Saturday, January 3, 2015

Are We Who We Say We Are?

The president of the Northern Interfraternity Council recently made this observation in an address to college students who are also members of Greek organizations on campus:

The vast majority of fraternity and sorority members join them for all the right reasons. They are looking for a place to belong. They want to learn and apply leadership skills. They seek an outlet where they can give back to their communities. They want to enrich their collegiate experience.”

I can state without hesitation: I would not be the person I am today without my fraternal experience. When I joined my fraternity I did not know the impact it would have on my future life. I grew up tremendously during those formative years.  I learned skills that have served me well in my life, all while developing lifelong friendships.

Yet behind those “fraternity walls,” in hallways or bedrooms, in courtyards, or in a small group simply having a conversation, there were and still are today, individuals making poor decisions.  A short list of those decisions even carry the potential for intervention by law enforcement, university student life staff as well as our national fraternity leaders.

As I look back on fraternity and sorority life and see it today, I am both proud and sometimes embarrassed to say I’m a member of a fraternity.

But before I explore this further, let me give you some further background.

I joined Kappa Sigma at the University of Arizona in the 1980s really not knowing what a fraternity was. I joined because a few friends convinced me it would be fun and worth my investment of time and dollars. It was a leap of faith for me. Neither of my parents had gone to college and what money my parents had was to pay for our housing, to put food on the table, and somehow pay college tuition for my brother and me. To this day I’m still not sure how they did it. The funny thing is, I never felt poor and always seemed to have what I needed. Clearly, my parents sacrificed a lot to provide for my brother and me.

What was my college and fraternity experience like? I could write a book on it, but for the purpose of this article I will keep it to several sentences. The fraternity was a learning incubator. I developed social, organizational and leadership skills through my experiences. I was surrounded by member’s rich and poor, athletic and not, smart and academically challenged, local kids and those from across the U.S, and members from many different ethnic backgrounds. Like all organizations, there were leaders, followers and non-performers. Most were there for the friendships and fun, many liked the opportunity to lead, and some were not good characters that eventually would leave or be asked to leave. I learned how to socialize with fellow members and interact with those of the opposite sex. I served as an Alumni Relations Chair, Little Sister Chair and Vice President. These experiences taught me how to communicate, motivate and manage people. I also learned that members in our chapter were the same as those in other campus organizations I served in; both had a percentage of good and bad characters. The classroom gave my some basic educational skills but my fraternity experience prepared me for life, not to mention it was the place where I met my wife and my best friends of nearly 30 years.

Since those undergraduate years I have spent over a quarter century making my living and volunteering in the fraternal world as well as other parts of the campus. My long-time company, Fraternity Management Group (FMG), provides alumni & parent relations and fundraising support for chapters. I recently founded Greek Ladders with two other fraternity brothers. Our company is focused on career preparation and networking with employers. I have volunteered on numerous boards at my university, as chair of a local foundation that provides scholarships to University of Arizona students, and in several capacities with my fraternity. I am also co-chair of the UA Greek 100th anniversary campaign. My chapter, Kappa Sigma, will be one hundred years old in 2015, and being the first national fraternity founded on campus and in the state, our university plans to hold a 100th anniversary celebration during next year’s Homecoming Weekend.

Yet recent negative publicity surrounding the Greek system has led me to reflect on my experiences and ask: who are we fraternities and sororities? Are we who we say we are?

Those years serving the University of Arizona, both within Greek Life and in other areas of the campus taught me a great deal about college life and about fraternities and sororities—both good and bad. I have watched my own chapter rise and fall several times. My chapter, like most chapters, struggles with ensuring our members and guests make responsible decisions around alcohol. This reality is a challenge for any large campus organization, fraternity or not.  Student clubs in Business, Engineering and other campus departments, as well as Honoraria’s face the challenges of making positive decisions about alcohol. At times, chapters seem to be on a roller coaster ride. We are no different than most non-profits and companies; it is our people (members) who determine if we rise or fall. We are honor students, campus leaders, athletes, volunteers for local non-profits, and many more positive things, but some of our members also fight, haze, commit sexual assault, abuse alcohol and drugs, and do other inappropriate things. Unfortunately, it is this minority of our membership that draws the most publicity, and as a result, it is these negative behaviors upon which we are judged.

So why all the bad publicity now about fraternities?

To start, one must bring up the most onerous term associated with a new member/pledge program:  hazing. It is hazing, which is and was a tool used by the members of Greek chapters, music and theatre groups and sports teams to help determine who should remain a member, and it was and in some cases still is, deemed a cultural component of membership.  Having said that, the eradication of hazing is imminent.  Yet there are several cases reported annually which outline how a chapter will do some very stupid things that qualify as hazing.  There truly is no place for hazing today. There are better ways to educate our members and ensure that they have what it takes to be a dedicated, lifetime member.

What about alcohol, drugs and sexual relations?  All three have been a common component of the college campus scene for long time.  Ask most college graduates and generally speaking they’ll voice the opinion that alcohol, drugs and sex have always been in the mix and a part of the fraternity and sorority social scene. Drugs have been an issue both on campus and in Greek organizations since the late 1960’s and early 70’s.  Poor decisions around sex have certainly been around a long time as well.

So why is there so much bad publicity being heaped on fraternities now? I think the difference today is what I’ll call the “Perfect Storm.”

The Perfect Storm is where technology meets a litigious society that blasts headlong into a mix of underage drinking and prima donna/spoiled brat upbringings.  The Perfect Storm is convergence of entitled and self-promoting students/members using social media to document their lives publically through smart phones (or dumb phones; you choose), responsible students struggling to hold their fellow members accountable, members and female guests making poor decisions around alcohol; a Greek system nearly in many cases, though not all, devoid of enough responsible, caring adult volunteers to mentor and listen to students; a risk management/legal liability society, and laws and policies that have not kept up with today’s changes.

Before I direct my message to my fellow fraternities and sororities, I want to address those of you who think universities should ban us. Yes, we are social organizations, and so yes, our members like to hold social events, as do a large percentage of college students. Yes, there are areas we need to improve in, but in many cases we are reflecting societal problems of our time. Having said that, yes, we desperately need to fix these issues, and no, they will not go away on their own. We Greeks need to accept responsibility and make the changes needed.  Instead of saying universities should ban us, the best solution is for the local chapters, national organizations and universities to come together as a “whole” to make the changes needed. It will not be easy. We need to accept what has gone wrong in our system (and in many cases, society in general) and show the leadership of our collective three organizations to move the fraternal movement forward in a positive direction. Fraternities and sororities have been around for a 150 years and we are not going away, it’s just time to recognize what we do well and what we must improve in.

We develop current and future leaders. We retain and graduate students at a better rate than non-Greeks do. We donate more hours and dollars to charities than any other student group. We help build an affinity to our chapters and universities amongst our members that leads to a much higher rate of giving and volunteerism than non-Greeks. If one looks at the Fortune 500, politics, education, non-profits and other areas and they will see Greeks at the top of these fields at a much higher rate than non-Greeks. Does this make us better than non-Greeks? No? It just suggests that we do many things well and provide a meaningful learning experience for many students and alumni/ae. But yes, we can be even better.  

Let me ask those alumnus and undergraduate members in Greek Life the hard questions.

  1. Are we who we say we are? If not, are we prepared to make the needed changes?
  2. Are we pledging the right kind of members and do we have the right recruitment plans and questioning in place that enables us to screen out those who should not wear our pins?
  3. Do our membership development programs make academic integrity a priority?
  4. Do we provide career and leadership development programming?
  5. Do we introduce local non-profits to our members to teach them why they should contribute their time and treasure to these organizations?
  6. Are we educating our members on how to make a difference in our chapters and on campus?
  7. Are we educating our members about alcohol & drug abuse? About the inappropriateness of hazing? About safe sex, sexual assault, and how to be our brother or sisters keeper?
  8. When our members do not live up to what is expected, are we holding them accountable by providing sanctioning that allows them to learn from their mistakes or if they are not willing to make the change, removing them from our memberships?
  9. Are we finding ways to have our members get to know everyone in our chapters and not just those in our “clique”?
  10. Are we providing our members meaningful opportunities for our members to get to know others outside our chapters and to respect the differences in those organizations and individuals?
  11. Are we teaching our members to be competitive yet humble in victory and gracious in defeat?
  12. Are our members and alumni/ae volunteers holding our chapters and members accountable when they are sanctioned so they can learn there is a time we must accept the consequences?
  13. Are we teaching our members to look all guests in the eye and shake their hand when we meet them and are we teaching our members to take the time to develop meaningful friendships?
  14. Are we teaching our members how to not only sell themselves and their product but how to listen?
  15. Are we teaching our members how to be creative and learn who they are and not try to be someone they are not?
  16. Are we teaching our members how to set and achieve goals?
  17. Are we teaching our members how to confide in others when they need the help?
  18. Are we teaching our members how to live balanced lives focused on family, health, service to others, and career success?
  19. Are we teaching our members to spend time with things they are passionate about?
  20. Are we teaching our members to respect the houses they have been provided to live in?
  21. Are we teaching our members about our chapter, national and university history and traditions?
  22. Are we developing our student members into future alumni/ae members who will care about our chapters, nationals and universities by teaching lifetime commitment?
  23. Are we doing all of this while allowing the students to have a fun, safe time in a great living-learning environment?
  24. Are our seniors leaving our chapters as better men and women and ready to be successful in their careers and in serving others, while leaving our chapters a little better off then when they joined?
  25. Do our members understand that their brand is made up of the university they attend, their chapter reputation, their grades, their work experience, their service, and their campus and chapter leadership?

If we are tired of non-Greeks, and in some cases our national offices and universities telling us how bad we are, why don’t we show them differently? Let’s show them that we can have a fun time but also prove we are about academic success and integrity, career and leadership development, service, lifelong friendships, and that our members who do not reflect the values in our ritual are asked to leave our chapters. Let’s show that we care for the life and safety of our members and guests. Let’s be an organization that not only 10-20% of college students want to be a member of but one that the majority of students wish they could join. Then be selective enough that we know our members will reflect what we want others not in our chapters to think of us. Let’s make the next decade a period that fraternities and sororities took their stand and proved we are who we say we are. Let’s stand for excellence.

Having spent 30 years living the “fraternal experience” as a student, alumni volunteer, and fraternity professional, I know that most chapters can answer yes to many of the questions above but very few of us can say “yes” to all questions.

For those of you who are a currently members of a fraternity, what can you do now to make a difference in your chapter and in your personal fraternal experience?  For those of you who are alumni, what are you currently doing to make a difference in your chapter or another chapter near you?  Our chapters are no different than any other non-profit. The more funding and volunteer support received, the better experience we can provide our members. If you are alumni/ae who is already giving your time or treasure then thanks are due. If you are alumni/ae not currently supporting your chapter, ask yourself, why not? Our fraternal experience is for a lifetime. It’s time for every fraternity man and sorority woman to step up and show why we are a great organization and help our chapters live up to those values.

For all of you that are vocal non-believers in fraternities and sororities who think universities should ban “Greek Life,” continue to make yourself heard, as this will only help us make the changes we need to become even better organizations. But do not think closing our chapters is the solution. Our chapters, in most cases, are developing today’s college student into tomorrow’s leader. Thank you for calling us “to task” to address what needs addressing: to ensure we are who we say we are.

I will close with a simple message to both Non-Greeks and Greeks:

  • Non-Greeks, if you knew you could join an organization (and in this case did not know it was a fraternity or sorority) which has been around 50-100 years or more, increases your odds of graduation, develops your leadership, organizational and social skills, provides more service to the community than any other college group, develops lifelong friendships, prepares you for your future career, in many cases gives you a great place to live on campus, leads to a lifetime connection with that organization and your university, leads you to donate and volunteer more of your time to the university than non-members, and increases the odds of being successful in life, would you join it?

  • Greeks, if you knew that your son, daughter, grandson, granddaughter, brother, sister, cousin, nephew or niece was going to join an organization (and in this case did not know it was a fraternity or sorority), would you want them to join if you knew the odds of alcohol or drug abuse, hazing, mental or physical harm, and/or sexual abuse were higher than other campus organizations? Would you want to take a closer look at them and ensure that all the positives attributes were indeed a part of that organization and that they were who they said they were?

Note: the next blog will discuss how our fraternity and sorority national/international offices and universities can become greater partners with local chapters, and how we can make our campuses better living, learning and social environments.

Matt Noble
President, Fraternity Management Group
Co-Founder, Greek Ladders