Thursday, May 25, 2017

Can Fraternities Become Victims of Their Own Success?

As I have traveled around the country working with fraternity chapters over the last few years, I have discovered a few universal truths about fraternity life. Foremost among them is this – almost all fraternity chapters crave social status within their respective communities.

Every campus fraternity system has what I call the “social pecking order” – a social hierarchy into which groups are divided by those within the community. On most campuses, the system is more or less equally divided into three general categories – top tier, middle tier, and bottom tier. During my time at Alabama, there were only two (old row vs. new row). The chapters on any given campus are keenly aware of the existence of this social hierarchy and, more importantly, their place within it. Improving or maintaining their ranking within this social pecking order is among the primary goals of most fraternity (and sorority) chapters in America. Fraternities within any given campus system are almost always jockeying for position, doing all in their power to climb the social ladder and achieve “elite” status on their campus.

This mentality is actually a construct that we measure in our research at Dyad Strategies. Our Social Status Importance scale measures the degree to which chapters place an emphasis on their place in the social pecking order, and the construct is strongly correlated with a variety of negative behaviors (including alcohol abuse, unethical behavior, and attitudes about hazing and sexual violence). The more that a chapter cares about its place in the social hierarchy, the more willing they are to cut corners, break rules, and engage in unethical behavior in climbing the social ladder.

What we have found in our research is that, within a sorority system, the social hierarchy is very rigid and fixed. Sororities spend vast resources attempting to improve their status (often measured by Relative Recruiting Strength, a horrible measure of the quality of a chapter), only to find that they are unable to climb in the rankings, stuck in their position for seemingly all of eternity. This is true for a variety of reasons – top/middle tier sorority chapters rarely close, and the sorority recruitment system is designed to ensure consistency, homogeneity and the elimination of variance within a campus community. The result is that, once a sorority’s place in the campus social hierarchy becomes apparent, it is incredibly rare for that position to change. They are, in effect, stuck.

This is not the case within a fraternity community. With fraternities, the social hierarchy is fluid and always changing. Top and middle tier groups are regularly closed or reorganized for various risk management violations. The fraternity recruitment system on most campuses is loosely organized, allowing for a variety of approaches leading to a variety of outcomes – where the sorority recruitment process eliminates variance, the fraternity recruitment process encourages it. A middle-tier fraternity can have a good string of recruitment chairs and over a period of a few years can quickly climb the rankings and find themselves in the top tier, especially if a few top tier chapters get in trouble, are placed on probation, are reorganized or get closed during that time. The result of this fluidity is that the social hierarchy within most campus fraternity communities is completely reshuffled every 5-10 years.

I regularly work with fraternities who are the beneficiaries of this fluidity. Recently, I had the opportunity to do work on a campus that has closed five groups for hazing and other risk management violations over the last four years. All of the closed groups would have been considered top tier at the time of their departure. The result of this is a new group of previously mid-tier fraternities, those who were working the hardest to achieve social status on campus, now find themselves on top of the social ladder.

And this is a big problem for these fraternity chapters.

These chapters are extremely likely to become victims of their own success.

When a fraternity is in the middle tier on a campus, men usually join that chapter for altruistic reasons. Perhaps they feel a strong sense of belonging. Perhaps they are attracted to the fraternity’s values, or their academic success. Whatever the reason, the members of this chapter are generally not joining because of the group’s place in the campus social hierarchy. But when one of these fraternities wakes up one day and realizes that they are in the top tier on campus, a strange thing begins to happen. Men begin joining the chapter not because of a sense of belonging or a connection, but because the chapter is in the top tier and will provide them with the social capital they crave on campus. Members begin joining social status instead of belonging.

Eventually, the fraternity catches on to what is happening. They realize that they have members joining the chapter in order to exploit the social benefits associated with group membership. Once they come to this realization, a vicious cycle begins within the chapter. The natural, and most common, response to this revelation is to devise clever ways to prevent prospective members from exploiting the group’s social status.

In other words, the chapter begins hazing.

It may not be completely accurate to say that they “begin” hazing, because there is a good chance that they were already engaged in the behavior before coming to this realization. But, even if they were engaged in hazing before they became “top tier,” the motivation for the hazing is very likely to change once the group becomes aware of the problem associated with members exploiting the chapter’s social status. Once this realization occurs, the motivation behind the hazing shifts from building solidarity among the new member class towards having new members “earn their letters” through acts of hazing designed to test their loyalty/commitment to the group, or towards hazing designed around social dominance - reminding freshman of their place in the social hierarchy. As Aldo Cimino has articulated in his research, the hazing is now designed to prevent “free-riders” – those members who seek to exploit the benefits of the group without doing their fair share of the work. New members must now show how much they want to be in the group. How much pain, humiliation, and abuse are they willing to withstand in order to become a member of a top tier group?

Once fraternity chapters switch the focus of their new member education process away from teaching and building brotherhood and towards making new members “earn their letters,” the next phase of the cycle begins. Chapter members who have endured the social dominance or commitment-based hazing begin developing a strong sense of entitlement. They feel that nothing should be expected of them once they have earned their membership during the new member process. They become lazy and apathetic. The freshman  do all of the work, while the older members enjoy the benefits of having freshman around to do all of the things that they don’t want to do. Motivation goes down. Involvement goes down. Chapter members become less engaged in the life of the chapter, concerning themselves only with social events and hazing the next crop of pledges. 

Eventually, well-intentioned chapter leaders notice what is going on, and instead of fixing the new member education program, they often decide that the problem is that they are not hazing hard enough. The reason they have lazy, entitled, apathetic members, they believe, is because they still aren’t doing enough to build loyalty and commitment among the pledges. As a result, the hazing escalates. It becomes more intense, more abusive, and more degrading. Eventually, the hazing becomes so severe that something bad happens, the fraternity gets caught and closed down, a new fraternity takes the old fraternity’s place among the “top tier” chapters on campus, and the whole process starts over again.

Fraternities can, and often do, become victims of their own success. After years of striving and effort, they become a top tier group, which launches a vicious cycle in which they begin hazing, creating a sense of entitlement among members, which fosters even more hazing, which eventually leads to the group's closure and the process starting over again with a new group on campus.

So how do we prevent this cycle from happening?

The most common mistake that fraternities make upon entering this cycle is assuming that the best way to weed out free-riders is during the pledging process. As it turns out, this is the WORST way to weed out free riders – even the laziest of free-riders could be motivated enough by the group’s social standing to endure a few months of hazing in order to enjoy four years of social clout guaranteed to them through their membership in the group. Once a free-rider receives a bid to join a top tier group, it is often too late. Instead of waiting until the new member education process to weed out free-riders, chapters must incorporate strategies of weeding out the students interested in exploiting the chapter's social stauts during the recruitment process, and then refocusing the purpose of their new member education process away from making new members "earn it" and towards the creation of belonging. 

These strategies include:

Asking Better Questions – instead of “selling” the chapter’s social clout to potential members, chapters would be wise to ask questions designed to weed out those potential free-riders seeking to exploit the chapter’s social standing. A simple question like “what are you looking to get out of a fraternity” can often elicit an illuminating response. “Why are you interested in our chapter” is similarly well-designed to weed out would-be free riders. Some chapters I have worked with even have a “quality control” process by which prospective members are interviewed and asked these questions, along with questions about substance abuse and what the prospective member will bring to the group. Through the questions we ask prospective members during the recruitment process, we are able to screen out those men who are only seeking social capital. Not only are the answers to the questions we ask illuminating for us, but the mere fact that we ask them may cause a prospective member seeking only a social experience to look elsewhere for that experience.

Sell More Than the Social Experience - Chapters are, in essence "selling" their brotherhood to prospective members during the recruitment process. A common mistake that fraternities, especially top tier fraternities, make is that they oversell the social aspects of their brotherhood and undersell the other aspects of their brotherhood (belonging and accountability). In a previous post, I've shared strategies for selling brotherhood beyond the social experience. As chapters find themselves in the top tier, it is incredibly important that they sell more than just their social clout on campus. If they only sell the social aspects of brotherhood during recruitment, they will wind up with members who ONLY care about the social aspects of brotherhood, which will contribute to the chapter's demise.

Focus on Belonging – As I’ve written previously, fraternities who want committed members should build their new member education process around the creation of belonging, and not around the construction of solidarity or the testing of loyalty/commitment. The fraternities with the highest degree of commitment are those in which members feel the strongest sense of belonging, and the severity of hazing within a chapter has no relationship at all with belonging OR commitment.

The “victim of our own success” cycle is not inevitable. It can be stopped, or prevented altogether. By assessing and understanding your chapters’ attitudes about the importance of social status and the motivations behind their new member education process (things that Dyad Strategies measures in our campus and organizational assessments), we can target those chapters most at risk of falling into this cycle and intervene before it is too late. By helping fraternities understand the importance of screening out free-riders during the recruitment process (as opposed to waiting until the new member education process), and by helping them build a new member education process centered on the creation of belonging, we can beat the cycle and help our fraternity chapters enjoy the fruits of their success instead of becoming victims of it. 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

I Hereby Proclaim the Death of Values-Based Recruitment

Vestige (noun): a trace of something that is disappearing or no longer exists; a part of an organ or organism that has become reduced or functionless in the course of evolution

In February of 2014, I called for the death of the values movement. I, along with others, began pointing out the absurdity of guilting our students into “living their values” as a means by which to change their behavior. Noah Borton famously quipped during the inaugural AFA “Ignite Fraternity” program that “I don’t care what your founders would think.” And in the last three years, a funny thing has happened. We have seen a steady decline in the number of programs and conversations focused on “living your values,” less imploring our students to consider “what their founders would think” and a steady rise in conversations centered around brotherhood and sisterhood, accountability, belonging, and authenticity/vulnerability. The language of our field has shifted significantly in the last three years, and frankly, I’d like to take some credit for that. The values movement is dying a slow death, its adherents becoming a smaller and smaller percentage of our industry, and that is a good thing for our field. Guilt-tripping our students into living their values and considering what their founders would think was both developmentally and pedagogically unsound.

In fact, only one vestige of the values movement continues to hang on and fight for life. This vestige has continued to thrive, despite the well-intentioned efforts of a number of people. This vestige has support from the highest echelons of our industry – it has long been considered an untouchable sacred cow. Its defenses are seemingly impregnable, its status as the end-all-be-all for saving the fraternal experience has heretofore gone unquestioned. It is the gold standard that we are all supposed to be teaching our fraternity and sorority members.

I’m talking, of course, about values-based recruitment.

And I’m here today to kill it off once and for all.

In the last year, our team at Dyad Strategies (including Josh Schutts, Sarah Cohen and myself) set off on an ambitious project. Using sequential explanatory strategy, we embarked on a project to understand the practices of sorority chapters who demonstrated extraordinary levels of the most altruistic versions of sisterhood (common purpose, accountability, and belonging). Working with one of our national organization partners, we surveyed the entire undergraduate membership, identified chapters with the strongest sisterhood, and then spent two days with six different “exemplar” chapters. We observed them in action, we conducted interviews and focus groups, and met with hundreds of students ranging from chapter officers to new members, all in an effort to find out what really matters when it comes to having strong sisterhood in a chapter. We plan on releasing a white paper on this research later in the year.

In our conversations with these exemplar chapters, we were shocked at how often the chapters’ recruitment processes came up in conversation. While we were curious about how these chapters recruited, we did not expect that recruitment would end up playing such a significant role in forming the sisterhood within these chapters. As we discovered, recruitment plays arguably the most important role in forming the strong sisterhood within these exemplar chapters.

Each of the chapters we studied share a great deal in common with regards to their approach to formal recruitment. In particular, they focus a great deal on authentic, deep conversations with potential members, activities that portray a realistic demonstration of the chapter’s sisterhood and activities, and have a variety of methods by which they screen out potential members only interested in the social aspect of sisterhood. As a result, these chapters recruit members who join because of their sense of connection and belonging and NOT because of the chapter’s place in the campus social hierarchy or any other superficial marker of social standing.

In all, six recruitment-related themes emerged within these exemplar chapters:

1. Focus on Authentic Conversations

Each of the exemplar chapters we studied place a tremendous emphasis on authentic conversations during the recruitment process, moving beyond surface-level conversations in an effort to truly get to know the potential members. They evaluate prospective members not based on appearance or “cuteness,” but in some cases purely on the prospective member’s conversation skills and authenticity, asking them questions truly designed to elicit genuine conversations.

As a result, new members from these chapters similarly report, when asked why they joined the organization, that it was the “chapter where I felt I could be myself,” “that they really wanted to get to know me,” and that “the conversations here were different from the conversations in other houses.” As the recruitment chair from one of these chapters stated “the feedback that we received from our new members is that the questions we asked here were so unique compared to other sororities.”

Members of these chapters also take great pride in their ability to have genuine conversations with potential members during recruitment, and the selection process focused on conversation skills provides a self-perpetuating process. As natural conversationalists, new members are easily able to join in and appear to actually enjoy the recruitment process because they genuinely love getting to know the next group of potential members.

2. Depth Over Breadth

Another recruitment technique shared by these exemplar chapters was their focus on depth of conversation during recruitment, as opposed to breadth. In other words, they prefer that a small group of chapter members get to know a PNM in a more in-depth fashion, as opposed to multiple chapter members meeting a PNM but having no more than a surface level conversation. As one new member noted “Here I felt like I really got to have a real conversation with people, but at other sororities it was like the same five questions over and over. How are you supposed to get to know someone in five minutes?”

Two of these exemplar chapters specifically mentioned that they intentionally limit the amount of “bumping” that takes place within the various recruitment rounds. This practice was noticed and appreciated by the new members of this chapters, and they appreciated the opportunity to have more in-depth conversations. As one new member noted “this was the only house during first round where I didn’t get bumped, and it was so nice to just sit down and have a conversation.”

3. Open the Door to Vulnerability

Another practice that emerged as among these exemplar chapters was the creating of moments where active members opened up and shared about themselves to a PNM, with the hope that the PNM would then do the same in turn. One chapter in particular discussed an activity in which they engaged during their philanthropy round. After being told about the chapter’s “Girls on the Run” philanthropy, PNM’s and active members were given a crescent moon made of construction paper and were asked to write the name of the person for whom they were being strong. Once the names were written, the active paired with a PNM would share her story of who she was being strong for and why, and would then invite the PNM to do the same. By opening the door and being vulnerable first, the active member encouraged the PNM to also share and be vulnerable, which, according to members of this group, often led to in-depth conversations about important people in one’s life.

4. Buck the Status Quo

One of the chapters went against the “status quo” in a significant way. The most visible example was the chapter’s approach to “Sisterhood night” in the wake of the NPC removal of skits. When all other chapters on campus performed songs, listed “top 10 facts about…” and showed an overproduced glittery recruitment “sisterhood” video, this chapter opted for an authentic exposure of their true sisterhood. Members submitted their favorite moments and memories—which were then subsequently read aloud with the PNMs present in the center of a large circle. Members never knew if, or when, their memory would be read, so they were constantly engaged to see whose memory would be read next.  The women described the process as electric – full of laughs, tears, hugs, and smiles. Having not been there, we can only imagine the power and electricity that must have been felt by the prospective members. They sat in the epicenter of the love and appreciation these chapter members show each other daily – and at such a powerful time – the night before they must make their preference decisions. It no doubt took courage to do something different, and the new members all talked about the power of that experience, and how it shaped their decision to join. As one student noted “you could literally feel the energy in the room.”

5. Group vs. Individual Conversations

Chapters with strong sisterhood in these areas also provided opportunities for new members to see how chapter members interact in a group setting during recruitment. For example, on preference night, a chapter has a group of 3-4 actives go into a room with 3-4 PNM’s where they all just talk, laugh and get to know one another in a group setting. PNM’s particularly liked this, noting that it gave them an opportunity to see how close the members really are, how much they genuinely liked one another, and how they could see themselves fitting into the group. As one PNM noted, upon leaving one of these parties, “I knew I wanted a group of friends like that.”

6. PNM Red Flags

In addition to creating opportunities for meaningful, authentic conversations during the recruitment process, these high-performing chapters also displayed similar systems of screening out potential members who may only be interested in the social aspects of the sorority. Several chapter members, including recruitment chairs, from these groups discussed a variety of “red flags” that they take note of during the recruitment process. PNM’s displaying any of these behaviors were subject to additional scrutiny and were often dropped by the chapters. This list of “red flags” included the following:

  • PNM’s who showed interest, made comments or asked questions regarding the campus “social hierarchy” or discussed or brought up the sorority’s place in the tier system (interestingly, each of the groups in our research would best be described as being on the lower end of the top tier according to recruitment statistics)
  • PNM’s who talked negatively about other chapters on campus (fraternities or sororities)
  • PNM’s who are overly concerned with the social aspects of the sorority (i.e. asking “what fraternities do you social with?” or “what do you all do on the weekends?”)
NOT About Values-Based Recruitment

Interestingly, what was NOT discussed in conversations about recruitment was as illuminating as what was discussed and has been outlined above. In particular, the notion of “values-based recruitment” was one that never came up in our conversations. When new members of these chapters were asked why they joined these exemplar chapters with extraordinary levels of sisterhood, the answers almost inevitably had some connection to belonging, authenticity, and meaningful conversations. In other words, new members of these chapters joined because of a sense of belonging, and NOT because of any connection to the organization’s values. And when asked about recruitment strategy, the chapter recruitment teams echoed these sentiments. They often spoke of “really getting to know the girls” and “having genuine conversations with depth” but never did they discuss an effort to “sell” prospective members on the organization’s values. As a result, our research team was left to believe that, in these chapters that demonstrate values congruence (vis a vis high scores on common purpose sisterhood), the congruence comes about as a result of joining a sorority because of a sense of belonging, thereby making a connection to the organization’s shared values easier upon being initiated, and not because of some “selling” of the organization’s values during the recruitment process.

Put more simply, successful chapters with strong sisterhood achieve that sisterhood by making the recruitment process about genuine connection and NOT about selling a set of proscribed values. Students are not joining these exemplar chapters because of values alignment, they are joining because of a deep sense of connection, authenticity and belonging. Then, once they get into the organization, values congruence is being achieved through informal systems of accountability, which are made possible through the high levels of belonging and connection within the chapters. In other words, values congruence can only be achieved AFTER students have developed a strong sense of belonging and connection within the organization. Values congruence is not an antecedent of the sorority experience; it is a descendent of a sorority experience in which one feels authentic, meaningful connection, support, and belonging.

“Values-based recruitment” implies that our organizations should actively “sell” their values to prospective members, and that these prospective members should “select” the organization whose values most closely align with their own in a process of mutual selection. The flawed logic in this model should be obvious to all of us who work in this industry.

First, as we know from Baxter-Magolda’s theory of self-authorship, most 18 year-old college freshmen are living their lives through external formulas. They have no idea what their actual values are, as they have been living according to the values of their parents and adolescent communities. To suggest that they should make a life-long commitment based on externally construed values, when they have yet to even develop their own values as a person, seems counter-productive to me. As I stated in the “Problem with Values Congruence” article, taking a student’s pre-existing external formulas and trying to replace them with another set of external formulas (the organization’s values) is not only counter-productive, but anti-developmental. If we are really interested in helping our students connect to their organization's values, we would be better suited to create environments where students feel comfortable exploring personal values through authentic relationships than by foisting a set of organizational values on them the minute they walk through our door.

Secondly, values-based recruitment is a horrible concept because the values of all of our organizations are pretty much the same! If we were to take all 26 NPC member groups and construct a Venn diagram of their stated values, the area of overlap would be, in a conservative estimate, 75 percent. How are 18 year-old college freshmen, in a rushed and frenzied recruitment week, supposed to decipher and distinguish one organization’s values from another in an effort to find the ONE group whose values most align with their own when the values of these groups are all mostly the same?!?! This is a Herculean task that I don’t suspect many of the adults in our industry could do, yet we have asked it of our students. The whole idea seems ludicrous to me.

Lastly, and most importantly, students joining sororities (and fraternities) are not doing so because they seek values alignment in their lives. At worst, they are joining because they want a social experience in college that will expose them to the best that the campus social culture has to offer. At best, they are joining because the crave meaningful connection and belonging. The best we can ever hope to do is to help more of our organizations shift away from selling a social experience, promoting their own social status by selling a glamorous image of sorority membership that often has little to no basis in reality (Look at all the cute boys we hang out with! Look at our cute girls blowing glitter in conspicuous places around campus! Look how cute and fun we are! Cute and fun! Cute and fun!) and, instead, help them understand that the purpose of recruitment is not to SELL anything (the fun OR the values). Rather, recruitment should be about creating authentic conversations in a way that will allow more potential members to join the chapter where they will truly find the most meaningful connections and a place to belong. Furthermore, would we suggest to a PNM that she join an organization because of a connection with the organization’s values even if that PNM felt no sense of belonging or connection at all to the members of the chapter? This seems to me to be a recipe for disaster.

Let’s stop trying to guilt our students into selling their values and start teaching them how to make recruitment about creating authentic, meaningful connections. To give credit where credit is due, the women’s side of Phired Up Productions have been talking about this for a few years now. I continue to be impressed by the intersection of their work and what we are discovering in our research.

So today, I’m declaring the death of the “values-based recruitment” movement and proclaiming the birth of the “authentic conversation-based recruitment” movement. Values-based recruitment is the last remaining vestige of the values movement, and, like our tonsils or appendix, it is time for our industry to remove this wasteful, counter-productive appendage from the body of our collective work.

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.


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!