Wednesday, September 19, 2018
I was visiting a campus recently, and in a conversation with a group of Panhellenic women, a conversation came up about diversity. It was an unexpected conversation, but one in which, given my previous experiences with the topic during my time at Alabama, I was eager to engage. This was a large community on a campus that hosts Panhellenic recruitment before classes start. As we were discussing some efforts the University was making with regards to diversity and inclusion, a young woman asked the following question:
“Since our recruitment is such an organized system, and chapters aren’t really engaged in recruiting women to participate in the process, isn’t the lack of diversity in our community more of a systemic issue instead of a chapter issue? Is there anything we can do about that?”
The question spawned a great conversation, and some ideas that I’ll share in a minute. But the conversation also got me thinking – are there structural barriers to diversity in Panhellenic sorority chapters? If so, what are they?
First, I wanted to check the data, so I logged into Dyad’s data dashboard to check out the demographics of our fraternity and sorority samples. Here’s what I found.
Fraternities, on average, are 27 percent non-white in terms of their membership. Sororities, on the other hand, are 16 percent non-white. In other words, in terms of the percentage of members, fraternities are nearly twice as diverse as sororities. Fraternities are much more representative, in terms of racial diversity, of the demographic breakdowns on the campuses at which they exist than campus sororities, which are much more white.
Why? Are sorority members more racist than fraternity members? Of course not – this notion should be immediately dismissed out of hand as absurd. If anything, my experience tells me that sorority members are much more attune to issues of inclusion and, if left to their own devices, sororities would, in fact, be more diverse than fraternities. Our data at Dyad shows no difference between fraternity and sorority members on the measure of Openness to Diversity. But there are structural barriers inhibiting this openness to diversity from manifesting into actual diversity. When I think about what those structural barriers might be, three likely candidates immediately come to mind.
1. Formal Recruitment and the Quota/Total System – The entire formal recruitment process, including the total/quota system, particularly on campuses where formal recruitment happens at or even before the beginning of the Fall semester, is filled with structural barriers. First, many campuses charge rather high fees in order to participate in formal sorority recruitment, asking women to invest in a process with no guarantees that the process will end in an invitation to membership. This is rarely the case with fraternities, who charge small fees, if any, to participate in the process. Next, the timing likely plays an issue. By hosting recruitment at the beginning of the semester, or even before classes begin, we eliminate a large segment of potential members who have little to no knowledge about the process based on information gleaned from family and friends, and are thus less likely to know about registering in time. Once they get to campus and find out about recruitment, we charge them an exorbitant late registration fee if they want to go through the process. Many chapters on many campuses then require letters of recommendation, which can present a significant barrier if the student comes from a family/community where not a lot of people they know were in sororities. Then, because of the total/quota system, very few chapters on any given campus will participate in any sort of informal recruitment process. The COB process often involves only a handful of chapters with a small number of open spots that are often hastily offered to women who participated in the formal recruitment process, because there is a negative stigma in having to continue actually recruiting people once the formal recruitment process is over. Those chapters above total are given no opportunity to look for and recruit a more diverse membership – they are left to only choose from those women who participate in formal recruitment each year. If that pool lacks diversity, their chapter will be left with few, if any, options to recruit a more diverse membership. This is all in stark contrast to fraternities, who generally have less structured processes, often wait to recruit members until after the Fall semester has begun, are more open to and willing to recruit other potential members throughout the year without fear of stigma, are more likely to recruit a second new member class in the spring semester, and are not governed by the quota/total system.
2. Advisor Involvement in Recruitment – The challenge associated with too much advisor involvement in the recruitment process has been well-documented. On many campuses, advisors’ outlooks on diversity and inclusion are more representative of 1978 than of 2018, and when we give these advisors too much authority in the membership selection process, a lack of diversity is the inevitable result. Advisors play a valuable role in assisting their chapters during recruitment, but they themselves should not be involved in the process of selections and voting, and national organizations and campuses should do more to limit the role that advisors play with regards to membership selection.
3. Lack of Diversity in Extension – The biggest distinction between fraternities and sororities may very well lie in the manner in which they conduct extension. Several structural barriers to diversity exist in the manner in which many sororities conduct the extension process. First, because of the obsession with parity, many national sororities approach extension with a simple, but limiting philosophy – we want our new chapter to look very similar to the other chapters on campus. If those other chapters are mostly white, then there is a high probability that the new sorority will also be mostly white. The philosophy of fraternity expansion is basically the opposite – how can we carve out a unique niche in a crowded market? If fraternities on campus lack diversity, then a new chapter will very often come in and present a much more diversified alternative. Over time, this adds a great deal of cultural diversity within a community. Next, sororities tend to rely heavily on women who participated in formal recruitment when adding a new chapter. If this pool of women lacks diversity, the new chapter will likely reflect that. Fraternity expansions, on the other hand, tend to focus in on students who previously expressed no interest in fraternities because of the stereotypes, but who might be interested in being part of something new and different. This lends itself to much more diversity – not only in terms of racial diversity but also with regards to socio-economic background and sexual orientation. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, decisions about members in fraternity extension tend to be made by the younger staff members who are recruiting perspective members. These younger staff members tend to be very open to racial diversity. On the sorority side, however, the decisions for membership are very often not made by the young consultants doing the recruiting, but by a much older committee of volunteers and alumnae who, again, hold dated attitudes related to diversity and inclusion. This presents a tremendous barrier for diversity. I have seen this play out first-hand.
We see a number of structural barriers that limit diversity in campus sororities. This leads to an obvious question - what can/should be done about the lack of diversity in sororities? Here are just a few thoughts, more designed around starting a conversation rather than being considered full-blown policy recommendations.
Allow sororities to actually "recruit" – this seems rather obvious, but on campuses that do not have recruitment before classes start, it makes sense to allow sorority members to meet with and talk to prospective members on campus in order to recruit a more diverse pool of women to be part of the experience. Dated rules about “no contact” should be thrown out the window and sorority members should be incentivized to go out and recruit women who they think would add diversity to their chapters.
Eliminate letters of recommendation – Frankly, this should have happened years ago. Requiring rec letters does nothing to educate chapters about prospective members and ONLY serves as a barrier for women coming from families and communities who lack connection to the sorority experience. It adversely affects minorities and first-generation students alike. Rec letters are a vestige of days gone by and their elimination would remove a tremendous hurdle for would-be members from less privileged backgrounds.
Limit role of older alums in recruitment and extension – this one seems like a no-brainer to me, and is probably the easiest to implement. Older alums and volunteers definitely have a role to play, but selecting members of a chapter is not one of them. Allow current members, or the young consultants doing most of the recruiting (in the case of expansion projects) to be the ones to select members.
Allow diversity-based exceptions to quota/total – This is by far the least fleshed-out of my thoughts, but stick with me here. I get that totally blowing up the total/quota system is not going to happen any time soon. But what if we allowed each chapter to set its own goals with regards to diversity and inclusion? And then, what if we allowed chapters to recruit beyond total/quota in order to meet their own goals with regards to diversity and inclusion if the pool of women in formal recruitment did not allow them to meet those goals? What if chapters who felt their lack of diversity was a problem and wanted to do something about it were allowed to work outside of the formal recruitment process to go out and recruit those diverse members, even if they made quota in formal recruitment and were at or above total? Some broad questions, I know, but I think if we gave chapters the option to work outside of formal recruitment to strengthen their diversity, many chapters would willingly and eagerly take advantage of that opportunity.
In a world that is increasingly multi-cultural, and in a workplace that requires our students to be culturally competent, we should all be concerned about the lack of diversity in our campus sororities. We are doing our sorority members no favors when we stick them in chapters full of women exactly like themselves. The antiquated systems we use to recruit new members into our chapters are barriers to that diversity. I hope we can begin a conversation about what changes need to occur in order for those structural barriers to be eliminated.
Tuesday, August 21, 2018
McNamara Fallacy – Those things which can be easily measured will be given greater priority over those things which can not be easily measured.
I recently watched the Ken Burns documentary on the Vietnam War on Netflix (which I highly recommend). One of the key themes that emerges during the series is the priority that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara placed on quantitative metrics, specifically body count, during the war. McNamara was obsessed with statistics and, given the Pentagon’s new computing technology, he devised a series of metrics related to the success of the war effort it Vietnam.
In the documentary, Ken Burns recounts a conversation that McNamara had with his generals in the early stages of the war, after he had put together the metrics for success. He gave the generals a printout of all of the metrics he wanted to track, and asked them if he had missed anything. The generals poured over his materials, and then one of the generals stated, “as far as I can tell, you’re only missing one thing…the hearts and minds of the Vietnamese people.”
“Well I’m not sure how we can measure that,” McNamara is said to have replied.
Thus was born the McNamara Fallacy. Those things that can be easily measured receive priority over those things which can’t be easily measured. And things that can’t be easily measured are deemed unimportant.
As I pondered the McNamara Fallacy and its broad implications, I realized that we operate under our own version of the McNamara Fallacy in the fraternity and sorority world. We rely too heavily upon data points that are easy to measure, often neglecting those metrics that are a bit harder to measure but are actually much more important in understanding what is really going on in our chapters. We have seen this problem magnified in the last year, as more and more campuses are moving towards the publication of chapter "report cards" showing metrics which tell us little, if anything, about chapter culture.
What are some of those easy-to-measure metrics that we have grown to rely on but which do not really tell the story of what is happening in our communities and in our chapters? Like McNamara’s body counts, what are those data points we are using to try to tell our story but that don’t tell the full story, and what metrics should we be using instead?
Here are four metrics upon which we have become overly reliant, followed by four metrics that are a bit harder to gather, but that tell a much more robust story about the culture of our chapters.
1. GPA – Grade point average is not a bad metric. In fact, GPA can tell us some things about a chapter culture – namely, how smart the people in a chapter are, and how much time they spend studying. But there is an over-reliance in our industry on GPA as a proxy for chapter culture. I would suggest that we rely WAY too much on GPA as an indicator of chapter quality. This is especially true in sororities. In our research, we see a strong correlation between relative recruiting strength and GPA in Panhellenic communities. The stronger-recruiting sororities on any given campus tend to recruit women with stronger high school GPA’s. System strugglers and bottom-third chapters in terms of recruiting strength tend to have lower GPA’s because they tend to not get the top scholastic performers out of high school, most of whom get bids to top-tier sororities. They end up with a larger portion of members with questionable high school grades - members that the top-tier chapters pass over. Does this mean those chapters have a bad culture? Are their members partying all the time instead of studying? Are they distracting their members from their academic pursuits just because their GPA is a little lower than the top chapters on campus? Not likely. The GPA disparity in sorority world likely has much more to do with the quality of members that chapters are able to recruit and very little, if anything, to do with the chapter culture.
On the fraternity side, we generally see a bell-curve associated with GPA. Again, we often see top-tier chapters selecting those members with stronger high school achievements, but we also see newer chapters selecting academically talented students who may not socially fit in with “top-tier” groups (i.e. the nerdy fraternities). We also generally see a bell-curve, with a lot of chapters tightly bunched around the center and only a few outliers on either side. At the campus level, those low-GPA outliers almost certainly have cultural challenges, but outside of those few groups, GPA tells us very little. On a campus with an all-fraternity average of 3.0, with a few fraternities around a 3.2 and another few fraternities at a 2.6, and everyone else between a 2.8 and a 3.1, what is the real difference between and among those groups bunched up in the middle, and how does GPA account for the differences in their culture? And at the national level, comparing between chapters on different campuses is not an apples-to-apples comparison. A 2.8 at Middle Tennessee State is not the same as a 2.8 just up the road at Vanderbilt. Understanding grades within the context of the natural academic ability of the students on that campus is important.
I would offer that, for both fraternities and sororities, chapter GPA would be a much more reliable predictor of chapter culture if we looked at chapter GPA after controlling for the high school GPA’s of the members of that chapter. This data would tell us if a chapter is over/under-performing in relation to their members’ natural academic abilities. We also need to look at trends over time - is a group consistent in terms of their GPA, with only minor fluctuations between semesters, or is there a trend in one direction or another? A steady downward trend should be a red flag. Short of that, GPA tells us very little about chapter culture. In the national data set compiled through our research at Dyad Strategies, GPA has a very weak correlation with any of the measures related to chapter culture, including hazing, sexual assault and alcohol use. We see chapters at all ends of the GPA spectrum struggle with these and other cultural issues. Our industry places far too much emphasis on GPA because it is the easiest data point for us to gather, but outside of the extreme fraternity outliers, it actually tells us very little about chapter culture.
2. Recruitment Stats – Both campus and headquarters-based professionals place far too much emphasis on recruitment stats. On the national side, many sorority headquarters do not allow chapters that fail to make quota on their respective campuses to be eligible for national awards. On the fraternity side, we see national organizations regularly touting the recruitment prowess of their top chapters, often placing that metric at or near the top of their national recognition. I’ve written before of the folly of placing too much emphasis on recruitment stats as a measure of chapter quality, but we continue to see organizations prioritize the number of new members over the quality of the experience those new members are going to be a part of. If you recruit 100 new members into a toxic culture, what have you accomplished? Is that something to be celebrated? I would suggest the opposite, yet we see both campus and organizational leaders investing much more heavily in recruitment training than in any other areas connected to chapter culture.
On the campus side, I regularly see campus-based fraternity and sorority advisors taking WAYYYY too much credit for the growth in their communities. I feel like I am uniquely qualified to comment on this. During my five years as Director of Greek Life at Alabama, our fraternity/sorority community nearly doubled in size, and we became the largest community in the country. It would be easy for me to pound my chest and take a lot of credit for that growth, but the fact of the matter is that I had almost nothing to do with it. The University was growing. We were recruiting more and more out-of-state students, many of whom wanted to be in fraternities/sororities. The University seriously invested in fraternity/sorority housing. This was all the doing of the University President and the folks in the admissions office. While I will take some credit for boosting recruitment retention and placement rates during my time there, I can not take any credit at all for growth in the community, because almost all of it had to do with factors beyond my control. I would venture to guess that the same could be said of 90 percent of colleges in the country that experienced growth in their communities in the last decade. Growing or declining communities are less a sign of an effective or ineffective fraternity/sorority advisor and more an indicator of the demographics of an institution’s student body.
3. Community Service Hours/Philanthropy Dollars Raised – Like GPA, Community service and philanthropic contributions are not a bad metric. They tell us something about a chapter – specifically, how much community service/philanthropy in which the chapter is engaged. But we see a lot of people use service/philanthropy statistics as a proxy for chapter culture, and there are a few problems associated with reading too much into these numbers.
First, the data are over-inflated. How many national organizations or campuses are calling up community partners to verify the monetary contributions or hours of service reported by chapters? My guess is that this rarely, if ever, happens. Chapters may raise a lot of money at an event, but when they report those totals, are they subtracting out the costs associated with that event? Are they reporting gross revenues or net revenues? I suspect that, if we took a really hard look at the actual philanthropic activity of our chapters, the numbers would not be nearly as impressive as what we often report.
Secondly, the fact is that service is a core value for some of our organizations, but not for all. I think we should be encouraging our chapters to pursue and live out their espoused values and to reward them if and when they do that. If service to others is an espoused value of an organization, then we should reward those chapters for engaging in that service. If it is not an espoused value of that organization, then we should be rewarding them for doing activities that support their own mission and values and not superimposing our own values onto them. And I've seen no data that convinces me of any connection between service/philanthropy and other areas of chapter culture.
4. Involvement in Other Student Orgs – Almost every campus or organization has a requirement (or at least a strong suggestion) that all members of fraternities and sororities be involved in at least one other campus organization. Inevitably, this leads to chapters submitting a chapter roster, listing off each member and the names of the other organizations of which they are a part. When I worked at Alabama, approximately 90 percent of the entire Greek community was in the College Republicans. I assume the College Republicans held their meetings in the basketball arena, because according to my count they had at least 10,000 active members. Using involvement in other orgs as a success metric is easy because chapters can just tell us how many different organizations their members are a part of, but the data are absolutely meaningless. They tell us nothing. Most of us are not verifying membership rosters. We are not examining the quality (Time on Task) of their involvement in these other groups. We are simply grabbing a data point that is easy to capture and then reporting some asinine statistic like “93 percent of fraternity/sorority members are involved in another organization on campus,” and we report it knowing that the number is a complete and total lie.
So, if over-reliance on the metrics above is problematic, then what harder-to-measure metrics should we be focused on gathering and reporting? How do we accurately capture the “hearts and minds” of the fraternity sorority members under our purview? What attitudes and beliefs are really at the heart of understanding the culture of an organization and the experience that students are having as part of a fraternity or sorority chapter? Here I offer the four measures that I think show the most promise.
1. Sense of Belonging – So much of a student’s experience in a fraternity or sorority is predicated upon their sense of belonging. In the research we are doing at Dyad Strategies, we find that Belonging as a function of brother/sisterhood is the single most important predictor of so many other outcomes, including organizational commitment, satisfaction, retention, and organizational accountability. The depth and the quality of the relationships between and among members is the single biggest driver of chapter culture. The fact is that some chapters do an incredible job creating a sense of belonging in their members, and some chapters do an awful job. Understanding which chapters are and are not creating a sense of belonging – a feeling of mattering – is the single most important metric for both campuses and national organizations to have in order to understand what is really going on in a chapter.
2. Social Status Importance – I’ve previously written about the campus social hierarchy and how chapters can fall victim to their own success. Understanding how much chapters care about that social hierarchy – how much they are motivated by achieving or maintaining social clout – is an important metric to understand. Chapters with high social status motivation are willing to take incredible risks in order to achieve/maintain that social status, make poor decisions in recruitment (will this person boost our social clout vs. will this person be a good, contributing member), and lose focus on the brother/sisterhood they are creating as they become more and more motivated by factors external to their chapters. Seeing this construct modeled over time can help us predict when a chapter may begin making bad decisions, as it is the driver behind regression to the mean as newer chapters begin assimilating into their respective campus cultures (more on that here).
3. Hazing Motivation – Groups haze for different reasons, and not all reasons are created equally. Researcher Aldo Cimino has explored hazing through a sociological lens and offered multiple motivations for hazing of newcomers in groups. At Dyad Strategies, we have expanded on Cimino’s work, building an instrument that measures the various motivations of hazing. Are groups trying to build solidarity or teach new members group-relevant skills through their hazing? If so, these behaviors are somewhat altruistic and fairly easy to redirect. Are groups trying to reinforce the social hierarchy within the group or ensure that new members are properly committed to the group through their hazing? If so, these motivations are likely to be emblematic of much deeper cultural problems in a chapter which are much more difficult to root out through education alone. Understanding what it is groups are trying to accomplish through their treatment of new members is crucial in any efforts to prevent or redirect hazing behaviors.
4. Motivation to Join – What is it that students joining fraternities and sororities are looking to gain from the experience? Are they merely looking for a social outlet, or are they interested in leadership, networking, or a home away from home? Motivated by our research findings indicating tremendous spikes in recent years related to the social aspect of brother/sisterhood, our team at Dyad Strategies has now constructed a scale measuring students’ motivation for joining fraternities and sororities. Any campus seeking to understand how changes in recruitment, education for potential members, or overall changes to the social culture in a community is having an impact, then understanding the motivations of the students seeking to join that community is of the utmost importance. If would-be fraternity and sorority members continue to see the fraternity/sorority experience chiefly as a social experience in spite of changes, then we know those changes are not having the desired impact. But if we see less of a social motivation and increases in motivation related to belonging, networking, or campus involvement, then it can be said that those changes are having a positive impact.
As I began writing this post, I did not intend for it to be an advertisement for the research we are doing at Dyad Strategies. But, as it turns out, we have spent a great deal of time in the last few years really trying to grasp what we need to know about our students’ beliefs, attitudes and behaviors in order to really understand chapter culture. The things we measure at Dyad Strategies paint a much more robust picture about what is really going on in a chapter than the standard metrics upon which we see many campuses and organizations rely. If your campus or organization is serious about understanding and measuring the impact of the changes you are implementing, then I invite you to contact us to find out how we may be able to help.
Like the hearts and minds of people in Vietnam, the important concepts that I have laid out here are not easy to measure. But it IS possible to measure these concepts. With the scrutiny that fraternities and sororities are under today, we can no longer rely on simple counts or self-reported activities. We have to survey our students in order to understand the attitudes and beliefs that are underlying their behaviors. Once we understand those attitudes and beliefs, then we can be much more surgical in our approach to winning the war that must be won – moving fraternity/sorority beyond a social experience towards the personal development experience that it was intended by our founders to be.
Wednesday, February 7, 2018
As I’ve traveled the country talking with fraternity and sorority members about brotherhood and sisterhood over the last three years, I’ve had countless conversations with both chapter leaders as well as FSL professionals about the challenges associated with accountability and self-governance in fraternities and sororities. Student leaders are generally candid and open about the struggles their chapters face with regards to holding members accountable. Sorority members don’t respect a standards process that is perceived as impersonal and overly punitive. Fraternity members struggle to hold one another accountable at all. Meanwhile, campuses are stripping away all remaining vestiges of student self-governance and imposing top-down, administratively-driven organizational conduct processes that are unnecessarily adversarial. Council judicial boards are defunct or on life support. Stakeholders (alumni, headquarters, advisors) are viewed by overzealous conduct officers as adversaries not to be trusted.
It’s a big damn mess.
The research we are doing at Dyad Strategies, as well as the conversations I’ve had with both students and administrators over the last three years, have helped me come to an understanding of three important lessons when it comes to rebuilding cultures of accountability and self-governance within our fraternity and sorority community. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be posting a series of blogs related to those lessons.
Lesson #1 - There are two systems of accountability operating simultaneously in fraternity and sorority chapters, and one is much more impactful than the other.
When you mention the word “accountability” to students, they generally associate that word with the formal systems of accountability in their chapters; specifically, their chapter’s standards/judicial process. If a student gets drunk and out of control at a social event, they are called to meet with the standards committee or judicial board and some sort of sanction is handed down.
Running parallel to these formal systems of accountability is each chapter’s informal system of accountability. The informal system of accountability is the peer-to-peer accountability that happens outside of the formal process. If a person is showing signs of problematic alcohol use, one or more of that person’s friends may confront that person about their alcohol use outside of the chapter’s recognized disciplinary procedures.
When you discuss these two parallel systems of accountability, students easily recognize that the informal process is more effective and impactful than the formal process when it comes to changing behavior. Going to your peers out of a position of love and concern is more likely to elicit behavioral change than punishing members through the standards process. Students intuitively understand what student developmental theory (specifically Kohlberg) has taught us for years – that most 18-22 year-old college students are in a stage of conventional moral development, taking moral cues from their peers. For most students, knowing that their peers disapprove of their behavior is the most powerful motivator for behavioral change. If a student’s peers go out of their way to confront the student about their behavior, that conversation is much more likely to influence behavior than that student being punished by authority figures (even if the authority figures are, in fact, a student’s peers, as would be the case with a standards committee).
In a recent research project for one of our national clients at Dyad Strategies, we measured the sisterhood in each of their 150 or so chapters, then went in and qualitatively studied those chapters with the “best” sisterhood. What we found about chapters with the strongest sisterhood based on accountability surprised us. Their formal systems of accountability were unremarkable – no different from other groups we’ve studied and observed. What stood out about these chapters was how well-developed their informal systems of accountability were. Members whose behavior ran counter to group values were dealt with informally by peers long before it rose to an issue worthy of a standards meeting. In fact, one of these chapters had even gone so far as to formalize their informal process. If a member’s behavior became problematic, the executive board would meet with the standards board to discuss the member’s behavior, and as a group would decide who the best people would be to go talk to this member informally about their behavior. Whether it be a best friend, a big sister, or some other person, the leaders of this chapter put great thought and intentionality into figuring out which person would most likely be successful in confronting the errant member about their behavior. Once selected, the executive board and standards committee would meet with the person selected to have the confrontation and explain to them what they were hoping to accomplish through the confrontation, then would follow up with that person after the confrontation had taken place to gain an understanding of how the message had been received by the problematic member. The standards process in these chapters was reserved for only the most egregious violators, or those for whom the friendly confrontations had little or no impact. By emphasizing informal over formal accountability, these chapters helped their members see the value in accountability as a function of a healthy and vibrant sisterhood.
Interestingly, these chapters with strong accountability also measured very high in belonging. This is consistent with our quantitative research – for both men and women, of all the brother/sisterhood schema, belonging is the strongest predictor of accountability. Qualitatively, what we observed in these chapters is that the belonging/accountability connection is through the informal systems of accountability, and not the formal systems. Think about it – if you feel a strong sense of belonging to a group of people, this will involve deep emotional connections. It is much easier to have a difficult confrontation with someone with whom you have a deep emotional connection as opposed to someone you barely know. Belonging doesn’t automatically lead to accountability, but it creates fertile ground where informal systems of accountability are much more likely to take root and grow.
Students will also readily admit that they often struggle with the “informal” system of accountability. College students today are incredibly uncomfortable with peer-to-peer confrontation, and students will readily admit it when you discuss accountability with them. Again, what our students understand intuitively is backed by research. College students today are less comfortable with confrontation in large manner because of the way they were raised. Recent research has suggested that the problems with confrontation experienced by this generation of college students traces its roots back to the way they were raised – it is a side-effect of helicopter parenting. This generation of students, relative to previous generations, received less of what researchers call unsupervised, unstructured playtime. Previous generations of children and adolescents regularly experienced large blocks of time playing and interacting with their peers without any adult presence. When conflicts arose, children learned to resolve those conflicts on their own. But this generation, because of their helicopter parents, did not experience as much of that unsupervised, unstructured playtime. Parents were always nearby keeping a close eye on things, and when conflict arose, the parents often stepped in and dealt with it. As a result, we have an entire generation of adolescents with little experience resolving conflict and who, as a result, report difficulty both offering and receiving critical feedback from their peers.
And then they come to college, join fraternities and sororities and we ask them to self-govern, even though they are developmentally ill-equipped to be successful at the task. Then, we do very little to prepare them for the work of holding one another accountable. It's a recipe for disaster.
I’ve previously written about other research related to the challenges of self-governance, but this emerging research regarding this generation of students’ inability to engage in confrontation is particularly troubling. Luckily, chapters that I have had the opportunity to work with in the last few years, when presented with this research, have devised activities with their new members designed to help them overcome this discomfort with confrontation. One chapter, in particular, developed a rather ingenious activity designed to have their new members gain comfort with confrontation. In the first week of new member education, the new members are required to memorize the fraternity’s creed (which contains the values of the fraternity). After ensuring that their new members have learned the creed and understand its meaning, this fraternity ends its weekly pledge meetings with an activity. The new members stand in a circle, and they go around the circle twice. The first time around, each new member states a time in the previous week when he saw one of his pledge brothers do something that upheld or exemplified a quality in the creed. The second time around, they are asked to state a time during the previous week when they saw one of their pledge brothers do something that ran counter to one of the values expressed in the creed. It’s a pretty simple activity, but if done well, can have a profound impact on a chapter’s culture.
Chapters that have implemented this activity with their new members have all reported the same thing back to me – the new members struggle with the confrontation piece of the activity the first few times they are made to do it, but over time, they become more and more comfortable confronting one another when their behavior runs counter to the fraternity’s values. When they are given a chance to practice peer-to-peer confrontation in a safe place, their comfort levels in confronting one another grow over time, to the point that it becomes a normalized, expected behavior. Once these men are initiated, peer-to-peer, informal accountability will be second nature to them, and accountability within their chapters will skyrocket.
When it comes to our work with chapters, a focus on informal accountability is probably where we’ll get the most bang for our buck in boosting accountability and, ultimately, self-governance. In the next installment of this series, I’ll be taking an in-depth look at campus organizational conduct procedures that provide incentives and motivation for chapters to self-govern in meaningful ways. Stay tuned!