Wednesday, April 14, 2021

We Need to Make it Easier for Fraternity Leaders to Get Rid of Bad Apples

I haven’t posted anything to this blog in a long time. Most of my writing time these days is devoted to reports for clients, although I was able to carve out some time recently to publish our Dyad Strategies Whitepaper (which you need to read here, if you haven’t already, because it provides valuable context for this post) as well as a companion commentary piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education (which you also need to read and can be found here). We also launched the Dyad Podcast in the last year, and most of my creative energies have been applied there. So, the blog has just sat and gathered virtual dust for a while.

If you read the piece I published in the Chronicle, you will see that I lay out three things that we need to be thinking about as we approach the return to “normal” in the Fall. To summarize, we have to rethink our approach to recruitment and incentivize our chapters to go out and find more maybe and never joiners, we need to be prepared to provide some intensive alcohol dependency interventions, and we need to get serious about addressing the power differential inherent in a two-tiered active/pledge membership structure.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to drop a few blog posts as an addendum to the Chronicle article. There are a lot of other things we can/should be doing to prepare for the post-COVID environment, and I can be a bit more candid on my blog that I might be in a Chronicle piece.

This week, I want to talk about systems of accountability. We’ve been preaching accountability for years, but during that time we have not done much to update or improve our systems of accountability to meet the unique needs of a new generation of students. In my last blog post (written over two years ago) I highlight some of the research emerging around post-millennial students and their developmental inability to engage in meaningful confrontation. Traditional systems of accountability (which rely heavily on dated notions of self-governance) just aren’t working like they used to. As a result, more bad members are able to stay around chapters and inflict more damage than ever before. We have to make it easier for chapters to get rid of their bad apples.   

When I speak to fraternity members about hazing, one of the things I always do is ask them to close their eyes and picture the faces of the guys in their chapter who are the most likely to cross the line with a new member and do something that might actually hurt someone. Interestingly, no one ever has any difficulty with this task. Our chapter leaders know who their bad apples are, but in most organizations, they feel completely powerless to do anything about them.

Here is the the reality – in most groups, it takes a two-thirds vote of the entire chapter to expel a member. Even before the post-millennial generation and their inability to navigate healthy confrontation showed up on campus, a 2/3 vote by a chapter to expel someone was a tall order, but at this point it’s nearly impossible to expel someone short of them actually doing something truly awful. Because they are not gluttons for punishment, most chapter presidents are not willing to jump through the hoops necessary to even try to expel someone if they know the process is bound for failure. Why expend the emotional energy and political capital to expel someone when the process is destined to fail and half of the chapter is going to hate you when the process is over? Most chapter leaders feel completely powerless to do anything to rein in the behavior of their worst members. The result is that these bad apples are allowed to sit around and contaminate the other apples around them until they finally do something bad enough to get them expelled. But at that point, it is generally too late, because the thing that would finally get them expelled ends up with someone getting hurt and the chapter being closed.

I think Phi Delta Theta has a really good model for how we can make getting rid of bad members easier for chapters. In their process, all a chapter president has to do is ask their regional director (a high-level volunteer position) to remove a member. No trial by chapter. No 2/3 majority. The regional director simply talks to a few people, and if he decides the expulsion is warranted, he signs off on it. Of course, there is an appeal process to ensure that the ease of this process is not abused by a chapter president out seeking retribution on his enemies, which is all you really need in terms of a safety net.

Until we acknowledge that what might have worked 25 years ago in terms of self-governance isn’t going to work today, our chapters are going to struggle to effectively deal with their bad apples. We are living in a period in which those rogue members have felt increasingly empowered to take matters into their own hands, behind closed doors, in private residences away from campus (as appears to be the case in the deaths of both Adam Oakes and Stone Foltz). If we want to avoid further disaster in our fraternity chapters this Fall, we have to take proactive steps now to make the process of expelling problem members easier.

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. 

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Structural Barriers to Diversity in Panhellenic Sororities

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

The McNamara Fallacy in Fraternity/Sorority Life

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

Lessons On Accountability

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!

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

It Is Time to End Pledging

“Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” – Lord Acton

In 1971, a psychologist at Stanford named Phil Zimbardo received a grant from the Department of Defense to conduct a study on the impact of incarceration on prisoners. Instead of studying actual inmates at a real prison, Zimbardo had a different idea – to create his own simulated prison. Over the summer, he transformed the basement of the psychology building at Stanford into a prison, complete with bars, cells, and a mess hall. He recruited 16 students to participate in the study. Applicants had to undergo a rigorous psychological evaluation. Once the students were selected, eight were randomly assigned to be the prisoners, the other eight randomly assigned to be the guards.

The guards were only given two rules: keep the prisoners imprisoned at all times, and do not physically abuse the prisoners. Otherwise, the guards were left to run the prison as they saw fit.

The rest of the story is now a part of psychological folklore. The study, which was supposed to last for five weeks, was abruptly cancelled on the fourth day because the behavior of the guards became so abusive that two of the prisoners suffered emotional breakdowns. Their abuse of the prisoners, in a matter of days, became increasingly severe; sleep deprivation, lineups, food deprivation, and a variety of other dehumanizing activities quickly manifested themselves as the norm in Zimbardo’s imaginary prison.

The Stanford Prison Experiment, as it is now known, illustrated in a powerful and real way a dark reality of human nature – that power corrupts. As Zimbardo himself noted, “absolute power in a novel setting will lead even good, decent people to engage in inhumane, abusive behavior.”

Absolute power. In a novel setting. Sound familiar?

Hazing is a societal problem that is much, much bigger than fraternities and sororities. In the 2007 National Study of Student Hazing, over half of students involved in clubs and organizations on college campuses reported experiencing hazing in high school. Just last week, it was reported that Colgate University had suspended the men’s rowing team because of alcohol related hazing. Evolutionary Psychologist Alco Cimino has suggested that hazing is an evolutionary adaptation – literally part of our nature – by which we prevent new group members from exploiting the benefits of the group without contributing to its success. Hazing is not just a fraternity problem. It is a societal problem. It is in our DNA.

But why is hazing so much more severe in college fraternities than in any other group? Why does fraternity hazing so frequently result in injury or death? When I speak with students about hazing, I point out the fact that 44 fraternity/sorority members died between the last two non-Greek hazing deaths (Ken Christiansen in 2001, and Robert Champion in 2011). And dozens more have died since. Why are fraternities (and to a lesser extent, sororities) killing their members with such frightening regularity? What about the college fraternity experience makes it uniquely prone to dangerous, deadly hazing?

Absolute power. In a novel setting.

On a sports team, in a band, in the military, and in literally every other group we commonly associate with hazing, the power of hazers is mitigated by a responsible adult who is ultimately in control of the group. If I am a freshman on the college baseball team, I may go along with some low-level hazing just to be a good sport, but I am not likely to subject myself to anything that I perceive to be particularly dangerous or degrading because, at the end of the day, the person hazing me has very little real power over me. The coach of my team ultimately decides who plays, and if I’m better than the guy hazing me, I’ll play over him regardless of whether or not I subject myself to his abuse.

The fraternity pledging process, on the other hand, gives the hazer absolute power over the person he is hazing. If I am a freshman fraternity member, I am led to believe that if I do not willingly subject myself to the whims of my abuser, that he has the power to remove me from the pledging process and prevent my initiation. There are no adults in the mix – advisors have no real authority in the chapter, particularly in decisions about membership (who gets a bid, who gets initiated). The power differential between hazer and victim is more pronounced in the college fraternity than in any other group on or off the college campus. When we add into this mix the social status that many fraternities enjoy, dangerous levels of alcohol consumption, lower levels of moral development, heightened hypermasculinity, and the belief of many undergraduates that their fraternities are inherently social in nature, we have a recipe for disaster.

Researcher Aldo Cimino has argued that hazing is an evolutionary response to the need for groups to prevent free-riders – those who would exploit the benefits of the group without contributing to the group’s success. He has also demonstrated that the groups with the most perceived benefits are those most prone to dangerous hazing. It is in our nature to haze, and fraternities with their social clout on campus provide an environment ripe for dangerous, deadly hazing. 

Knowing that we are programmed to haze, and knowing that severe hazing is more common in groups providing the most benefits to their members, and knowing everything we know about the cognitive and moral development of adolescent males, we still permit membership structures that give 19 and 20-year-old men absolute power over the lives of their 18-year-old new members.

This is the definition of insanity.

We cannot have membership structures that give absolute power to 19-year-old fraternity members and not expect them to abuse that power. We can no longer have a serious conversation about hazing prevention without first addressing the power differential inherent in the fraternity pledging process. It is time to end the outdated, antiquated process of pledging.

Will ending pledging get rid of hazing? Of course not. Newly initiated members will still be subjected to those members who feel newcomers must earn their membership. But by eliminating the power differential inherent in the pledging process, we empower the new members to stick up for themselves and walk away from activities they feel are dangerous. We lessen their tolerance of severe forms of hazing, thereby reducing its likelihood of occurring. Fraternities engage in abusive hazing because they can – because they know their pledges wills subject themselves to it. Once they realize they cannot – that newly initiated members will not subject themselves to abuse in the name of “earning” something they have already earned, the culture will begin to change.

Then, and only then, can we begin a meaningful conversation about helping chapters develop meaningful rites of passage for their new members – activities that build solidarity and create a sense of accomplishment in ways that do not involve abusive or dangerous behavior. But as long as this period of trial membership remains, conversations about replacing hazing with other activities are an exercise in futility. As long as we give 19-year-old men absolute power over the lives of 18-year-old men, we will continue to see them abuse that power in dangerous and deadly ways.

As fraternal organizations may be slow to adopt new membership structures, campuses are uniquely positioned to serve as a catalyst for this change. Through sanctioning for lower-level hazing cases, campuses conduct offices can require disciplined organizations to immediately initiate all future new members. Campuses can adopt blanket policies requiring that student organizations eliminate pledging and all other forms of “trial membership.” As long as any such requirements are either the result of a campus disciplinary proceeding or are universally applied to all student groups (and not just fraternities), campuses would be wholly within their rights to begin promulgating such requirements.

It is time to start this conversation now, because there is a dirty secret that no one has had the courage to utter, but that I will state here for the record. What happened to Timothy Piazza at Penn State, or to Max Gruver at LSU, could happen tomorrow in 75 percent of fraternity houses in America. Alcohol-related hazing is frighteningly common. These deaths were not isolated incidents. They are the inevitable result of a system in which we mix an alcohol-fueled party culture, low moral development, hypermasculinity, tradition, and the forces of evolution with a heaping scoop of absolute power. It is a recipe for disaster, and it is well past time that we fixed it.

Ending pledging will not fix the problem of hazing, but failing to end pledging will prevent us from ever truly fixing it. 

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Drunk Sex Problem, Revisited

Take a look at the photo above, and imagine the following scenario:

Each of these young women, depicted here pre-gaming before their date party (photo courtesy of TSM), go out tonight and have similar experiences. They consume alcohol to the point of incapacitation, and each go home with their respective dates and engage in sexual intercourse. Each of them wakes up the following morning with only a vague recollection of what happened the night before.

Woman A laughs about what happened. She had a blast the night before, remembers being really into her date and wanted to have sex with him. The fact that she was too drunk to remember what happened doesn’t bother her. She knew they guy, was comfortable with him, and wanted to sleep with him. In her mind, it was a great ending to a great night.

Woman B wakes up confused, and attempts to replay what happened but can’t seem to remember details. She liked her date and was into him, but hadn’t really planned on having sex with him. She isn’t necessarily bothered by the fact that they had sex, but feels really bad that she was too drunk to remember it. She tells herself that she needs to be more careful and probably watch her alcohol consumption in the future to make sure she doesn’t put herself in this situation again.

Woman C wakes up, horrified. She has no recollection of what happened and is scared. She didn’t really know her date very well – it was a guy she’d met at a party the week before. She had no intention of having sex with him. Upon getting dressed, she immediately goes to the hospital, tells the nurses that she thinks she may have been raped the night before and asks for a rape kit examination.

Three women with three identical experiences, each of them defining what happened to them in a completely different way.

My question for you is this:

Which one of them is correct?

Alcohol and Minimization

Two years ago, I wrote an article entitled “The Drunk Sex Problem” for AFA’s Perspectives magazine. In that article, I pointed to the fact that in the study from which the “one in five” statistic comes, only a third of the women who reported incapacitated sexual activity defined those experiences as sexual assault. I went on in that article to critique some of the popular prevention messaging related to alcohol and consent.

Unfortunately, we continue to see confusing messages around this topic. At a national prevention conference last year, a keynote speaker praised campus prevention campaigns using messages such as “Drunk sex is rape” and “a person under the influence of alcohol cannot consent to sexual activity.” The problem with these statements is two-fold. First, the legal standard, as well as the standard articulated in guidance related to Title IX, is “Incapacitated,” which is a higher threshold than just “drunk.” These messages are often inconsistent with law and university policy. Secondly, if we use prevention messages such as “drunk sex is rape” and “someone under the influence of alcohol cannot consent to sexual activity” then we are, in essence, calling a vast majority of college students rapists and/or rape victims. We are also telling two of the three women depicted in the scenario above that they are incorrectly interpreting their own experiences. We are telling them that they are wrong.

All of this is a big problem.

One of the assessment instruments we have developed at Dyad Strategies (manuscript under review) examines the various ways that members of a sorority might respond when a chapter member discloses that she has been sexually assaulted. There are four general responses that sorority members may have in this situation. First, they could support the survivor and do everything we would hope that they would do in order to support their sister. On the other hand, they may blame her for what happened, asking her things like “why did you go home with him if you didn’t want to have sex” or “why did you have so much to drink.” Thirdly, they may minimize her experience, trying to deescalate her interpretation of what happened by asking her questions like “are you sure you’re not just regretting what happened” or making statements like “I’m not sure that’s rape – it was really just a drunk hookup.” Lastly, a sorority may place social pressure on a member to NOT report what happened for fear of the sorority becoming a social pariah on campus (i.e. if the alleged party is a member of a popular campus fraternity).

We have studied each of these responses to sexual assault in connection to a variety of the constructs we study, including sisterhood and various measures of chapter social culture. Of all the relationships we have observed (and will soon be publishing), one stands out above all others – the strong relationship between alcohol use and the minimization mindset. Of the four mindsets, alcohol use has the strongest relationship with minimization among sorority women, and in a regression model, alcohol use is the single greatest predictor of a minimization mindset. The more frequently a sorority member reports binge drinking, the more likely she is to minimize the experiences of her peers when it comes to potential sexual assaults. She is increasingly likely to be the one asking “are you sure you’re not just regretting what happened” or “are you sure that wasn’t just a drunk hookup.”

After we analyzed the data and uncovered the strong relationship between alcohol use and the minimization mindset, I spent several hours over a period of weeks trying to make sense of the relationship between the two. And then one day it dawned on me – binge drinking predicts minimization because frequent binge drinkers and their close friends are themselves more likely to have had incapacitated sexual experiences that they did NOT define as sexual assault. In other words, they are Woman A in the scenario depicted above. They, and their close friends, are increasingly likely, based on their alcohol use, to have had incapacitated sexual experiences. And, if they did not identify those experiences as sexual assaults, then they are likely to use their own lens for defining potential sexual assault when discussing similar experiences with their peers. If what happened to them was just a fun, drunk hookup, then how can it be a sexual assault when someone else has a similar experience?

Message Matters

If, like me, you believe that the three women depicted in the scenario at the beginning of this article are ALL correct – that each person is free to define their experiences in their own way – and if, like me, you care about preventing sexual assault, then we need to revisit the problems associated with the “drunk sex is rape” prevention messages.

The fact of the matter is that reducing this complex issue down to simple slogans like "drunk sex is rape" or "a drunk person cannot consent to sex" is not helpful, and it may even be counterproductive. We’ve tried to create a dumbed-down, black and white, dualistic message for our students, but the reality is that sexual assault is not a black and white, easy, simple issue. There is a great deal of relativism involved – different people respond to similar scenarios in drastically different ways. Our prevention messaging needs to reflect both the complexity of the issue as well as the lived experience of the students we are trying to educate.

The goal of prevention programming should be to have students walk away from a program saying “I should be much more careful about my sexual choices when alcohol is involved.” We should also seek to create dissonance in some people about their past sexual behavior, causing them to consider that, perhaps, some of their previous sexual experiences COULD have been considered sexual assaults. Male students who frequently mix sex and alcohol should walk away from a prevention program saying to themselves “I’m very fortunate that I have not been accused of sexual assault – I really need to be more careful.” If the goal of prevention programming is to change student thinking in a way that might change their behavior at some point in the future, then having students critically reflect on their past sexual experiences is an important and effective step.

Calling the vast majority of our students rapists and/or rape victims, I would argue, is not an effective strategy for achieving the desired changes in thought and behavior. As my friend Aaron Boe frequently points out, being reckless with messaging can have serious unintended consequences for those you’re trying to help. The implication of “drunk sex is rape” is that if students have had sex while intoxicated then they should see themselves as having experienced sexual assault, either as a victim or a perpetrator. If they don’t reject the message outright as absurd (adults have responsible, healthy sexual experiences involving alcohol all the time) then a person may take on an emotional burden that was not there before by contemplating an entirely different kind of label for their experience. Or, a person's friends may start insisting that their drunken hook up should be considered “sexual assault,” resulting in emotional pain and potential pressuring of one kind or another about what to do next (as appeared to be the case in the now famous incident at Occidental College). 

Having students be more thoughtful about drunk sex is an important goal. Telling students that “drunk sex is rape” is an incredibly ineffective strategy for achieving that goal, because instead of having students reflect on their own experiences, it puts students on the defensive, causing them to tune out our messages and serving to confuse rather than to clarify, wasting their time and ours. Having students understand that their drunken sexual experiences could potentially be sexual assault is an erstwhile goal, but telling them that drunk sex is ALWAYS rape is a poor strategy for achieving that outcome, because that statement ignores the complexity of the issue and is so inconsistent with their own experiences (remember, 2/3 of women who have an incapacitated sexual experience do NOT identify it as sexual assault). In my original "Drunk Sex" article, I cited Brett Sokolow's insightful whitepaper on incapacitation and the need for clarity related to conversations about alcohol and consent. That whitepaper was written in 2005! Twelve years later, and we are still struggling with this issue. We need to evolve quickly and become more sophisticated in our prevention messaging in order to connect with students in a way that will change their thinking and, subsequently, their behaviors.

Strategies for Educating Men

I was discussing these issues at a recent conference presentation, and was talking about the need for a more nuanced approach to our education regarding alcohol, capacity and consent, urging participants to help students understand where the line between “drunk sex” and “incapacitation” is drawn. One of the participants came up to me after the session, and while very complimentary of the session, asked me a question that was very consistent with my own experience.

“I understand that we need to help men understand where the line between drunk sex and rape is drawn, but how do we do that without the conversation turning into a Q&A about ‘how far can I push the envelope without getting in trouble’?” In other words, how do we keep our prevention programs with men from turning into a “how to not get accused of rape” session.

On this question, I will shine a light on some of the work that my friend and colleague Aaron Boe at Prevention Culture is doing. His work in this area has greatly influenced my own, and I think his approach to sexual assault prevention with fraternity and sorority members is the most enlightened, well-researched approach that I have personally seen.

As Aaron and I have discussed on many occasions, when we are educating men (whether in a group or a 1-on-1 conversation), the sequence of topics in a prevention conversation is very important. Conversations on capacity are more relevant after men understand the critical concept of, as Aaron puts it, “It doesn’t take what people might imagine to be ‘violence’ for a person to be violated and experience serious emotional harm.” When you start with simplified messaging like “drunk sex is rape” or over-simplified slogans on consent, there is an implicit threat involved—you are naturally implying threats of very serious punishment. Why wouldn’t a young man hearing this message be concerned and defensive? And when you make a misstep and say something unrealistic or untrue (because adults impaired by alcohol have mutual, ethical, and even healthy physical intimacy all the time) you are just daring them to discredit you and dismiss your message. Too often, people skip the part that matters, which is the harm that can be caused. Virtually all non-sociopathic people care about not causing serious harm to another person, and not having any guest or person around them experience serious harm. Most men, however immature they might be, at least care about not causing serious emotional harm to another. And we need people to care and be engaged (rather than defensive or dismissive) to have meaningful discussions about sexual assault.

I would suggest based on my own observations and my conversations with Aaron that the sequence of topics should be in the following order:

1. Help men understand the realities of trauma – Aaron has a really neat way of getting this point across. He puts pictures of two men on the screen – one a haggard, unshaven, scary-looking guy who you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley at night, and the other of a bright-eyed, handsome, baby-faced college man. He will ask students to identify the convicted rapist. This is a trick question, because both men in the photographs are convicted rapists. Aaron will then make the point that most men understand how someone being sexually assaulted by the first guy might be traumatic, but don’t really understand how being assaulted by the second guy might be traumatic. He’ll then ask the men to identify the reasons that being assaulted by the young, baby-faced guy may actually be MORE traumatic than being assaulted by the unshaven, scary guy. The men will immediately be able to identify the issues (perhaps it was someone she trusted, maybe it is someone she has to see on campus every day, etc.). By helping men understand how being assaulted by a peer (i.e. someone just like them) could be a traumatic experience, Aaron is able to help them understand the realities of trauma in a way that really causes them to reflect on their own choices. For the non-sociopaths in the room, the natural response to this realization is “I wouldn’t want to traumatize or hurt someone. Maybe I need to be more careful.”

2. Help men understand THEIR responsibility in preventing sexual assault – Most college men operate in a sexual world with the following rule – “I’ll keep going until my partner makes me stop.” After we have helped students understand the reality of trauma, then we can help them buy into reframing the conversation about responsibility. If they are not sexual predators or sociopaths, then most men are going to say “If I don’t want to traumatize someone, then it is MY responsibility to make sure that I’m only doing something that my partner wants me doing.” Again, the sequence of lessons here is important. Talking about this responsibility shift BEFORE we help men understand the realities of trauma would not work. But when men understand the potential trauma that they could cause, then helping them take responsibility for NOT causing trauma is much easier.

3. Help men understand capacity and consent – Once men understand the reality of trauma AND their responsibility in ensuring that they don’t traumatize someone, we are now ready to have the conversation about capacity and consent. When we wait to have the conversation about capacity and consent until the end, we are able to keep the conversation from turning into “how do I avoid getting accused of rape” and instead make it about “How can I make sure I respect my partner and never do anything that would hurt or traumatize someone.” And with that as the focus of our conversation, we can explore the grey area between “drunk sex” and incapacitation, helping men come to terms with the fact that perhaps they are lucky that they haven’t previously been accused of sexual assault – that perhaps they are just fortunate that their previous sexual partners did not identify those experiences as sexual assault.

With this realization in mind, we can then help them understand how to recognize an incapacitated person, help them understand blackouts, and help them draw a line in the sand WELL before someone is incapacitated. In doing so, we are recognizing that perhaps their previous sexual encounters may very well NOT have been sexual assault, but perhaps they are fortunate that this is the case. This requires us to acknowledge the ambiguity of drunk sex/sexual assault, and to acknowledge that different people may respond to things in different ways. In doing so, I will share the picture and scenario depicted at the beginning of the article and walk them through the fact that different people respond to things in different ways. Equipped with this understanding, they are now prepared to take responsibility for their actions in order to ensure that they do not engage in ANY sexual activity that could possibly even be CONSIDERED as sexual assault. In other words, we’ve helped them understand that drunk sex might well be sexual assault if a person is incapacitated, and why that matters (emotional trauma), without making the oversimplified and inaccurate statement “drunk sex is rape.”

Strategies for Educating Women

Equipped with the knowledge that binge drinking is the leading predictor of both sexual assault minimization and victim blaming among sorority members, our prevention strategies with women must include conversations around alcohol and social culture. Unfortunately, this has become very unpopular in many prevention circles.

At a recent prevention conference, I heard an industry expert, a renowned researcher on the topic, stand before a room and say “alcohol does not cause sexual assault, because we know that those who use alcohol to rape would find other ways to rape in the absence of alcohol.” While I agree with the first part of the statement, that alcohol does not cause sexual assault, I vehemently disagree with the second part of that statement. There is a new wave of thought within some circles of the prevention field that basically assumes that there are no “accidental rapists.” This way of thinking assumes that all men who are involved in sexual assault are, by definition, sexual predators. I bit my tongue during the session, but was very to tempted to stand up and ask “if all men who rape are sexual predators and incapable of being helped, then sexual assault cannot possibly be prevented. If that is the case, then why are we all wasting our time here at a prevention conference?”

I operate from an assumption that the vast majority of sexual assaults CAN be prevented, that many college men who find themselves involved in situations where alcohol is involved and capacity and consent are in question are NOT intentional predators or sociopathic serial rapists but instead are caught up in a culture where binge drinking and “drunk hookups” are not only normalized, but glorified. Don’t believe me? Go check out the TSM website and get back to me. If I am correct, then I think it is wholly appropriate to talk with sorority women about the social culture of their chapters while acknowledging that alcohol DOES NOT cause rape, a survivor is NEVER AT FAULT because she drank too much, and that the top priority in prevention is and always will be to educate men NOT TO RAPE. We can do all of those things while still acknowledging that the social culture of a chapter creates conditions in which sorority members may be more or less likely to be assaulted, and also creates environmental conditions that can help or hinder women from feeling supported by their sisters if they experience sexual violence. It is appropriate to help sorority members understand that it is everyone’s responsibility – men and women – to work to create environments where sexual assaults are less likely to occur. We cannot have an honest conversation about preventing sexual assault if we are not willing to consider the role that alcohol plays in the environments in which those assaults are taking place. Our goal should not be ideological purity around issues of consent and sex – our goal should be preventing sexual assaults from happening. And if that is our goal, then we need to be willing to have honest conversations about social culture and its role in sexual assault. (And, to give credit where credit is due, I think the "ideological purists" bring much needed clarity to our dialogue and are generally spot-on in the things they say, but being "right" and being an effective educator are not always the same thing).

In addition, when we are talking with sorority members about these issues, we need to revisit the three young women in the scenario depicted earlier. After explaining the scenario, ask sorority members the same question I asked you at the beginning of the article - which one of these women is correct? Eventually, I promise, someone will give you the right answer – all three of the women are correct. Each of those three women are free to define what happened to them in their own way. It is not our job to define their experiences for them. Just because I interpreted something that happened to me differently than my friend interpreted her similar experience does not mean I am right and she is wrong. Or vice versa. And whether or not a university policy or any laws were broken will be subject to an investigation and a review of the facts of the case applied to the appropriate laws/policies.


Preventing sexual assault is important work. It is work that we need to get right. It is a complicated topic, and it requires expertise and great skill to do this work in a meaningful and effective way. I regularly see well-intentioned prevention educators completely botch their conversations with fraternity and sorority members because their messages ignore the complexity of the issue, ignore the lived experiences of the students they are trying to educate, and ignore the realities of the social culture in which sexual assaults are occurring. If we are going to be good at this work – and by good, I mean we actually change student thinking in a way that might change their choices and behavior – then we need to be clear and precise about our messages. This will require some people to set their own ideological purity aside and be willing to engage in conversations that acknowledge the complexity of the issue, clarifies where the lines are actually drawn, and ultimately prevents harm. The topic of drunk sex and incapacitation is complicated enough; we don't need to further complicate it by being careless about how we communicate these messages. Doing this requires us to acknowledge that different people define things in different ways, but ultimately it is everyone’s responsibility to both make our social environments safer and to know where to draw the line in order to ensure that we are not traumatizing or harming other people by violating their most basic human right – choosing what to do, and not do, with their bodies.

*Author’s NoteI acknowledge that this article is written from a heteronormative perspective. Not all sexual assaults are perpetrated by men, and not all victims of sexual assault are women. The unique issues involving sexual assault falling outside of the heteronormative “male-on-female” gender binary merit a more thorough examination than this blog post would allow, and demand more expertise than I purport to have regarding those issues. I offer this explanation while fully acknowledging the very serious issues involving sexual assault that happens beyond the heteronormative examples used in this article.