Monday, March 24, 2014

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.


9 comments:

  1. Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity took a stance similar to Beta Theta Pi on December 17, 2013 when it closed the operations of its chapter at West Virginia University, one of Phi Psi's largest and most historic chapters. http://www.phikappapsi.com/news/wvupressrelease

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  2. Great post. I'm really proud of Beta for making the right decision for the right reason. It is very easy (and understandable) that people protect what matters to them and follow the route of making the convenient choice.

    I spent 2007-2009 as the IFC advisor at Miami and can personally attest to the challenging culture of the Miami community detailed in the Beta statement. Miami is a very historic community (six national organizations founded there), a large community (over 30% of students are members), and significant (four headquarters in town). The fact that Beta Theta Pi members thought they could subvert their headquarters when the headquarters is just 1.5 miles away is upsetting given the average intelligence of a Miami student.

    But the closure of Beta's Alpha Chapter is indeed reflective of the culture. Two other Alpha chapters are currently closed at Miami (Phi Kappa Tau and Sigma Chi). Several others are also listed on the office's page describing "Unrecognized Chapters." The community is a good one with some significant flaws. There are some good chapters at Miami who do incredible things and produce great alumni.

    Simply put, headquarters need to close more chapters. I advise a Greek community where membership cost is the primary reason students report they don't join Greek chapters. My current members are paying hundreds of dollars a year in liability insurance due to the actions of other chapters at other schools. The only way to reduce liability is to close these chapters.

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  3. The true causes of the problem you rightly identify are embedded within your own writing - which may or may not represent your perspective. I believe the fundamental cause is that ‘fraternity’ has become an industry, rather than an ideal… or a movement, as you have called it in other pieces.

    You use the specific phrase, “for our industry” and ask, “if our boards led with ethics” instead of what? You know what – profits, revenue and survival, like any business board.

    If fraternities were truly values-based and put the brotherhood and character development first, we could, we should, close all professional headquarters and be a completely volunteer run organization. One that stands for its ideals, and serves it’s fellow man…. Not the foundation fund and the salaries and job security of a small inner circle of professional brothers.

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    1. This is exactly what I have noticed in my own organization as well. Industry over ideals.

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    2. That would be the ideal wouldn't it? But if you take a look at the vast majority of non-profit organizations, any one that you choose, you will see they have paid employees. To say that we should be completely volunteer run is rather unrealistic. A combination of volunteers and staff is the ideal in my mind. We need someone to coordinate the chaos, and others to do the great work.

      And since I know with painstaking detail how much HQ staff get paid, and how much work they do, their outstanding work is coming at a real bargain.

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  4. Maybe I need some additional clarification. I am unsure why you think Beta deserves a special pat on the back for closing their Miami chapter. The chapter had problems for some time, by the national fraternity's own admission. The decision to close was probably tied to a guaranteed opportunity to come back. This is standard operating procedure for most national groups. They arrive at these "voluntary decisions" to put bad chapters out of their misery as long as there are promises to return. Hardly "tremendous will and self discipline." This article ( http://miamioh.edu/news/campus-news/2014/02/Beta-chaptercloses.html ) suggests that Beta is already promised a return in the 16-17 academic year. Hardly a "tipping point." Seems like business as usual: keep the chapter open until there's a promise that you can come back and try again. It's good business, actually. Call me for the standing ovation when a group realizes their chapter sucks, admits they didn't create (or maintain) a healthy chapter, and closes the group with no conditions (and without begging from the host institution) because it's the right thing to do. My fraternity is no less guilty, by the way. Seems like we close our chapters every 3-5 years at certain SEC schools, but always have a commitment to come back and try again. And again. And again.

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  5. I'm confused, what money did Beta Nationals give to this chapter? Was it the dues paid by the undergraduate members, or the donations of their alumni. This article shows that National organizations are simply concerned about keeping their bureaucracy well paid at the expense of individual chapters, undergraduate brothers, and alumni. What happens when you decide you have the "moral" right to shut down every chapter, then you will cease to exist.

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  6. TJ - I appreciate your perspective. Perhaps this is just an ordinary decision that doesn't deserve special credit. In my experience, prestigious, well-heeled, influential chapters (alpha or not) like Beta at Miami tend to be rehabilitated endlessly out of fear. So when one is closed - especially one over 150 years old, it's noteworthy. I had no problem posting this writer's admiration for that decision.

    I think you're off-base on the motivations behind the decision. Why do you assume Miami wouldn't want one of the triad back as much as the national HQ? Both have an interest in its return. I doubt Beta had to wait for assurances.

    Despite this, I believe fraternity is a movement, and so I would actually be disappointed in any national organization that wouldn't work hard to gain some commitment from the campus to return. If they believe in their mission, what's wrong with that?

    Plus, the chapter was one of the best on campus not long ago and had the best chapter advisor at the time in Brian Breittholz. It's fall was fairly rapid, with real glimmers of hope complicating the timeline.

    "Tipping point" may be a stretch, but might this action given some other boards a little more freedom to do the right thing? I think boards pay attention to each other.

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  7. Hi, I am a student and a part of Greek life at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, a very anti-hazing campus. Although it is always sad when a chapter must be shut down, it is a very courageous stance that Beta Theta Pi has taken, one that is going to be preferable in the end. In my opinion, there should be a continuation of the probation process, there is always a need for a maximum time to be in this standing. The national headquarters of the organization should terminate the chapter if they reach the maximum as well as if they do not see a change in behavior of that chapter. Overall, this stance will definitely make a difference in the Beta Theta Pi fraternity and among all Greek life that hazing is not a joke but a serious crime.

    - Darby

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