Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Vulnerability and the Creation of Belonging

*This post is the second in a series of three related to belonging in the fraternity sorority experience.

Let’s take a walk back in time, shall we? Think back to your own fraternity/sorority experience. For some of you this may be difficult due to the passage of time and the onset of old age (looking at you John Mountz and Tim Wilkinson), but for most of us we can easily put ourselves back in the chapter room and remember the faces and the spaces that shaped so much of our experience as undergraduates.

I want you to think of the person in your chapter who you would say was the “best” member – that member of your chapter who you would say all other members of your organization should have aspired to be more like. This person may or may not have been a leader in the chapter, but they displayed all of the qualities that you would say are indicative of a good member of your organization, and they took an active interest in the life of your chapter. I want you to picture this person’s face in your mind.

Recently, I have taken to asking current undergraduates to participate in this activity. When they select their “ideal” chapter member, I ask them to describe this person to me. Inevitably, the answer goes something like this:

“He/she is always there, doing whatever they can do to help the chapter. They care so much about their brothers/sisters, they are always willing to help someone out or do whatever needs to be done for the chapter. They give so much of themselves in order to make the chapter better.”

These responses may or may not also include a list of the ideal member’s virtues – their honesty, integrity, or character. But, without exception, these members’ commitment to the chapter and its goals are always the center of the discussion.

Once a few students have discussed the virtues of their exemplary chapter member, I ask them a second question: Why do you think the person you have named is so committed to the chapter and its success? Why do you think they care so much?

That question, and its answer, has provided a crucial pivot point upon which I have been able to explore the power of belonging, and those conversations have illuminated for me a truth that is as simple as it is powerful: Commitment comes from belonging, and belonging comes from vulnerability.

The people who care the most about their chapters – those exemplar members who go above and beyond to support the chapter and its efforts – are those who feel the strongest emotional connection to the organization. As I discussed in the previous post in this series, brother/sisterhood based on belonging is the most powerful predictor of both affective (emotional) commitment and normative (obligatory) commitment. As that sense of belonging increases over time – as a student truly sees their fraternity or sorority as their home away from home where they feel valued and appreciated – so, too, does that member’s commitment to the organization.

In this Socratic conversation with students, after helping them understand the connection between commitment and belonging, I ask them to reflect back on their own membership experience, and to describe to me the time when they first began to feel that deeper sense of emotional connection to their group. Specifically, when was it that they first began to realize that their fraternity/sorority was more than just a place to have fun, and a group of people to have fun with? When was it that they found that they were becoming emotionally connected to their brothers or sisters?

Inevitably, one of the answers I always receive goes something like this:

About halfway through my new member experience, there was an activity that we did at our pledge retreat where we had to talk about really personal stuff. The conversation got really deep – we were sharing things with one another that you don’t normally share with people. I’ll never forget how I felt after that conversation. I felt so much more connected to my pledge class…”

Sometimes these deep meaningful conversations happen as part of a planned activity, but sometimes they happen more spontaneously. In a workshop with a fraternity recently, a member shared a story of a freshman-year road trip – he and five of his pledge brothers had decided to ride together to an away football game. Five pledge brothers riding in a car together for several hours. He described that they started playing a “question game” and that the questions started out as funny and silly (i.e. “would you rather”), but that, at some point, someone started asking deeper, more meaningful questions. The member telling me this story stated “I’ll never forget some of the things we talked about in that car. We just totally opened up to each other and shared things that we’d never really shared with anyone else before. The five of us were so close after that experience.” These five guys, all seniors, were all still active in the chapter, and, not coincidentally, were sitting together at the meeting and “dabbed it out” as their brother shared the story of their car ride. The connection was clearly still strong, four years after that car ride had taken place.

More Than Just a Buzzword

Vulnerability is a word that has been in the student affairs lexicon for a few years now. Since Brene’ Brown released her TED Talk on the topic, vulnerability has been all the rage among the AFA crowd. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard a facilitator at a leadership program encourage students to be “authentic and vulnerable.” For years, I have rolled my eyes and even made little jokes privately among my friends about being “authentic and vulnerable.” I had written vulnerability off as just another student affairs buzzword – a favorite of the “toxic hegemonic masculinity” crowd who seemingly have difficulty connecting with the average college fraternity member.

But then I started asking fraternity and sorority members these questions about belonging and commitment, and I kept getting the same answers. Even the most masculine of fraternity members were sharing stories of times when they were vulnerable and opened up to their brothers about things going on in their lives. And I realized that what I was finding in my own qualitative research was incredibly consistent with what Brene’ Brown has found in hers.

If you are unfamiliar with Brown’s work, she has spent 20 years trying to understand human connection, and her research has led her to an understanding that, in order for meaningful connection to happen, people must allow themselves to be seen. What she has found in her research suggests that people who feel a real sense of belonging and connection share four traits in common. First, they demonstrate courage by sharing with others who they really are. Secondly, they demonstrate compassion, towards both themselves and others, accepting their own flaws and the flaws of others. Next, they demonstrate authenticity – they are comfortable with who they really are and do not feel the need to pretend to be something or someone that they are not. Finally, they are vulnerable – they demonstrate a willingness to share things about themselves with no guarantee of how people will respond.

And in story after story that fraternity and sorority members have shared with me in the last year, I have found pretty much the same thing. Individuals who feel a deep sense of belonging and connection with their brothers and sisters all share that they have had experiences where they had to be truly vulnerable in front of their brothers and sisters, demonstrating courage in sharing their true selves, and demonstrating compassion towards their brothers and sisters as they demonstrated courage and vulnerability in sharing things about themselves. Sometimes these settings are contrived and planned (i.e. the darkened room, passing around a candle, sharing deep, dark secrets), but often they occur naturally and spontaneously (i.e. the five guys on the road trip). Regardless of the planned or unplanned nature of these conversations, they serve the same purpose – creating meaningful connection and planting the seeds of a brother/sisterhood based on belonging.

Belonging and New Member Education

When I discuss these types of “connecting conversations” with new member educators, what I find is that these “planned” conversations often only take place once or maybe twice during the new member period, usually at a new member retreat (i.e. standing around the campfire) and very frequently in the days leading up to initiation in a more formal, esoteric ceremony (i.e. passing around the candle in a darkened room). Understanding the impact of those types of conversations, imagine how much deeper the sense of connection would be between and among new members if these conversations happened not only once or twice, but regularly throughout the new member period and beyond. Imagine the inter-class connections that could be forged if you invited upper-classmen to take part in these conversations as well. The opportunities for deeper connection and belonging abound, and the more we take advantage of these opportunities, the more our new members will feel a sense of belonging and, subsequently, a feeling of emotional commitment to their organizations. If you can create that sense of belonging in your new members, there is a good chance that each of them will be just as committed as that “ideal member” we discussed earlier.

When it comes to building brother/sisterhood through the new member education process, fraternities and sororities both often fail to focus an adequate amount of time and energy on belonging. Instead, we often see fraternities over-emphasize solidarity as a mechanism of brotherhood, and we often see sororities over-emphasize the social nature of sisterhood.

Fraternity new member educators commonly make the mistake of assuming that they are building committed members by using hazing as a means by which to create solidarity. The mentality is “If we put these guys through a really difficult experience, they will grow together as a pledge class, becoming a bonded unified group, and will become committed, dedicated brothers.” But if they have failed to create the emotional connection along the way, the sense of solidarity will not result in a lasting commitment to the organization. The new members will come together, demonstrating solidarity in the short-term as they work together to overcome the adversity of pledging, and upon initiation will have a euphoric sense of achievement. We made it through! We did it!

But after that post-initiation feeling of euphoria subsides (often after only a few weeks), the new initiates are left to grapple with the realities of fraternity membership. And those fraternities most at risk for experiencing the “sophomore slump” are those in which the focus was on a difficult pledge period designed to produce solidarity, but who failed to help their new members develop a real sense of meaningful connection to their brothers. They will realize that, because of the hazing, they actually feel alienated and isolated from most of the chapter, but may not feel comfortable enough with their pledge brothers to discuss those feelings of isolation. Many of the members will, in short order, become apathetic, stop coming around, and gradually drift away from the chapter and their brothers. No belonging yields no commitment.

Sororities, on the other hand, tend to focus more on the social side of sisterhood during new member education, with the idea being that “we want these girls to get to know each other and be comfortable around one another.” Ask a sorority new member educator or sisterhood chair about the different types of “sisterhood activities” they have for new members. Inevitably these are designed to be “fun” events that provide new members with opportunities to socialize, but rarely push the new members beyond very surface level conversations: popcorn and movie nights, mani/pedi night, yoga with the sisters, etc. There is nothing wrong with these types of events – creating fun opportunities for engagement can make the sorority experience a better, more enjoyable experience. The mistake that sororities make is assuming that these activities are leading to a deeper connection to the organization, but that is rarely the case. Women join sororities craving a deep sense of connection and a place where they can be themselves, but rarely receive that as part of their new member experience. New members are showered with gifts and fun social opportunities, but are often now showered with opportunities for deep, meaningful connection. If they fail to develop that connection, once the “fun and excitement” phase of being in a sorority wears off (usually after the freshman year) and being in a sorority starts to feel more like work, they will gradually drift away from the organization as the mani/pedi nights become less and less important to them.


Phired Up Productions has published some excellent research related to the reason that fraternity and sorority members quit their organizations, finding that lack of connection and misaligned expectations are the most common reason that members leave. Students join expecting the experience to be one thing, realize that it is not what the thought it would be, and they leave. I would advance that research by suggesting that members join looking for a place where they will find a group of people with whom they will truly belong – a place where they will feel connected, valued and appreciated. The members who leave are those who do not find that place of meaningful connection. The greatest unmet expectation in the fraternity/sorority experience IS the expectation of belonging.

Recently, I have had the chance to interact with professionals from college counseling centers on two different campuses, and have taken advantage of those opportunities to discuss the issue of belonging. In both cases, they have affirmed, based on their own clinical experience, that the fraternity and sorority members who they see are seeking therapy because they do not feel a meaningful sense of connection with their brothers/sisters. They joined their organizations craving belonging, but did not find it. These are the members who drift away, who become apathetic, and who eventually leave the organization.

The single most important thing that fraternities and sororities can do to address apathy issues, retention issues, or motivation issues is to focus more time, energy and effort on the creation of belonging. By providing more opportunities for members, especially new members, to engage in deep conversations – conversations requiring courage, authenticity and vulnerability – our fraternity and sorority chapters will see less apathy, better retention, higher motivation and overall happier and more connected members. And the most important work that we, as professionals working with fraternities and sororities, can do is to help provide the guidance and frameworks that will allow chapters to develop more brotherhood and sisterhood programs designed to foster vulnerability, meaningful connection, and belonging.

The final installment of this three-part series on the power of belonging will investigate the peculiar problem of belonging in sororities. 

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Power of Belonging

*This post is the first in a series of three posts related to brother/sisterhood based on belonging. This post will cover the reasons why belonging is such an important part of the fraternity/sorority experience. The second post will discuss what we have found are the best ways to foster belonging at the chapter level. The final post will explore the particular problem of belonging in sororities.

For the last four years, Josh Schutts, Sarah Cohen and I have been engaged in an in-depth study of fraternal brotherhood and sisterhood. In our research, we have discovered that men and women experience brotherhood and sisterhood in different ways, and that the degree to which they experience the various elements of brother/sisterhood powerfully predicts a variety of other outcomes related to the fraternity and sorority experience.

During that time, as we have developed curriculum related to brother/sisterhood, we have tended to focus most of our efforts on boosting brother/sisterhood based on accountability. Being the most altruistic form of brotherhood, and perhaps of sisterhood, it made sense to us that if we could only help more chapters become more comfortable holding one another accountable, all of the problems in fraternity/sorority world would be worked out. What we have discovered in the last four years is that before students can become comfortable holding one another accountable, they must first become comfortable with one another. In other words, students must feel a sense of belonging before we can expect them to master the art of accountability. Belonging, not accountability, is the most important aspect of brotherhood and sisterhood, because without belonging, accountability is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve.

To be clear, accountability is still important. In fact, ALL of the schema of brotherhood are important – not just those which are the most altruistic. As we have observed in our conversations with chapters over the last few years, a deficiency in ANY aspect of brother/sisterhood can have detrimental impact on a chapter. But over time, we have observed both quantitatively and qualitatively that belonging plays a critical role in a chapter’s overall brother/sisterhood profile.

Think about it – most students join a fraternity or sorority to find a place to belong on campus. The need to belong has been the lifeblood of fraternities and sororities over the years – it is THE driving force in membership recruitment. Students looking for a place to meaningfully connect with like-minded others have flocked to fraternities and sororities for nearly two centuries. This seeking of belonging is not a frivolous pursuit that fraternities and sororities provide for only the most affluent students. Rather, belonging is a fundamental human need. If you are a student of Maslow, then you know that, once basic survival needs are taken care of, the most basic human need is a place to belong. As humans, we crave connection. We are social creatures, and our evolutionary instincts have driven us to play well with others so that we will be accepted and loved by our respective tribes. A need for a life of connection, rather than a life of isolation, has driven this phenomenon for generations. The need to belong is not new.

As we have analyzed larger and larger datasets over the years (we have now had over 20,000 women and 15,000 complete the Fraternal Brotherhood and Fraternal Sisterhood Questionnaires), we have noted five important findings that illustrate why belonging is the most important aspect of brotherhood and sisterhood:

1. Belonging explains the most variance in the overall brother/sisterhood models

All of the schema of brother/sisterhood are positively correlated with one another. If any one goes up or down in a significant way, we would expect to see the other schema impacted in some way. But when completing a confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) on the overall brotherhood/sisterhood models, we find that belonging explains the greatest variance in the overall models for both brother and sisterhood. In other words, belonging is a powerful driver of all of the other schema of brother/sisterhood. As belonging goes, so go the other schema. A chapter that measures high in belonging will likely measure high in the other areas of brother/sisterhood. A chapter measuring low in belonging will likely struggle in other areas of brother/sisterhood as well.

Conceptually, this makes sense. It is hard to imagine being part of a group where you do not feel like you share meaningful connections to other group members, but feel like you are supported, feel like the experience is fun, or feel comfortable holding other group members accountable to the groups expectations. Without belonging, we really don’t have brotherhood or sisterhood. Brother/sisterhood may not end with belonging, but it most definitely begins there.

2. The strongest predictor of the most altruistic versions of brother/sisterhood is belonging

Of all its relationships with the other schema of brother/sisterhood, belonging has the strongest correlation with the two most altruistic schema. For men, belonging is the strongest predictor of brotherhood based on accountability (correlation of .346). In women, belonging is the strongest predictor of sisterhood based on common purpose (correlation of .78).

Consider the practical implications of this. For men, this tells us that the more that fraternity members feel connected to one another, the more likely they are to hold one another to the chapter’s standards and expectations. The less men feel a sense of belonging, the less likely they are to hold one another accountable. Before men are comfortable enough to hold their brothers to mutually agreed upon expectations, they must first be comfortable having deep, meaningful conversations with them. Vulnerability and connection comes first, accountability comes second.

For women, belonging is an incredibly strong predictor of sisterhood based on common purpose. If sorority members do not establish meaningful connections to one another, it is unlikely that they will develop meaningful connection to the organization’s purpose. As we have learned in our conversations with sorority women, belonging comes from authenticity – a feeling of “being able to be myself in front of my sisters” instead of having to wear a mask and “pretend that things are always great, even if they aren’t.” The data suggest that until women feel they can be authentic with one another, they are much less likely to feel comfortable holding their sisters accountable or buying into the organization’s purpose and mission.

3. Belonging powerfully predicts organizational commitment

In our research, we have studied organizational commitment in a variety of ways, but the two that seem to make the best connection to the fraternity/sorority experience are affective commitment and normative commitment.

Affective commitment is best described as an emotional commitment. A person measuring high on affective commitment has a deep and abiding love for their organization and the people in it. Because of that emotional connection, they are committed to the organization. They stay involved, support the organizations efforts, and attend organization events because of their feeling of love for the organization and its members.

Normative commitment is best described as a sense of obligation. Someone measuring high on this construct would likely say “I feel like my fraternity/sorority has given so much to me. I feel obligated to give back to the organization because all I’ve gotten from this experience.” They stay involved and support the chapter’s events because of that feeling of obligation.

Both of these constructs are predicted by a number of things we have studied, but the most powerful predictor of both affective and normative commitment, for both men and women, is belonging. The more you feel a meaningful connection to your chapter brothers/sisters, the more committed you are to them and the organization. Because of this, chapters measuring high on belonging should also expect to have better membership retention, as commitment is a strong predictor of retention. The more committed you are, the more likely you are to stay around. The less committed you are, the more likely you are to leave. And nothing predicts this commitment as powerfully as belonging.

4. Belonging powerfully predicts Organizational Identification

Imagine that member of your chapter who never leaves the house without wearing letters. Shirts. Hats. Sandals. Letters on their can. Hell, maybe even an ankle tat.

When I think of that person in my own chapter, I always think of Johnny Barnes. In four years, I don’t think I ever saw Johnny wearing anything other than AGR letters. He bought every single t-shirt that was available. He had at least six hats, a fleece jacket, a pullover, letters on his car, and if memory serves he had a tattoo as well. He literally never left the house without repping the letters of our beloved fraternity. AGR was an important part of Johnny’s identity on campus. He did not want people on campus to know him as merely Johnny – he wanted to be known as Johnny the AGR. The fraternity was fully and completely intertwined in his personal identity.

The “Johnny Barnes Phenomenon” is something we have actually studied in our research, through a construct called Organizational Identification. Fraternity/sorority members measuring high on Org ID make the fraternity/sorority a big part of their identity. They wear letters. They attend events. They want to see the organization succeed, because when the organization is successful, they are successful, because the organization is a part of them.

Belonging is the strongest predictor of Organizational Identification for both men and women. The more you feel a sense of belonging and connection to your brothers/sisters, the more likely you are to make the organization a big piece of your personal identity. Like both affective and normative commitment, Org ID is also a powerful predictor of member retention. Chapter members measuring high on Org ID would never dream of quitting, going inactive, or otherwise leaving the organization, because it is such a big piece of who they are. After all, if you are “Johnny the AGR,” then not being at AGR is almost inconceivable.

My guess is that every chapter has a Johnny Barnes. But imagine a chapter filled with members like Johnny Barnes. That can happen only when chapters work hard to make sure that members feel a deep sense of connection and belonging.

5. Belonging is the most powerful predictor of overall satisfaction with the fraternity/sorority experience

In our recent research with some of our national fraternity and sorority clients, we have begun asking students to respond to a single survey item asking them, overall, how satisfied they are with their fraternity/sorority experience. Using regression analysis, we have then looked at the variables that predict this satisfaction item. Even when controlling for every other variable that we measure (generally between 30 and 40), belonging explains over 30 percent of the variance in overall satisfaction with the fraternity/sorority experience. It is by far and away the most powerful predictor of satisfaction – the next closest variable is affective commitment, which explains a mere 16 percent of the variance in satisfaction.

Think about the implications of that for a minute. Exactly 1/3 of a fraternity or sorority member’s overall satisfaction with their experience is explained by a single variable – belonging. Its importance in the fraternity/sorority experience cannot be overstated. Belonging, simply put, is the single most important aspect of the fraternity/sorority experience. Members who feel they belong are more committed, happier, more satisfied with their experience, more likely to embrace accountability, and more likely to persist within the organization through graduation compared to members who do not feel that same sense of belonging.

Belonging’s importance in the fraternity/sorority experience cannot be overstated. Every campus, and every fraternity and sorority HQ, would be wise to commit time, energy and resources helping their chapters create spaces where members feel valued, connected and appreciated. In the next installment of this three-part series, we will explore strategies that we have seen work best at the chapter level in creating that sense of connection and belonging. Stay tuned!

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Alumni Advisors as Mandated Reporters

As I travel and speak with my colleagues in fraternity/sorority advising, I am frequently asked questions about the intersection of Title IX and fraternities and sororities. In the last year, I’ve noted an alarming trend – more and more campuses are naming non-employee student organization advisors as Campus Security Authorities (i.e. mandated reporters of sexual violence). The rationale for this movement is to increase reporting of sexual violence, and by making alumnus advisors mandated reporters, so the thinking goes, institutions may learn about incidents of sexual violence about which they may not otherwise learn.

Generally speaking, most fraternities and sororities, in addition to an on-campus or faculty advisor, will have a host of alumni members who serve in a variety of advisory roles. Some chapters may have a singular alumnus advisor, some may have an advisory board containing multiple advisors providing general oversight to the chapter, and some may have advisors assigned to particular chapter officers (i.e. new member education advisor, recruitment advisor, etc). These advisors may or may not be alumni of the institution, but very few are actually employed by the institutions themselves.

Requiring alumni, non-employee advisors to serve as CSA’s is not a good idea for three reasons:

1.    Lack of accountability – The premise behind a “Responsible Employee” or a “Campus Security Authority” is based on accountability. If an employee fails to meet their responsibility as a mandated reporter, the institution has some recourse to address that behavior. For a non-employee, this is not possible. The institution has no recourse if it finds that a non-employee has not fulfilled their mandatory reporting requirements. This unenforceable policy exposes the institution to increased liability. In addition, because of the variety of advisory structures and roles, it may be difficult to clearly delineate which advisors are CSA’s and which are not (i.e. an alumna/mother of an active member who serves as an assistant recruitment advisor and is only around the house during formal recruitment – CSA, or not a CSA?).

2.    Conflict of interest – in many cases, an organizational advisor may be a trusted, confidential source of support for a member of the organization. This is especially true for sorority members. If a sorority member is assaulted, a mandated reporter policy would place the advisor in a conflicted position – unable to serve her role as confidential advisor to the student because of her reporting requirements.

3.    Burden on chapter to recruit advisors – Chapters have a hard enough time recruiting and retaining good chapter advisors, and we know that a strong advisory team is a strong predictor of a chapter’s success and positive organizational culture. Adding mandated reporting requirements to advisors (which also places increased liability on them) makes it that much harder for chapters to recruit and retain alumni members to be involved with their chapters.

So how should we handle the issue of student organization advisors and mandated reporting? Many campuses are already requiring all registered student organizations to have an on-campus faculty or staff advisor. By definition, these individuals (as college/university employees) are CSA’s as defined by Clery, and should also be considered Responsible University Employees under Title IX. If you require organizations to have these on-campus faculty/staff advisors, they should be the mandated reporters. As institutional employees, they can be held accountable for these responsibilities, and their roles are often clearly distinguished form those of the alumni advisors.

These faculty advisors are actually valuable assets for a variety of reasons. In addition to being mandated reporters, they are also excellent channels for sharing information that may be FERPA protected and that could not be shared with non-employee advisors. Imagine, for example, that a member of a fraternity was accused of sexual assault and was placed on interim restriction from the campus. Imagine that the fraternity member lived in an off-campus fraternity house that was not covered in the interim restriction. How would we get this information to the organization without violating FERPA? Through the organization’s faculty advisor, who clearly has an educational need to know in this hypothetical situation, and could then pass along relevant information to others as necessary.

We have even heard of some campuses attempting to make student leaders (i.e. fraternity/sorority presidents) mandated reporters. Again, for all of the reasons outlined above, this is not a good idea. There are many ways we can increase reporting and make our campuses safer without extending our mandated reporting requirements beyond what is reasonable for us to enforce and in ways that create undue and often conflicting burdens on our student leaders and volunteers.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

A Fraternal Law of Natural Selection

Over the last two years, I have talked with fraternity and sorority members from all over the country about brotherhood and sisterhood. These conversations often take on a familiar tone, as most chapters struggle with the same issues – fraternities struggle with accountability, and sororities struggle with cutting through the superficiality and making members feel valued, connected and appreciated.

Inevitably, these conversations often turn to a long discussion about recruitment – who are we recruiting, and how are we recruiting them? How are we “selling” brotherhood and sisterhood to prospective members? I have written previously of this concept and its importance in advancing the cause of fraternity.

I was recently facilitating the Wooden Institute for Beta Theta Pi, and a conversation among some of the facilitators came up about negative campus cultures and the pressure that many “good” chapters feel to conform to the norms around them. I’ve written about that regression to the mean before, which you can read here. Simply, it is hard for “good” groups to stay good for long, because eventually they conform to the pressure of being more like the groups around them. This is true with the campus social culture, and it is true with new member education and hazing. The conversation that night got me thinking that it is also true with recruitment. Chapters who want to recruit “the right way” soon feel the pressure to recruit “the wrong way,” particularly if they feel that other chapters are gaining a competitive advantage with the “always joiners” by showing them a good time and feeding them lots of alcohol during the recruitment process. 

During this conversation, one of the Beta staffers said “I wish our chapters could recruit every year the way we recruit for our expansions.” In other words, what would it look like if chapters did expansion every year instead of participating in a campus formal recruitment process? Instead of sorting through the always joiners, recruitment could consist of chapters going out and setting up shop in the student union, getting referrals from faculty and administrators, meeting a lot of maybe or never joiners, having conversations with them, and getting the right guys to join for the right reasons.

This conversation led me to a fun thought experiment – what would it look like if we just got rid of formal recruitment and let each fraternity do recruitment in the manner they saw best?

I have a theory as to what would happen if we got rid of formal recruitment – McCreary’s Theory of Natural Selection. For the sake of this post, I’m only going to speculate on what would happen with IFC fraternities – I doubt the NPC has any plans to scrap the formal recruitment process any time soon, and certainly the membership intake process deserves a blog post of its own, so we’ll just talk about IFC fraternities for the remainder of this post.

Here are the three main postulates of McCreary’s Theory of Natural Selection:

Postulate #1 - Time and Pressure Are Inversely Correlated. The less time you give fraternities to make decisions about new members, the more pressure they will be under to conform and “recruit like the other groups.” When given only a few weeks at the beginning of a Fall semester, there is a mad dash among fraternities to go out and woo the “always joiners” who sign up for fraternity recruitment. Knowing that, often, these students are seeking to join for social reasons, recruitment quickly devolves into a race to see which fraternity can show prospective members the best time, showcasing only the social elements of brotherhood, with the result being the wrong people joining for the wrong reasons. However, if fraternities are not working under such a tight time frame, they will be under less pressure to conform, more comfortable doing recruitment in the manner that is more natural and comfortable for them. This recruitment may take on a social flare, with some chapters choosing to continue using alcohol to recruit, but fraternities looking for other ways to recruit won’t feel as much pressure to conform and can take their time in finding the right members.

Postulate # 2 - Pressure and Variance Are Inversely Correlated. As far as I can tell, the formal recruitment process is primarily designed to eliminate as much variance as possible within a given fraternal community. This works exceptionally well with sororities – our research on brotherhood and sisterhood is a perfect demonstration of this. The sisterhood profiles of the sororities on a given campus all look fairly similar – there are only small differences between the various sororities in a given campus community. The entire statistical model behind sorority recruitment is designed with this end in mind – no sorority can get that much bigger than the rest. Everyone gets basically the same experience in every house, and the sorting of women into the various houses relies more on math than it does on culture or fit. The result is a fairly uniform experience with only minor differences between chapters. Ask a sorority member on your campus and she’ll tell you (if she has any objectivity at all) that she could see herself being happy in most of the sororities on campus.

In the last 30 years, with the onset of the campus-based fraternity/sorority advisor, many campuses have imposed a sorority-esque style of recruitment on the IFC fraternities, and my guess is that the long-term results of this have been disastrous (on another day we can discuss whether the fact that 65 percent of entry-level fraternity/sorority advisors are female and are merely replicating what they know has anything to do with this shift). We have slowly diminished the variance in our fraternity communities, and not in a good way. The “always joiners” who buy the stereotype are presented with no (or very few) alternatives to the stereotype during a very brief and contrived recruitment process, and the result has been entire fraternity communities that exist for no other reason than to provide a social experience for members. The variance has been eliminated, which means that the “best” fraternity on campus is often indistinguishable, or barely distinguishable, from the worst.

I theorize that if the pressure to recruit as many members as possible as quickly as possible were eliminated, then we would begin to see more variance within fraternal communities. Chapters who wanted to recruit the right people the right way would have more time and opportunity to do so, and the chapters who wanted to recruit with alcohol could do so and face the inevitable consequences of that decision. Fraternities could take their time, really getting to know potential members and the reasons they seek membership. Similarly, recruits would be under less pressure – they would have more time to evaluate their options and choose the group that best resonated with the experience they were seeking. The resulting fraternity community would be multi-tiered, with roughly equal portions of “good” chapters providing a values-based experience, “mediocre” chapters providing a hybrid values/social experience, and “bad” chapters providing only a social experience.

Once this sorting takes place (which will take several years), campus communities can then do a better job of recognizing and rewarding the “good” chapters, improving and assisting the “mediocre” chapters, and closing, reorganizing and fixing the “bad” chapters. In today’s climate, this formula is fairly difficult to follow, either because the differences between good and bad are often small, and/or there is a disproportionate number of bad chapters, and/or fraternity communities have become so stagnant and under-performing that our idea of what a “good” chapter is even supposed to look like has become terribly skewed.

Simply, we need to interject more variance into our fraternity communities, and getting rid of formal recruitment is the best way I know to do it.

Postulate #3 - Left To Its Own Devices, Variance Will Again Diminish Over Time. This isn’t just me saying this – it’s a statistical law. Regression to the mean is a natural phenomenon. So, after artificially injecting variance into our communities through an elimination of formal recruitment, and then shifting the “mean” of a fraternity community positively by rewarding “good” chapters, fixing “mediocre” chapters and eliminating “bad” chapters, the chapters in a community will once again begin shifting towards the mean. The difference would be that the mean they are regressing towards would be a much different mean. In a period of 5-10 years, we could drastically change what the “average” fraternity in a given campus community looks like. And once “good” became the new normal, the intrinsic motivation and inherent competition in these new communities would propel many of these chapters to not only be good, but to strive for greatness. Then, we would have a mean that is not only high, but gradually drifting upwards, instead of the gradual downward drift that we see now on many campuses.

I call this a “Theory of Natural Selection” because, as you can see, only the strong will survive. Some chapters won’t make it without the crutch of IFC “formal rush” and the pool of always joiners from which to choose. Good riddance. Many bad chapters who choose to recruit the wrong way will need to be closed and then re-opened. Again, good riddance. But, to use a fishing example, when we restock our stream with recolonized groups, we will not be putting them back into the same dirty stream from whence they came, but into a new clean river with positive social norms and a healthy culture.

Formal recruitment is bad for business. It is an obstacle standing in the way of transforming our fraternity communities into what they can and should be. It forces fraternities to conform to unhealthy norms, resulting in the perpetuation of negative stereotypes and the gradual assimilation of every “good” chapter on our campuses to the mediocre or shitty campus norms. Formal recruitment facilitates the wrong people joining for the wrong reasons. If we want to change our cultures, we need to give our chapters every opportunity to recruit the right people seeking to join for the right reasons, reducing the pressure to conform by injecting more time into the process. Getting rid of formal recruitment is an important first step we need to take in making that happen.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Subtle Art of Creating Unsafe Spaces

College campuses are changing. For years, faculty and administrators have lamented the lack of student activism on campus. This lack of activism was generally regarded as student apathy – a feeling that most students cared more about getting drunk on weekends than in fighting for causes. From the end of the Vietnam era through the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, college campuses were places of relative calm where only the occasional “fringe group” spoke out on important issues of the day.

Not anymore. After 40 years of apathy, a new generation of student activist has emerged. These Millennial protesters have been praised by many for their willingness to stand up and be heard, and have been derided by others because of their need for “safe spaces.” Those on the left have been quick to jump on board this new wave of activism, joining students in their demands for more inclusive campus environments. Those on the right have been even quicker to call these students coddled crybabies and to issue warnings that they’ll never make it in the “real world” with their victim mentalities.

Notably absent from these conversations, particularly in student affairs circles, has been any reference to student development. And that should strike us all as problematic.

Coincidentally (or not) these changes on campus have coincided with a change in how we prepare student affairs professionals. About the time I was finishing graduate school, a handful of higher education/student affairs graduate programs began incorporating social justice education into their curriculum. Initially, the schools doing this did so in order to distinguish themselves from the pack, but the trend proved popular and soon caught on in most other programs. Now, 15 years later, most higher education/student affairs graduate programs boast of a curriculum with a “social justice emphasis” and, in fact, many of these programs offer and/or require more courses on diversity and social justice than on student development. Simply put, social justice has eclipsed student development as the focal point of many student affairs preparation programs and, subsequently, many student affairs professionals. As a result, we now have more and more new professionals working in this field who appear to care considerably less about student development than they do about social justice work.

Let me be clear – a focus on social justice has been an important step forward for our profession, and has recruited a highly motivated new generation of professionals into the field. Additionally, the results on campus have been positive – we now see universities doing more and more to support social justice, dismantle institutional racism, and provide resources for oppressed minority populations. All of us can agree that these changes have come about at least in part because of the social justice focus that has taken hold within student affairs in the last decade and that these changes have been a good thing.

Like any great shift in philosophy, however, there are unintended consequences. I would argue the greatest consequence of the shift in focus away from student development and towards social justice is this:

As a profession, our priorities have shifted away from the creation of carefully constructed learning environments (unsafe spaces) and towards the creation of carefully constructed echo chambers (safe spaces).

This ideological shift could have long-lasting ramifications, not only on our profession’s place within the academy, but for the well-being and success of our students.

Whenever I think about the safe/unsafe space dichotomy, I always think of Nevitt Sanford’s theory of Challenge and Support. It states that, in order to progress along any developmental trajectory, students need a healthy balance of challenge (unsafe space) and support (safe space). Too much unsafe space, and students may regress to previously held, less developed beliefs. Too much safe space, and students will never be exposed to the different ideas and worldviews necessary for them to grow and develop. In order to develop, students need to experience challenge and support, a healthy balance of unsafe space and safe space.

I fear that, as a field, we are forgetting and/or neglecting the subtle yet important art creating unsafe spaces.

When we consider Sanford’s theory of challenge and support, we must always think about it in connection with some other developmental theory (I’ve written about the frequent misuse of Sanford here). In conversations around student activism and political engagement, the logical theory to apply is Perry’s Theory of Intellectual and Ethical Development.

In our world of social justice-focused practitioners, writing Perry off has become a favorite pastime of many in our field. Perry did most of his research on white men at Harvard – the most privileged of the privileged. Despite those shortcomings, Perry’s theory has stood the test of time and has been empirically validated across cultures, classes, and nationalities. Perry postulates that students develop intellectually along the following trajectory:

Notice that the arrows in between Perry’s stages go in multiple directions. This implies that students can both progress and regress along these stages. With the right blend of challenge and support, they progress, but with too much of one or not enough of the other, they can stagnate or, even worse, regress to previous, less developed ways of thinking.

So what does all of this have to do with the new social justice philosophy in student affairs? Simply, we now focus more on what students are saying rather than focusing on the thinking that led to those words. If the messages we hear from students are progressive and promote a message of social justice, we don’t dare challenge the intellectual underpinnings of those statements. To the contrary, we praise them for their activism and progressive thinking. However, if the messages we hear from students are traditionally conservative or not inclusive, we are quick to point out the flaws in their thinking or, even worse, we call them names (racist, homophobic, xenophobic, hyper-masculine, etc.).

This is problematic.

Dualism, even when cloaked in a social justice ideology, is still dualism. As a profession dedicated to student development, we should confront dualism whenever and however we see it - not just when it is cloaked in the ideology of political conservatism.

Frankly, we are doing our students a disservice if we do not help them develop intellectually, even if we support those causes for which they are fighting. A great example of how the dualism of some social justice activists can be confronted can be found in comments President Obama recently made about the #BLM movement. The President, clearly frustrated, criticized leaders of the group for refusing to sit down and engage in talks about meaningful reforms, stating that some #BLM leaders felt that such conversations “might compromise the purity of their position” – a way of thinking that is clearly dualistic in nature. President Obama was right to challenge this way of thinking – not because he opposes the aims or purposes of the #BLM movement, but because a dualistic “my way or the highway” approach to problem solving does not usually solve very many problems. President Obama has learned a lesson that many in our field could stand to learn – that social justice and intellectual development are not mutually exclusive. We do not have to pick one or the other. We can support the advancement of social justice while gently challenging the intellectual rigor of those arguing on its behalf.

Dualistic social justice activism manifests itself in a variety of ways on college campuses across America every single day. The example we see most often is student protests leading to the dis-invitation of controversial speakers. The dualistic “this person is wrong and I am right” way of thinking that fuels these protests would be best replaced by a “let me hear what this person has to say, understand this issue from their perspective, weigh the merits of their argument against my own views on the matter, and see if there are issues on which we may actually agree” way of thinking. But instead of creating the unsafe space where those conversations can happen, we create a protective cocoon – a safe space where students are left free to think what they want to think without ever being forced to consider an issue from someone else’s perspective.  We dis-invite controversial speakers.  We choose social justice over student development; safe space over unsafe space.

Imagine, for a moment, that you worked at one of the campuses where students have openly supported Donald Trump’s candidacy for President. The response to these incidents on the popular student affairs Facebook groups and twitter channels has been predictable – joining in with the social justice activists, shaming the students supporting Trump, calling them any manner of names (I’m not sure very many people knew the meaning of xenophobia until Donald Trump became a serious presidential candidate) and demanding accountability for political speech that is clearly protected by the First Amendment. But how many of us have sat down with a student supporting Trump to find out why? How many of us have facilitated those conversations between and among our students?

What if we learned that a student who supported Trump was a first-generation college student whose parents lost their jobs in the manufacturing sector when those jobs were shipped overseas. Then, his parents could not find a good paying job at the local food processing plant because of the suppressed wages brought on by the flood of illegal immigrants working in that plant. Imagine that this student’s parents are on unemployment with no hopes of finding a good-paying job in their hometown and this student is having to now work two jobs to pay for his education because his parents can no longer afford to help him. So for him, when he hears Trump talk about how bad trade deals and illegal immigration are suppressing wages and screwing over the working class, “Make America Great Again” isn’t a message of hate or xenophobia at all but, rather, a message of economic prosperity that resonates with his own lived experience.

Knowing this, would we still call that student xenophobic? A racist? Or might we be a little more willing to think differently about illegal immigration and trade once we heard the perspective of someone who has been adversely affected by those issues? Are some of Trump’s supporters xenophobic, sexist and racist? Absolutely. But we should know better than to paint all of his supporters with such a broad brush, especially when those supporters are our own students. 

Instead of calling our students names, we should be committed to their learning and development. Instead of adding fuel to the fire and protesting against Trump and his supporters, we should be creating opportunities for students from different sides of the political spectrum to sit down in an attempt to better understand one another's perspective. Our work as social justice advocates is important, and it must continue, but it becomes problematic when it begins alienating a significant portion of the students we are supposed to be educating. Instead of choosing sides in the culture war raging on many of our campuses, we should be focused on helping students from different sides sit down, understand one another’s perspectives, and try to find common ground. Instead of allowing both sides of the culture war to rest comfortably in their own unchallenged safe space, we need to remember that student development is still important, and do our part to create the unsafe spaces where students can have meaningful conversations and learn from one another. But when we view every problem solely through a social justice, rather than a developmental lens, this becomes increasingly more difficult to do.

In doing this, we must acknowledge that for some students, daily life can feel like a constant “unsafe space” where they experience oppression at every turn. I am not suggesting that we make their lives even more difficult by refusing to provide them with the spaces, both physical and psychological, that they need in order to feel protected and safe. We must provide those safe spaces, not only because it is the right thing to do, but because their success and development depends it. But in doing so, we need to be willing to acknowledge the differences between inadvertent micro-aggressions and deliberate acts of oppression, between cognitive discomfort with an idea or topic and something that genuinely triggers traumatic memories from the past, and between hate and ignorance. Not all unsafe spaces are created equal, and we need to stop pretending that psychological discomfort, no matter how great or small, even for oppressed minorities, is always a bad thing.

We need to balance our commitment to social justice with a renewed commitment to student development. We need to understand that social justice can and should inform our work in student development, but that social justice WITHOUT student development is, frankly, not what our colleges and universities hired us to do. We need to break away from the mindset that our own ideological purity is more important than the impact we have on student learning. We need to commit to the development of ALL of our students. Most importantly, we need to commit to doing the work the work that is, always has been, and always should be at the heart of the student affairs profession – creating the spaces, safe and unsafe, where our students can learn from one another. 

Monday, April 18, 2016

On Bernie Bros, Hillary Haters, and Ideological Purity (Or, What LBJ's Presidency Might Tell us About Hillary's)

I was in Los Angeles last week to catch a Dodgers game, and had a few hours to kill before the game began. Yelp sent me to a hipster watering hole on Sunset Blvd where I sipped on a local IPA while taking in the LA social scene. I found myself seated next to a group of 20-something hipsters and, being a researcher, decided to conduct some ethnographic research by observing the LA hipster in his natural habitat (basically, I eavesdropped on their conversation).

Their conversation was wide ranging, but eventually turned to politics, and, wouldn’t you know it, one of their number was a full-fledged Bernie Bro. I listened with fascination as he tried to A) explain the difference between socialism and democratic socialism to his hipster friends, and; B) convince his pals of Bernie’s ideological purity.

I don’t think anyone understood his socialism rant (certainly I did not understand him), but the second part of his lecture was representative of the type of nonsense I’ve come to expect from Bernie Bros:

“Bernie has been fighting for the same things his entire life. He’s been consistently progressive. Hillary is a flip-flopper. She’s always having to go back and apologize for things she did 20 years ago. She isn’t a real progressive.”

As I sat and listened to this, I couldn’t help but think about Hillary’s record in comparison to who I think is the most fascinating President of the 20th Century – Lyndon B. Johnson.

If you have not read Robert Caro’s four-part series on LBJ, I highly encourage you do so. In those books, Caro carefully dissects LBJ’s complicated, seemingly incongruous record as a Senator from deeply conservative Texas. LBJ came of age and was first elected to Congress while FDR was President, and in his first congressional campaign, ran as an ardent New Dealer – an economic populist who would support FDR’s agenda. Over time, as the depression faded into distant memory, Texas became more and more conservative, and the once progressive young New Dealer had to walk a fine line between supporting progressive policies that would establish his bona fides in the national Democratic Party while not alienating his increasingly conservative base back home. An ambitious man who wanted desperately to be President, LBJ’s tightrope act in the Senate lasted for over a decade, even while serving as the Senate Majority Leader.

Every Democrat in the Senate thought they knew the “real” LBJ. The southern segregationists gave him a free pass on signing the Southern Manifesto, a full-throated rebuke of desegregation signed by all southern Senators with the exception of Johnson (who was “allowed” to not sign because of his role as Majority Leader and the understanding they all had that signing would doom his Presidential ambitions) and Tennessee’s two senators (Al Gore and Estes Kefauver, who were both progressives on civil rights). Despite LBJ not signing the manifesto, the southern segregationists were convinced that Johnson was one of them. His first speech as a senator (“We of the South…”) was a rebuke of federal overreach into civil rights issues. He had willingly watered down the civil rights bill of 1956 to the point that, while significant in that it was the first civil rights bill passed since Reconstruction, it accomplished very little in actually promoting civil rights. The Strom Thurmonds and Richard Russells of the world were convinced that Johnson was one of them.

Meanwhile, Johnson had successfully convinced the liberals in the Senate that he was actually one of them. He would privately support their initiatives, work behind the scenes to help pass their bills, and would explain to them in private conversations that his voting record was not necessarily a reflection of his actual views, but rather those of his constituents back home in Texas.

The voting public, meanwhile, was left only to speculate that Johnson was a fairly conservative Southern Democrat based solely on his voting record – he regularly voted against federal involvement in civil rights issues, was hostile towards organized labor, and had a decidedly hawkish record on foreign policy; policy issues that made him popular back home in Texas, but not in the national Democratic Party.

Then, at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, presidential nominee John F. Kennedy was looking for a running mate. A New England liberal, he knew he needed a moderate southerner or westerner to help bring balance to the ticket. As leader of the Democrats in the senate, Johnson was the obvious choice – besides, Kennedy was one of those progressive Senators who was convinced that Johnson was really in the progressive camp.

When Kennedy floated Johnson’s name to party insiders as a potential running mate, it was met with outright hostility. Civil rights leaders did not support Johnson’s positions on race. Labor leaders threatened a full revolt because of his poor record on labor issues. These constituents were interested in a candidate with ideological purity – someone like Hubert Humphrey. Bobby Kennedy very famously tried to convince his brother to change his mind, even going so far as visiting LBJ’s hotel suite to try and convince him to decline the nomination. But LBJ was an ambitious man, and he knew that his only path to the Presidency may very well lie in accepting the VP nomination, which he did.

We know the rest of the story – Kennedy was fairly ineffective at getting his program passed through Congress, while Vice President Johnson was relegated to the “kids table” and was rarely involved in any major policy decisions. Then, in November of 1963, Kennedy was assassinated and Johnson became President, and in a period of two years pushed some of the most progressive legislation of the 20th Century through Congress: The Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act, the Higher Education Act of 1965, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, the War on Poverty….the list goes on and on.

In a speech to Congress urging passage of the Civil Rights Act, Johnson spoke of his time as a young man teaching in an impoverished school in Cotulla, TX, a largely immigrant town near the Mexican border. Johnson stated in that speech that he had vowed, as a young school teacher, that if he ever had the power to help people like those children he knew in Cotulla, that he would do so, famously stating “Well, now I have that power. And I intend to use it.”

Those Southern Democrats who were convinced that Senator Johnson was really one of them were shocked by what they saw in President Johnson. This was a man they did not know. Richard Russell, Johnson’s mentor in the Senate, was famously quoted as saying he felt personally betrayed by Johnson. This man – who had spent his entire career performing an intricate tightrope act, trying to convince both liberals and conservatives that he was one of them – finally showed his true colors when he became President. His domestic agenda is rivaled only by FDR’s in its impact on disenfranchised people in America. His record as a senator was anything but ideologically pure, but once he was freed of the need to please the electorate in Texas, he was able to let his ideological purity shine through. LBJ was, in fact, a progressive, and his liberal bona fides are evidenced by his legislative achievements.  But he had to become President before we could truly find that out. And he succeeded where Kennedy failed because he understood what it took to get legislation through Congress. He knew all the levers of power, and he knew how to use them.

Which brings us back to Hillary Clinton. Hillary rivals LBJ in ambition. It is clear that, much like the fictional Claire Underwood, she has been angling for the Presidency for most of her adult life. She has strategically and surgically picked her path, and despite a few setbacks (a political upstart named Barack Obama and a little misunderstanding about email servers), she has methodically plotted her path and now stands on the threshold of the highest office in the land.

But the Bernie Bros who demand ideological purity above all are now standing in her way.
Ideological purity for many elected officials is a luxury they can ill-afford. Bernie has had the benefit of serving as a Senator from the most liberal state in America. He has never really had to weigh his liberal convictions against those of his constituents and vote in a way that violated his conscience (his controversial stances on gun control being the only possible exception – a stain on his ideological purity that his supporters seem willing to overlook). He has enjoyed a luxury that LBJ could have only dreamed about as a Senator.

The model for electing Democratic presidents for the last 75 years has been simple – pick a moderate- progressive from the South. Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton all fit this rule. The two exceptions to that rule were both young, passionate, handsome, articulate first-term Senators named Kennedy and Obama who took the political world by storm, who broke all of the rules of Presidential politics and who, despite their reputations, ran and largely governed as moderates.

Now, take a look at the “ideologically pure” liberals who have run for President in the last 75 years whose last names were not Kennedy or Obama: Adalai Stevenson (trounced by IKE not once but twice), Hubert Humphrey (trounced by Nixon), George McGovern (trounced by Nixon), Walter Mondale (trounced by Reagan), Michael Dukakis (trounced by Bush 41), and John Kerry (beaten handily by Bush 43).

The only outlier in the dataset is Al Gore, a moderate Southerner who lost the election but WON THE POPULAR VOTE!

So if you are a Democrat who wants to be president and are not as handsome or rhetorically gifted as Kennedy or Obama, your formula for becoming President in the last 75 years was to be a Southern moderate.

Do you suspect Hillary Clinton has noticed this trend, as well? I suspect she has.

Her husband ran and governed as a moderate because that was the winning formula. Some people are now questioning his record and ideological purity, but he governed during a time when compromise was not a bad word. He was a progressive Democratic governor from a conservative southern state, was President during a time in which the county was still coming to terms with social issues that now seem straightforward (particularly issues surrounding gay rights), and took pride in working with the other party in order to accomplish objectives. He was more interested in effectiveness than he was in ideological purity. His record of accomplishment is now under attack by those who demand ideological purity (interestingly, the Tea Party demands ideological purity of its candidates, as well).

Hillary has carved out a similar path. Her record as First Lady, as Senator from New York, and as Secretary of State is that of a moderate progressive – staying true to the ideals of her Democratic base, particularly on issues related to women's rights, children and healthcare, but not so far to the left that she would be written off as “too liberal,” all the while plotting her run for the Presidency. She has fastidiously followed the only formula that has worked in Democratic Presidential Politics for the last 75 years, and at no point in her career had the luxury of calling herself a Democratic Socialist or compiling the type of voting record that Bernie has been able to compile as a back-bench Senator with not a single significant legislative achievement to his name.

So to the Bernie Bros seeking ideological purity, I offer this: be careful what you wish for. The Democratic Party has fallen into the “ideological purity” trap before, and it has led to disastrous results on election day. And let us learn a lesson from LBJ’s legacy and ask ourselves an important question - what might a President Hillary Clinton do once she is unshackled from the chains of moderation? Once she is given the power of the Presidency, how might she use it? Like LBJ, might we see her true colors? Do we really doubt that, in her heart, she is just as progressive as Bernie or any of the other liberal icons of yesteryear? Do we REALLY believe she is a corporate sellout aiming to do nothing more than protect her Wall Street cronies?

Hillary has methodically followed a formula for the last 40 years. It was and remains the only tried and true formula to elect Democratic Presidents. Does that make her disingenuous? A sellout? Untrustworthy? If we begin hurling those monikers at her, who else might we need to hurl them at? She was and is the Democratic Party’s best chance at keeping the White House, and I suspect that, like LBJ, she would go down in history as one of our most progressive Presidents if given the chance.

Don’t mistake this blog as my endorsement of Hillary – I am still weighing all of my options, and am becoming increasingly interested in the possibility of a Libertarian as president. But as a registered Democrat who worked for John Kerry and voted for Obama twice, and as someone who cares deeply about a progressive social agenda in this country, I have zero doubts as to Hillary’s liberal bona fides. Frankly, I am sick and tired of hearing the Bernie Bros pound their chests while extolling the virtues of Bernie’s ideological purity and discarding Hillary’s “moderation” with self-righteous indignation. Bernie Sanders would be a horrible president, not because he is a horrible person (to the contrary, he seems like a really great guy), but because he has zero chance at getting any of his agenda passed through Congress. He has never passed a bill as a Senator – what makes anyone think his legislative prowess will suddenly change once he becomes President?

So if you want progress, and you want a champion for social justice and economic equality who actually has a chance to get things done and not just talk a good game, it may be time to begin rethinking your options. Ideological purity never got us anywhere. I’ll take effectiveness over ideological purity any day of the week. Kennedy was ideologically pure, but ineffective. It took ideologically impure but legislatively effective Lyndon Johnson less than 12 months to do what Kennedy failed to do in more than three years. I’m not interested in a candidate who makes me feel good – I’m interested in a candidate who will get things done. Hillary, not Bernie, is that candidate for the Democratic Party.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

How We Sell Brotherhood and Sisterhood Has Never Been More Important

When I have a chance to speak with students about brotherhood and sisterhood, I always ask them whether or not, when they were going through the recruitment process, they chose the chapter that they eventually joined, at least in part, because of their perception of its brother/sisterhood. Inevitably, almost every hand in the room goes up when this question is asked. I then ask what it was they saw in that group – what was it about the brotherhood or sisterhood that attracted them to the organization. The answers to that question are usually the same:

I saw a group of people who love each other and always have fun together.”

I saw a group of people who are there for one another.”

I saw a group of people who you could tell just really enjoyed being around one another.”

My research partner, Dr. Josh Schutts, coined the phrase “currency of fraternity” to describe this phenomenon. Brotherhood and sisterhood are the currency of fraternities and sororities. Chapters are selling it, and new members are buying it. If you think of a fraternity or sorority as a business, then I would argue that brother/sisterhood is our product. Potential members are consumers of brotherhood and sisterhood.

And today’s consumers of brotherhood and sisterhood are the most informed consumers we have ever seen.

When I joined Alpha Gamma Rho in the Fall of 1997 at the University of Tennessee, I knew very little about Greek life. My older sister had joined a sorority at East Tennessee State University, but didn’t really enjoy it and dropped out after the first year. My parents did not attend college, and none of my extended family who were college graduates had joined fraternities or sororities. At that point, I may or may not had seen the movie Animal House – I’m honestly not sure. But beyond that, I knew very little about about fraternity life when my old 4-H buddy Lake Elliott invited me to go with him down to the AGR house during our first weekend in Knoxville. I was an uninformed consumer. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

I suspect many people in my generation share a similar story. We came to college with only a passing understanding of what fraternities or sororities were about. We may have had a parent or older sibling in a fraternity or sorority, but outside of that, we didn’t really know much about Greek life. We met someone or had some experience that led us to join, and we signed up, not really knowing what it was we were getting ourselves into, unsure of the product we were about to be consuming for the next four years.

But fast forward from 1997 to 2016. Times have changed. Students coming to college today are much more informed about fraternities and sororities than those at any other time in history. TFM. TSM. Greek. Old School. Media coverage of fraternity and sorority misdeeds. Stories that 10 years ago may not have even made it into the school newspaper are now national headlines. Hazing. Sexual assault. Drug and alcohol abuse. Racism. All right there staring at them on any social media venue they happen to be using. The negative aspects of fraternity and sorority life on full display, 24/7.

And they are still choosing to join, in spite of all that.

Or, perhaps, a more troubling scenario - they are choosing to join because of all that.

The way we sell brotherhood and sisterhood to prospective members today has never been more important. The stereotype is out there, and our prospective members are fully aware of what those stereotypes are, and are choosing to join in spite of – or maybe even because of - those stereotypes. And if our chapters don’t sell brotherhood and sisterhood in a way that dispels those stereotypes – in a way that shows prospective members that the stereotype isn’t necessarily true – then the problems associated with those stereotypes will grow exponentially. In other words, more and more students will be joining fraternities and sororities not blissfully ignorant of the stereotypes (like I was), but in spite of or because of the stereotypes. They know what the stereotype is, and that stereotype represents the experience the are seeking.

Fraternities and sororities, now more than ever, have to begin selling brotherhood and sisterhood in a way that moves beyond just the fun/social side of the experience. Guys recruiting with beer pong and selling the party scene are just reinforcing the stereotype. Women recruiting with videos that sell sisterhood as bubbles, glitter and pillow fights are just reinforcing the stereotype. And prospective members, who already have that stereotype indelibly imprinted into their minds, are provided with nothing to challenge or confront those stereotypes, and they join a brotherhood or sisterhood under the impression that the stereotype is what the experience is supposed to be.

We have to begin selling a different product.

We have to make sure our chapters are selling ALL aspects of brotherhood and sisterhood. Not just the fun side, but also the sense of belonging, the self-betterment that comes with accountability, and the self-actualization that can come from working with a group of people towards a common purpose. Only when we sell brotherhood and sisterhood in this way can we really begin to have members come into our organizations understanding that there is more to the experience than just the stereotype. And imagine how much easier our jobs would be if we knew that every member who joined a fraternity or sorority on our campuses walked in the door from Day 1 understanding that the fraternity/sorority experience was about more than just a good time.

We have tried to do this for the last 15 years by talking about “values-based recruitment.” It hasn’t worked. It is time to try something else.

Values-based recruitment hasn’t worked because 18 year-old college students are not interested in joining values. Rather, they are interested in joining a group of people who they feel can provide them with a certain experience – an experience called brotherhood and sisterhood.

So, today, I want to declare the end of the “values-based recruitment” movement and the beginning of the “brother/sisterhood-based recruitment” movement. Stop trying to convince your students to sell their values, and start convincing them to sell the more altruistic forms of brotherhood and sisterhood. Convince them to sell how membership in their organization will provide prospective members with a sense of belonging and connection, with a group of people who will support them and have their back. Convince them to sell how membership in their organization will make prospective members better people by holding them to high standards and expectations. And convince them to sell how membership in their organization will allow prospective members to work with a collective of like-minded individuals to pursue the noble objectives of self-improvement.

Values-based recruitment is not the answer to our problems. We have been beating that drum for well over a decade, and our problems are only getting worse. We need to help students better understand the product they are selling (brotherhood and sisterhood), and then help them develop strategies to sell ALL forms of their brother/sisterhood to prospective members, not just the type that reinforces the stereotypes that today’s well-informed consumers are buying.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Can We Please Stop Misusing Challenge and Support???

Student affairs interview season is almost upon us! Thousands of eager second-year graduate students and disgruntled-with-their-first-job-young-professionals will scurry about participating in the annual placement exchange circus. This highly ritualized, often maligned, and largely ineffective process of hiring staff is more akin to sorority recruitment than to an actual job interview, but every year we prep our grads and young professionals for this routine like a nervous mother preparing her 5 year-old for his first day of kindergarten.

“Don’t forget to write thank you notes.”

“Make good eye contact and have a firm handshake.”

“Be sure to dress appropriately.”

“Make sure to prepare follow up questions for each interview.”

Well, today I’d like to add another admonition to the list of reminders we share with our little mentees as they prepare to engage in this annual student affairs rite of passage:

“Stop misusing Sanford’s Theory of Challenge and Support.”

It’s inevitable. Some smarty pants graduate student, eager to show how much they paid attention in their student development theory class, will find a way to talk about their favorite theorist during their interview when asked about their advising style, and they’ll make some banal comment like this:

“Sometimes I push my students to figure things out on their own, and sometimes I help them out with whatever project they’re working on. You know, challenge and support.”

This attitude is akin to some young mother in the middle of potty-training her toddler saying “Well, sometimes I make him wipe his own ass, and sometimes I wipe it for him. You know, challenge and support.”

This isn’t what Sanford was talking about. Not even close.

When Sanford told us that student growth required adequate amounts of both challenge and support, he was not intending for his theory to be used in a vacuum to describe how hands-on or hands-off we treat the students we advise or supervise. But more often than not, this is how I hear young (and old) professionals in our field (mis)use his theory.

When Sanford offered us his theory of challenge and support, he meant for his theory to be used in combination with other theories, to help us understand how students grow along a certain developmental trajectory.

Take moral development, for example. Sanford would argue that in order for a student to move from pre-conventional (obedience to authority) to conventional (social norms) levels of moral development, students need an adequate amount of challenge (i.e. forcing them to question their own beliefs and where they come from) and support (giving them safe spaces with like-minded others, free from constant challenge). Too much challenge, and the student may regress or rebel, yielding no growth. Too much support, and the student is never pushed to think differently, yielding no growth. The key is finding the right balance, giving the student enough challenge, but not too much challenge, to safely push them down their developmental path.

Sanford only works, and should only be applied, in conjunction with other theories (be they cognitive development, psycho-social development or identify development). It was never intended as a stand-alone theory to use in describing your advising style.

So, if you’re prepping for job interviews and want a pocket theory to drop in, only use Sanford if you plan on talking about another theory. Don’t make this common mistake that too many in this field often make.

And if you’re on the other side of the table conducting interviews, and some eager-beaver graduate student flagrantly misuses Sanford in this way, stop the interview, give them a puzzled look, and ask them.

“So, do you wipe your students’ behinds, or do you make them wipe their behinds for themselves?”