Wednesday, April 14, 2021

We Need to Make it Easier for Fraternity Leaders to Get Rid of Bad Apples

I haven’t posted anything to this blog in a long time. Most of my writing time these days is devoted to reports for clients, although I was able to carve out some time recently to publish our Dyad Strategies Whitepaper (which you need to read here, if you haven’t already, because it provides valuable context for this post) as well as a companion commentary piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education (which you also need to read and can be found here). We also launched the Dyad Podcast in the last year, and most of my creative energies have been applied there. So, the blog has just sat and gathered virtual dust for a while.

If you read the piece I published in the Chronicle, you will see that I lay out three things that we need to be thinking about as we approach the return to “normal” in the Fall. To summarize, we have to rethink our approach to recruitment and incentivize our chapters to go out and find more maybe and never joiners, we need to be prepared to provide some intensive alcohol dependency interventions, and we need to get serious about addressing the power differential inherent in a two-tiered active/pledge membership structure.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to drop a few blog posts as an addendum to the Chronicle article. There are a lot of other things we can/should be doing to prepare for the post-COVID environment, and I can be a bit more candid on my blog that I might be in a Chronicle piece.

This week, I want to talk about systems of accountability. We’ve been preaching accountability for years, but during that time we have not done much to update or improve our systems of accountability to meet the unique needs of a new generation of students. In my last blog post (written over two years ago) I highlight some of the research emerging around post-millennial students and their developmental inability to engage in meaningful confrontation. Traditional systems of accountability (which rely heavily on dated notions of self-governance) just aren’t working like they used to. As a result, more bad members are able to stay around chapters and inflict more damage than ever before. We have to make it easier for chapters to get rid of their bad apples.   

When I speak to fraternity members about hazing, one of the things I always do is ask them to close their eyes and picture the faces of the guys in their chapter who are the most likely to cross the line with a new member and do something that might actually hurt someone. Interestingly, no one ever has any difficulty with this task. Our chapter leaders know who their bad apples are, but in most organizations, they feel completely powerless to do anything about them.

Here is the the reality – in most groups, it takes a two-thirds vote of the entire chapter to expel a member. Even before the post-millennial generation and their inability to navigate healthy confrontation showed up on campus, a 2/3 vote by a chapter to expel someone was a tall order, but at this point it’s nearly impossible to expel someone short of them actually doing something truly awful. Because they are not gluttons for punishment, most chapter presidents are not willing to jump through the hoops necessary to even try to expel someone if they know the process is bound for failure. Why expend the emotional energy and political capital to expel someone when the process is destined to fail and half of the chapter is going to hate you when the process is over? Most chapter leaders feel completely powerless to do anything to rein in the behavior of their worst members. The result is that these bad apples are allowed to sit around and contaminate the other apples around them until they finally do something bad enough to get them expelled. But at that point, it is generally too late, because the thing that would finally get them expelled ends up with someone getting hurt and the chapter being closed.

I think Phi Delta Theta has a really good model for how we can make getting rid of bad members easier for chapters. In their process, all a chapter president has to do is ask their regional director (a high-level volunteer position) to remove a member. No trial by chapter. No 2/3 majority. The regional director simply talks to a few people, and if he decides the expulsion is warranted, he signs off on it. Of course, there is an appeal process to ensure that the ease of this process is not abused by a chapter president out seeking retribution on his enemies, which is all you really need in terms of a safety net.

Until we acknowledge that what might have worked 25 years ago in terms of self-governance isn’t going to work today, our chapters are going to struggle to effectively deal with their bad apples. We are living in a period in which those rogue members have felt increasingly empowered to take matters into their own hands, behind closed doors, in private residences away from campus (as appears to be the case in the deaths of both Adam Oakes and Stone Foltz). If we want to avoid further disaster in our fraternity chapters this Fall, we have to take proactive steps now to make the process of expelling problem members easier.