Thursday, January 3, 2019
Why Are Things So Bad? Four Problematic Trends Impacting the Fraternity/Sorority Experience
Those of us who have spent a decade or more working in the fraternity/sorority industry will all point to 2017 as a watershed year. 2017 changed everything. Five hazing deaths. Dozens of system-wide shutdowns. Hundreds of closed chapters. If rock bottom is a thing, 2017 was it for the fraternity and sorority industry. And while 2018 represented a great step in the right direction (major steps forward in terms of policies around alcohol and the partnership with the Piazza, Gruver, and Braham families – both major wins for the NIC), those of us who have been doing this work for a while are all asking ourselves the same thing.
How did things get so bad?
Don’t get me wrong – we’ve always had our problems. We didn’t just wake up in 2017 and, out of nowhere, we had all of these new problems with hazing and alcohol abuse. The problems have always been there, but in recent years, those issues have become much more acute. Things are worse than they’ve ever been, and the rise in problematic behavior has spiked in recent years compared to the relatively stable nature of these problems in the previous decade.
So, what has occurred in the last 3-5 years to catalyze the downward spiral in FSL? Below, I offer four interconnected trends that I think are the most responsible for the challenges we see in FSL today.
Trend 1 – Students’ Developmental Inability to Self-Govern
Much has been written of the post-millennial generation – both good and bad. While there is still much we don’t know about the group, they now represent the overwhelming majority of students on most campuses, and an even larger majority of students in our fraternity/sorority chapters. While the research on Gen Z is mixed and many of their characteristics remain unclear, one character trait that has become clear should strike all of us in FSL as particularly problematic – members of Gen Z lack basic confrontation and conflict resolution skills.
Here is what the research in this area points to - because of their helicopter parents, members of Gen Z received much less of what psychologists call “unsupervised, unstructured playtime” during their childhood and adolescent years. Their parents or other adults were almost always around. As a result, any time conflict emerged between a group of Gen Z kids, parents would almost inevitably jump in and resolve the conflict. Because of this, members of Gen Z acquired much less experience than previous generations resolving conflicts with their peers.
Now, they show up on campus and join our organizations and we tell them to “self-govern” and “hold one another accountable” while the research tells us that they are uniquely unprepared to do either of those things. Self-governance and peer-to-peer accountability requires navigating conflict, something that these students are wholly unprepared to do.
This inability to self-govern is one of the primary reasons that things have gotten worse in the last few years. In the not so distant past, chapters were much more willing to confront members who engaged in problematic behavior through both formal and informal systems of accountability (I’ve written about those two systems here). Now, those confrontations are few and far between. Members are much less likely to be called to task for their problematic behaviors, are much less likely to be punished for any wrong-doing, and as a result are more and more emboldened to carry out their anti-social behaviors without any meaningful checks or balances. The pressure to conform to pro-social group norms is much less pronounced than it was even just a few years ago, when millennials made up the majority of our chapters.
Trend 2 – Motivation to Join is Becoming Increasingly Social
Technology has had a tremendous impact on the amount of information available to would-be consumers of the fraternity and sorority experience. Again, this is a relatively new change. Ten years ago, before the onset of social media, the available information related to the fraternity/sorority experience was limited to a handful of websites, the TV show “Greek” and a handful of movies. Not anymore. Today, the market is flooded with websites and social media accounts, many of which promote some of the more unsavory aspects of the fraternity/sorority experience: Old Row, Total Frat/Sorority Move and GreekRank, just to name a few. In addition, we’ve seen increasing national media coverage of the fraternity/sorority industry. Stories that, only a few years ago, would have been limited to campus or local newspapers are now viral stories on major national media outlets. Would-be consumers of the fraternity/sorority experience are bombarded with negative images and messages about the fraternity/sorority experience – hazing, alcohol abuse, sexual assault, racism – and are choosing to join us in spite of all that. Or, as our research at Dyad suggests, they are now choosing to join us BECAUSE of all that. They are fully aware of the stereotype and the “problematic” aspects of fraternity/sorority life, and they are signing up for the experience.
One of the new measures our research team at Dyad Strategies has developed in the last year captures “motivation to join.” Students are motivated by a variety of factors – some join for involvement/leadership opportunities, some join for a home/sense of belonging, others join for networking opportunities, and others join for the social aspects of the fraternity/sorority experience. While the data we have gathered thus far is not longitudinal, they suggest a problematic trend – that students today are very likely to be joining for social reasons as opposed to leadership, involvement, or sense of belonging. Over time, we’ve seen tremendous spikes in the last few years on brother/sisterhood based on the shared social experience. Students are increasingly prioritizing the social aspects of membership over the other, more altruistic aspects of the experience.
Why does this matter? Ten years ago, we had a lot more students in organizations who cared about more than just the party scene. This change causes problems of its own, but it is not solely responsible for our challenges today. We have always had a certain percentage of members who only cared about, or at least prioritized, the social aspects of membership. Historically, there have generally been enough responsible leaders in chapters to keep those members at bay and to keep things, for the most part, from running off the rails. But because of the negative publicity and the promulgation of the negative stereotypes, students who are serious about both leadership and their academic pursuits and careers after college are becoming increasingly less likely to join fraternities and sororities. This is magnified by the availability of other options on campus for those students – living learning communities, academically focused honor societies, and student programming boards are all thriving on campuses where only a decade ago, Greek Life was the only leadership game in town. For many students, fraternity/sorority membership on a resume’ looks much less glamorous than it did a decade ago. As a result, we have a smaller percentage of chapter leaders fighting back against the negative cultures in their chapters. At best, chapter leaders feel completely overwhelmed by the challenges within their chapters and eventually give up. At worst, chapter leaders are complicit with the issues and are part of the problem. This toxic combination – more members motivated by social pursuits, a dip in leadership quality resulting from less students joining for altruistic reasons, and the aforementioned lack of confrontation skills – has been a recipe for disaster.
This problem, on its own, may represent our single greatest challenge as an industry. Until we are able to address who joins and why they join, our struggles with social culture will continue.
Trend 3 – Increasing Societal Political Polarization Impacting FSL
Much has been written about the increasing political polarization in our society, and the impact that polarization is having on our relationships, our voting patterns, and digestion of news. What has not been written about, until now, is how increasing political polarization is impacting the fraternity/sorority experience. While what I’m about to lay out here is anecdotal and based purely on my own observations, I believe we will soon have data to confirm what has been happening for the last few years.
While fraternity and sorority members have historically been more culturally conservative than their unaffiliated peers, those differences are becoming more pronounced. Unaffiliated students are increasingly progressive, and fraternity (and to some extent, sorority) members are increasingly conservative. Even within the fraternity/sorority community, there is less ideological diversity than there was 10 years ago, and chapters are now more or less divided along ideological lines. Within any given fraternity/sorority community (excluding culturally-based groups), you’ll see a handful (approximately 10-15 percent of chapters) in which a majority of members align left-of-center politically, and a majority of groups that view themselves as a bulwark against what they perceive to be an increasingly liberal student body and a biased university administration obsessed with political correctness and the advancement of a liberal agenda. A majority of IFC fraternities on most campuses could be best described as MAGA, ultra-conservative counter-cultures fighting against what they believe is the liberal establishment on their campuses.
In a zero-sum game where making my opponent suffer is good for me and my team, this political polarization manifests itself in increasingly unhealthy ways. Anything that fraternity members perceive to be a product of liberalism on the other team is met with resistance and skepticism, if not outright hostility. And some really important things end up getting filtered by this partisan political lens through which everything is viewed – sexual assault prevention, diversity and inclusion initiatives, conversations around masculinity, etc. You name it. If students perceive it to be the product of doctrinaire liberalism, they will ignore it, resist it, or fight back against it, especially when we begin hurling names at them and making them feel like part of the problem. And because of the increasing political homogeneity within our organizations, it is increasingly less likely that one of these groups will have voices of moderation to push back against the MAGA voices in their chapters. These opinions are increasingly likely to be held in a vacuum where no one dare challenge the mind guards who dominate the political viewpoints of the group. And because of the aforementioned deficit of conflict resolution skills in our chapters, those who disagree with the mind guards will likely do so in silence.
But the political polarization doesn’t stop there. As I’ve noted before, in the last decade we have seen a significant shift to the left among student affairs practitioners. Studies have shown that student affairs administrators are even more likely than faculty members to describe themselves as “liberal” or “very liberal.” I think one the greatest challenges in our industry today is the inability of increasingly liberal fraternity/sorority advisors to meaningfully connect with, support, and provide meaningful support for student groups that are culturally much more conservative. In our world of tribal politics, many FSA’s, particularly younger millennials in the profession, struggle to build relationships with students and alumni/volunteers because they come from completely different political tribes. Most fraternity/sorority advisors are speaking a completely different language than the majority of their students. The disconnect between many advisors and their communities has never been more pronounced than it is today, and the problem appears to only be getting worse. As I travel the country and meet undergraduate students, I meet a lot of chapter leaders who are operating without any sort of meaningful, trusting relationships with the fraternity/sorority office on their campuses.
This problem is closely connected to the fourth and final trend I will discuss.
Trend 4 - The FSL Talent Gap
Some of my colleagues made a lot of hay over the fact that I had the audacity to suggest, in advance of the AFA Annual Meeting, that our industry suffers from a talent gap. I do not think it is outlandish to suggest that, just maybe, we could all be a little better at our jobs. In fact, this wasn’t even the first time I’ve talked about this issue. A few years ago, I wrote about the fact that we expect the youngest, lowest-paid and least experienced people in student affairs to do one of the hardest jobs on campus, and we scratch our heads and wonder why things are so bad.
When I said that there is a talent gap in FSL, did I mean that we have dumb, untalented people working in our industry? Of course not. What I DID mean is that we have a lot of young people who lack experience holding many of these critical positions on our campuses, and that many of our best and brightest leave the field within a few years.
The talent gap manifests itself in many ways. For example:
- Fraternity/sorority directors (assuming the campus even has a director-level position for FSL) are the youngest and lowest paid directors in student affairs. Because of this, a majority of fraternity/sorority professionals leave the industry within five years.
- Campuses, particularly at Power 5 schools, routinely fail searches for directors because there are so few people with the experience and skills necessary to do those jobs who are actually interested in having those jobs.
- I can count on my two hands the number of talented, capable people doing this work who have been doing it for 15 years or more, and even fewer who have been doing it that long on the same campus.
The talent gap in and of itself is not new. But there are a few aspects of the talent gap that are new, and have only begun manifesting in the last few years. I’ve already discussed one new feature – the political gulf between many FSA’s and most of their students. But there is another element of the talent gap that is even more problematic.
Millennials now make up a majority of the workforce among fraternity/sorority advisors. And we know that millennials bring to the workforce a number of traits that most workplaces have not seen in the past. In particular, two millennial workplace trends have worked in combination to take a bad situation in fraternity and sorority life and somehow make it worse.
First, millennials are interested in pursing their passions. They are altruistic in that they are more motivated by doing work that they find interesting and meaningful than in just making money. Good, right? However, new research in student affairs by Ardoin, Crandall & Shinn (2018) reveals a gap between what early career professionals are bringing to student affairs and what senior student affairs officers expect and need from them. Many young fraternity/sorority advisors are more interested in doing work that aligns with their passions, regardless of whether or not that work is needed with their students, whether or not that work is a priority for their departments/divisions, and whether or not that work makes a difference in terms of moving the needle related to social culture on campus. For example, young fraternity/sorority advisors passionate about traditional gender roles and hypermasculinity are going to try to find ways to work conversations/programs about hypermasculinity into almost everything they do, regardless of whether or not those conversations are needed, whether or not students are prepared to listen to the message, and whether or not those conversations are helping move the needle with regards to the important issues in their community. While conversations about hypermasculinity (and other topics) are important, when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. Name the topic – hyper-masculinity, social justice, authenticity/vulnerability, whatever – and many young FSA’s would rather spend a significant amount of their working hours talking about and doing work involving whatever topic it is that drives their passion. Then, this trend intersects with the other problematic trend with millennials in the workforce.
Research has shown a very clear trend on this issue – millennials are much more likely to leave their jobs after a short period of time than previous generations. In our industry, after pursuing their passions for a year or two without any tangible results, they jump ship and move on to what they perceive to be greener pastures, only to continue to be unfulfilled and – this is the important part – the problems on their campuses get worse and worse. It is nearly impossible to build meaningful, trusting relationships with students and stakeholders and then be able to leverage those relationships in meaningful ways in order to push back against the negative social cultures on campus in a period of less than two years. So a new FSA comes to campus, spends a majority of their time doing what they are most interested in doing regardless of need, quickly grows disillusioned because they feel that they aren’t making an impact, and then leaves their job within two years. Little progress is made, and then the campus hires someone new to come in and the process repeats itself. No continuity, no progress, and no change.
Meanwhile, as we are spinning our wheels with constant staff turnover, the challenges within the campus social cultures continue to spiral downward, which inevitably leads to campus professionals pointing their fingers at national headquarters staff for not doing enough to correct these social problems. Then things get so bad that campuses institute system-wide shutdowns, angering students, alumni, and national organizations who see decreasing value in the support that campuses provide their chapters, further hampering campus professionals’ ability to build the trusting, meaningful relationships required to move the needle in a positive direction. Some (not all) national groups and alumni are increasingly willing to operate chapters unrecognized by their campuses because they see diminishing value in the support and services that are attached to campus recognition. Some national organizations feel that, on many campuses, they can support their chapters from afar better than on-campus professionals can support them. This leads to a lack of trust within the profession, which leads to AFA Business Meetings devolving into childish bickering about who can and cannot hold leadership positions within AFA. All while the social culture in our communities continues to spiral downward.
Each of these four trends are interconnected. They are intertwined in complicated ways. Further, we are only beginning to understand the impact of some of these trends. What will happen when post-millennials begin entering the workforce? What will happen if national fraternities become increasingly supportive of independent IFC’s? What will happen when the women’s groups begin seeing the same behavioral challenges as the men’s groups as the sorority experience becomes increasingly social (as our research indicates it already is)? There are many things we do not yet know about these four trends, how they will morph over the coming years, or what, exactly, should be done about them.
All of this leads to an obvious question – what can/should be done about these trends? While space does not allow me to tackle that question here, I hope to attempt tackle that question in future posts. The answers are complicated, but a good step forward in finding solutions is having an accurate description of the problems. That is what I have attempted to lay out here – an accurate description of what I see as the four intersecting problems that have led to our current environment. By understanding these four trends and their consequences, we can begin to work collectively as a field to find those answers. I look forward to serious conversations with serious people about the steps that need to be taken as we seek out those answers.