Friday, May 2, 2014

Is Self-Governance Dead?

The concept of self-governance is at the heart of the American college fraternity. Self-governance has long been considered the key to the development that takes place within these organizations; take a group of young men, put them in a cooperative social setting, allow them to wrestle with the concepts of accountability and responsibility, then sit back and watch them grow up. Magic.

For over 150 years, this model has worked pretty well.  Sure, the college fraternity has taken its lumps over the years, and fraternity members have made their fair share of screw-ups, but on the whole, most fraternal experiences could be described as developmental, and self-governance has played a key role in that development.  Individuals from my generation, and previous generations, often attribute their fraternity experience as a key to their growth and development into responsible young men.

In principal, I think self-governance among college students is a good thing, and an erstwhile goal for higher education administrators. Research from the National Study of Student Engagement suggests that student agency, a fancy term for self-governance, is linked to a number of positive outcomes on campus. Allowing students to take ownership over their choices, and to reap the rewards and pay the consequences of those choices, is a powerful developmental tool. This idea has found its way into my teaching – In my student development theory class, my students have become familiar with “McCreary’s Laws.” Law Number Two is “Never do for students what they can and should do for themselves.”  You would be hard-pressed to find a bigger advocate of student agency and self-governance than myself.

Despite my enthusiasm for self-governance, a number of emerging trends point to an inescapable truth: college students today are developmentally much less prepared to effectively self-govern than previous generations.

A 2010 study by researchers at the University of Michigan point out that empathy among college students is at an all-time low. Empathy, or the ability to relate to another person by putting yourself in their shoes, is a uniquely human trait and, as suggested by moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt, is at the core of human morality. Several explanations have been made for the decline in empathy – my friend Stephen Black would suggest that it stems from our decreased levels interaction with those who are different from us – the civic disconnect of our society. Some argue that levels of empathy are down because children have less unstructured time and less opportunity to resolve conflicts among themselves as adolescents. Regardless of the reason, this lack of empathy has a profound impact on one’s ability to govern oneself and one’s peers.  Simply, how can a student who is unable to put himself in someone else's shoes be expected to responsibly make decisions impacting his peers? How can a student lacking empathy be expected to hold peers accountable in any meaningful way?

The decrease in empathy has been coupled with steady increases in narcissism. It does not take a long time to surmise what this combination means – students are much more concerned about their own lives and struggles than they are with the lives of their peers. Again, the implications for self-governance are obvious.

Perhaps most troubling, the research of the co-chair of my dissertation committee, Dr. Steve Thoma, is pointing to the clear trend of students coming to college exhibiting lower and lower levels of moral development. In his research with Micky Bebeau he has found that not only are post-conventional moral development scores on the decline, but personal self-interest (PI) scores are on the rise. In a nutshell, this means that college students today are much less likely to make decisions about right and wrong based on universal ethical principles (i.e. do unto others…) and much more likely to make those decisions based on coarse self-interest (i.e. I don’t care if my fraternity brother is struggling with substance abuse problems and is abusing his girlfriend, as long as it doesn't affect me) or based on maintaining group norms (i.e. I have a problem with the rape culture in our chapter, but nobody else seems to have a problem with it…). We also know that the moral development of college fraternity members stagnates during college, while non-affiliated students experience tremendous growth during the college years.  Expecting students with these attributes to self-govern in the same way that previous generations have self-governed may be a tall order. These phenomena may also be responsible for the increase in behavioral problems (hazing, substance abuse, sexual misconduct, etc.) we see across the board in the college fraternity today. Today's college student is much less prepared to confront others, resolve conflict, or foster an ethic of social responsibility when compared college students of previous generations.

All of this begs the questions: Are our models of fraternal self-governance adequately equipped to provide for the development of today’s college student?  Is the free reign and autonomy given to undergraduate fraternity leaders adequate in properly developing them as future leaders of society?  Or are we using an outdated model that needs to be adjusted to meet the needs of today’s college student?

A Model of Shared Governance

Instead of a model in which undergraduates are expected to make all decisions in a vacuum, completely insulated from the input of responsible adults, I would offer that we should begin investigating models of shared governance for undergraduate chapters.

At the national level, Alpha Tau Omega has flirted with a version of shared governance with their Board of Trustees chapter advisory model. I have worked with some very high-performing ATO chapters in my career, and can directly tie the success of some of those chapters to highly involved BOT’s who ACTIVELY INSERTED THEMSELVES into the decision-making apparatus of the chapter. They assisted in the new member education process. They helped oversee the budget. They were involved in recruitment. In a word, they did more than show up at a chapter meeting once a month – they were actively involved in making decisions and running the chapter.  And these chapters were incredibly high performing – large chapters with incredible grades, sound risk management programs with members involved in all corners of campus life. These were model chapters; award-winning chapters.

Notice I did not say these BOT’s ran the chapter. The president still ran meetings. The new member educator still delivered the new member education. But none of these individuals operated in a vacuum. They were actively supported by, and were in frequent consultation with, a responsible adult.

I think this issue is much bigger than just active advisory teams. How can we infuse alumni into chapter operations in a way that allows them to play an active role in the governance of the chapter? In a previous blog post, I have argued for a model in which alumni play a role in decisions about membership.  We should also involve them in the internal standards/accountability process, the recruitment process, and in all facets of chapter operations. These processes should not be run by alumni, but alumni should not be limited to the role of passive bystander. They should be actively involved in shared decision-making. 

Transitioning to such a model could have multiple benefits. It would improve chapter operations. It would reduce risk management issues. It would provide more opportunities to develop meaningful mentoring relationships. It would provide alumni with meaningful volunteer opportunities and lifelong engagement.  Perhaps most importantly, it would allow for meaningful student development by giving students an opportunity to work hand in hand with adults on important issues. There is a reason that most collegiate sororities operate at a much higher level than their fraternal counterparts – the alumnae advisors play a much more active role in the day to day operations of the chapter.

One thing is certain – our current model is unsustainable. Sigma Alpha Epsilon has decided to address its issues through the elimination of pledging. While this model may have merit, would a move to shared governance not have been less painless and would it not be capable of similar results? Only time will tell, but we need more organizations willing to challenge the status quo and experiment with new ways of doing business. Moving towards models of shared governance may provide some answers to the questions vexing the fraternal community.


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