Monday, June 2, 2014

Sheep Amidst the Wolves: Making Our Own Leadership Commitments

It’s summer leadership conference season!!!  For the last few weeks, and for the foreseeable future, my newsfeed has been blown up by posts from friends and colleagues headed off to Bloomington or some other far-flung place in order to facilitate a UIFI or a Leadershape or any number of hodgepodge fraternal leadership programs.
I have facilitated a number of these programs myself. I see great value in their ability to inspire students to become greater versions of themselves, to live with integrity and purpose, and to build skills that will help them lead their peers and their organizations.  Unfortunately, when it comes to real culture change, most of these programs continue to fall short.

One of my favorite movies is “The Devil’s Advocate” starring Al Pacino and Keanu Reeves. There is a scene, early in the movie, when Reeve’s character, Kevin Lomax, is recruited away from Podunk, FL to New York City. His mother pleads with him not to go, afraid of what might befall him, but Kevin is determined to make it in the big city. As he leaves his crying mother behind in a proverbial cloud of dust, she admonishes him with scripture; “Behold, I send you out as sheep amidst the wolves!”  I have always assumed that she meant she was sending him out into the world, completely unprepared to handle the pitfalls and perils certain to come his way.

For a while now, I have thought that we should end our fraternity/sorority leadership programs with the same warning to students.  We bring them together for a week, surround them with mostly like-minded people, make them cry, implore them to live their values, make them feel guilty for all of the bad things going on in their chapters, get them all fired up to go home and change the world, and then send them out as sheep amidst the wolves. We send them right back to the sick cultures from whence they came, ill-prepared and na├»ve in their expectations, expecting them to enlist others in their cause, hoping and praying that they will be able to get their chapters and communities on the right track.

Here’s the problem with that model – the students we are asking to fix these broken cultures had no role in making those cultures what they are.  The problems facing the fraternity/sorority community are systemic. They are the natural and inevitable by-product of the systems we have in place. We have recruitment policies designed around conformity and social status, yet act surprised when alcohol becomes part of the recruitment process or when new members aren’t recruited “based on their values.” We have antiquated new member models in which 19 year-old boys are given absolute power to teach 18 year-old boys what it means to be a man, yet act surprised when hazing becomes ingrained in a chapter’s culture.  We build palatial mansions with little-to-no adult oversight, then scratch our heads and wander why our members feel entitled and isolate themselves from the rest of campus, especially people whom they perceive as “different.”  While we are pounding our chests, imploring students to live their values, we are complicit in supporting the organizational and institutional fixtures that promote the very behaviors we are trying to change. Yet we pat ourselves on the back every year when students in our small group “get it” and high-five one another if we can make them cry at our closing session.

One of the more popular fixtures of these leadership programs has been the “commitment ceremonies” that are often carried out right at the end.  We have participants circle up, and everyone goes around completing the “I commit to _______” sentence.   We sit and smile as we hear students make commitments that we know, in the back of our minds, they will never be able to achieve.

I think it is time we made some commitments to our students. Instead of expecting them to fix all of these problems on their own, we should commit to SUBSTANTIAL and MEANINGFUL action that will help address the problems that plague us.  Here are some recommendations of places we can start:

The North American Interfraternity Conference:  Commit to putting your money where your mouth is. Develop meaningful standards for your member organizations. Develop standards that would, if implemented, fundamentally change the nature of fraternities. Enforce those standards as passionately as you enforce open expansion policies on college campuses.  Stop wasting money on meaningless “research” that confirms what we already know and is designed to make us look good, and devote time, energy and resources into evidence-based research that will help us figure out how to best address some of the issues that are plaguing our organizations, regardless of how it might make us look. Use the resources and clout that you have to actually LEAD the fraternal movement to a new and better place.

National Panhellenic Conference: Commit to getting your heads out of the sand. Members of your organizations are the most likely candidates on college campuses to be victims of sexual assault, yet nowhere is victim-blaming more prevalent than around the NPC table. No organizations want to stand up and address this issue, because to address it would be to recognize that we have a serious problem.  To my knowledge, the only action the NPC has taken with regards to Title IX and the issues surrounding it has been to lobby the Office of Civil Rights AGAINST the recent mandates, particularly the articulated “preponderance of evidence” standard for resolving these cases. A governmental agency is promoting legislation to make your members safer and to make it easier for them to resolve their claims of sexual assault and you lobby AGAINST these reforms?  Your student members demand better.  I am ready for the NPC or one of its member organizations to stand up and LEAD on this issue.

National Organization Executives: Commit to not waiting until the press declares you the “Nation’s Deadliest Fraternity” before taking drastic measures. Our system is broken. Pledging, as we now know it, needs to become a thing of the past. We need new systems of shared alumni governance. We need to educate our members about sexual assault and consent. We need more national headquarters willing to make substantive structural changes that will help create cultures in which values congruence is the norm and not the exception. Don’t wait for negative press or ultimatums from your insurance provider before making these changes. Stand up and LEAD on these issues.

Campus-based F/S advisors: Commit to being better at your job. We all need you to stop buying into the latest bright shiny object and to begin thinking for yourself. Assess your communities to find out what the critical issues are. Plan strategically to address those issues. Measure your results. Use data to become a better advocate for yourself and for our profession.  Stop wasting time with the 10 percent of students who “get it” and get out of your office to spend time with the other 90 percent who need you. Stop doing things because you think they will make you look good to the AFA crowd, and start doing things that will have a meaningful impact on your campus. Stand up and LEAD the F/S community on your campus to a better place.

Some, particularly those who support the status quo, will misinterpret this post as me being negative – of me seeing the glass half empty and just rabble-rousing in order to get attention.  Nothing could be further from the truth. This post is not intended to be negative. Rather, this post is intended as a call to action. We must stop putting the burden of fixing our problems squarely on the shoulders of our students. We have to stop sending them out as sheep amidst the wolves and not doing our part to support those efforts. We have to stop setting lofty expectations for our students to lead in drastic ways if we aren’t willing to do the same ourselves

We can all do better.