postulates that students develop intellectually along the following trajectory:



Notice that the arrows in between Perry’s stages go in multiple directions. This implies that students can both progress and regress along these stages. With the right blend of challenge and support, they progress, but with too much of one or not enough of the other, they can stagnate or, even worse, regress to previous, less developed ways of thinking.

So what does all of this have to do with the new social justice philosophy in student affairs? Simply, we now focus more on what students are saying rather than focusing on the thinking that led to those words. If the messages we hear from students are progressive and promote a message of social justice, we don’t dare challenge the intellectual underpinnings of those statements. To the contrary, we praise them for their activism and progressive thinking. However, if the messages we hear from students are traditionally conservative or not inclusive, we are quick to point out the flaws in their thinking or, even worse, we call them names (racist, homophobic, xenophobic, hyper-masculine, etc.).

This is problematic.

Dualism, even when cloaked in a social justice ideology, is still dualism. As a profession dedicated to student development, we should confront dualism whenever and however we see it - not just when it is cloaked in the ideology of political conservatism.

Frankly, we are doing our students a disservice if we do not help them develop intellectually, even if we support those causes for which they are fighting. A great example of how the dualism of some social justice activists can be confronted can be found in comments President Obama recently made about the #BLM movement. The President, clearly frustrated, criticized leaders of the group for refusing to sit down and engage in talks about meaningful reforms, stating that some #BLM leaders felt that such conversations “might compromise the purity of their position” – a way of thinking that is clearly dualistic in nature. President Obama was right to challenge this way of thinking – not because he opposes the aims or purposes of the #BLM movement, but because a dualistic “my way or the highway” approach to problem solving does not usually solve very many problems. President Obama has learned a lesson that many in our field could stand to learn – that social justice and intellectual development are not mutually exclusive. We do not have to pick one or the other. We can support the advancement of social justice while gently challenging the intellectual rigor of those arguing on its behalf.

Dualistic social justice activism manifests itself in a variety of ways on college campuses across America every single day. The example we see most often is student protests leading to the dis-invitation of controversial speakers. The dualistic “this person is wrong and I am right” way of thinking that fuels these protests would be best replaced by a “let me hear what this person has to say, understand this issue from their perspective, weigh the merits of their argument against my own views on the matter, and see if there are issues on which we may actually agree” way of thinking. But instead of creating the unsafe space where those conversations can happen, we create a protective cocoon – a safe space where students are left free to think what they want to think without ever being forced to consider an issue from someone else’s perspective.  We dis-invite controversial speakers.  We choose social justice over student development; safe space over unsafe space.

Imagine, for a moment, that you worked at one of the campuses where students have openly supported Donald Trump’s candidacy for President. The response to these incidents on the popular student affairs Facebook groups and twitter channels has been predictable – joining in with the social justice activists, shaming the students supporting Trump, calling them any manner of names (I’m not sure very many people knew the meaning of xenophobia until Donald Trump became a serious presidential candidate) and demanding accountability for political speech that is clearly protected by the First Amendment. But how many of us have sat down with a student supporting Trump to find out why? How many of us have facilitated those conversations between and among our students?

What if we learned that a student who supported Trump was a first-generation college student whose parents lost their jobs in the manufacturing sector when those jobs were shipped overseas. Then, his parents could not find a good paying job at the local food processing plant because of the suppressed wages brought on by the flood of illegal immigrants working in that plant. Imagine that this student’s parents are on unemployment with no hopes of finding a good-paying job in their hometown and this student is having to now work two jobs to pay for his education because his parents can no longer afford to help him. So for him, when he hears Trump talk about how bad trade deals and illegal immigration are suppressing wages and screwing over the working class, “Make America Great Again” isn’t a message of hate or xenophobia at all but, rather, a message of economic prosperity that resonates with his own lived experience.

Knowing this, would we still call that student xenophobic? A racist? Or might we be a little more willing to think differently about illegal immigration and trade once we heard the perspective of someone who has been adversely affected by those issues? Are some of Trump’s supporters xenophobic, sexist and racist? Absolutely. But we should know better than to paint all of his supporters with such a broad brush, especially when those supporters are our own students. 

Instead of calling our students names, we should be committed to their learning and development. Instead of adding fuel to the fire and protesting against Trump and his supporters, we should be creating opportunities for students from different sides of the political spectrum to sit down in an attempt to better understand one another's perspective. Our work as social justice advocates is important, and it must continue, but it becomes problematic when it begins alienating a significant portion of the students we are supposed to be educating. Instead of choosing sides in the culture war raging on many of our campuses, we should be focused on helping students from different sides sit down, understand one another’s perspectives, and try to find common ground. Instead of allowing both sides of the culture war to rest comfortably in their own unchallenged safe space, we need to remember that student development is still important, and do our part to create the unsafe spaces where students can have meaningful conversations and learn from one another. But when we view every problem solely through a social justice, rather than a developmental lens, this becomes increasingly more difficult to do.

In doing this, we must acknowledge that for some students, daily life can feel like a constant “unsafe space” where they experience oppression at every turn. I am not suggesting that we make their lives even more difficult by refusing to provide them with the spaces, both physical and psychological, that they need in order to feel protected and safe. We must provide those safe spaces, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because their success and development depends it. But in doing so, we need to be willing to acknowledge the differences between inadvertent micro-aggressions and deliberate acts of oppression, between cognitive discomfort with an idea or topic and something that genuinely triggers traumatic memories from the past, and between hate and ignorance. Not all unsafe spaces are created equal, and we need to stop pretending that psychological discomfort, no matter how great or small, even for oppressed minorities, is always a bad thing.

We need to balance our commitment to social justice with a renewed commitment to student development. We need to understand that social justice can and should inform our work in student development, but that social justice WITHOUT student development is, frankly, not what our colleges and universities hired us to do. We need to break away from the mindset that our own ideological purity is more important than the impact we have on student learning. We need to commit to the development of ALL of our students. Most importantly, we need to commit to doing the work the work that is, always has been, and always should be at the heart of the student affairs profession – creating the spaces, safe and unsafe, where our students can learn from one another.