Tuesday, January 20, 2015

For the Melvas in Our Lives

Within the first few weeks of arriving at Miami University as an undergraduate 20 years ago, I went searching for a job.  I needed a work-study position to help pay for room and board.  There was a job fair for such positions at the student union, and after perusing some of the options, I was drawn to a kind older lady seated behind a simple table.  Her name was Melva Brown.  She was the secretary for the Student Activities Office and they needed someone to serve as receptionist and do various clerical tasks.  I figured it was a good option, since I liked clubs and organizations.  Plus, she was really sweet and I kind of felt like someone I should get to know.  I was hired pretty quickly and learned later it was because she liked that I was a clean-cut guy.

Not long after, Melva became more than just my supervisor.  She fashioned herself as my second mom – my Miami mom – someone who would look after me, and she fit the part.  While I was in the office, she would ask about my life and keep tabs on both the academic and social side.  If I was late to work because of some exploits the previous night, she would act disappointed just like a caregiver should.  But, the ice would eventually thaw and I would go home that day still feeling loved and supported.  She got it.  She had high expectations, but she knew I was just figuring it out. 

Melva would invite me to her house, and sometimes I would watch it while she and her husband Jim traveled.  And Jim – Jim was tremendous too.  A prince of a guy and so easy to get to know.  I would even dress as Santa for Melva’s family Christmas gathering – which was a sacred honor because Melva was Santa’s biggest fan.  Christmas was her thing.  She and Jim even placed a Santa mailbox in their front lawn each December, and kids would drop their wishes inside (and even receive a reply).

Melva was as important to me as anyone during those four years, and then even in the years that followed.   

And she passed away suddenly a few days ago.

As I reflected on my time with her, I realized that her decision to hire me on that day in 1994 could have been the single biggest moment in my career path, because it started my career path.  I went to Miami to be a TV broadcaster, but emerged wanting to be a higher education professional.  Working in that Student Activities Office introduced me to professional heroes like Steve Ransom, Gary Manka, and Bobbe Burke.  The office was also shared with the Greek Life staff and there I met Brian Breittholz, Amy Vojta, Tim Maugherman, and eventually others like Sue Kraft-Fussell, Lupita Temiquel, and Heather Hammer-Shuchter.  Can you imagine what a fun and dynamic office this was?  And it was anchored by Melva and her counterpart on the Greek side, Carolyn.  I wanted to be like all those people, and I don’t know if I would have ever been moved to chart a new career path if not for the opportunity to sit at that front desk in the office.

Melva was my rock.  College is a wild and crazy time, and all of us need adults to bring us back to what matters.  Melva was that for me.

On any given college or university, you have a wide range of employees.  You have the “academics,” the professors, provosts, and deans.  And then you have the student affairs staff, whose ranks are populated by those with advanced degrees and those striving for them.  But all throughout the institution, there are support staff:  secretaries, administrative assistants, groundskeepers, food service workers, bookstore employees, and more. 

It’s common to think that you will go to college and forge your mentoring relationships with those who stand at the front of the classroom, or who have the corner office, or who have a Dr. at the start of their name.  I wager to guess that we all can think of someone who didn’t fit these particular characteristics, but who meant as much or more to us.  And that’s because they had an even more important quality than any other: they cared.  This was Melva.

Do you have a Melva from your college days?  Someone who reminded you in the midst of your 20-page reports and 5000-page textbooks that it’s still the simple things that count?  Someone who would take you when you were at your best or at your worst and love you either way?  Someone who was always there, no matter the turbulence you were experiencing?  Someone who connected you to the community?  Someone who was such a real person in an environment that can often seem so unreal?

My parents don’t know many of the professors or student affairs administrators who helped to mold me, but they knew Melva.  And since my graduation, they exchanged Christmas cards with her and Jim.   They became friends, and I know were relieved to know someone was watching over me during that time.

If you have a Melva from your college days, call that person right now.  Tell them how much they mean to you.  I wish I could have done that one more time.

My condolences to Jim and to the entire Brown family.  And my condolences to Miami and Oxford, for they each lost one of their best.  Melva, you will be missed, but your spirit lives on in so many – including this clean-cut guy you took a chance on long ago. 

Farewell to my Miami mom.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

It’s Time to Suspend All-Greek Suspensions. Permanently.

On January 9, the system-wide fraternity and sorority suspension at the University of Virginia will be lifted.  Let’s wait and hope that the university administrators who took this step (and refused to retract it even after the Rolling Stone article was debunked) will have a press conference to share with the public how the Greek community there is forever changed now that the suspension worked its magic.  How is the system different?  What new behaviors will we see?  When the curtain is lifted, what will be revealed? 

Well, nothing of course.  Because the all-Greek suspension was done for P.R. purposes only.  It provided the illusion that the university wields tight-fisted control over the Greek community.  It had no productive outcome – and really couldn’t.  

All-Greek suspensions, and especially in the UVA case, take a problem that can be isolated to certain groups or members and make it appear to be everyone’s problem.  And so every member – even those living true to their values - are caught in the net and may never escape the negative impression that comes along. 

There is no courage in such an act, either.

I am reminded of the time I was on a plane, and we had just taken off.  I needed to use the bathroom, but the seat-belt sign was illuminated, which means you need to stay put.  After a few minutes, I thought I heard a ding and that we had reached an elevation where I could get up and go.  So, I unbuckled the seat belt, walked to the back of the plane and right past the rear jump seat where the one flight attendant was seated (still buckled in).  While in the bathroom, I heard over the loudspeakers: “Ladies and gentlemen, the fasten seat-belt sign is still illuminated and you need to remain in your seats.”  Now, half the plane had seen me walk down the aisle.  So, it was obvious who she was talking about.  And, since I walked right past her, she could have stopped me and calmly told me to return to my seat, which I would have done without hesitation.  That would have been a more effective act than using the loudspeaker to admonish everyone for my error.

And so we have Greek communities where some chapters are making loud and boisterous errors, and when a dramatic incident is the result, the university administrators grab the loudspeaker and shut down everyone.  Is that courage?  If there is a continuum, I think it’s closer to cowardice.  It’s the easy way out.

Whereas a patient and targeted approach is better, it’s easier for a university president to look tough and in control by being heavy-handed and using words like “suspended” and “banned” at their pressers.  I also helps with P.R. because our society is increasingly letting our emotions control logic in demanding swift and immediate action.  Fire him!  Shut them down!  Boycott that place!  OUTRAGE!

But all-Greek suspensions are wrong on many levels.

There is certainly a fairness issue here.  When there is an alleged sexual assault by a member of the football team, for example, the entire sports program is not suspended.  In fact, rarely is the football program.  Residence hall activities are not halted when a handful of residents make poor choices.  But with fraternities, it’s becoming a common tool.

Actually, is there any other system that is treated this way?  We don't close all community restaurants when one fails to meet code.  We don't close all schools in the district when one or more fail to meet state standards.  Somehow in every other place in society we are able to conduct investigations and make improvements and yet keep business moving.  Except in Greek life it appears.

There is also a constitutional argument regarding freedom of association.  While it doesn’t keep me up at night, I understand some peoples’ passion around that argument.  And I agree with the spirit of the statement released by the NIC and NPC recently.

On a side note – in regards to that statement – can we have the political action committee release a separate statement next time?  Lumping the associations in with the political lobby feels a little overly...well...political.

To me, the biggest reason to suspend all-Greek suspensions is effectiveness.  Or lack thereof.
Can anyone point to an instance when an all-Greek suspension made a meaningful culture change for a Greek community?  I can’t find one.

The joint statement by several higher ed groups – including the Association of Fraternity Advisors - made the following assertion about suspensions.  Since it was in reaction to the UVA case, I assume they are defending the right of the university to suspend all groups at once, although it's not clear.  The emphasis is mine:
Finally, we support both students’ rights to freely associate and in rare cases, temporary, well-defined and purposeful suspensions of fraternity/sorority activities in response to widespread allegations of misbehavior, especially misbehavior that harms other students. Temporary suspension of the activities of student groups does not violate student association rights however, pausing the activities of student groups for a reasonable, defined period of time can be a useful mechanism in helping a reeling group evaluate and assess in a time of crisis, especially when that crisis may be related to the group’s activities, as may be the case with sexual violence, hazing, and binge drinking.
This statement deserves more explanation.  Specifically:
  • What is temporary?  What amount of time is too light or too severe?  What amount of time creates a more effective result?  If I believe temporary is 4 weeks and the guy down the street believes it’s 4 years, is that okay?
  • Can AFA or NASPA provide some examples of a well-defined suspension?  It’s not clear what that even means (in other words, it’s not well-defined).
  • Finally, what is considered a purposeful reason for a suspension?  And what isn’t?  If these higher ed groups believe there is a purpose for suspensions, can some examples be provided?  Using UVA as an example, I can’t find any real purpose stated for the suspension (there are some goals described but it isn’t clear how a suspension is necessary to achieve them).
This Rolling Stone article, what it created, and its aftermath may have opened a wider rift between campuses and fraternal organizations.  There is a higher ed/AFA camp and a NIC/NPC camp, as evidenced by their conflicting statements.  I believe that both sides understand the painful issues – such as sexual assault – that need to be addressed. Believing that all-Greek suspensions are ridiculous does not mean a lack of appreciation for the severity of these  issues.  And both sides love the fraternity experience, although one favors the ability for that experience to be altered or taken away from an upstanding member in an instant because of association.

IFCs and Panhellenics - you don't need to accept this as a solution.  All-Greek suspensions are simply unfair and ineffective.  I agree with the following quote: “in any crisis it can be far too easy to paint with a broad brush, and to blindly attack entire groups of individuals. This is not a responsible reaction.”  

Who said that?  UVA President Teresa Sullivan.