How to fix fraternities & actually get what we wished for

As calendar pages fall to the ground on campuses throughout the country, the bitter cold and stiff winter winds have relented into more forgiving, more gentle spring breezes.

So too, the claims of rampant and systemic alcohol abuse, hazing, homophobia, racism, and sexual assault have become more tepid as the school year winds down, and the call for fundamental change that seemed so desperate now seems as though it will slip into the rhetorical abyss of "awareness" and starting a conversation.

We don't need yet another meeting. We need to put shovels in the ground and get to work.

In a blog posted earlier today, "Be Careful What You Wish For," Dan Wrona makes the plea, "It would mean trusting what we know: that you can’t educate-away most problems. And it includes resisting the temptation to create a program when the real solution lies in critical analysis, organizational restructuring, or culture change."

In that spirit, I offer a four point strategy to fix fraternities, grounded in the foundational work on organizational and systemic change by Lee G. Bolman & Terrence E. Deal, "Reframing Organizations."

Political Frame

If we as a fraternal movement are going to secure our long term future, let alone continue to grow and thrive in the 21st century higher education environment, we have got to get crystal clear on our goals as a movement.

If you were to ask a fraternity student, a fraternity alumnus, an international fraternity president, a campus fraternity/sorority advisor, and a college/university president about the goal of the fraternal movement, you would be lucky to receive fewer than five different answers. (If you don't believe me, just look up the reaction to the FratPAC's lobbying on sexual assault investigations.)

Yet, each one of these parties is considered a core contributor to the success of the fraternal movement. If these five parties can't be reasonably close to being on the same page about the goals of the movement, how in the world can we expect to get there, let alone measure our progress toward those goals?

Structural Frame

I have long maintained that the core purpose of the fraternal movement at its most basic level is to make men better men for a lifetime. We have mountains of evidence and statistics that many fraternity men earn higher grades, achieve a number of learning outcomes, and receive higher paying jobs upon graduation, and yet when we control for academic aptitude, college readiness, socioeconomic status, etc. in those studies, those outcomes don't stand out to the same degree.

On top of that, we claim a countless number of living fraternity alumni, and yet an all-too-easily counted number of actively engaged graduate members. We also know that when a chapter has a greater number of involved graduate members, the chapter is more likely to be successful.

If we are to deliver on the core purpose of our organizations, it is imperative that we re-engage our graduate members. 

In fact, what if we required every chapter to have one graduate member (who had graduated at least five years previous) serve as a mentor for each undergraduate member of the organization, and the only requirement was that the graduate member had one 45 minute conversation with the undergraduate member every month? 

Education professionals already know that mentorship is one of the interventions with the highest possible impact on student development, retention, and success, not to mention the tangential benefits of additional guidance and stewardship for the chapter as a whole.

We have the numbers, let's put them to work (and provide them with a meaningful lifelong contribution to the organization)!

Human Resources Frame

In his guest blog post today, Wrona writes, "You can’t educate-away most problems," but you can't ignore education altogether.

Alcohol, hazing, sexual assault are not just boys will be boys, but a cry for help for healthy masculinity and meaningful rites of passage. 

At the core of these issues are (young) men coming into their own for the first time away from their families, and their primary mental models and standards for the men they are to become are a group of slightly older men who are still developing in their own identity and masculinity. This week, I began teaching my seven year old son to ride a bike without training wheels for the first time. Wouldn't it be ridiculous for me to teach him to ride a bike if I didn't know how to do it myself, or if I had not successfully taught others in the past? We can't expect men to be models and teachers for other men if they haven't completed that part of their own journeys.

By providing a significant, systemic mentorship experience for every single undergraduate member, it is possible to meet these needs for healthy masculinity and meaningful rites of passage, with the proper oversight, training, and vetting, and not just a sophomore who has gone through the program once the previous year.

Symbolic Frame

I may have withheld the biggest bomb until the end.

It's time to get rid of fraternity houses, and here's why.

A. Albatross. For many chapters, the house is a false standard at best, and an albatross at worst, for the optimal number of members for the organization (for example, goals such as "fill the house"), and contributes to a pressure to sacrifice quality in the membership recruitment process. In my opinion, the optimal number more closely matches the number of quality graduate members who are available to mentor the undergraduate members of an organization on a one-to-one ratio.

B. Beyond the law. All too often, fraternity houses are a "no man's land" of the law, where colleges and universities declare them "off campus" and "private property," and local law enforcement either tolerate a "boys will be boys" environment, or are over-committed to addressing "more serious" offenses in the communities they serve. Inter/national organizations are simply too far removed geographically to effectively monitor behavior and standards, and many alumni are afraid of the consequences, perceptions, or time commitment to do so.

C. Core to our purpose? I'm a big believer in Jim Collins' philosophy of the success of organizations by preserving the core and stimulating progress. In all honesty, I don't think an argument can be made that chapter houses are core to our purpose. Our founders didn't have them, and there are still many examples today of successful fraternal organizations who do not have houses. There was a time when fraternities provided housing as a service to their host campuses, but there are private companies better equipped to provide that service today, and continuing to maintain and operate chapter houses as they exist today will inhibit our potential for future success.

D. Downfall. If you have paid any attention to the legal environment surrounding fraternities lately, you have seen that lawyers are beginning to connect the dots that chapters are essentially franchises for a larger organization, and that the argument that the inter/national fraternity doesn't own properties throughout the country is slipping away. The longer we continue to operate chapter houses and fail to curb the high risk behavior occurring in them, the more we risk the very future of our organizations slipping away in a future legal settlement.

Why the Symbolic Frame? Fraternity houses have become symbols of everything that's wrong with our organizations (see any popular movie, novel, etc.), and closing them will serve notice that we are committed to change and our core purpose, and the profits of those sales can fuel true innovation in our organizations.

As Wrona said, "If we truly want fraternity/sorority life to evolve, we should be prepared to embrace the uncomfortable and celebrate situations where these problems are addressed." It's time to get uncomfortable, and to do the real work, for the future of our organizations.