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!


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