Defiance in Our DNA (Part Two)

Accepting Pathways in the Grass

The campus groundskeeper stood at the top floor of the administration building and looked out the window. The building sat in the middle of the college, which gave him a wonderful view of the beautiful campus he maintained. It was Spring, and he had laid new green turf throughout the grounds. The campus design was simple: stately red brick buildings surrounding a wide expanse of open space, which was laid out as a grid of grass and sidewalks. Students could travel North or South, or East or West, with ease.

And then he saw it. At first, he wasn’t sure it was real. Perhaps it was a streak in the glass of the window, or a mirage of some sort. Once he realized that it was truly what he thought it was, he dropped his cup of coffee on the ground. He looked closer, and then began to look more closely all around. Soon he realized that they were everywhere! His lovely campus was being ruined! Those damn lazy students were cutting diagonal lines through the grass, leaving brown dirt paths in the middle of his lovely green turf.

“Use the sidewalks!” he shouted to no one in particular but the window. He immediately placed a call to his crew, and they placed new sod, seed, and fences up so that the grass would grow back over the paths. A month later, he removed the fences, hoping that they had made the point. “The students will not win!” he thought. An hour later, students began cutting diagonally through the grass and the dirt paths reemerged. The groundskeeper gave up. He was close to retirement and sadly lamented what he saw as the ugly campus grounds until the day he left.

A new groundskeeper was hired, and one day was standing in the same place the retired groundskeeper had once stood, looking out upon the campus. He too noticed the dirt paths that had been worn into the ground, but he didn’t see them as ugly or intrusive. He also placed a phone call in response.

A month later, the brown dirt paths had been covered by sidewalks.

Is cutting across a lawn instead of using the sidewalk an act of defiance? Not really. But the story does provide a fairly good analogy for how we – as professionals that work with college students – view their actions and decisions. Administrators often believe that they have laid out the best path for students, and are perplexed when a different path is chosen. Administrators then stand their ground, channel their deepest Dean Wormer, and try to put the students back on the “correct” path.

And the students, innocently free from notions of bureaucracy, legislation, rules, and legalities, calmly say in return: “Uhh, I see the sidewalks you laid out for me, but it’s a lot faster to go this way.”

And administrators have a choice in this moment, just like the groundskeepers in the story above. Way too often, the choice we make is to ignore the students, stick to the sidewalks we have created, and stubbornly demand they use them.

This is our usual response to the defiance and/or rebelliousness of our students. What if the next time you were faced with that choice, you took a deep breath, swallowed a little pride, and said, “Maybe the students are on to something.”

Years ago, fans at Duke basketball games had the reputation of being mean and nasty to opposing teams and fans. Embarrassingly so. The university president was faced with a choice: use his power and authority to squash this problem, or, find a way to embrace it. Whereas 99% of administrators in his position would have fired off a tersely-worded letter or statement that condemned the acts and laid out a terrifying set of consequences for anyone who acted out, Terry Sanford (or Uncle Terry as he was called) instead wrote a different kind of letter. He celebrated the enthusiasm of the fans, and asked them to channel it into a force for good:
"I don't think we need to be crude and obscene to be effectively enthusiastic. We can cheer and taunt with style: that should be the Duke trademark."

"I suggest that we change. Talk this matter over in your various residential houses. Think of something clever but clean, devastating but decent, mean but wholesome, witty and forceful but G-rated for television, and try it at the next game."
The results are infamous. The Cameron Crazies at Duke are now known for their very tenacious yet polite cheers. For instance, when a referee misses a call, the preferred chant is "We beg to differ!"

Another example. When I was a senior at Miami in 1998, there was a “riot” of students in the center of town late one night. I don’t remember what sparked it, but eventually hundreds of students took to the streets to party, cause damage, and be obnoxious. A year later, the anniversary of this event was approaching and there were rumors of a second riot. A moment of choice. Most universities would have imposed some draconian rules on alcohol or parties, doubled the police presence, and had suspensions ready to hand out as quickly as candy at a parade. Miami made a different choice. They invited a core group of students to design and carry out an outdoor rally and festival to be held on the anniversary night at the site of the riot. There were bands and activities. The streets were full of students who had left the bars and found something pretty cool waiting outside. The Red Brick Rally became an annual tradition.

In each of these examples, the administrators noticed something in the students – a spirit that they wanted to put to a productive use. They saw the dirt paths coming, and put usable sidewalks in their place.

So, how do we celebrate and use the defiance that’s in the DNA of our fraternities and sororities?

First, we can put students in a position to use that defiant spirit for good. Let's pledge to stop using students on committees or task forces simply as tokens. Let's give them significant work, like crafting policy and strategic plans. When they vocally disagree with an idea, let’s resist the inclination to think “they just don’t understand,” and instead think “maybe we just don’t understand.”

We can also encourage grassroots movements. There are students all over our campuses that send signals of rebellion, but their passions never get off the ground. The next student who volunteers his/her disdain for hazing should be encouraged to move their conviction to action. The next student that asks you what you're doing about the poor fraternity grade report should be answered with, "I've been waiting for you."

We can be willing to be wrong. To be honest, now that I have stepped away from campus work for a while, I look back at some of the policies I treated as gospel and I laugh. Now, I wish I had handed them over to the student leaders I advised and gave them the chance to rewrite them so they worked better. I recently consulted with a university in which a major battle of wills had erupted between the IFC and the university staff over an event authorization process. Is that worth a major battle? An event authorization process? Sometimes we are wrong and we need to happily admit it. Sometimes we are right, but that shouldn't make us inflexible.

Finally, we can simply and calmly accept this defiant spirit for what it is - an inherent trait that breathes life into fraternities and sororities. It can give us headaches and heartburn. It can also make our work less efficient and messier. But, it also keeps us accountable. It encourages innovation. It can make life more playful and spirited. It can help those of us who have allowed policies, rules, regulations, and bureaucracy to rule our work remember that we shouldn't take those things too seriously.

It may even make us radically change the way we do our work. But that's okay.

After all, we may just have defiance in our DNA as well.

The Legacy of the Great Snowball Rebellion

As Fraternities and Sororities, Defiance is in our DNA

Unless you are reading this from Guam, chances are you have been impacted by snow this winter. I write this as I’m stranded in San Antonio because of a snowstorm in Texas!

Snow can be beautiful, elegant, and fun. It’s the stuff of Bing Crosby’s fondest dreams. However, almost every person curses it at some point or another because it can also be frustrating, inconvenient, and dangerous. Nothing turns us faster against our elected leaders (see Mike Bloomberg) than unplowed streets. It’s a love/hate relationship for sure.

Did you know, however, that snow led to one of the most defining moments in the history of fraternity life? Without it, we most likely wouldn’t be the same organizations we are today. I’m referring to the Great Snowball Rebellion of 1848.

The scene was Miami University, which along with Union College, is often referred to as the Mother of Fraternities. The birth of the Miami Triad (Phi Delta Theta, Sigma Chi, and Beta Theta Pi) was instrumental in the eventual birth of many other fraternities and the growth of the fraternity movement nationwide.

At the time of the rebellion, two fraternities existed at Miami – Alpha Delta Phi (the first fraternity formed West of the Allegheny mountains) and Beta Theta Pi. At first, the fraternities were welcomed by a President named Bishop, who eventually lost his job partly because of it. The board of trustees did not trust the fraternities, and at their urging, an “anti-secret society” resolution was passed by the faculty. Flash forward to 1848, when the university was led by a President named Erasmus McMaster who continued the anti-fraternity mood on campus.

Miami wasn't alone in condemning fraternities. Our founders and early members could have given it all up. But anything worthwhile is also worth fighting for.

The students at Miami were frustrated with McMaster's attitude, and a tipping point was reached. On January 12, 1848, a large snowfall struck the campus. A few members of the two fraternities saw a chance to make a statement. In the middle of the night, they rolled giant snowballs up to the doors of the primary building on campus – Old Main. The snow and ice acted as a barricade, shutting down the most important building on campus. The janitor arrived that morning to the scene and then contacted McMaster, who was furious. He announced at chapel that morning that every student who was involved would be expelled.

The response from the students was to double-down. More snow arrived and that night the students recruited more of their fraternity brothers to help. The doors weren’t enough for them this time. They packed tremendous amounts of snow and ice in the hallways of the building, bracing their piles with chairs, benches, and wood. The temperature dropped and the snow froze like a block of ice, making the building an unusable mess. The students thought that their numbers would actually work in their favor – that the President couldn’t expel all of them. They were wrong. The university was shut down, trials were held, and after the expulsions, only 68 out of 200 enrolled students remained.

Each time a student was expelled, he would be carried off on the shoulders of his classmates. The students even hired a band to play as their peers cheerfully left the campus.

An enrollment drop of that magnitude did not bode well for McMaster and he was fired by the Trustees shortly after the incident. A new President, Anderson, was hired and he changed the environment to be more welcoming to fraternities. Within a couple of years, enrollment surpassed 200.

Several of the expelled students eventually enrolled at Centre College in Kentucky and formed fraternities there, including the second chapter of Beta Theta Pi. Phi Delta Theta was formed at Miami a year after the rebellion.

The defiance embodied in the snowball rebellion remains in the DNA of fraternities and sororities today. It was one of the earliest markers of our independence as organizations; independence that’s asserted day in and day out on campuses across North America.

The relationship between the college fraternity and the host institution has always been tenuous. Our earliest founders created us because they wanted to provide the human bonds and relationships that colleges at the time purposely tried to avoid. We were seen as a threat because we taught values and debated questions that didn’t fit within the traditional educational environment. We sought to raise the college experience from one that focused only on the stuff of textbooks to one embracing the stuff of life. We wanted colors in our members’ lives other than gray limestone and red bricks.

And we did a really good job of this. So good, that colleges and universities began to embrace what we had to offer (albeit cautiously). More recently, institutions of higher education have lifted the things we were once sole proprietors of – namely relationship building and leadership development – and infused them into other places on campuses. Residence hall learning communities, for example, are direct knock-offs of the original fraternity experience.

However, this doesn’t mean that these institutions embrace Greek-Letter Organizations. In many cases, they may be purposely giving students a more appetizing alternative to fraternities and sororities – signaling the continuation of distrust that institutions have held for them since the days of giant snowballs.

Because defiance is such a part of who we are as fraternities and sororities, I wonder if we can ever avoid it. Even the fraternity or sorority that walks the line most closely on a given campus has the itch to step off every once in a while.

College and university administrators, especially those that do not work directly with Greek-letter organizations, get so frustrated by this. Why wouldn’t they? We can be loud and contentious. We don’t like new rules, and will speak out against them. We like our independence, and sometimes seem to live in our own universe. We still act like the groups that meet in a hidden attic somewhere and would rather be left alone.

And that often leaves us at odds. But, could it all be one big misunderstanding?

To understand us, one needs to know our history. Every defining moment in the fraternity and sorority movement is marked by defiance. Let’s not forget that women’s fraternities and multicultural Greek organizations were also developed in defiance of the status quo. We have always been an outlier because we needed to be.

Now – this is not to say that rules and policies are not important. Even wrongheaded policies are created in order to protect someone – an individual or an organization. Many of our risk management policies, for example, are cumbersome and annoying, but almost all can be justified. The defiance in our DNA does not give us a license to simply break the rules because we feel like it. It may lead us to challenge them more than other groups, however. It’s rare that a new policy isn’t met with some debate by Greek-Letter Organizations, and that’s a good thing. Leave the blind unquestioning adherence to someone else.

So what’s the point of all this? It helps to remember how rebellion and defiance have shaped us. And, it can be a big part of our future. There may be fewer places in the world where taking a stand and showing conviction are rewarded, but at least we can still strive to be one.

In addition, will the problems in our world more likely be solved by rule-following conformists or restless disruptors?

Perhaps it’s time to stop fighting against this inherent rebelliousness in fraternities and sororities, and embrace it instead. How can it help our organizations and the host institutions alike?

I like to keep these posts somewhat short, and so I’ll follow-up with my thoughts on how we can better celebrate and utilize defiance in next week’s entry. For now, please offer your thoughts and ideas. Should we welcome and embrace rebellion in Greek-letter organizations? How do we manage rebellion that’s positive versus defiance that’s dangerous? More to come...

Special thanks to Dr. Phillip Shriver, Historian and President Emeritus at Miami University, who wrote and taught about the Great Snowball Rebellion. You can read more here.