Fraternal Thoughts in Print!

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Order your copy off of Amazon or Barnes and Noble. If you wish to order a quantity of 20 or more to use for a program or Greek leadership class, contact John Shertzer at for a discount.

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Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Wicked Fraternity

I had the pleasure recently of attending a performance of the musical Wicked in my hometown of Indianapolis. If you aren’t familiar with the story, Wicked is essentially a retelling of the Wizard of Oz through the eyes of the Wicked Witch of West. She was the villain in the classic movie, and like most villains, we saw her only as the purely evil antagonist to the sweet and heroic Dorothy. Wicked challenges these notions and offers a different view – that of a misunderstood woman, born with green skin, ridiculed for that and for her magical abilities. We see that her evil is really an activism against a corrupt Wizard of Oz and his plans to create a more conformist and passive citizenry. Basically, the musical reminds us that assumptions are a dangerous thing – and that there is often a hidden story behind those we deem to be wicked.

So what does this have to do with fraternity? I see three direct applications:

1. We need to be cautious about the labels that we give to fraternity or sorority chapters. This is a common practice among professionals and advisors. It’s not unusual in conversations for chapters to be called good, bad, effective, dysfunctional, well-behaved, lawless, strong, or weak. To be fair, it’s typically the chapters’ behavior that yields these labels. However, labels are difficult to shake. They may in fact become self-fulfilling prophecies. How many times can a chapter hear that they are weak before they give up? If we’re already defined as a “bad” chapter, then we might as well break the rules. When we see how the witch in Wicked was treated from the time of her birth, then her story as an outcast becomes predictable.

2. Another lesson is the notion of an unknown back-story. There are indeed fraternity and sorority chapters that engage in destructive behaviors and who often deserve the moniker of “wicked.” But what led them to that place? What pivotal moments, when strung together, brought about their dysfunction? Worse yet, which of those moments might we, as staff and advisors, be responsible for? What could we have done at the very beginning, or at the critical tipping points, to change the destinies of these groups? What did we do as undergrads that charted an improper course for these students? Perhaps we should consider these questions before bantering about our frustrations with these chapters.

3. A final lesson is to reconsider what we deem to be wicked. Fairly or unfairly, those in power often get to make that determination. In Wicked, we can see that the witch’s intentions are just, but she is acting counter to the conventional path. Thus, she’s a disruptor, and defined as evil. I think it’s normal for us, as advisors and professional staff, to get so bogged down with the volume and difficulty of our work, that treat disruptors in a negative way. Chapters that don’t get it, or don’t follow our prescribed path for them, are seen as annoying outliers. We then begin to compartmentalize them with those who are truly dysfunctional. This tendency may squelch honest and positive attempts to be different or revolutionary, and to challenge the status quo. Instead of celebrating that, I fear our messages and actions instead promote conformity.

Wicked offers us some great lessons to consider and argue about. I don’t doubt that there are many among us who’d rather have conformity; an Emerald City where everyone is indistinguishable. However, I remind them of our own history. It’s a good thing that our founders challenged the norm and had the courage to be outliers. Perhaps they were labeled as “wicked” in their day.


  1. As many of Musicals lovers I LOVE the Wicked! It is my favourite ever... Last year I’ve been in NY & I tried to get my ticket …guess what everything was sold out that show how great the show is. Anyhow I end up getting it from a site through Next week I’m going to visit my sister and I just got some pretty good tix from the same place
    So I'll be analyzing as well as enjoying the show.

  2. I too love Wicked, though I prefer the darker novel in many respects.

    For what it's worth, In the show in particular, I think the truly Wicked Witch is Glinda. She is too cowardly to stand up to the Wizard, lives a false, conformist, unfulfilling life, and in the end, loses the person she loves the most because of it. "When you're wicked, you're left only on your own..."