A Big Decision You Probably Didn’t Hear About, Most Fraternities Wouldn’t Make, And Why It Matters

[This is a guest essay from an anonymous writer, not affiliated with Beta Theta Pi or Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity]

The last few weeks have been interesting ones in the world of fraternity and sorority life.   

Sometimes history is made by opening new doors, and sometimes its made by closing old ones.

On March 7 Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity announced publicly that they would be eliminating their new member program and initiating members within 96 hours.  This bold and courageous move echoed throughout the social media world, pinning members and observers on both sides of the fence.  After being (ridiculously) deemed the “deadliest” fraternity by Bloomberg, Sigma Alpha Epsilon made a move their board and staff felt was right for them.

Buried deep in another fraternity newsletter, released last week, a different approach was taken to address the organizational challenge of hazing.  The letter was written by David E. Schmidt, Beta Theta Pi Fraternity General Secretary.  Schmidt eloquently addressed the fraternity membership about the recent closing of their Alpha chapter at Miami University.

The letter described hazing allegations including coerced alcohol consumption, forced calisthenics, and line ups.  The organization invested in the chapter several years ago and reorganized the membership.  Still, the culture of the chapter persisted and as Mr. Schmidt writes, “the lack of honesty, transparency and forthrightness the last several years, as well as during the recent investigations, severely undercut the chapter’s credibility and standing with the university, house corporation and General Fraternity.”

Both Sigma Alpha Epsilon and Beta Theta Pi deserve credit for their decisions, and each will be better off for having made them.  However, of the two, it’s the Beta decision that may matter more.  I see this as a tipping point for our industry.  Yet most people missed it.

To close a chapter takes tremendous will and self-discipline.  It also usually takes a death or media nightmare.  I have worked for or with campuses and headquarters who gave problematic chapters only a sideways glance, even when they knew hazing occurred or was occurring.   

Whether this hands-off philosophy is due to the size of the chapter (potential loss of revenue), prestige of the campus, or backlash from members and alumni, too often we sit back and do nothing.  Throw in the fact that tradition plays a huge role in our organizations and Alpha chapters are usually deemed as “untouchable”.  The move Beta Theta Pi made was potentially transforming.

Most fraternal organizations have accountability and discipline processes chapters go through after hazing violations are brought forth.  After several years of double secret probation, membership reviews, life support, another round of probation, change in advisory support, etc. the chapter is in the same place they were 20 years ago.  Beta Theta Pi stopped the cycle.  Instead of investing more time and money into a chapter culture that wasn’t able to change, they stopped.   

What a stunningly simple concept. 

I was recently having a conversation with a fraternity executive about volunteer leadership in our organizations.  He said if our boards led with ethics, we would have a financial downfall because we know most organizations need to close 50 percent of their chapters.  A well-known hazing expert recently claimed at least 75 percent of fraternities haze.  

Sigma Alpha Epsilon approached their firestorm by addressing the undergraduate members and trying to compel them to stop a behavior that is pervasive in most organizations.  They opted for some structural changes to try and influence the culture.  I don’t know how many chapters they have closed in the last few years because of hazing incidents that didn’t result in a death or lawsuit.  Like most of us, they likely cycled the chapters through the discipline process or reorganizations hoping to make a difference.
Think for a minute…
What if more organizations took Beta Theta Pi’s example and stopped the cycle? 
What if we hesitated less to close chapters that, as Schmidt states, “are unable or unwilling to take responsibility for their actions and commit as a unified group to re-align the chapter’s culture?”

For the last 10 years, our industry has focused on teaching the students to “live their ritual”, hold members accountable, bystander intervention, etc.  What if the answer wasn’t educating the members, but rather educating the fraternity and sorority decision-makers in the boardrooms? 
Thank you Mr. Schmidt and Beta Theta Pi for demonstrating ethical leadership.  Your quiet approach to a relentless problem was not overlooked.  You looked in the mirror and asked from your position, “what can I do to combat hazing," versus what do the members need to do.

3 Reasons We Fail to Respect Our Elders

It’s a common refrain (usually delivered as an admonishment) that we should respect our elders more.  I tend to agree.

In the generational warfare that is all too common nowadays, the attacks seem to be coming from older generations to younger ones.  I dismiss a majority of these attacks, and find them to be tedious and boring.  Suffice to say, I don't think the younger generation will be a bunch of conversational delinquents because they like to communicate by text or Facebook.  Nor do I think my generation or older ones were conversational artists when we were teenagers either.

But, something that deserves more attention is how the younger generations regard the older ones.  Younger people have always seen older ones as "boring" or "old-fashioned" or "out of touch."  That will always be true.  The youth will always be Kevin Bacon from Footloose, and the old will always be John Lithgow.

When it gets concerning is when we ignore all that we can learn from the elders.  By elders I mean the advisors to your chapters or the alumni who still contribute to the fraternity as volunteers.  And I guess I'm referring to those with a little more gray hair than others.  Fraternity will be better when we can respect these individuals more, and here are three reasons why we often fail to do that:

1.  We impose the undergraduate frame of reference on our elders.

The biggest problem is an age-old one in fraternity life.  We see the fraternity experience as only our undergraduate years.  When we do that, then we put a box around the wisdom that our elders can provide.   We think that all they can offer is advice on how to experience those undergraduate years based on how they experienced them.  This makes their advice easy to dismiss because times indeed have changed in regard to how students experience college life.  I can tell you stories on what life was like when I was in school, but it’s hard for me to advise you on how to do it in 2014.

Because of that, we are missing the mark on the frame of reference our elders can really provide: how fraternity can influence our lives beyond and outside of the undergraduate years.  How powerful it is that we have in our midst individuals who have experienced several decades of living the values of fraternity.  If fraternity (and life itself) becomes more clear and more understood as we get older, then why wouldn't we want to learn from those who have achieved that deeper awareness?  Instead, we turn to these gray-haired sages in the back of the meeting room and ask them to tell is what Greek Week was like when they were in college.  Instead, we should be asking them to tell us what they've learned about brotherhood during the course of their lives.  And what lessons of the fraternity Ritual speak loudest to them now.  Simply put, the greatest gift that our older alumni can provide us is not how to be an undergraduate fraternity or sorority member, but how to be a lifelong fraternity man or sorority woman.

2.  The value of experience in developing wisdom has been diminished.

This is a societal problem.  We seem to be drifting away from the notion that experience is the best provider of wisdom.  Instead, we're more likely to take what our Twitter feed or internet search tells us instead of the older adults that surround us.  Theory and the next big idea trump practice and the ideas that have been tested.  Old age is more likely to carry with it notions of vapidity than wisdom these days.

I have made it a point in my life to position myself close to those with experience and those older than me.  I am one of the youngest in my Kiwanis Club, and I love it.  The stories I hear those other members tell provide me with a glimpse of wisdom earned by experience. When I hear a retired corporate executive gush about the weekend he spent with his grandchildren, it's a signal to me about what really matters in this world.  I have resisted joining young professional clubs because I have found that my peers, while being able to provide camaraderie and fun, can't provide the same level of life education. 

Experience is still the best teacher.  You can read all you want about swimming, but until you get into the water, none of it matters.  Don't rely on leadership lessons from charismatic 20-somethings who consulted for a year and then wrote a book with a catchy title.  Instead, learn leadership from the man or woman in the room who has worked throughout their lives with all types of people and who has witnessed the highs and lows of organizational life.

Experience takes the lofty ideals, and makes them real.  You can memorize the creed of your fraternity, but your older alumni can actually teach you about it.  What if fraternities and sororities helped lead a movement back towards the value of experience?  What if we talked about our inter-generational aspects more as an asset?  We should be proud of the opportunity we provide to bring together the wisdom of experience with the wonders of youth.

3.  Alumni are seen as parental figures rather than brothers or sisters. 

One of the great wonders of fraternity is that its Ritual becomes a bridge between all types of difference, including age.  Once you accept the oaths of membership, and the Ritual is revealed to you, you become equal as a brother or sister with all those who came before you.

When it comes to human connections, we often let superficial aspects – such as choices in clothing, music, or movies – crowd out much more significant similarities.  Does it matter that you like Walking Dead and he likes CSI when you've both spoken the same commitments to the same ideals?  

Perhaps if we change the lens on how we see our elders from “an authority to report to” to “a brother/sister to walk beside,” they may become more approachable to us.  And respect may be easier to bestow.  

Overall, our elders will make mistakes, and some of them can do more harm than good.  Yes, there are a few that stay involved for the wrong reasons or who try to pass along the poor choices they made as undergraduates to the next generation.  And yes, there are some who are moving too slowly in terms of diversity and acceptance.  But the vast majority can help your chapter grow because they provide the wisdom of experience.  And they can help you grow as well, because their frame of reference is unique to yours.  

Look past the superficial differences and you’ll see a sister.  Or a brother.  Someone to learn from.  Someone who has seen much of life, and provided much as well.  Someone who deserves our respect.