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 naïve 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.


  1. Any strategies you can share to help get the campus professional "spend time with the other 90 percent who need [me]"? I have a pretty small Greek community (<500 students) and I still see many new faces during Greek Week.

    1. Go to lunch at chapter houses. Meet with chapter officer teams, not just presidents. Meet with new member classes. Stop and speak to students wearing letters when you see them on campus - network and build relationships. Don't just wait for students to come to you.

    2. Hours later I realized how amateur that question sounds. I'm really struggling to get my students to think of their f/s membership at a higher level. It's a struggle to talk recruitment strategy let alone values. We don't have houses or traditional chapter suites so I'm trying to create opportunities to get general members in front of me for reasons other than student conduct.

  2. Did you hear the latest research? Dogs who enjoy bones are more likely to enjoy a bone after a walk.

  3. Gentry - I love your willingness to poke the bear! But, I think you go to far in admonishing the NPC. I challenge your point that "preponderance of evidence" is the right way to go. And, your blanket assumption that it must be right points a finger of blame at anyone that disagrees, let alone has the audacity to say so. Standing against a non-legislated bureaucratic mandate that in practices violates our basic understanding of a fair judicial process doesn't not mean one stands FOR rape. Nor is there any evidence that these new interpretations of the law will actually make ANYONE safer.

    1. Dave - thanks for the reply. Always love it when issues like this can be openly discussed.

      Three points:

      1. I hate the phrase "poking the bear." In my mind that means just saying things to get people riled up, which is not my intent. I try my best to never offer critical feedback without offering suggestions for improvement. My intent in this post is not to "poke the bear" or "stir the pot" but to advance meaningful dialogue about how the fraternal movement can be advanced. I'm very pro-fraternity - I just happen to think that we expect more from our students than we are expecting from ourselves, which is the point of this post.

      2. I actually think I take it pretty easy on the NPC. I first found out about NPC's involvement in lobbying the OCR against the Title IX reforms almost a year ago. I haven't sad a thing about it publicly, because frankly, I didn't think I was the best person to raise a stink about it (see also, reputation for bear poking). Most people would be surprised to learn the extent to which I research things I say in these blog posts. Before I posted this, I SCOURED the NPC website looking for any news, statements, releases, ANYTHING related to sexual assault/Title IX. I found nothing. Not. A. Single. Thing. This is arguably the most important issue facing collegiate sorority members today, and the NPC, nor from what I can tell any of its affiliate members, have uttered a single word about it. Nothing. Other than to lobby against some of the reforms that eventually passed in VAWA. Here's a little secret - undergraduate women are taking cues from their national leaders on this issue. The silence of the NPC and its member organizations on this issue speaks volumes. How can/should we expect undergraduate sorority members to lead on this issue on their respective campuses when the leaders of their national organizations refuse to even discuss the matter? I'm really shocked that I'm the first person to publicly ask these questions. It is time for the NPC and its member organizations to stop talking about leadership and modeling the way and to ACTUALLY LEAD AND MODEL THE WAY for their undergraduate members.

      3. You and I have discussed the issue of the adjudication of sexual assault on campus before, and I know that we agree to disagree. Let me conduct one thought experiment with you. Read this story (a bit lengthy, but great investigative reporting) from the New York times regarding the Jameis Winston case:

      Now, imagine, for a minute, that the accused in this case was not a Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback on a national championship football team, but just your Joe-Average frat guy. Now, imagine that Florida State received a report in a similar manner to that outlined in this story. Should that school, or any school, have to sit on its hands and do NOTHING just because local police botched an investigation, even though they knew they had a violent rapist running around campus? Campuses hold students responsible for a number of things that are also criminal behaviors (drugs, alcohol, assault, etc. etc. etc.). Are you advocating that campuses should not be able to address any violations that also constitute criminal activity, or just rape? I think campuses are obligated to have a safe community, regardless of what criminal processes do (or don't do - getting a conviction in a non-stranger sexual assault case is nearly impossible, another reason that a campus process offers better protections to victims than the criminal process, but that is a different discussion).

      Again - thanks for sharing your thoughts. I like discussing things, and wish more people would offer critical thoughts and feedback openly instead of through back channels and whisper campaigns. I think discussing things like this is helpful and will get us all to a better place.

    2. I think its short-sighted and simple-minded to assume that sexual assault equals rape just as you wouldn't assume a hazing violation doesn't mean violent paddling or forced alcohol consumption to the point of poisoning. There is a spectrum there - hence the phrase sexual misconduct. Rape is a specific incident within the sexual assault spectrum. Police departments won't investigate consent issues that don't involve force. They won't. Non-forcible sexual contact without consent isn't really on the books in a lot of municipalities. Police may give someone disorderly conduct, which in Pennsylvania is a summary citation that carries a fine lower than underage drinking. That tells you how seriously the local (or even campus) police will consider something at the other end of the spectrum.

    3. Gentry - How about the Temple University player kicked off his D-1 team and lost his scholarship due to the immediate reaction to FALSE rape charges against him. ( )

      There are, and always will be cases that show any justice system is flawed. These changes are both wrong, and irresponsible. You call them "protections" but it is irresponsible to empower campus officials, and sometimes even untrained faculty, and students to this extent.

    4. I can assure you that the students and faculty who serve on conduct committees on my campus receive more training than juries in criminal trials, who receive absolutely no training.

    5. (Heavy sarcasm headed your way. Better duck!) Well you've convinced me!! With the assurance from your single example for the limited tenure of your employment at just ONE institution, I am now 100% certain that EVERY university's investigative personnel are EQUALLY superior to trained, supervised & legally accountable local law enforcement. Further I am certain from just your singular example that ALL universities maintain universally consistent procedures that are more fair to both victim & defendant to any municipal justice system. So, with my newly found certainty I fully support a Federal mandate designed to circumvent the sovereignty of State's rights of local law enforcement in the hopes that we can have even a modest impact on sexual assault on college campuses.

    6. I second your last comment, Gentry. The students who hear cases involving sexual misconduct on my campus are trained for three hours per week for an entire semester before they are able to hear ANY type of case. Our sexual misconduct and intimate partner violence topics cover at least 8 of those hours--substantially more training than any jury. Faculty/staff also completed the same 8-hour training to serve on those cases.

    7. David, the point being, when did training become an issue? Criminal juries receive zero training, and they are deciding whether or not to lock someone up for years. We provide extensive training to our hearing committees, and the worse thing they can possibly do is expel someone from a University. You're enforcing a double standard.

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