Fraternity Bacon...or...What Causes Cancer in Greek Life?

Thanks World Health Organization for taking the fun out of bacon.  Now, every time I bite into my BLT, I’m going to hear the sounds of tumors forming instantly inside my body. 

Bacon can cause cancer, according to the WHO.  And they’ve added it to their long list of carcinogens – a list meant to make us paranoid about doing anything other than sitting in a padded bunker eating pieces of lettuce.

But hey – good news!  Fraternity is not on the list!  Yet.

While this is a no-fun list by the WHO, it is actually quite helpful.  The list isn’t saying that these things will always cause cancer, but could.  Pickled vegetables, leather dust, and coffee are also on the list.  So, if you’re trying to preserve your body for a long life, the list is a helpful guide of things to avoid or take in moderation.

Although when it comes to leather dust, go big or go home I say.

Greek life needs a list like this.  Maybe this could be the next project of AFA or AFLV or NIC 2.0:  create an annual listing of things that cause cancer in the fraternity movement.  It could be a list that is added to or subtracted from based on new data that’s acquired.

This list would be a guide for fraternities and sororities that want a sustainable future, as well as a guide for professionals who work with Greek life to detect warning signs of impending doom

Now – you and I could probably create this list based on conventional wisdom about what ails the fraternity/sorority movement.  Such a list might look like this:

Fraternity/Sorority Carcinogens
1. Hazing
2. Passive recruitment
3. Parties with alcohol
4. Theme parties that degrade women or minorities
5. Chapter houses

But instead of guessing or relying on conventional wisdom, it’s time for some individual or organization to lead a meaningful research effort into what inspires fraternity excellence or diminishes it. 

Something only ends up on the WHO list if science has proven it deserves to be there.  It’s time we got scientific about the fundamental causes of poor health in Greek life.

PhD and Masters students – here is a chance for you to do essential research that can make a real difference .  Here are three research questions, that together or separate, could help make a data-driven list of behaviors that jeopardize fraternity/sorority sustainability and that could inform our future practices:

  1. What are the most common detectable predictors (warning signs) for a fraternity/sorority that will have its charter revoked within the next 12-24 months?  (study chapters that had their charter revoked and look for themes that were present 1-2 years earlier)
  2. What are the common denominators for all fraternity/sorority chapters that have been suspended or closed due to a tragic event in the past ten years? (perhaps compare those with the habits in common of chapters that have won their national fraternity’s top award in the last ten years)
  3. What are the common themes in the experience of fraternity/sorority chapters that are closed or reorganized within five years of being chartered?
The research from these three studies could provide the data needed to finally understand what causes a Greek organizations to fade, decline, or disintegrate altogether.  Armed with this knowledge, we can see warning signs before they become horrid front-page stories.  And, we can make smarter choices within the fraternity experience. 

Maybe we'll still eat bacon every once in a while - but we'll understand it can't be the biggest part of our diet.

With over 200 years of history, the fraternal movement ought to know what it's greatest carcinogens are.  We ought to have definitive answers on the things that give our organizations "cancer."  It doesn't mean we'll always listen - but not knowing can no longer be an excuse.



Don't Judge Institutions For Having Flaws, But For How They Respond To Them

The response to Pope Francis’s recent visit to the U.S. was heartwarming for many reasons. He’s a true servant leader who has inspired so many and his gentle leadership makes him a person easy to admire. It was especially nice to see the reaction of Catholics, who are presently living through a very positive moment in the life of their institution. 

It hasn’t always been positive. In fact, the Catholic Church has been in a pretty steady swirl of controversy for a long time. I am not Catholic, although I attend mass with my very-Catholic wife and our kids, so it’s the closest thing to a religious affiliation I have. Certainly, I’ve watched the child abuse scandals in the church with concern and compassion for the victims. Many Catholics have left the church because of it, and yet many others remain loyal. I’m convinced that most who left didn’t leave because of the child abuse incidents themselves (as sickening as those were), but rather because of the church’s perceived weak response to the incidents, or total lack thereof. 

How we engage with the institutions in our lives is an interesting study in human nature. There are moments in which we are proud of our institutions, and moments in which we are embarrassed by them. 

It is impossible for an institution to be perfect. Discomforting headlines about the Catholic Church, your Alma mater, your favorite sports team or league - and yes, fraternity and sorority life, will always be there.   
In any institution, there will be bad actors. In any institution, there will be dramatic and traumatic incidents that move the ground beneath our feet. All institutions are flawed. No one should hastily jump on a bandwagon of disdain towards other institutions lest the ones they believe in become immersed in hot water as well. And they will.

Where we can be judgmental, and where we can show disdain, is in how an institution reacts and responds in those critical moments when their flaws emerge. 

Embarrassing moments within our institutions can shake our pride. If an institution doesn’t respond to those moments responsibly…that can shake our faith

Here’s an example from politics: Republicans have long been branded as the party of family values – marital fidelity, child welfare, pro-life positions, etc. And so, when a Republican is found to have cheated on his/her spouse, or engaged in criminal behavior, or caught doing something “sinful,” it’s a common hue and cry to say Republicans are hypocrites for preaching family values. 

Not necessarily. The individual engaged in the behavior is most certainly a hypocrite. However, the institution can still carry its values and beliefs and promote them through their response. If a Republican is found to have run afoul of the institution's values, and yet he/she holds on to their position or basically feels no serious ramifications, then the institution indeed deserves a label of “hypocrite.” 

But, if the institution forcefully responds and serious ramifications are felt by the individual, then isn’t that actually a powerful statement of credibility and alignment with values and purpose? Shouldn’t that actually strengthen the institution’s position? Shouldn’t that be cause to celebrate the institution? 

In our world, that would mean we would collectively cheer every time a member or chapter is held accountable.  But, that doesn't happen very often because we're still smarting from whatever incident led to that action.  Instead of focusing on "did you see how Alpha responded to that situation," we say "did you see what happened to Alpha?"

In today's fraternity and sorority industry, we are being held hostage by the next headline-grabbing incident. Because, what comes next is a media barrage of outrage to dismantle the whole movement.  A group of immature imbeciles chant racist statements on a bus, and there is a call to take down the entire institution. Some fools hang sexist banners from their fraternity house balcony and the institution is judged to be dangerous place for all women. Some sorority girls make a bikini-laden recruitment video that goes viral and the response is that the institution is homogeneous and regressive. 

It seems like the world judges us for the behavior of a few. (Just as we do for other institutions so we shouldn’t be surprised). 

Somewhere in your network of chapters is at least one chapter that hazes its new members. That’s a fact that cannot be ignored. Having some chapters that haze does not make your national fraternity a hazing organization. Just as having some child predators in their midst does not make the Boy Scouts an organization of pedophiles. It’s how we respond that defines us. 

We can battle back against this by not falling for it ourselves. We have become hyper-sensitive to every negative story about Greek life and are constantly running scared. Bad stuff is going to happen folks – it always has. Yes – let’s try to reduce the number of incidents, but living and dying on each one is no way to thrive. It only feeds the beast. 

What matters most is not the first story. It’s the second one. It’s the one that describes how a national organization, or chapter leaders, or campus officials plan to respond. 

Is your national fraternity cracking down on hazing like it should? Or any other plague on the fraternity/sorority system? Or, does it feel more wishy-washy and heavy on “super secret double probations” that don’t mean anything? 

Are we really serious about values-alignment, or not? 

Is your IFC or Panhellenic imposing consequences on chapters that do not observe community standards? Or, do we wink and turn the other cheek. If it’s the latter, then our institutions deserve every criticism we’re receiving. 

Of course, it’s not that simple. The church believes in redemption. We believe in learning moments. How do we square that with a desire to be tough on those who violate our values? One way is to ensure that there is no question about what is considered right and wrong. Hazing is wrong – always. Sexual assault is wrong – always. Our members start their journey at the age of 18 or 19 and that means they are adults who should understand these issues. They just need to be told once and then they should be expected to understand the consequences of their actions. 

If you want to be proud of this greater fraternity/sorority institution again, it starts with being proud of what happens when our own members step outside of the values we hold dear. Are you proud of how your national organization reacts? Or your campus? 

Or do they too often shake your faith? 

This is a call for us all to start judging our fellow organizations and campuses by what matters - not the fact that incidents occur - but rather how they respond.