Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Empowering Women to Lead Change (Or, When I was at My Best as a Greek Advisor)

A few weeks ago, while traveling for National Hazing Prevention Week, I had the opportunity to have a sit-down meeting with a group of Panhellenic leaders to talk about the hazing culture on campus.  These meetings are always incredibly fun for me, and often very productive. Depending on how much time I have, I usually start them as if I am running a focus group, asking them about the hazing culture on campus. In a safe space, I am always amazed with how much they are willing to share with me.

On this particular day, with this particular group, we started talking about hazing in sororities. They were quick to tell me that the sororities on that campus do not haze. And I suppose I believed them – sorority hazing in this particular part of the country really isn’t a big thing.

So then I started asking them about fraternity hazing on campus. They were VERY eager to tell me about some of the stories they had heard and things they had seen. Really, it was pretty typical stuff – the kind of stuff we hear about all the time. I then began asking them about some of the ways their members are often involved in low-level fraternity hazing – fraternities having their pledges come over to their houses and serenade them or take out their trash, or allowing fraternity pledges to give them rides home from bars at night. The conversation ended with them understanding that they had some level of culpability for the hazing culture on that campus, and them resolving to stop allowing the fraternities to haze their pledges in front of them, and to disallow their members from taking advantage of fraternity pledges.  In a single 60 minute meeting, this group of women recognized their role in perpetuating the problem, had an in-depth discussion about the critical issues involved, and made a resolution for very specific steps they wanted to take in order to address the hazing culture on their campus. Yay me!!!  Yay them!!!

The conversation that we had that day took me back to my days as a Greek advisor. It reminded me of the two times that I was at my absolute best as a Greek advisor. Both of these cases involved me playing the same role – empowering female leaders to stand up and move their community forward. And thinking of these two cases reminds me of an edict that I have long adhered to – there is no force on a college campus more powerful than a unified group of sorority women.

So, two stories:

One day, a sorority president came by my office to talk about a problem she was dealing with. Without getting into specifics, one of her members had gotten into a bit of trouble after a recent fraternity swap. Our conversation started about how she needed to handle the aftermath of the incident, but our conversation quickly turned to her frustrations about the culture of sorority/fraternity swaps that had allowed the incident to happen in the first place. At one point, she was nearly in tears about how much she detested the sick culture that had grown up around these events. I’ll never forget this part of our conversation – I looked at her and asked “Do you think you are the only sorority president who feels this way?”

She was not sure – she had not talked to any sorority presidents about her feelings.

I gave her the names of two other sorority presidents who I suspected would share her feelings, and encouraged her to invite them over for lunch to discuss the swap culture. As it turns out, they all agreed that swaps had gotten out of control.

Over the next few weeks, this “group of three” met to lay out their strategy. Eventually, they called together the rest of the sorority presidents, where all agreed that changes needed to be made. They enlisted the college Panhellenic council leadership, drafted an agreement which was signed by every single chapter president and then called a special meeting to discuss the issue with fraternity presidents. 

Want to guess how many of those meetings I went to?


And what was the result?

A significant step forward for our entire community.

The second story involves me being invited to the dinner of an honor society on campus, which featured a “Toastmasters” style dinner conversation. I recall the topic of conversation that night revolving around the legalization of marijuana.  This particular honor society was known as a more progressive group, and while several of the members were fraternity/sorority members, they were not all students that I knew well.

After dinner I struck up a conversation with two of the sorority women present at the meeting. I had never met either of them, and knew them through reputation only – they held only minor leadership positions on campus, and were much more focused on academics than campus leadership (one is now a doctor, the other a Teach for America alumnus currently studying abroad on her Fulbright Scholarship).  They wanted to talk about some of the issues with sorority recruitment, and inevitably the conversation turned to the racial barriers present during sorority recruitment. As the conversation closed, I asked them how many women they knew within the Panhellenic community who shared their feelings. They were able to come up with about a dozen names. I suggested that they call those women together for a deeper discussion on the issue.

A week later, the meeting took place. From the dozen or so women present, they were able to generate an additional 30 names of progressive women who were passionate about ending the racial divide in the Panhellenic community. They continued meeting, discussing, planning and strategizing. And growing.

Three years later, members of that group were responsible for breaking down the color barrier that had existed in the Panhellenic community at the University of Alabama for over 150 years.

I only attended their first meeting. I continued to meet privately with the leaders of the group, helping with strategy and planning, but I was not the face of the group, and very few people knew of my involvement. All I had to do was get them started – they took care of the rest.

There is no force on a college campus more powerful than a unified group of sorority women…

These two experiences taught me a few important lessons that I think younger fraternity/sorority advisors would benefit from learning.

1. It’s not about you. Get out of the way. You don’t have to be in charge of every important initiative within your community. Find the women (or men) in your community who care about the issues that you care about, empower them to take ownership of the issue, and then let them do their thing. You can be there to coach and encourage them along the way, but they need to be the ones in the spotlight, not you. Contrary to what you might think, the average member is much more likely to listen to one of their peers than they are to listen to you.

2. Women “get” values more than men. The research I am doing with Josh Schutts and Sarah Cohen has illuminated a fascinating finding. While values are not overtly involved in the construction of brotherhood within fraternities, the most altruistic form of sisterhood appears to be that sisterhood in which members understand their shared purpose as articulated in the organization’s values. So what does that mean for you? Your sorority members are much more likely to “get” values than your fraternity members. They may be a bit more interested in aligning their community with its shared values than your fraternity members are. So, if you can get sorority women to take the lead on an issue of importance, they can exert the appropriate influence on the men in your community – not by talking about values congruence, but by simply talking about changes they want to see. Which leads to my next point…

3. The women in your community hold a great deal of influence over the men, if and when they choose to use it. I think this can be attributed to biology….

4. Helping sorority women connect with one another is important. One member of one sorority may have difficulty finding her voice on a controversial topic, for the simple fact that she does not want her opinions to adversely affect her organization. The pressure to conform, whether overt or subtle, is very real, and the power of groupthink makes it unlikely for any single sorority member to stand up and attempt to tackle tough issues on her own. The most valuable role the f/s advisor can play is to create safe places for these difficult conversations to take place and to connect like-minded students with one another. When sorority women become empowered by the notion that they are not alone in how they feel, particularly when they find allies in other organizations, they are much more likely to speak out on difficult topics and lead real, meaningful change. After all, it is much more difficult for the powers of the status quo to intimidate or punish when women from every single organization on your campus are involved in the change initiative.

5. Don’t spend all of your time with your Panhellenic executive board. On many campuses, the Panhellenic council is seen as the mouthpiece of the administration. This is not to say that your Panhellenic leadership may not be useful or even instrumental in leading change, but to be seen as a truly grassroots effort, it should probably come from chapter leaders or, better yet, just rank and file members who care passionately about the topic. So what does this mean? Spend less time chained to your desk having one-on-one meetings with your Panhellenic exec and get out and spend more time with your chapters.

Empower sorority women on your campus to lead, and then get out of the way. The results may surprise you.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Where Should Fraternity/Sorority Life Offices Be Housed on Campus? (Or: The Island of Misfit SA Professionals)

Last week, I (Gentry) posted a blog exploring why more professionals did not pursue fraternity/sorority advising as a career, laying out why I thought we should place more emphasis on fraternity/sorority advising as a profession and suggesting a model by which that could occur.

Our basic premise is this: if more high-quality, experienced professionals stayed involved in F/S advising later into their careers, the entire fraternity/sorority experience would be elevated and improved. In the current model, however, f/s advisors are underpaid, overworked and work in largely under-resourced and understaffed offices.  It will take both salary raises and proper staffing and support in order for more f/s advising professionals to see a director position as a career destination and not just a stopping point. Why would someone choose to work the grueling schedule of an f/s advisor, dealing with all of the drama, politics, late nights and weekends when they could go work as a director of student leadership programs or a director of service learning programs or a director of student conduct and have a normal schedule without all of the BS?  Even if we boost the pay of our directors, the jobs will still be difficult to fill with seasoned professionals because most people actually enjoy having a life outside of work. After a few years of “student affairs martyrdom,” most people set their sights on family or personal interests.  Our current model does not allow for that.

This week’s post explores one of the other challenges facing f/s advising as a profession – specifically, where within a division of student affairs f/s life is placed.

We like to think of f/s advising offices as the student affairs equivalent of the Island of Misfit Toys. We don’t really fit in anywhere, and we wind up being stuck in the oddest of places.

Why does this matter?

It matters because the philosophy, work, expectations and opportunities for advancement will differ depending on where the f/s life office is housed on campus. And most of the current models do not sufficiently and adequately support the unique needs of f/s advisors, and do not provide adequate opportunities for professional development.

So, we are going to dissect the four existing models, discuss the pros and cons of each, and then present an alternative model that we think would best suit our institutions, our professional growth and, perhaps most importantly, the experiences of our students.

The Four Existing Models

The Student Activities Model
On many campuses, f/s life is a component of a larger student activities/student programming office. We really see this as the least desirous of the three models – in such a format, f/s life is just one of many “student activities” at which to be programmed. In our experience, supervisors in this area are often hesitant to recognize the unique role of the f/s advisor or the unique needs of an f/s community. The f/s advisor in this model is a “program advisor” much like the advisor to a campus activities board, and their roles are generally watered down to the point of council advising and planning leadership programs.  These models often inhibit innovation, as f/s advisors must scrap for scarce resources among other campus programs and other organizations. Often, this model results in f/s life receiving the short end of the stick when it comes to dollars for campus programs, because f/s programs rarely apply to the entire campus, and are thus less likely to be funded.

The Housing/Residence Life Model
On a growing number of campuses, f/s advising has found itself nested within University housing. As more and more campuses have moved towards university-owned, on-campus f/s housing models, this structure has become more prevalent. Of the four existing models, we think this one is probably the best. The model often involves live-in facility directors/managers, acting as additional “boots on the ground” with the ability to directly impact the residential culture of a f/s community. This model provides some benefit - as auxiliaries, housing departments are often well-funded and allow for appropriate levels of staffing and funding for programs. On the downside, this model nests f/s advising within a larger unit not especially aware of the unique needs of the f/s community or its advisor. Under this model, f/s housing is generally viewed no differently than other campus housing options – beds to be filled, residents to be managed. By spending so much time and energy on the residential components of membership, the f/s advisor is often drawn away from important work related to real culture change. In addition, this model provides the f/s advisor with little opportunity for upward mobility. Let’s face it – most f/s advisors are just not “housing people,” and have little desire or opportunity to move up within the housing model. Advisors in these systems are often required to move laterally in order to have any real opportunity for advancement. While this model has its perks, it is far from ideal.

The Dean of Students Model
The most common model we see, and the one to which we both trace our roots, is the model in which f/s advising is nested within a dean of students office.  In this model, the director of f/s life often reports to the dean or an associate dean, and is often lumped together with student conduct and campus BIT/Care teams.  To repeat – f/s life is lumped in with student conduct. Are we the only ones who have a problem with that? No? OK, good.  This model often places the f/s advisor as the chief Greek student conduct officer, leading the charge on hazing investigations and adjudicating organizational misconduct. As a result, this model makes it difficult for the f/s advisor to develop trust and rapport with student leaders. In the DOS model, the f/s advisor is often seen as “the heavy” and not as an advocate for the community. They often spend more time investigating hazing or Title IX cases than they spend working with students on culture change, developing and assessing programs, or cultivating relationships with key stakeholders. On the plus side, this model probably offers the best opportunities for professional development and advancement. Many f/s advisors go on to assume those associate dean roles and eventually work their way up the student affairs ladder. But, again, the model is far from ideal.

The Stand-Alone Model
In some cases, f/s advising is not nested within a larger structure. In this model, the director of f/s life often reports to the AVP or VP of student affairs. This is likely the least common of the four models, and may exist for several reasons:  1) The high-risk environment fosters a need for a direct line to the VP, 2) the institution is small enough where a more decentralized approach is appropriate, or 3) The AVP/VP has a special or vested interest in the f/s community. This model may be limited because it could propagate a silo approach to administering the office, where the director becomes insularly, fights to retain control of their resources, and is seen as less collaborative in the eyes of their peers. On the plus side, this model has the direct attention of senior administration, and probability greater access to funding because requests are made directly to the highest level administrators.

So what kind of model is best? Here is our best guess.

The Experiential Learning Model
To the best of our knowledge, the Experiential Learning Model does not explicitly exist within a student affairs divisional organization. It is possible that at some campuses, clusters of units reporting to an executive director or AVP are arranged with some of the proposed units—but not all. We see this model as being proactive, and organizing the f/s advising role and its community around other offices that facilitate the key components of our experience.  After all, aren’t f/s communities supposed to be learning laboratories?  Aren’t fraternities and sororities really a model for experiential learning?  We think they are, and it makes sense to organize them in a manner that best deploys strategic collaboration. Let’s face it – it is easier to collaborate with the offices that are around the meeting table each week when those office share core things in common.

We propose the following units comprise the experiential learning cluster in a division of student affairs.  Next to each identified unit, a brief rationale for their inclusion is presented. The cluster probably makes the most sense to be overseen by an executive director, or an AVP, of student affairs.

* Leadership programs – at the crux of what we teach members of our community is leadership. On many campuses, there is an office that coordinates general student body leadership. Imagine the opportunities related to synergizing the tremendous amount of time, energy and resources that go into the arena of leadership development with the office that delivers co-curricular opportunities for the general student body.

* Community or civic engagement/Volunteer programs – On many campuses, fraternities and sororities took pride in the community service and philanthropic giving that members participate in. Imagine the opportunities to reinforce this message when members have greater collaboration with the office that may coordinate service learning courses, the AMERICORPS program, and alternative break/service immersion experiences, to name a few.

* Student government association – As the voice of the student body, this group often disburses student funds, develops and implements policy to improve the student experience. That same ‘governing’ nature is found within f/s programs (if one thinks of the umbrella campus councils as mini-SGAs).   Imagine the opportunities to advocate for the f/s community experience to the student leadership that controls the purse strings, and develops policies that affect the entire student body.

* Career services –We like to think of the “alumni networking” aspect of the f/s experience as one of our biggest unfulfilled promises. We tout the success of our alumni, and some members generally believe that Greek alumni, or alumni from their organization, will help get them a job. But how often do we really reach out to these businesspeople, and how do we really cultivate those relationships? Imagine the opportunities to deliver on the promises associated with career and professional readiness when we are at the table with the entity that cultivates employer relationships and offers career and professional readiness preparation.

* F/s advising – Now imagine how the role of the f/s advisor, and the experience of the community, are holistically changed when different people are around the leadership table, and a greater access and collaboration is made in the foci of career/graduate school readiness, leadership development, service and community engagement, and access to student overall governance. What does that say about our community?  What does it leave one to conclude about our values, or the expected outcomes of the experience?   Such a model would provide a framework to improve the professional development of fraternity and sorority advisors, providing natural collaboration with key units with similar missions, and would allow f/s advisors to focus more on learning outcomes and less on facilities, conduct, and/or programming.

But is this model possible?  Why not?  The reorganization of a university hierarchies and structures happens all of the time.  How do we normally manage reorganization?  Why do we normally reorganize?  We contend sometimes units fall in certain models because senior administrators once oversaw that role, and perhaps got promoted and wanted to take it with them.  Is that the most effective model?  Probably not. When those people are gone, then what?  How often is the effectiveness of a division’s organizational structure actually evaluated?  Sometimes units get moved around because of people, either in conflict with one another, or a manager trying to obtain valuable career experience by overseeing certain programs, or a manager looking to avoid headaches by dodging certain programs.

This model is different because it does not advocate for the gerrymandering of division units based on people, but rather on expected outcomes.  If we want Greek Life to deliver on its promises to develop leaders, promote charity and service to mankind, develop a sense of accountability, create social change, and prepare our young men and women to be productive scholars or employees upon graduation, then we need to be strategic about who is at the table and the structures in place to make that happen.

One could easily refute these assertion by suggesting that a reorganization of these units is not needed; what, alternatively, is needed is just more collaboration with those offices. While collaboration is at the heart of our argument, lets face it:  It’s just easier to work with people whom you see more regularly.  When you’re attending the weekly or biweekly director’s meeting that is called by the AVP, that is the opportunity to inform those colleagues of the successes, challenges, and upcoming events of the f/s community.  Likewise, you also have the knowledge of what’s going on in your colleagues’ shops.  By putting these units under the same area, with a constant focus on experiential learning, we can provide intentionality to our efforts in promoting collaboration among these units and focusing our energy and efforts around transforming the fraternity/sorority experience into the premier experiential learning opportunity available for students on a college campus.

Written with special guest co-blogger, Joshua Schutts.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Building a Case for Careers in Fraternity/Sorority Advising

Among the variety of roles I play at UWF, I serve as the faculty advisor for our Student Affairs Graduate Association (SAGA). I was meeting a few weeks back with the executive board, and they brought it to my attention that October is Careers in Student Affairs Month. Who knew?!?!

A few days later, Josh Schutts and I were having lunch with one of our UWF graduate students (none other than NASPA-FL graduate student of the year and 2014 AFA Grad-staffer Sarah Cohen), and she was picking our brains about conducting her fraternity/sorority advising job search. What kinds of jobs should she be looking for? What kinds of institutions should she look at? What are the ideal office structures to look for? She had lots of good questions, and I hope we provided her with some helpful answers.

Our conversation at lunch that day sparked an interesting side dialogue related to Careers in Student Affairs Month. Why is it, we wondered, that so few professionals actually plan a career in fraternity/sorority advising?  Why do so many talented f/s professionals jump ship after a few years in the director’s chair and move on to more lucrative or less stressful roles?

I can count on my two hands the number of professionals that I know who have made the conscientious choice to have a career in fraternity sorority advising – those for whom the highest job aspiration they have has been to serve as a director of fraternity/sorority life on campus, and who are actually good at it.

This phenomenon is the exception, and not the rule, in student affairs. Many talented professionals who work in the areas of campus recreation, housing and residence life, student transition programs, student conduct and university unions/campus activities (to name a few) aspire to nothing more or nothing less than the director of their respective units. Many a career has been made serving as a long-time director in one of those areas. But such is rarely the case in fraternity/sorority life.

I had the pleasure as serving as a director of fraternity/sorority life at two different institutions prior to my current appointment. At both places, I was the youngest and lowest paid director in the entire division of student affairs.  At both places, I worked in an office that was tremendously understaffed and under-resourced. At both places, I was expected to work ridiculous hours with no formal “flex schedule.”  And I know from conversations with colleagues that I am not alone in having those experiences. My experience was the norm, and not the exception, in fraternity/sorority advising.

It should not be this way.

It does not have to be this way.

I want to make a case for why directors of fraternity/sorority life should be more valued within their institutions, and I want to lay out a model for how that can happen.

Here are five reasons that directors of fraternity/sorority life should be more valued within student affairs:

1. The Politics – Without question, a director of f/s life deals with more politics than any other director within a student affairs division. When I worked at Alabama, I was on the phone with the president twice a month, and in meetings with him monthly. I had to balance policy matters with political matters, often walking a very fine line. Powerful alumni donors with strong ties to the university were very interested in the day-to-day workings of my office, and they were also in contact with my superiors. I know that Alabama may be a bit more political than the average institution, but I suspect that every f/s director deals with these issues from time to time. How many wealthy alumni are attempting to exert influence with a director of housing or campus recreation? My guess is not that many. A f/s director must be able to navigate these waters with skill and great care - a tall order for a young professional with less than five years of professional experience.

2. The Constituents – A f/s director balances more relationships with more constituents than any other person in student affairs. Students. Parents. Chapter advisors.  Alumni. Headquarters staff. Faculty. Law enforcement. Housing and facilities staff. Alumni relations and development staff. Student conduct staff. I could go on. No other director-level position within a division of student affairs must juggle relationships between so many different entities, all of whom the f/s advisor is partially dependent on for his/her success, and many of whom have competing interests.  The relationship management required to be an effective f/s director exceeds that of any other student affairs director and, again, may be difficult for a new professional to handle effectively.

3. The Impact on the Institution – A well-run and properly advised fraternity/sorority community can be a tremendous asset to an institution. A poorly run and improperly advised community can be a tremendous liability. Fraternity and sorority membership significantly impacts student retention, alumni satisfaction and giving, student health and wellness, academic performance, and overall student satisfaction, just to name a few. Depending on the quality of the experience, these impacts can be positive or negative. No other singular experience on the college campus has such powerful impacts on such a wide variety of student outcomes. Why would any VPSA want a new, inexperienced professional leading a program with the potential to have such a positive (or negative) influence on so many student outcomes? It makes absolutely no sense.

4. The Required Expertise – Running a f/s community, or at least running it well, requires a certain level of expertise that very few people have. Having someone who can simultaneously navigate the labyrinth or arcane Panhellenic recruitment rules, understand the intricacies of the NPHC intake process, develop curriculum for an officer training retreat, manage budgets, conduct a risk management program, and advise multiple organizations and governing councils is no easy task. Not just anyone has the skills, knowledge and abilities to do what a f/s director does. It is a highly specialized skill set, but for whatever reason, that highly specialized set of skills does not always translate to competitive salaries relative to other unit directors.

5. The Risk – At the end of the day, I think every VPSA in the country should ask him/herself a simple question – can I afford NOT to hire a talented, seasoned professional to run the f/s community here and pay them what they are worth? I would argue that one of the reasons we continue to see the same problems – hazing, alcohol abuse, sexual assault, etc. – year after year is because we do not have highly skilled, experienced and talented professionals in these important positions. We have new professionals with five years of experience or less managing incredibly complex, political, high-impact systems without the proper skills, experience or training to do so. No unit on a college campus can give a VPSA more heartburn tham a fraternity/sorority community, yet rarely do you find unit directors with less experience and lower salaries. It just does not make sense.

So, what kind of model can be implemented to allow for the changes we need?

As much as I hate their football team, I think LSU has instituted a model f/s program that other institutions would be wise to duplicate. Every fraternity and sorority member at LSU pays a “Greek Activity Fee” of $44 each semester. This fee generates nearly $400,000 of revenue each year. And given the services and privileges that f/s members on most campuses enjoy, I think a small service fee is easily justifiable. The revenue generated goes to fund the salaries of a well-staffed office, supports educational and risk management programming, and is re-invested in the community in a variety of ways. The institution has made the very intentional choice to hire the best staff, pay them what they are worth, and invest in quality programming designed to move the community forward.

Ironically, the director at LSU, Angela Guillory, is one of those people I can count on my two hands as having made a career in f/s life. I have no idea if Angela aspires to anything higher, but here is what I do know – she has been a director for a long time, she is darn good at it, and she is well-paid for the work she does. LSU has invested in their professional f/s staff, and that decision is evident in the progress seen in that community over the last 10 years.

I think one of the most important things we can do as a profession is to become better advocates for ourselves and our work. As a board member of the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors (AFA), I will say that one of my top priorities as a board member is to ensure that AFA helps in this advocacy work. We need staffing and organizational models in which talented professionals can make a career in fraternity/sorority advising instead of models in which a vast majority of talented professionals eventually jump ship and move up or out of the field. We must educate senior student affairs officers on the importance of our work and we must lobby and advocate for more resources, better pay, and increased priority. 

The future of the fraternity/sorority experience demands it.

*Next week, I, along with my pal Josh Schutts, will deliver part two in this series dedicated to Careers in Student Affairs Month. Part two will investigate the various models dictating where F/S life offices are housed within divisions of student affairs, discuss the limitations of these models, and propose a new model designed to maximize the potential of what a f/s life office can and should be. Tune in next week!