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.

Conclusion

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.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Can Fraternities Become Victims of Their Own Success?

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this is a big problem for these fraternity chapters.

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

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

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

In other words, the chapter begins hazing.

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

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

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



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

So how do we prevent this cycle from happening?

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

These strategies include:

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

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

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

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