Tuesday, August 19, 2014

On Overcoming Racism

What’s happening at the University of Alabama has the potential to change the world.

Before I tell you why, let me tell you a story.

When I came to the University of Tennessee as a freshman in the Fall of 1997, I really had no idea what I was in for. That may sound cliché, but if you know anything at all about LaFollette, TN, then you know that pretty much anywhere else you go from there is going to be a culture shock, and at that time I had not been to many other places save a few 4-H meat judging trips to such exotic destinations as Manhattan, KS.

I was just savvy enough to get myself selected onto the SGA freshman council (I suppose I met their hillbilly diversity goal). At our first meeting, as we were playing the name game, people snickered a little when I introduced myself. At first, I had no idea what they were laughing at, but later figured out it was because of the way I talked (I had a strong rural Appalachian accent). They were all from places I had never even heard of (Brentwood? Germantown? Were those places in TN? Why had I never heard of them?).  Suffice it to say, I stuck out like a sore thumb.

Word quickly spread among my 40 colleagues on the council that I was the resident expert on parliamentary procedure, and a few weeks later, when we elected our officers, I was elected to the executive board as the parliamentarian. I was one of four executive officers – a president, vice president, secretary/treasurer and me.  Part of me was elated – barely on campus for more than a few weeks and already assuming important, prestigious leadership positions. I was on my way!

But another part of me was horrified. You see, the president of our freshman council, Sharrie Williams, was black.

Why was I horrified? Bluntly, I had never been around a black person before. I had only observed them from safe distances. I had wonderful stories of being in Atlanta during Freak-nic and that time my pals and I stopped in Macon, GA on our way to Orlando and decided to watch “Waiting to Exhale” in a local movie theater. But I had never had any significant interactions with any person of color. And I was horrified that I would say something offensive or stupid or wrong without even knowing it or meaning to. I was a product of my environment, and LaFollette, TN was not exactly a bastion of diversity or tolerance.

Sharrie intimidated me. She was outspoken. She was smart. She was confident. She shattered any and all stereotypes I may have had in my 18 year-old mind. And for whatever reason, she decided that we were going to be friends. To this day, I have no idea why. But over the course of our first semester at UT, Sharrie and I became buddies. We had lunch together at least once a week. We would meet up in the University Center to chat about school and freshman council business. She even came to a few parties down at the AGR house.  We were quite the pair.

Now, fast forward five years. I was in the first year of my Higher Education/Student Affairs graduate program at South Carolina, in Dr.John Lowery’s student development theory class. At the beginning of the semester, Dr. Lowery asked us to write about how we were different at graduation compared to when we started college, and to what experiences we attributed those changes.  And guess who I spent a good portion of that paper writing about? If you guessed Sharrie Williams, you would be correct.

Later in that class, I learned about racial identity development theory, and my experiences with Sharrie began to make more sense to me. Growth and development come from being exposed to individuals and experiences that challenge stereotypes and expose differences and privilege.  I think I was able to quickly move through the “abandoning racism” steps of Helm’s White Identity Model because my first significant interactions with someone of a different race were so positive and impactful, allowing me to cast aside previous racist ideas and focus on my role in both perpetuating racism and abandoning white entitlement. My experiences with Sharrie had completely altered my world view, making me simultaneously more aware of myself and the issues of race surrounding me.

Thus Gentry’s First Law of Student Development: Any program or activity on a college campus is only as good as its ability to get students from different backgrounds interacting with one another in meaningful and significant ways.  My graduate students here in the UWF College Student Affairs Administration program know and can tell you all about Gentry’s Laws if you're interested...

Now, look at where we are today.  For 150 years, the Greek system at the University of Alabama has been a bastion of exclusion and intolerance. Last year, because of the courageous work of a handful of sorority members, those walls finally came crashing down.  And last week, 21 African American women, and dozens of other women of color, joined historically white Panhellenic sororities during formal recruitment.  I am willing to bet that the number 21 will represent the largest number of African American women pledging historically white sororities on any college campus in the Unites States this year. If any campus pledges more, I hope they will let us all know. To contrast, in my five years as Director of Greek Life at Alabama, I think the most we ever had was four African American women going through recruitment in any given year.  Think about that – from four (none of whom joined a sorority) to 21 (all of whom joined a sorority) in only a few years.

So, in one year, the Alabama Panhellenic community has gone from a bastion of racial exclusion and white privilege to a model for diversity within fraternity/sorority life (note, this movement has actually been building for at least a few years now, as noted here).  Alabama (yes, that Alabama) may actually become a destination school for women of color looking to join Panhellenic sororities. Imagine that! Roll Tide!

How did they do it? I’m not entirely sure. I suspect there is more to the story than we have been told. I hope someone, at some point, will tell us the full story, because it is a story that needs telling.

But here is why this is so important. For 150 years, students at Alabama have been able to come from their all white neighborhoods and their all-white private schools and immediately join their all-white sororities and live in all-white sorority houses and never have any interactions with anyone who was different from them.  No growth. No challenge. No significant interactions with those who are different - just stagnation and solidification of their world views. After a few years, they graduated and moved back to Mountain Brook or Fairhope or Greenville or Highland Park to the same gated communities and small towns from whence they came and they were no different, at least in terms of multiculturalism, than they were before. The University failed fraternity and sorority members by allowing them to limit their interactions only to those who looked, dressed, talked and acted like themselves.

Today, finally, that separation will not – cannot – happen anymore. Thousands of students – future leaders in our society – are going to come to college and have significant and meaningful experiences with people who are different. Stereotypes will be shattered. Myths will be busted. Racism will be turned on its ugly head. And those experiences will last with them long after their college experiences. After college, how will these experiences impact their civic engagement? Their philanthropic giving? Their political ideology?  Where they choose to send their children to school? Their world view?

Don’t get me wrong – Alabama, just like everyone else, has a long way to go. I’m not sure what is happening in Tuscaloosa today, but I am certain it is not a post-racial utopia. But the progress that has been made there is very real, and it has the potential to change thousands of lives. And if the Alabama Greek system can do it, anyone can.

How many young women at Alabama today will have a Sharrie Williams in their life? How many will grow and change in positive and meaningful ways because of those experiences? And how might those experiences transform their lives and, eventually, our society? I don’t know the answers to those questions, but I look forward to finding out.


Sharrie and I stayed in touch after freshman year, but gradually drifted apart as she became more involved in the world of sports/news broadcasting and I became more involved in the world of fraternity life and meat judging. She is now an anchor on the ABC affiliate in Philadelphia. We haven’t spoken in years, but I hope she reads this and knows how much our friendship impacted the person I am today.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The Problem with the Values Movement

Values development has been an intended outcome of membership in fraternity/sorority since the inception of these groups. In modern day practice, organizations espouse these values front and center through a review of websites and materials. Advocates of the collegiate fraternity/sorority experience believe that when members demonstrate their values, they can be seen as relevant and contributing organizations on a college campus.

Here’s the problem - values congruence is very difficult to actualize with traditional-aged college students.

While it’s easy to say that the values movement has “always” been a part of these organizations , the last 30 years have made the topic of values and fraternities and sororities as values-based organizations more salient and more of a focus point because (1) legal challenges have positioned us as defensive, (2) fraternities need a distinctive niche in a flooded market of involvement opportunities, (3) college and university presidents told us we had to focus on this (see Franklin Square Group, 2003) and (4) new member and intake programs have become more focused on concepts of student development, which coincidentally has components of aligning actions with values (think Kohlberg, Baxter-Magolda, etc.).  A more extensive examination of the recent history of the “values movement” can be found in Veldkamp and Bureau (2012).

Imploring students to align their actions and values has been a strategy for advising fraternities and sororities for some time now.  Numerous articles have been written that examine strategies for using values as an approach to advising (for example, Bureau, 2007; 2009). It has been an approach that has been promoted in numerous workshops and trainings for fraternity/sorority professionals. AFA has a core competency focused on values alignment (Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors, 2014). However, I believe that while well-intended, the "live your values" approach is flawed: The problem with the values movement is not in the nobility of the goal, but in how we are trying to get there.  Here are four reasons I believe the approach needs rethinking, and some thoughts on what we should be doing differently.

1. The term “Values” is nebulous – Imagine the average fraternity chapter on your campus. Imagine walking into a chapter meeting at that chapter house and asking them “What are your standards?”  You might expect to hear about minimum GPA requirements or minimum standards for recruitment.  Now, imagine walking into a chapter meeting and asking them “What are your expectations for members?”  Again, you might get answers related to paying dues, attending events, and certain behavioral expectations.  Finally, imagine asking them “What does your chapter value?”  What answers do you expect that you might get?  The values written in their ritual book or the values espoused through their daily activities? 

As Schutts (2013) has suggested, the things on which we spend our time are the things we value. So, what does that chapter value?  Drinking beer? Chasing girls?  Hazing pledges?  Are those not values? If a student values those things, and does those things, are they not “living their values?” Merely using the term “values” is problematic. It is nebulous. It could mean anything. Different people respond to the word in very different ways.  Which leads to the next problem…

2. Values are not an explicitly overt part of brotherhood – Brotherhood can be thought of as the foundation of the fraternal experience.  It is the currency of fraternity – it is exchanged by members and sold to potential new members.  In our research on brotherhood (article in press with Oracle), Josh Schutts and I identified four distinct ways that fraternity men think about brotherhood –based on solidarity, based on shared social experiences, based on belonging, and, the highest form of brotherhood, that based on accountability. When building the Fraternal Brotherhood Questionnaire (FBQ), an instrument designed to measure the four schema of brotherhood, we used the terms “values”, “expectations”, and “standards” interchangeably in building items to measure the accountability factor (i.e. brotherhood is best demonstrated when members are held to the chapter’s standards/expectations/values).  When we completed the exploratory factor analysis (EFA) on the proposed factors, an interesting thing happened – many of the items that used the words “standards” and “expectations” loaded onto the accountability factor as expected.  Not a single item that used the word “values” loaded to the accountability factor.

Suspecting that perhaps values are separate from standards and expectations, we attempted to force a fifth factor using the “values” items. In the resulting EFA, the values items did not even load with one another, indicating absolutely no consistency in how the participants responded to the term “values.” In other words, when it comes to holding chapter members accountable, the “values” of any given chapter are completely different depending on whom you ask, and members do not think about values when they think about accountability. Rather, they think about standards and expectations.

Conceptually, this makes sense: Moses did not come down from Mt. Sinai with the 10 Values. Two major world religions are not built from a list of vague values – they are built from a set of very specific standards and expectations.  After all, “thou shalt not kill” is a little more straightforward than “thou shalt value human life.”  If we are looking to alter behavior through accountability to values, then we may be spinning our wheels.

3. New members aren’t joining values (or are they)?

We have all seen our fair share of distasteful “rush” t-shirts.  Have you ever stopped to wonder why we continue to see them, year after year? Could it be that they are effective at recruiting new members?

Many who work day to day with fraternity/sorority leaders interact with those who “get it” and want their chapters to be more congruent with espoused values. The reach of our work is often with a very small fraction of the fraternity/sorority members on a campus. Potentially, we are out of touch with the “average” member.

Some of us may have even deluded ourselves into thinking that WE joined OUR organizations because of the values of the group.  I would call this selective memory at best.  When I came to the University of Tennessee in the Fall of 1997, I had no idea what a fraternity was. I could not have been less interested. But my friend Lake Elliot convinced me to go with him to the Alpha Gamma Rho house our first weekend on campus, and the rest is history. It was a place where I felt comfortable, with a group of guys I really connected with.  I joined because I felt like I belonged there.  In hindsight, it is easy for me to make the connection between my sense of belonging and the values I shared with both the organization and those in the chapter, but I would be lying to myself and to you if I said that I joined the values. I joined a group of people with whom I felt I had a great deal in common. I valued those people, but I didn’t join for values. Also, there may have been some beer involved.

The fact is, students join chapters for a variety of reasons. Many join to take advantage of the social benefits and have a good time, because that is what they value. In those cases, would the rush shirt depicted above not qualify as “values-based recruitment?”  Students are not joining values, but their values play a significant role in where and why they join. The term “values-based recruitment” is one we need to remove from our lexicon.  Expecting people go live out the values of an organization, when those values had little to no influence in their decision to join that organization, is an adventure in futility.

4. Trying to force students to live the values of their organizations may actually be counter-productive – As a field, we love to talk about students “getting it.” I have had a number of conversations with colleagues either bragging about their UIFI group “totally getting it” or lamenting the students on their campuses “not getting it.” In the spirit of conformity, I may have even uttered those words a few times myself.  But what is this mythical “it” that students are supposed to be “getting.” What is it, exactly, that we want from our students? We assume that we want our students to “live their values.”

As it turns out, most of us studied a theory in graduate school that directly speaks to this idea. If you have read Baxter Magolda’s (2008) theory of self-authorship, then the graphic above should look familiar. As adolescents, external formulas guide our path, as we largely pursue our lives as others (parents, teachers) have told us.  At some point, we hit a crossroads where those external formulas no longer work for us, and we begin to develop self-authorship (the ability to determine our own life course). Finally, we develop internal foundations, which is essentially values congruence. As a part of solidifying our internal foundations, we develop a set of personal values, and live our lives in accordance to those values.  According to Baxter-Magolda, most adults don’t reach Internal Foundations until their mid-thirties, well above the age of the vast majority of our undergraduates and even older than most fraternity/sorority professionals.

So what does this all have to do with the values movement? We like to tell students that they should live their organization’s values as explained in the ritual or espoused on websites, instead of their individual values. When we do this, what we are actually doing is imposing a different external formula on them.  In effect, we are saying “I don’t like your values, so here – take these values and live them.” If we were truly concerned about student development, we would be creating cognitive dissonance in a way that would lead to a series of crossroads and, eventually, self-authorship.  Conversations about how actions reflect values can and should be part of creating that dissonance, but when we impose new external formulas on our students, we are limiting their growth and development.

So, What Should We Be Doing?

I am ready to declare the end of the “values movement” and the birth of the “brotherhood/sisterhood movement.”  We have been talking about values congruence for the last 20 years, and where has it gotten us? We need a new paradigm – a new entry point into the conversation with students.  My research and work with students has led me to believe, very strongly, that conversations about values need to be replaced with conversations about brotherhood and sisterhood. Through these conversations, we can allow students to see for themselves that brotherhood/sisterhood without accountability is not really brotherhood or sisterhood at all.  Once they embrace accountability, they will have no choice but to move their chapters to a place of values congruence.

I also think we need to focus more of our time, energy and effort on the moral development of our students.  As I asked in Perspectives (2012), what if we spent as many resources on the moral development of our students as we did on the leadership development of our students. Leadership is sexy, but the empirical evidence linking increases in moral development with declines in anti-social behavior (hazing, sexual assault, cheating, to name a few) is overwhelming.  If we do more to boost the moral judgment of our students, then values congruence should come about as a result.

*This blog post is adapted from an article originally published in AFA Essentials and is posted here with permission from the publisher.


Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors (2014). Core competencies for excellence in the profession. Retrieved January 8, 2014 from      http://www.afa1976.org/AssociationBusiness/CoreCompetenciesforExcellenceintheProfession.aspx

Bureau, D. (2009, Winter). Using values to rationalize risk management. Association of Fraternity Advisors Perspectives. Indianapolis, IN.

Bureau, D. (2007, Summer). Beyond the Rhetoric and Into the Action of the Values Movement. Association of Fraternity Advisors Perspectives. Indianapolis, IN.

Franklin Square Group (2003). A call for values Congruence. Washington, DC. Author.

Schutts, J. (2013, Fall). Perhaps its time we stopped talking about values. Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors Perspectives. Ft. Collins, CO.

Veldkamp, S. & Bureau, D. (2012, Summer). Call for values reflection: Together forward. Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors Perspectives, 12-15. Indianapolis, IN.