Grading Recent University Decisions

It’s a tough job being a University President, or any high-level administrator for that case.  Your decisions are always scrutinized and judged, much of the time without all of the facts.  And that’s exactly what I’m about to do.

Three high-profile incidents involving college fraternities and sororities happened recently at three significant universities.  In each case, university administrators took action.  One of the decisions I applauded, one caused me concern, and one made my blood boil.  That gave me the idea to grade the actions of the primary university officials involved in each case.  This is entirely subjective.  I’m sure these are all pleasant people and I’m trying to judge only their actions in these matters.

I also understand that if we were grading the chapters themselves, the IFCs, Panhellenics, or National Headquarters, they would likely be as low or lower.  But, this is about the administrators who chose the spotlight by making very public decisions.  

I would be very interested in your own grades, and the reasons behind them.  Here we go…

University of South Carolina
The Call:  Suspended fraternity recruitment almost immediately after it began, citing issues with underage alcohol consumption.
The Decider: Associate VP for Student Affairs, Jerry Brewer

What he did right:
  • Took a bold step that woke everybody up.
  • Held forums to listen directly to student concerns.
  • Made the recruitment ban temporary for most of the chapters.
What he did wrong:
  • Forgot that student ownership of an issue starts with acceptance and buy-in, not heavy-handed discipline.
  • In statements, sounded adversarial and condescending - an approach that is not going to get students or alumni to root for him.
  • Has failed to acknowledge cultural forces that impact the issue.  Will we ever see him suspend tailgating on football Saturdays?
Bottom-Line: Change needed to happen, but the top-down approach will likely mean results will be scarce.

The Grade:


Cornell University
The Call:  End pledging starting in 2012 and replace with better recruitment system.
The Decider: University President, David Skorton

What he did right:
  • I believe he’s right on the issue, since not only can fraternities and sororities survive just fine without pledging, it has been holding us back from recruitment practices that will launch us into the next era.
  • He set forward the vision, and then empowered students to develop the means.
  • He recognizes the value of the fraternity experience, and wants to see it grow and modernize.
What he did wrong:
  • His approach to the issue is too hazing-centric.  Of course, he was reacting to a student death.  However, pledging should be removed for other reasons as well, including the role it plays in creating cultures of apathy in Greek-letter organizations.
  • He could have empowered the students before going public, thereby not putting students on the defensive or in a reactionary mode.
  • How much  better would his op-ed in the New York Times have been if it had been co-written by the IFC/Fraternity Council President?
The Bottom-Line: If fraternity and sorority leaders accept the call to action, this could be the moment when their Greek system begins to rocket skyward.

The Grade:

Princeton University
The Call: Ban freshmen students from joining fraternities and sororities.
The Decider: University President, Shirley M. Tilghman

What she did right:
  • Enlisted a committee, including student representatives, to study the issue before taking the action.
What she did wrong:
  • Her comments, as well as those of her other administrators, make it sound as though she thinks 18-19 year-olds have the decision-making ability of a loaf of bread.
  • In a letter, she channeled her inner Dean Wormer by stating that the trustees  "if necessary, would be sympathetic to taking even stronger steps."  Tough talk to college students = lighter fluid on a BBQ pit.
  • Because Princeton doesn’t officially recognize fraternities and sororities, she is basically telling students: Hey freshmen, you’re not allowed to join these things we don’t recognize at all until you’re sophomores.  Understand? (This is the Ivy League, correct?)
  • She is aligning with helicopter parents and others who believe that the best way to prepare young adults for life is to seal them in a clear plastic hamster ball. 
The Bottom-Line: Eventually, the fraternities and sororities will realize that they do not need university recognition to be successful and become community-based organizations.  If so, watch them grow. 

The Grade: 


  1. I like how you've gathered these three questions in one place. I got into some decent debate with a friend from outside higher ed on my recent post from CHE on the same topic.

    I agree with much of your rationale here. I disagree with your assessment of the importance of advocacy or even impetus from above. The highest levels need to be on board for change to occur - I say that as someone who has worked at an institution where the president supported my initiatives for positive change in the system and another place where any movement in the right direction would send you off a cliff into infinite blackness - because the president didn't want to stir the pot.

    good dialogue though. thanks for writing it up.

  2. I particularly love your points and grade regarding the statement from the President of Cornell. I think it's easy for any leader to see themselves at the top of the mountain, and forget that all their momentum is really at the base. Would his statement have been more powerful if he in fact, didn't say anything at all, instead building a coalition with Greek students to send a united, student-led and driven message backed by the University Administration? I think so.

  3. I posted the Cornell case on my wall and had a pretty heated discussion with some individuals. I feel I did not state my rationale well enough. I agree that member education needs a totally different approach. I applaud the approaches of Sig Eps and Beta's for their programs. I think a member education program that does not just involve a couple of weeks of learning and only new members is the way to go. I feel many organizations take the approach of educating you for a few weeks and then you are brothers. It signifies too much of an ending point and really that is just the beginning. Concerning the article, I was very upset with the way in which he defined pledging. He took it completely out of context and implied that pledging was hazing. That is not the true definition of pledging. However, I can see where he would be confused since fraternities and sororities have done a good job of making it seem that way. In addition, I feel his way of thinking is very naive. Changing the name is not going to stop hazing. Sadly, neither is developing a new program. I applaud that he wants to combat hazing and alcohol abuse. The way he is combatting though is just wrong. We will always be fighting hazing and alcohol abuse, that is the nature of the beast called life. There are plenty of ways in which we can make great strides in the fight though. I would encourage him to drastically change his approach. Work with alumni and national organizations to get some smart and involved advisors for the organizations. In my experience, if you get smart and experienced advisors involved then the number of potentially risky situations drop dramatically.