Monday, March 9, 2015

Why Oklahoma Happened

Over the last few years, while teaching student development theory to graduate students, I have developed a list of edicts that my students now (affectionately?) refer to simply as Gentry’s Laws.  They deal less with theory and more with the application of theory – how do we turn theories into practical and useful strategies in our daily work with students? At last count, I think there are nine laws. Perhaps I should add another just to round it out to a nice even number. Maybe some other day…

Here is Gentry’s First Law:

Any program or activity is only as good as its ability to get students from different backgrounds interacting with one another.

The impetus for Gentry’s First Law comes from a host of student development theories (Kohlberg, Perry, Helms, etc.) which suggest that development (moral, intellectual, personal identity, etc.) occurs when students are exposed to differences (different people, different ideas, different cultures, etc.) and are forced to reconsider their previously held, and less developed, notions of the world and themselves. Pretty simple, really. If we know that exposing students to differences leads to growth along a multitude of developmental fronts, then it makes sense that we should be creating those opportunities as often as possible - not just because of some watered down, half-hearted attempt at “diversity,” but because we want to develop all of our students in a variety of ways.

The recent nonsense with the SAE chapter at the University of Oklahoma has been an all-to-real reminder to me of something I have long felt; the basic setup and structure of fraternities and sororities works in direct opposition to Gentry’s First Law.  I will now demonstrate what I mean by asking one simple question:

Do you think those students would have sang that song had there been a single person of color on that bus?

Of course not. And the fact that, in a bus of 100 people heading to what I assume is a formal, there were 100 white faces and not a single brown one demonstrates what I think is one of the greatest challenges affecting fraternities and sororities nationally – the stark and overwhelming lack of racial, ethnic and socio-economic diversity.

And when I say diversity, I don’t mean diversity for diversity’s sake. I mean diversity that will lead to conversations and understanding of difference - conversations that will lead to the growth and development of our students.  Of course students have the right to freely associate, and of course we know it is human nature to select a group of people who look like you and act like you when choosing groups with which to associate.  But acknowledging only those facts belies a very important truth - college really should be different. College should be a place where we are challenged to leave the safety of the nest, to break out of our comfort zones, and to experience new things and new ideas. This is how growth happens.

Here is my guess about the students in that video: they grew up in all-white gated communities, went to nearly all-white private or suburban public schools, grew up attending an all-white church and then showed up at the door of the University of Oklahoma. And guess what we immediately did with them? Put them in an all-white fraternity. You saw the result of that choice on the video you watched. The students in that video are only partially to blame. Society is to blame. Higher education is to blame. Fraternity is to blame. We all are to blame. Because we failed them.

Student affairs professionals love to talk about (although they frequently and flagrantly misuse) Sanford’s theory of challenge and support. Here is how you diagnose culture using Sanford: the students in that video had way too much support and not nearly enough challenge. We allowed them to go on thinking that what they were doing was OK, put them in a palatial mansion surrounded by a few hundred like-minded individuals, and wrongly assumed that we could tweet enough about diversity and social justice for them to get the message. Lots of support, not nearly enough challenge.

Fraternities and sororities that resemble Augusta National more than they resemble collegiate living-learning communities are a problem. They are a big problem. And we all need to start doing our part to undue the systems that have allowed the country club experience to be the norm and not the exception, particularly on our larger and more affluent campuses. We are not doing anyone any favors by creating these environments. Students who will one day have to work and interact in an increasingly diverse and global marketplace have no idea how to interact with people who are different from them, and we have long supported and upheld the structures that perpetuate that ignorance. We do a disservice to our students and to our society when we allow students to live in a world where everyone they surround themselves with on a daily basis looks, thinks and behaves just like them.

National fraternity and sorority headquarters – begin insisting on diversity in your organizations.  Make sure your expansion efforts are reflective of the racial diversity of the campuses who graciously host you. Insist that your chapters are inclusive. Insist that your chapters co-sponsor programs with student groups outside of the norm and engage in meaningful service learning experiences that will expand their horizons and understanding of the world in which we live. If you have chapters (and all of you do) that look and act like country clubs, begin asking difficult questions of those groups. Insist that your members are meeting and having significant interactions with people who are different with them. Make an effort to have diversity on your staff and on your board. Lead by example.

Campus-based professionals – if ever there was a case for deferred or delayed recruitment, then this is it. Stop taking students from their all-white neighborhoods and immediately sticking them in all-white fraternities and sororities before they ever set foot inside a classroom. Intentionally create opportunities for fraternity and sorority new members to interact with diverse others during their freshman year and beyond. Create meaningful service-learning opportunities that expose your students to the realities of race, poverty, hunger, homelessness and the social institutions and governmental policies that contribute to those issues. Stop talking about diversity and start demonstrating it.

Like so many other things in the “fraternity movement,” the status quo is failing to adequately address the needs of our students and their development. We have to change, or the intolerable behavior will continue. It is easy to throw the students from that video under the bus they were riding in, but before we do that, we need to take a long, hard look in the mirror and examine the policies, practices and institutional fixtures that helped allow that behavior to occur. We are part of the problem, and we have to do better.


  1. As long as we allow 18-22 year olds to pick their members with almost no oversight by adult mentors, they will almost always choose members who are just like them. Its another case for a increasing the role of adults in everyday chapter operations.

    But I do contest the assertion that there is a "stark and overwhelming lack of racial, ethnic and socio-economic diversity." I'm trying to not stereotype here or be judgmental, but from my experience researching F/S communities this is the appearance at schools that broadcast the stereotypical experience: big houses, big parties, and party-led recruitment. I'd also venture to say this is most common in the Southeast, at large flagship (Division I) schools regardless of region, and the academic elite (Ivy League, Patriot League, etc). Particularly in the Northeast and at schools where the financial admission fee for Greek membership is $500 or less, you'll see greater diversity. One F/S community to look at is Rochester Institute of Technology - incredibly diverse and with a large population of members who are deaf.

  2. Scott - agree completely. Smaller regional schools have far fewer issues with this, namely because the students at those schools come there having more experiences with diversity and join not for social status but because they want a place to belong and/or get involved.

  3. Blackness/otherness or being a visible minority is such an anomaly in NPC/NIC organizations that being one of a few people of color within a largely homogeneous community can expose the student to certain types of social positions - none of them good. Feeling like a token, a fetish, or experiencing the subtle message that "you are a social liability and/or exception, and we are taking a risk on you" (apologies, there isn't an academic term that I've identified that expresses that experience), does little for the student who crosses the color line and is socially linked to a system that has historically oppressed them. There are no guarantees that presence, participation or visibility helps to enhance inclusion or comfort for members of color.
    While I appreciate your suggestions, Gentry, "Insisting that your chapters are inclusive" does nothing to adjust the mindset of a community that still does not understand how to see value and credibility in the contributions of people of color.
    Exposure does NOT ensure respect or understanding. I wish it did.
    Some cultural theorists have posited that the most inclusive of cultures create environments where values and traditions connect people with differing racial, socio-economic or ethnic backgrounds. (Examples: worship, community expectations, or patriotic/political commitments). Funny - ritual and values aren't too far off from those examples.
    We differ on the "how" - but we don't disagree on the "why," Gentry.


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