Wednesday, December 9, 2015

I'm Sick and Tired of Hearing About the H-Word

Were you at the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors annual meeting closing banquet this past week in Fort Worth? If you were not, then you missed out. If you were, then you got a chance to hear Anson Award winner Tom Jelke speak some uncomfortable truths in his acceptance speech.

He asked us some really uncomfortable questions – questions that made us think about the ways in which we do our jobs. While there were a number of zingers in his speech, here was my favorite:

“Are you reaching out and developing all of your students, or just the ones with whom you feel comfortable working?”

This question, out of all of his questions, triggered something that I have been feeling now for quite some time.

In the last 5-10 years, we have alienated about 80 percent of the male students on our campuses, particularly in our fraternity chapters. We have alienated them to the point of having a name that we call them – a term that in many circles is met with derision and scorn.

We call them “Hypermasculine.” The H-Word.

Hypermasculinity has become a buzzword in student affairs in the last decade. Initially, the H-Word was used only to describe a relatively small portion of our students, and only in a clinical setting – those whose behavior exaggerated stereotypical masculine behavior, such as physical strength and sexual aggression. It was a new way of describing what had previously been referred to as “jock culture,” where physical and sexual aggression were ways of life for a small percentage of male students, particularly among male athletes. When the word first came into popular use, it was met with hostility in some circles, as some felt it was a racist term to describe black male athletes. But its use persisted. Originally just a psychological term, it came into popular use through books such as Michael Kimmel’s “Guyland: The Dangerous World Where Boys Become Men,” a pseudo-scientific tome which lamented the fact that *GASP* some men were waiting later than previous generations to get married and that *GASP Again* because of that phenomenon, many of them were living communally (i.e. they had roommates) and those roommates occasionally did crazy things like drink beer and/or play video games *AUDIBLE GASP.*

KIMMEL WAS TALKING ABOUT ME! THAT BASTARD! You see, guys like me are apparently everything that is wrong with America. We shun responsibility. We fastidiously avoid “growing up.” Whereas our fathers got married and started families in their early 20’s (by the time my father was my age, he’d been married for 18 years and had a teenage daughter), we were waiting until our late 20’s or *GASP* even our 30’s before settling down. And Kimmel said this was a huge problem!!! Never mind the fact that the divorce rate for our parent’s generation is now well over 50 percent and perhaps – just perhaps – we were trying to avoid their mistakes. Never mind the fact that, for many of us, this “delaying of adulthood” was actually used to further our educations and better prepare ourselves to be able to financially support our future families.

All of a sudden, after Kimmel’s book (and, in all fairness, others like it) became popular in student affairs circles, a lot of traditional male behaviors began getting tossed onto the Hypermasculinity trash heap. Guys living together in apartments or fraternity houses? Hypermasculine. Guys who like to hang out with their buddies and drink beer? Hypermasculine. Guys who go to the gym? Hypermasculine. Guys who have sex with women outside the confines of a committed relationship? Hypermasculine. Guys who choose to set at home on a Tuesday night and play video games instead of coming out for a program on campus? Hypermasculine, not to mention irresponsible. You get the idea.

So now, any guy who fits the traditional male gender stereotype is hypermasculine. On many college campuses, if you are a cis-gendered male, you are generally lumped into one of three categories: gay, hipster, or hypermasculine.  We have created very little room for any sort of in-between.

Here’s why all of this is a problem - Our use of the H-word is driving heterosexual college men away from engagement on our college campuses in droves. We started calling them names, and now we act surprised or frustrated when they become “disengaged.” A lot of fraternity/sorority advisors that I talk to will readily admit their discomfort or, even worse, their outright disinterest in working with “hypermasculine” fraternity men. And as a result, a population that arguably needs our support the most is getting the least support!

Need proof? The decline in men’s engagement on college campuses throughout the last decade is well documented. My guess is that on 90 percent of college campuses in America, resident assistants, orientation leaders, peer leaders, student activity board members, etc. are made up of a disproportionate ratio of gay to straight men. While survey research tells us that gay men make up anywhere from 10-15 percent of the men on our college campuses, my guess that on most campuses they outnumber straight men in these areas of student involvement by a ratio of somewhere between 2 or 3-to-1. And I don’t think it is because all of a sudden gay men started clamoring to get more involved on campus – it happened because slowly, gradually, straight men became less and less engaged, and less and less interested in getting involved in any sort of traditional student affairs engagement offerings. It happened because, somewhere along the way, student affairs professionals forgot how to sit down and have a conversation with a straight student who occasionally enjoys sex, beer and video games. And instead of reaching out to them, we’ve demonized them and started calling them the H-Word.

Want the straight men on your campus to become more engaged? Stop calling them names. Reach out to them. Talk to them. And stop blaming them for all of the problems on campus.

So many challenges we face with men on campus have mistakenly been chalked up to hypermasculinity. Hazing, for example, is often thought of as a rite of passage caught up in displays of hypermasculine behavior (and in some groups, particularly some culturally based groups where ethnic identity has taken the place of hypermasculinity, that may be the case), but in reality it is generally the result of a group-think mentality wherein groups have convinced themselves that the prize of membership is worth abusing prospective members, flexing our evolutionary impulses to not allow newcomers to immediately exploit the benefits of membership. Hazing very often has nothing at all to do with masculinity, which becomes even more evident when you consider the fact that sororities haze, too! Does hypermasculinity contribute to the severity of hazing in some cases? Possibly. But it is not the underlying cause of a culture where hazing is viewed as a requisite component of group membership. As my good friend Jeremiah Shinn likes to say, just because something seems true doesn’t mean that it is.

So what are some strategies that we can employ to re-engage all of these “Hypermasculine” men that we have slowly disengaged over the last decade, while still confronting the real problem of actual hypermasculinity?

Some of it we are already doing – we are finally targeting groups traditionally associated with hypermasculinity (fraternities, athletes, etc.) and inviting them to be part of the solution, helping them think through and challenge traditional male stereotypes and helping them better understand problems associated with the objectification of women. But we can’t stop there. We need to intentionally be recruiting men to be involved in things like orientation leaders and resident assistants, providing them with training that will allow them to be positive male role models for future new students who may then also seek out those opportunities in the future. Frankly, we need to make it cool to be involved.

I also think the work that Josh Schutts and I are doing related to brotherhood has some implications related to this conversation. In particular, chapters where solidarity or shared social experiences are viewed as the most salient forms of brotherhood also tend to have the most demonstrations of hypermasculine behavior (hazing, competitive binge drinking, fighting, etc.). Working with chapters to move beyond solidarity and towards belonging and accountability can be among the most important work we can do in changing the cultures that permit hypermasculine attitudes to thrive. This notion is backed by another study that found that individual levels of hypermasculinity did not predict sexual violence among fraternity men, but it did among non-affiliated men. The group culture in fraternities is more powerful than any individual predisposition that members may possess. If we can move chapter cultures away from solidarity and towards belonging and accountability, we can create group cultures where problematic hypermasculinity is replaced with genuine engagement, involvement and a feeling of being able to be yourself (as opposed to fitting the masculine mold) and being accepted for who you are and what you bring to your group.

Is hypermasculinty a real problem in our society? Of course it is. But instead of a disease inflicting 80 percent of our males on campus, it is a psychological disposition that impacts a small portion of men in serious ways, and a larger number of men in minor ways. It is often passed on to them through male role models in their life, popular media, violence in sports and video games, and a belief in traditional gender roles. All of these are things we can help alleviate by just having conversations with them, helping them unlearn that which society has taught them.  Let’s stop calling our students names, and start practicing what we preach by “meeting them where they are” and helping them become better.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Gentry’s Semi-Annual Rant About Bystander Training (And Why Most of Us Are Getting It Wrong)

I had a chance to work with a campus recently who was interested in doing some bystander training. I happily obliged them, but after giving them my caveat of “my research has led me to believe that bystander training on its own is not a very effective prevention tool.” But, for whatever reason, many campus administrators and “prevention specialists” have convinced themselves that bystander training is the end all, be all of prevention programs, especially in the sexual assault realm. Someone told some Congressman at a hearing that bystander training showed promise as a primary prevention strategy, it made it into some legislation and a White House report, and now most campuses feel the need to dutifully check the “bystander training” box on their compliance checklist every year. WELL I’M NOT BUYING IT!!!

As my good friend Aaron Boe (who does some amazing prevention work) likes to say, bystander intervention is not a new concept. Cavemen likely understood the concept of helping out their fellow cavemen if they found themselves in a dangerous predicament. Famed biologist E.O. Wilson discussed this concept in his book “The Social Conquest of Earth,” theorizing that natural selection has taken place along two parallel tracks – individual-level selection, and group-level selection.  Groups that were more altruistic, consisting of individuals who were willing to sacrifice their own desires for the needs of the group, tended to win out over more selfish groups, and those altruistic traits have been genetically passed down over the millennia. We’ve literally evolved to be helpful, proactive bystanders. Helping one another is in our DNA, and you certainly don’t need to pay me (or anyone else) to come talk to your students about how they can be more helpful in dangerous situations.

If you read the literature on bystander behavior (which, having written a dissertation on the topic, I can assure you I have done), you will find that there are a number of things an individual must do in order to intervene in a dangerous situation (i.e. not be a bystander). The first, and arguably most important, thing on that list is that the person must interpret the situation as an emergency worthy of intervention. People fail to correctly interpret situations as problematic for one of two reasons: ambiguity, or conformity. In ambiguous situations, it isn’t clear whether a situation is an emergency. A great example of this is the Kitty Genovese murder – one of the things that gets lost in the Kitty Genovese story is that many people who heard the attack incorrectly interpreted it as a lover’s quarrel, and not a situation that required any sort of intervention (in fact, they were often surprised to learn that a murder had taken place).

The second reason people fail to interpret events as emergencies worthy of intervention is conformity. Much has been written of conformity – most famously the Asch Study in which individuals discuss the lengths of lines and conform to the answers of those around them. A lesser known study applies directly to bystander behavior – the Latane and Darley “Smoke-Filled Room” study. In this study, individuals were placed in a waiting room in one of two conditions – alone, or with confederates (individuals who were “in on the joke,” so to speak). After a few minutes waiting, smoke began entering the room through a vent. Those in the “alone” condition immediately got up and said something to someone or left the room 75 percent of the time. But in the “with others” condition, the confederates would sit silently and pay no attention to the smoke. The research subject would notice the smoke, but then notice that everyone else seemed to be paying the smoke no mind. In such conditions, less than 10 percent of research subjects said or did anything related to the smoke. The reason they did not say or do anything is often mistakenly attributed to diffusion of responsibility (I assumed someone else would do something), but the inaction was actually due to conformity. They looked around to see how everyone else interpreted the situation. When they surmised that they were the only person interpreting the smoke as a problem, they conformed to the norms around them and decided that the smoke was not a problem after all. It isn’t that they assumed someone else would do something (diffusion of responsibility) – they assumed that nothing needed to be done because of the inactions of those around them. By conforming to the responses of those around them, they failed to correctly interpret a dangerous situation as an emergency worthy of their intervention.

So, at this point in the post, you might be asking yourself “That’s great, Gentry, but what does any of this have to do with bystander training?” It’s a fair question. I plan to answer it now.

So often, bystander training focuses on “helping skills” (please read that as “quote unquote helping skills”).  We spend hours talking about diffusion of responsibility, and telling students that if they see something they should say something, that they shouldn’t just be a bystander, and then we “teach” students how to help or intervene in a variety of dangerous situations (sexual assault, hazing, alcohol poisoning, etc.).

But here is what the bystander research tells us – that if students are not correctly interpreting situations as emergencies worthy of intervention, then all the bystander training in the world will not get them to intervene. If a situation is ambiguous, or if others are not interpreting it as an emergency, then the odds that a student will correctly interpret the situation as problematic and intervene are very, very low.

What all of this means is that bystander training needs to be context-specific. That is, until students have a critical understanding of the issue you are trying to address (sexual assault, hazing, bullying, etc.) and the harm that can be caused by those behaviors, then trying to get them to intervene when they see these situations is an exercise in futility. Before bystander training can be effective, we need to help students understand the harm that can be caused by the behaviors we are trying to curb.

My friend and colleague Aaron Boe is probably doing the most innovative work in this area as it relates to sexual assault prevention, and his ideas have informed my own in this area. In his programs for men, he starts by helping them understand the trauma that can come from having your body violated by someone else – even if it is someone you know and trust, and even if it doesn’t seem particularly “violent.” The idea behind his approach is that most of the sexual assaults on college campuses are not perpetrated by scary strangers, and they do not meet our classic definitions of violent, and as a result, many college men fail to understand the harm that can be caused in a non-stranger assault involving alcohol. His program begins by helping them understand that harm, and then moves on to ways they can improve the culture around them by creating healthier norms and not being bystanders. Critical understanding of the harm comes first, conversations about bystander behavior come second. This is a critical concept for those of you interested in doing bystander training. If your students don’t fully understand the harm that can be done by having someone do something to your body that you don’t want to happen, then getting them to intervene in any meaningful ways is a tall order.

Bystander training probably isn’t a total waste of time, and that is not the concept that I want people to take away from this post. What I want people to understand is that bystander training is only effective when it is done as part of a broader prevention program that begins with helping students understand the critical issues involved in any particular behavior. Every time I do bystander training, and I offer a scenario involving a dangerous situation and ask them how they could intervene, students are immediately able to come up with several ideas, many of which are really thoughtful and creative. Students don’t need to be trained on how to intervene. They know how to intervene. What they don’t always know is when or why they should intervene. If we spent more time helping them understand the critical issues that would give them a better understanding of when to intervene, and less time teaching them what they innately already know, then our prevention efforts would be drastically more impactful. 

Friday, September 11, 2015

Sisterhood's Biggest Impediment

Over the last few years, I have spent more time than I care to admit sitting around talking to sorority women about sisterhood. Hours and hours of conversations about sisterhood. This has not been for my health, nor has it been for my own amusement. If you are not familiar with the research that Josh Schutts, Sarah Cohen and I are doing related to sisterhood, you can read more about it here.

The least altruistic version of sisterhood, or what one woman described as the “sisterhood of selfishness,” is sisterhood based on shared social experiences.  Women who think of sisterhood in this way view the sorority as a primarily social outlet, and see the main purpose of their membership as “meeting people and having a good time.” We also see that, relative to men, women are more likely to join a group based on their perception of its social status rather than the sense of belonging and connection they feel to the group. Anecdotally, we have all experienced this. Fraternity/sorority advisors who have worked with sorority and fraternity recruitment understand this phenomenon all too well. We all know her – the PNM on preference night who sits at the voting computer in agony for hours trying to decide between her groups. Our research tells us that, very often, her inner monologue might go something like this:

I really like Gamma Beta – I really felt a connection to those girls. I feel like I could really be at home there. But….the Kappa Theta’s are the best sorority on campus. Everyone wants to be there. I’m not sure I liked the girls as much, but would I be crazy not to rank them first? I’m so confused! I don’t know what to do!”

The agonizing choice between joining the chapter where one feels at home and connected vs. the chapter where one is likely to enjoy the highest social status is one that plays out in every recruitment voting lab on every college campus in America multiple times over.

Have you ever noticed that this agony is much less prevalent with men? How many times have you sat with a prospective fraternity member on bid day who was agonizing over his decision of which fraternity to join. In my ten years as a F/S advisor, I can remember only one. The reason for this is that men are much more likely to join the place that they feel that they best fit in. To them, the decision is easy – most men join where they feel the greatest sense of belonging. This is clearly evident in our research on brotherhood, as brotherhood based on belonging accounts for an overwhelming amount of the variance in our overall brotherhood model. This is the most salient form of brotherhood, and the type of connection that most men crave in a fraternity experience. In addition, fraternity men measure significantly higher than sorority women on the construct of belonging. Simply, the conflict between joining a chapter where you feel at home and a chapter with social clout is much more pronounced with sorority women than with fraternity men.

The fact is, a great number of women join the wrong sorority for the wrong reasons.  They join an artificially constructed social image for social reasons instead of a group of people with whom they connect. As a result, many sorority members get stuck in a schema of sisterhood in which the social aspect of the sorority takes precedence over more altruistic forms of sisterhood. Women who join the social image only care about the social image, and sisterhood suffers as a result.

Why does this happen with such regularity? Why are so many women joining sororities for the wrong reasons?

The answer, I suspect, lies in the manner in which sororities recruit their new members.

Sorority recruitment is sisterhood’s biggest impediment.

The manner in which we bring new members into sororities is the reason that so many young women join for the wrong reasons, and is the reason that more altruistic forms of sisterhood are so difficult for many chapters to attain.

I want to lay out five reasons that sorority recruitment reinforces the social nature of sisterhood at the expense of more altruistic forms of sisterhood. I will present this list not in my own words, but in the words of women we have interviewed about sisterhood in the last two years. You see, it isn’t just my opinion that sorority recruitment is problematic – it is a theme that has come up TIME AND TIME AGAIN in our hours of interviews and focus groups related to sisterhood.

So, in the words of sorority women across the country, here are five reasons that sorority recruitment is bad for sisterhood:

The Structure

“How are you supposed to really get to know someone and what they are about in 20 minutes?”

“The whole process is just one big production. It isn’t about getting to know the girls going through – it is about selling an image of what we want them the think about us. There’s no way you can really get to know the girls going through during recruitment. Once you get in and see what its really like, you become kind of jaded.”

The structure of sorority recruitment is incredibly ill-suited for allowing women to connect with one another in any sort of deep, meaningful way. Depending on the campus, the “first round” of structured recruitment is anywhere from 15-30 minutes per party. So, young women have roughly 20 minutes to find out whether or not they find a deep sense of connection and belonging with a group of people. In the meantime, they have been strictly forbidden from having any sort of conversations with sorority members for the last six months outside of a 20 minute party. The sorority is evaluating you, and you are evaluating the sorority, based on a 20 minute conversation. The entire concept is outlandish.  At the most basic level, the process works in terms of moving women through the process and having good retention through bid day, but the impression that it leaves with new members is one that reinforces the social nature of sisterhood (“I’m being evaluated based on what I’m wearing, how I look, and the impression I leave after a five minute conversation with someone who doesn’t know me at all”) that creates so many problems for our chapters. 

By forcing both chapters and potential members to make fast decisions based on very surface-level observations and conversations, we are reinforcing the very negative TSM stereotypes that we try so fastidiously to avoid. By not giving women an opportunity to connect with one another in meaningful ways, we set up a system whereby most people use social prestige as the lone measuring stick of which sorority is best for them, and chapters are left to make decisions about prospective members based on their looks and one very brief, surface level conversation.

The Videos

The sisterhood videos are the worst thing. I hate glitter.”

“The videos are all cute, cute, fun, fun instead of what the sorority is really like.”

“OMG look we have the best sisterhood! Not really. These videos are not genuine with new members about what the experience is really like.”

The recent controversy related to the Alpha Phi recruitment video at the University of Alabama was so bizarre to me because that video was indistinguishable from the hundreds of other videos I’ve seen in the last few years. Perhaps the lakeside, bikini-clad, inflatable candy blow up toy fight was a bit over the top, but otherwise, that video was pretty milquetoast. These videos have become all the rage in recent years.

These videos usually represent the absolute worst that sororities have to offer – the surface level, social nature of sisterhood. Blowing glitter and/or bubbles into various and sundry bodies of water; holding hands and skipping through random places on campus; synchronized jumping; more glitter. You get the idea.

Who are these videos targeted towards, and exactly what message are they trying to convey? My guess is that these videos are productions whose aim and purpose is to supplant a realistic version of sorority life with a made up dream-world where everyone walks around with endless supplies of glitter in their pockets.  These videos promote the idea that sisterhood is all about looking good and having fun. As a result, the wrong women are joining sororities. These videos target the “always joiners” – those women who are joining the stereotype – instead of the maybe joiners, who really want to know how being in a sorority will add value to their college experience. Instead of serious students looking to make an impact, these videos tend to attract students who are only interested in the social aspects of sorority life.  The result? Chapters where sisterhood is a largely social construct, made up of members who joined a social image and not a group of women dedicated to making one another and society better.

The Instagram Feed

We’ve created an environment where our members feel entitled and get upset if they aren’t featured on the chapter’s Instagram before recruitment.”

“I don’t see a lot of pictures of us studying or doing service [on the Instagram feed], which would be a more realistic depiction of what it’s really like.”

“It creates an environment where no one wants to do the work – they just want to take selfies.”

In addition to recruitment videos, highly produced Instagram photos now litter the college sorority landscape. Rare is the chapter that does not have its own Insta account, and rare is the account which doesn’t include overly produced, unrealistic, staged photoshoots. There is an arms race among sororities on most campuses to see which chapter can get the largest number of PNM’s to follow their Instagram account. Those who follow these accounts are bombarded with images that bear little to no resemblance of what sorority life actually entails.

Much like the videos, the Instagram accounts promote a sisterhood of superficiality – where pretty members do pretty things in pretty outfits, flashing the sorority hand sign in conspicuous places. I have never seen a chapter Instagram account feature pictures from a chapter service project, a late night study session, or any other “real” activities that go on in a sorority on a daily basis. Instead of seeing and joining what is “real,” prospective members are bombarded with and join artificially constructed images that are anything but real.

The Skits

“The skit – it’s all about trying to seem to be something we aren’t.”

“I think [the skit] is about social status and fun and how we look rather than promoting or attaining values.”

Skits during recruitment have long been the whipping-boy of the “no-frills” movement. It is surprising, then, that so many campus Panhellenic recruitment processes still feature some variation of a skit night. Proponents of the skit love to point out that skits give the chapter an opportunity to “showcase its personality.” This viewpoint is not shared by the majority of the women I have spoken to in the last two years. They view skits no differently than they view videos or any other productions that portray an unrealistic version of sisterhood.

The skit is problematic not only in that it usually portrays an unrealistic or superficial version of sisterhood, but it takes away valuable time during the recruitment process that could be better spent allowing meaningful conversations to happen. As a result, women join a contrived portrayal of a sisterhood instead of a group of women looking to improve their lives and the lives of those around them.

The Superficiality

“ ‘Are you friends with everybody in your chapter?’ That’s the question they (PNM’s) ask to define sisterhood and to be perfectly honest, it’s a blatant lie when recruiting sisters go ‘Yes, I’m best friends with everybody in my chapter.’  And we all know it’s a lie. I personally think that the sisterhood aspect that we sell to our PNM’s isn’t the most genuine that we can tell them about. When you’re in a chapter of 150 women, there’s going to be at least one person that you’re like ‘wow, you are so irritating’ You love them, because they are your sister, but you’re like ‘wow, you’re irritating’.”

So we teach our members during recruitment that if they get a question about a sister and they don’t know the answer, to just make something up. We want the PNM’s to think that we are all best friends and know everything about one another.”

“Everything we do in recruitment is fake – it is about seeming rather than being.”

All of the issues with sorority recruitment and sisterhood come down to this one concept. The current structure of recruitment on most campuses in one in which a sisterhood of superficiality is front and center. Chapters seeking to establish their social bona fides find themselves in a “race to the bottom” in which they say and do whatever necessary in order to convince potential members that they offer a sisterhood in which everyone has fun all the time and is best friends with one another.

The message that potential members receive throughout recruitment is the wrong message. It is a message that promotes the superficial, social nature of sisterhood, often at the expense of more altruistic notions of sisterhood. Instead of prospective members joining a sisterhood in which women support one another in their endeavors, where they feel a high sense of belonging, and feel held accountable to a set of shared expectations, they join a sisterhood of glitter, bubbles, overly-produced skits, and false expectations.

We need to take a long, hard look at the sorority recruitment process. It is time to move beyond “no frills” and “values-based” and into a world of “promoting a realistic version of sisterhood.” Just getting rid of frills is not enough. We need to develop practices that allow for all levels of sisterhood to be sold to new members – from the social experience to accountability and common purpose. We need to get rid of the superficiality – no more glitter, no more bubbles, no more skits. Glitter, bubbles and skits recruit members who care about the social elements of sisterhood. Replace the glitter and bubbles with meaningful conversations – not about watered-down, abstract values, but about how sorority membership makes you a better person and adds value to your college experience. If we replace glitter with substance, we’ll be recruiting the right women for the right reasons, and sisterhood will grow and thrive as a result.

But don't take my word for it.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Hazing Myth - New Members Want to be Hazed

In my line of work, I get to spend a lot of time having frank, open and honest conversations with chapter leaders about what really goes on in their chapters. In fact, my experience has taught me that bringing in someone from the outside to have confidential conversations with chapter leaders is money incredibly well-spent, because it provides opportunities to cut through the BS and discuss the things really going on in a chapter. Campus visits that offer these types of conversations are often my most productive. In order to get students to think differently about what might be going on in their chapters, it helps to provide them with a safe space to have open, honest conversations about what is actually going on.

I have also written previously of the “regression to the mean” that happens within a given campus context. Over time, fraternity new member programs on any given campus come to generally resemble one another, and a salient campus culture emerges for what a “normal” new member program looks like. Organizations who deviate from this campus culture initially (i.e. a new chapter that begins doing things the right way immediately after colonization) will be pulled towards it over time. Variance within these systems is not rewarded. Fraternity new members hear these myths and are generally aware of the norm when they join a fraternity on campus – they hear stories from their friends in high school and come into an organization expecting a certain amount of hazing, depending on the cultural norms on the campus in question. Sometimes the hazing will be worse than they expected, and sometimes it won’t be quite as bad as they had expected.

Sometimes a chapter will decide, for various reasons (it gets into trouble, it elects a conscientious president, it gets new chapter advisors, etc.), to try to address its hazing culture and deviate in some way from the campus norm. The chapter will choose some of the most dangerous or high risk activities in which it engages and eliminate them from the new member education program.  In doing so, they often make a critical mistake – they fail to replace those high risk activities with other meaningful new member activities. They eliminate hazing, but they put nothing meaningful back in its place. This mistake is the most common one that I see chapters make when they try to address hazing, and it has very predictable consequences.

I recently met with a group of chapter leaders who had made this mistake – they had gotten into trouble two years ago for hazing and had cleaned a few things up in their new member program. They took some bad things away, but they put nothing back in place of those things. The results of this were both typical and predictable – they felt the pledges didn’t come together and didn’t really get much out of the new member period. And they stated to me what many chapter leaders over the years have stated to me after trying to deviate from the campus hazing norm:

“The pledges told us they were disappointed that they weren’t hazed. They wanted us to haze them more.”

My guess is that I am not the only person working in the fraternity/sorority industry who has ever heard a statement like this. I suspect this type of mentality is fairly common.

So how do I respond when I hear this logic?

“When your pledges tell you that they wish they had been hazed more, what they really mean is that they wish their new member experience had been more meaningful.”

Much has been written about adolescent men and their need for meaningful rites of passage. They seek meaning and a deep sense of connection in their experiences. They seek to bond with others in powerful ways. They seek challenge and accomplishment. One of the primary reasons that hazing not only persists but is often glorified as a positive experience is because, in the short term, it provides these feelings of meaning and accomplishment.  Take a group of 20-30 young men and put them through Hell for 12 weeks and they will take a sense of pride and accomplishment out of that experience. They will feel closer to one another because of that experience. They will derive meaning from that experience.

But there are other ways to create a meaningful experience that do not involve hazing. There are ways to facilitate authentic, meaningful conversations that will build trust and connectivity within a group. There are ways to facilitate a sense of accomplishment that do not involve physical or mental abuse. It takes time, energy and creativity to develop and implement these activities. That’s another reason that hazing is so prevalent – it is much easier to implement. Any idiot can scream at a group of pledges who don’t perform well on a pledge test. It takes a little more creativity to facilitate a conversation or activity that facilitates meaningful bonding.

We have failed our fraternities by completely decentralizing the new member education experience and expecting 19-21 year old men to come up with constructive programs on their own. Most chapters simply have not spent the time and energy required to develop meaningful new member education activities. They take the simplest path to creating meaning within their new member programs – they haze. I can offer a brief, bulleted list of what the fraternity new member process looks like in 90 percent of fraternity chapters across America:

  • Bid night – get shitfaced.
  • Have pledges memorize things from the national new member book. Give them a weekly test. If they fail the test, yell at them and make them do calisthenics.
  • Run errands for older members in the name of “getting to know the older members.” This may or may not involve getting signatures in book or soliciting interviews with these older members while performing menial tasks for them.
  • Big brother night – get shitfaced again.
  • Lots of cleaning.
  • Hell Week! Lots of yelling and calisthenics and cleaning and getting shitfaced.
  • Initiation. Welcome to the frat, brother. Now let’s get shitfaced!

We have failed to change this pattern because we have failed to help our fraternity chapters develop more meaningful ways to bring a group together. The formula above is prevalent because it is the easiest, simplest way to bring a group of new members together and foster a sense of accomplishment. It requires zero effort, zero creativity, and zero initiative.

If you are a campus-based advisor, here is how you can make a difference: Set a meeting with every fraternity executive board on your campus. Block off two hours for each chapter. Begin the meeting by asking them about the purpose of their new member education program. After hearing their thoughts, provide them with an alternative framework – that the new member education process is about building good members of the chapter. Once they buy into this concept (they will), ask them to make a bulleted list of 8-10 characteristics to describe the ideal chapter member (if we agree that the pledge process is about building good members, it helps to define what a good member looks like). Some chapters will struggle with this, some will not. Push them. Get them to think both in terms of tangible behaviors (i.e. shows up to things, pays his dues) and intangible values (a man of integrity, an honest person, etc.). Once they come up with that list of ideal member qualities, help them brainstorm 3-4 activities for each of those qualities on that list that would either teach that quality to new members or give new members an opportunity to demonstrate or practice that quality. You’ll be amazed at the things that they come up with. So will they. They will amaze themselves at the meaningful activities that they are able to come up with in just a few short hours of brainstorming.

At the end of this exercise, each chapter will have a list of 30-40 MEANINGFUL new member activities that they can use to replace some of the stupid things they are doing that really have no point or purpose. It will make the new member programs on your campus better, and it will reduce the likelihood of hazing creeping back in to the chapter, because everyone, including the new members, will see and understand the benefits of a meaningful  and purposeful new member program.

New members don’t want to be hazed, and I suspect that 90 percent of chapter members don’t want to engage in hazing (10 percent of society has sociopathic/psychopathic tendencies…). Chapters haze because it is the only way they know how to create a meaningful experience for their new members. We need to spend time and energy showing them a better way. We need to invest resources in helping them come up with better ways to provide meaningful experiences in ways that will work towards constructive ends and that are not dangerous, demeaning or degrading.

We need to be better at our jobs. This is a good place to start.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Should Fraternity Conduct Boards be Hearing Title IX Cases?

Earlier this week, Inside Higher Ed published an intriguing article related to some of the problems associated with peer-led fraternity conduct boards, using recent cases at Penn State and the University Idaho as examples. This piece has generated quite a bit of healthy discussion in both the student conduct and fraternity/sorority advising circles, illuminating both the positives and negatives of peer accountability boards.

Let me start by saying this – I think peer accountability is a good thing. IFC conduct boards have a role to play, because ultimately the college experience is designed to be educational. We know that peer-governance and accountability is a powerful developmental tool, linked to gains in moral development, cognitive development and self-authorship for the students serving on these panels. We also know that peer-administered sanctions are more impactful to the individual/group being sanctioned, consistent with both Perry’s Theory of Intellectual Development and Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development. Students in stages of relativistic thinking and conventional moral judgment (which is where most college students are developmentally) are more likely to be influenced by the attitudes and opinions of their peers than by those of adult authority figures. Peer accountability systems provide students with valuable opportunities to learn from and be influenced by one another in positive and developmental ways. Peer accountability is, developmentally at least, a good thing.

But, as we all learned in our organizational theories classes, the developmental frame is not the only lens through which we can view the problem of how to best address fraternal misdeeds. In the current environment, the legal frame cannot be ignored when determining the appropriate levels of self-determination and peer-accountability.

As we ponder this problem through a legal frame, let me first lay out a few principles that will provide context for what I am about to say:
  • Organizations only have as many due process rights/protections as we provide to them in our codes of conduct. Our relationships with individual students are Constitutional (at least at public institutions), but our relationships with organizations are largely contractual. We must have a fair process for addressing student organization behavior that is neither arbitrary nor capricious. Other than that, organizations have no “rights” that are commonly associated with the traditional student conduct process. We can address organizational conduct in whatever manner we choose, so long as that manner is inherently fair and applied evenly.
  • The civil rights investigative/adjudication model provides us with the most appropriate framework for addressing not only Title IX cases, but also any other types of cases that would constitute a victim-based violation (hazing, assault, exploitation, etc.). The civil rights model provides for an independent investigation, followed by the determination of a finding based on the facts outlined in the investigation. It is appropriate for victim-based crimes because it less adversarial, provides necessary protections to victims, reduces the likelihood of retaliation or re-victimization, and eliminates redundant questioning wherein a victim is required to tell his/her story multiple times to multiple parties.
  • The key ingredient to a successful civil rights investigation/process is the elimination of bias. OCR and other legal bodies have been clear on this matter. Investigators should be unbiased. They should have no stake in the eventual outcome of the case, and they should not be involved in the adjudication of the case (outside of answering questions about their investigation). In a hybrid model where a traditional hearing still takes place, panelists are expected to be unbiased. They should have no relationship with any of the involved parties that would call their independence or subjectivity into question. Many institutions of higher education have spent the last few years designing systems that build clear walls between the investigative and adjudicative roles in Title IX cases. This has been done to eliminate bias from the process inasmuch as possible.

Fraternity peer-accountability boards should not be placed in a position to adjudicate ANY victim-based crime (Title IX or otherwise), because the use of such a system leaves multiple opportunities for bias to be introduced into the process. The problem is not that fraternity members are inherently biased to rule in favor of or to show leniency towards their inter-fraternal brothers (although that may often be the case). Rather, this type of model provides no safeguards through which we can ensure that the process is unbiased, and that represents a major flaw and drawback to peer-led systems of accountability. The mere fact that such a process has fraternity men deciding cases involving other fraternity men, bound to one another by an unspoken vow of fraternal solidarity, injects inherent bias (whether real or imagined) into the process, Such a process also renders cases decided by such a system wide open for legal challenges (not to mention OCR complaints).

Campuses would be wise to consider the transition to a civil-rights process for ALL cases (both organizational and individual) that constitute victim-based violations. As an example, consider some of the problems associated with adjudicating a fraternity hazing case using the traditional model vs. a civil rights model, as depicted in the table below:

Traditional Process
Civil Rights Process
Hazing victims required to testify in front of their organizational leaders, as well as students from other organizations
Hazing victims only required to share their story with an independent investigator, and are not required to testify in an open hearing
Hazing victims required to tell their story to multiple parties and to endure harsh cross examination
Hazing victims only required to tell their story once to an unbiased investigator
Modestly trained student panelists with little investigatory experience
Adequately trained investigator with experience investigating cases and determining fact patterns
Time intensive (preliminary investigation, scheduling hearing, training panelists, actual hearing, layers of appeal)
Less time intensive (Investigation, written report, finding, appeal)
Subject to political influence, bias, administrative vetoes
Less subject to outside political influence, bias, or administrative overreach

In our current compliance environment, it makes no sense for colleges and universities to willingly introduce the potential for bias into their disciplinary process, especially when they do not have to. A civil rights model is superior, because it reduces bias, is victim-centered, is more likely to find the truth, and limits opportunities for retaliation, legal challenge, and political interference. At Penn State, in the case featured in the Inside Higher Ed article, the IFC conduct board’s sanctions were eventually overturned by the University. Is it truly peer-governance when the administration has to reserve the right to have the last say? Is that really developmental? Is that really the eventual result we want – students making decisions that are regularly and summarily overturned by administrators? What, exactly, does that accomplish for the students involved, the university, or the victims?

Most peer-accountability processes, particularly those involving fraternity judicial councils in which fraternity men decide the fate of their interfraternal peers, are antiquated – vestiges of more adversarial judicial models that proliferated American higher education in the wake of the Dixon vs. Alabama case. Perhaps most importantly, panels consisting of all fraternity men are poorly designed to fulfill institutional obligations to women under Title IX.

In light of all of this, I recommend the following:
  1. Campuses should transition to a model where all victim-based violations are adjudicated under a single civil rights investigative model. This will make everyone's lives easier, and provide a better process for victims while ensuring due process protections for alleged perpetrators.
  2. Investigators should receive specialized training related to not only Title IX cases, but also other victim-based violations, especially hazing.
  3. Campuses should partner with and embrace fraternity (and sorority) peer accountability boards to adjudicate victimless violations (i.e. alcohol/drugs, university policies related to facility upkeep, university/council risk management policies, etc.) as well as violations of their own rules (i.e. recruitment policies).
Greek peer accountability boards still have an important role to play on college campuses. My most meaningful and developmental experience as an undergraduate (and the one most responsible for leading me into this profession) was my experience as the chair of the IFC judicial board at the University of Tennessee. I learned and grew a great deal because of that experience, and for the most part, I think we acted with the community and university’s best interests at heart. But I also reflect back on that time, and I think about how ill-prepared I was to deal with serious issues involving real victims who suffered real harm, where the institution’s compliance with federal law hinged on my being able to do my job in an unbiased manner.  Could countless hours of training and rigid oversight have prepared me to handle those cases? Perhaps. But for a majority of institutions struggling to get this right, time and money are precious commodities, and the level of time and energy needed to adequately train new student boards year after year may eliminate those models as viable options. For those campuses, the civil rights model presents the most effective and efficient model for addressing not only Title IX cases, but all victim-based violations.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

What Can Mega-Sororities Learn From Mega-Churches?

The last decade has seen unprecedented growth in sorority membership on college campuses. According to the most recent NPC Annual Report, the number of new members joining sorority chapters has nearly doubled in the last ten years, with 80,000 women joining sororities in the 2004-2005 school year, compared to 140,000 in the 2013-2014 school year, a growth of 43 percent. In that same time period, however, only 300 new sorority chapters were added, a growth rate of only 10 percent. The growth in the number of members has far outpaced the growth in the number of new sorority chapters. The result?


Doing some rudimentary math with the stats provided above would tell us that the average new member class size has jumped from just under 28 new members to just under 44 new members in the last 10 years, which means that chapter size has likely mirrored the growth in new members. Based on the data provided, the current average sorority chapter size nationally is 152 members (including new initiates).

Anecdotally, we know that on many campuses those numbers are much, much higher. My last year at the University of Alabama, quota during formal recruitment was over 90 and the average chapter size was in the neighborhood of 320. I’ve heard that on some campuses, chapters are now pushing 400 members. 400!!! That’s insane!!!

I am not one to pound my chest and implore students to consider what their founders would think, but I can’t help but wonder what our sorority founders would think of chapters with 400 members. When they created these organizations, is that what they had in mind?

What makes these super-sized sororities problematic is our recent finding (read more about it here) that the most altruistic forms of sisterhood – accountability and common purpose – begin declining once a sorority chapter hits 150 members. Much has been written of the “Rule of 150” – otherwise known as Dunbar’s Number. Malcom Gladwell wrote about it in his bestselling book “The Tipping Point.” The basic premise of the Rule of 150 is that once a group reaches 150 members, the social network begins to break down and the group begins to destabilize, because, as humans, we can only maintain a true sense of connection and accountability with around 150 people. To my knowledge, our research is the first to statistically show the rule of 150 actually playing out, which is kind of cool!

Mega-sororities are bad for sisterhood. Our research clearly demonstrates that. Women in chapters over 150 members are less likely to feel a deep sense of connection to the sisterhood, and those chapters struggle to create a true sense of accountability and common purpose among members. Women in these chapters are much more likely to see the sorority as a social outlet or a place to go for support among a small group of sisters, but are less likely than women in smaller chapters to ever “get” the higher levels of sisterhood.

This should concern all of us involved in the “fraternal movement,” because I don’t see the growth trend reversing or even slowing down any time soon. Mega-sororities are here to stay.

If we can’t get rid of Mega-sororities, then we have to come up with a way to make them better. In particular, we have to come with ways to help members of mega-sororities connect with one another in more meaningful ways that allow for higher degrees of personal accountability and create better understanding of the common purpose of the organization.

The first thing we have to acknowledge is that the traditional structure of sorority chapters is poorly suited to fostering sisterhood in mega-sororities. In a chapter of 200+ members, not everyone will have a chance to get truly involved and engaged in the work of the chapter. I can’t tell you how many young women I worked with at Alabama who fell victim to this phenomenon – they were involved student-leaders in high school, came to Alabama expecting to have that same experience, joined a 300-member sorority, and just became a face in the crowd. No meaningful leadership opportunities. No opportunities to shine. No opportunities to connect with others in meaningful ways. Many of them eventually drifted away from the sorority once the “fun” aspect wore off, and tried to find meaningful engagement in other areas of campus life.

The fact is, a traditional chapter structure just does not work in mega-sororities. With only 10 chapter officers, and perhaps another dozen or so committee chairs, there are limited opportunities for meaningful engagement for members of these groups. Chapter meetings, which should be an opportunity for meaningful engagement and dialogue, become a series of announcements about decisions that have already been made by the executive board.  Uninvolved members just become a face in the crowd, rarely connecting with anyone outside of a small group of members in their pledge class, and never feeling truly connected to the majority of chapter members.

I propose that, in looking for alternative structures for those chapters approaching mega-sorority status, we take a few pages from the playbook of another growing entity in our country – megachurches.

A recent study by Baylor University showed that a growing number of Americans now attend congregations with a weekly attendance of over 1,000 people. This research also suggests that people in large congregations attend less frequently, give less financially and experience diminished feelings of belonging relative to people in smaller congregations. In short – megachurches are growing, and they are experiencing many of the same challenges as mega-sororities.

So how have the successful megachurches managed this growth? What are they doing to keep their members plugged in and engaged? How do organizations with thousands of members maintain a sense of connection and belonging among their members?

The answer is pretty simple –instead of making the big Sunday morning service (i.e. chapter meeting) the focus of membership, the successful megachurches make sure that the primary focus is on the activities of small groups.

The research shows that there are multiple benefits to small group-based churches. As one of the Baylor researchers noted, “Any type of small group will benefit a church, whether it's a Sunday school, a service group or a basketball league, because of the belonging and commitment they foster.” Small groups foster a deeper sense of belonging, higher levels of commitment, higher levels of personal accountability and, perhaps most importantly, increased levels of trust among members. The result of all this? Higher levels of participation, increased levels of financial support for the church, and members who report more depth in their spiritual journey.

Nationally, a handful of sororities have toyed with some programming designed around small groups, but none of these initiatives seem to have gained much traction. There’s a reason for this – small groups can’t just be seen as another of many programmatic offerings for already over-programmed sorority members. As the Baylor study notes, "Small groups are the center of the church -- not just one of many programs.”  In the churches that do this right, small groups are at the center of everything.

Instead of adding small groups on as an optional program, small groups need to become the center of chapter life in mega-sororities.  Instead of weekly chapter meetings, bi-weekly small group meetings (one to discuss chapter business, and another focused around sisterhood). The entire chapter should meet monthly or on an as-needed basis.  The leadership structure of the chapter should center around these small groups. Each group should have a leader, a social/sisterhood chair, a treasurer (with their own budget), a standards board, a scholastics chair, a community service/philanthropy chair, along with the appropriate committees. Each small group should be empowered to plan its own events, meet on its own schedule, and spend its own resources.

The move to a small-group chapter model will not be without its challenges, and the model I have described above still leaves us with many questions that need to be answered. Questions like:

Along what lines should the small groups be organized? There are literally thousands of ways you could go with this one. Fixed groups to which new members are assigned during their first semester of membership and remain in the entire time? Open groups based on interest that people can join and leave as their interests change? Groups organized around organizational values? Groups organized around hobbies and interests? Groups organized around different service initiatives or different academic interests? Randomly assigned groups with no real rhyme or reason? Any or all of these could work, and we would need to do some research in order to figure out what seems to work best.

How big should the small groups be? The research here appears to be inconclusive, and this would vary depending on the structure (i.e. fixed, closed groups or open, interest-based groups). More research would need to be done to determine an “ideal” small group size.

What “overall” chapter offices would still be needed? Again, I’m not sure about the answer to this one. To be certain, a chapter president would still be a necessity. Chapters would probably still need a social chair, a treasurer, and the full bevy of recruitment officers. Beyond that, we would just need to experiment to see what is best handled among small groups, and what needs to have a chapter-wide focus.

How inclusive/exclusive would these small groups be? The research on this topic is murky. According to the Baylor study, “a risk for small groups is crossing the line from intimacy to cliquishness. By constantly adding new members, you can't go very deep, because it takes time to build relationships and trust. But a closed group, while it's good for intimacy, lends itself to being inward-focused.” The right balance would be necessary in order to promote sisterhood across these small groups, providing opportunities for interaction outside of the small group, while still placing a sense of intimacy within the small group setting. The Baylor study suggests this can occur by regularly forming new groups, or by limiting the time period for which groups meet. For example, groups might exist for one year and then be expected to split or reconfigure themselves in some other way every year.


As I read the research on small groups in megachurches, I was struck by the similarity between how members or churches describe their experience, and the language that students have used to describe brotherhood and sisterhood during our research in this area. Church members spoke of belonging, commitment, vulnerability, accountability and trust in the same ways that fraternity and sorority members discuss the brotherhood and sisterhood in their chapters. I think we can learn a great deal from megachurches, both in terms of how they keep people connected, and in how they inspire members to live out their values.

I am excited to know that a few national sorority headquarters are beginning to tackle the issue of mega-sororities, investigating new models and researching how the experience in those organizations can be improved. I think this work will go a long way in helping align our members’ experiences with the stated purpose and values of our organizations, even in chapters with 400 members. I challenge every sorority to begin investigating ways to make membership in these chapters something that can still be values-based and create real feelings of accountability, belonging and shared purpose, because mega-sororities are here to stay.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Sisterhood and the Standards Process

A few months ago, I posted about my research with Josh Schutts and Sarah Cohen related to how sorority women define and think about sisterhood, and how chapter size impacts sisterhood. If you haven’t had a chance to read it, be sure to check it out here – It will give you some valuable context for this post.

As we are discovering, women think about sisterhood as a developmental process – women join the chapter often thinking about the superficial and primarily social notions of sisterhood (i.e. sisterhood based on shared social experiences), but gradually evolve beyond those surface-level notions of sisterhood into more transcendent ways of thinking about it (i.e. sisterhood based on accountability and sisterhood based on common purpose).

One woman described this process as “the transcendence from a sisterhood of selfishness to a sisterhood of selflessness.” The idea behind this phrase is that, at first, women think about sisterhood by asking “how am I receiving sisterhood from others,” but gradually evolve to think about it by asking “how am I contributing sisterhood to others.”

As we have discussed this idea with women, we have asked a lot of questions about how this process of transcendence happens. What are the right ingredients to create a chapter experience where more women are able to transcend to higher levels of sisterhood?

One of the things that continues to come up in our conversations is the importance of the chapter standards process. Specifically, women who have a positive experience with the standards process are more likely to transcend to higher levels of sisterhood, whereas women who have negative experiences with the standards process are more likely to remain stuck in the less evolved levels of sisterhood.

At the risk over over-simplification, I’m going to boil all of the ways I have heard the sorority standards process described down into two models. Model 1 is the “You have embarrassed us” model, and Model 2 is the “We are concerned about you” model. 

Model 1 – You Have Embarrassed Us

In this model, women are “called into standards” when they screw up in a way that brings shame or humiliation to the sorority: your drunken, raised platform dancers, fraternity house shackers, 1.4 GPA, out of control at that Sigma Chi date party type of standards process. The general tenor of these standards meetings is “hey – you have embarrassed the sorority with your behavior. Don’t do that again, or there will be Hell to pay.” The main concern established at these meetings is that the reputation of the sorority is paramount – anything that could possibly bring the chapter into disrepute is a sin that must be swiftly and sternly addressed.

Model 2 – We Are Concerned About You

In this model, women are “called into standards” for many of the same reasons as in the previous model. In fact, the difference between the two models lies not in the issues addressed, but in the manner in which they are addressed. In Model 2, instead of focusing on the sorority’s reputation, the conversation revolves around real and expressed concern for the individual member involved. Instead of “you have embarrassed us,” the conversation becomes about “we are concerned about you – can we have a conversation about why you have been drinking so much/engaging in risky sexual activity/doing so poorly in school?”

What do these two standards models have to do with sisterhood? As it turns out, a great deal.

Model 1 reinforces a simple message  - the reputation of the sorority is the most important thing. And guess which version of sisterhood is subsequently reinforced by this message? The very surface level notion of sisterhood – that sisterhood with is based on the social experience. Women who think about sisterhood in this way care very deeply about the social status of the organization, and this type of standards process only reinforces those attitudes. It says “We keep our sisters in line because anyone doing something bad could cause harm to our reputation, which could damage our social status on campus.” And if you have a standards process like this in your chapter, then it is highly unlikely that very many of your members are transcending to higher levels of sisterhood. Instead, they are constantly bombarded with messages reinforcing the importance of the social aspects of sisterhood.

On the other hand, Model 2 reinforces a very different message – that as a group of women we have sworn an obligation to look out for one another, to hold one another accountable, and to work together to make one another better. And this message directly aligns with the type of sisterhood that women should be striving to build in their chapters – a sisterhood based on accountability and the striving together for a common purpose.  And women who experience a standards process like this are much more likely to transcend to those higher levels of sisterhood. The message communicated here is “we look out for one another, we care about your development as a person and as a woman, we have standards rooted in our values, and we really want the best for you as a sister.”

So what do you do with this information? Here are a few ideas:

Take a look at your chapter’s standards process. Which of these two models does it more closely resemble? If the answer is Model 1, then you have some work to do.

If you’re a Model 1 chapter, spend some time thinking about how and why your standards process got to that place. A crotchety old advisor who loves to lecture chapter members on chastity and appropriate behavior through her lens of womanhood that hasn’t changed since the Nixon administration? A chapter culture that places too much emphasis on the chapter’s position in the social hierarchy on campus? Understanding why your process is what it is can help you fix it, so spend some time diagnosing the issue.

Retrain your standards board. Again, keep in mind that you’ll be addressing a lot of the same issues if you are a Model 2 standards board, but you’ll be approaching those issues in a different manner. Coach your standards board members on asking questions that come less from a place of judgment and more from a place of care and concern.

Take a look at the composition of your standards board. Is it a bunch of goody-two-shoes? That may not be the best thing, especially if you want them to have credibility in the eyes of members who are more likely to like to be there for the good time. Have a broad representation of different types of women on your standards committee, keeping in mind that their job is not to be above reproach, but to help their sisters take care of themselves an make better decisions.

Spending some time thinking about your chapter’s standards process can go a long way in helping members of your chapter become better sisters, and the result will be a sisterhood where women understand the importance of looking out for one another, holding one another accountable, and the commitment to making one another, and the organization, better.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Regression to the Mean and the Single Most Important Thing We Can Do to Fix Fraternity Communities

There is a phenomenon that is observed in statistics known as regression to the mean.  In research, if a data point is an extreme outlier on its first measurement, it will tend to be closer to the average on its second and subsequent measures. This is one of the most universal laws in all of statistics.

Regression to the mean doesn’t just happen in statistics. In happens in real life.

It is the single biggest challenge facing fraternity communities on college campuses today.

It’s a familiar story – a fraternity finally screws up badly enough for its national headquarters and/or the host university to close the chapter, with all of the usual weeping and gnashing of teeth. After a hiatus of a few years, the fraternity comes back to the campus and recolonizes that chapter.

Most of the time, the national headquarters does a great job recruiting the right guys for the right reasons into the newly recolonized group. They are the “maybe joiners” or “never joiners” we love to talk about – those guys not interested in the stereotypical fraternity experience, but who are interested in a value-added experience that helps enrich their college experience in a meaningful way. And so it goes for a few years – the chapter is high performing, recruiting other good guys interested in joining for the right reasons. Maybe they have the best grades on campus. They may even win a few national awards.

But you know how this story ends.

After a few years, after all of the founding members have graduated and the notion of offering an experience that is “different” becomes less salient in the minds of current members, the inevitable happens.

Regression to the mean.

The chapter members start looking around, comparing themselves to other groups on campus who have a more prominent position in the social hierarchy. As they look around, they begin to ask themselves “Hey – how can we be more like those groups? How can we increase our social capital? How can we stop being the dorky fraternity and be more like the cool groups?” And, over time, they become less of an outlier and begin looking more and more like the other fraternities on campus. 

They become, for lack of a better term, average.

This is not the result of some phenomenon unique to the college fraternity. Rather, it is the result of a widely observed statistical law. We can’t change it. Regression to the mean is inevitable.

The only way to offset the effects of regression to the mean is to elevate the mean.

In other words, we have to redefine what it means to be an “average fraternity” on a campus. The average fraternity needs to be much higher performing that today’s average fraternity. If we are able to elevate the mean, then the results of regression to the mean will be less disastrous than they currently are on a majority of college campuses.

But how do we do that? How do we artificially and positively adjust the mean on a particular campus?

Here is my idea:

Every year, the executive directors of all of the fraternities and sororities should get together and hold a secret ballot vote.  The question put to them should be “what is the campus that gives you the most headaches.” Each executive director gets one vote. An independent arbiter would tally the votes and announce the 10 campuses who received the highest number of votes. Whether or not other campuses can volunteer as tribute is a matter I am open to discussing.

Those 10 campuses would then get their worlds rocked.

If a campus makes the “Top 10” list, the campus administration would be notified and representatives from the national groups would make a trip to that campus to work on a plan of action on that campus.  Each group represented on that campus would volunteer to undertake an exhaustive membership review, getting rid of every single bad apple in the barrel. They would institute models of shared governance. They would mandate alcohol free housing. Guys only there for the party? Gone. Guys only interested in drinking and hazing pledges? Gone. Guys who underperform academically and don’t give a darn for community service? Gone. You get the idea.

In exchange for this cleanse, every campus selected should agree to increase its staffing and support of the fraternity/sorority advising office. Commit resources to hiring additional staff – seasoned staff with the ability to align the fraternity/sorority program with the goals and mission of the host institution. Commit to recruiting, training and providing support to additional chapter advisors. Invest in meaningful educational programming. Spend serious time and resources building an infrastructure capable of sustaining a thriving and successful Greek community.

Will this approach fix all of our problems? Of course not. 18-22 year old college students are always going to be 18-22 year old college students. They will continue to experiment with boundaries and make mistakes. And we can all be there to help them learn and grow from those mistakes.

But if this type of system were actually implemented, imagine the impact it could have. In a period of five years, 50 campus fraternity communities would be completely transformed. It would institute a “new normal” of what it means to be in a fraternity on those campuses.  And as new groups come to campus and “regress to the mean,” the mean to which they are regressing will be shifted upward in a significant and meaningful way. 

We can’t stop regression to the mean, but we can change the mean to which organizations regress. And doing so may be our best chance at fixing our broken fraternity system.