As Universities Grow Soft, Fraternities Must Stay Tough

Some headlines within the last couple of years:
SFGate: UC Berkeley orders cancellation of Ann Coulter speech
I’m worried about what’s happening to colleges and universities and their missions to prepare students for a productive and consequential life. I know it’s easy to react to headlines and think it’s a systemic problem, when maybe it’s not, but regardless, it’s worth discussing.

For me colleges and universities are places in which people should be toughened, strengthened, and their skin made thicker.  They are not places in which students should emerge softer, scared of their own shadows, or unable to deal with difficult conversations.

After all, college is what stands between a high school “kid” and a real world “adult.”

This is not to say that eyes should not be opened or that a wider view of life should not be unveiled. I believe firmly that colleges and universities fulfill an essential role in our society if their graduates emerge with a greater understanding of and appreciation for human differences. 

But why then, is a speech by an environmentalist or a human rights advocate in the campus setting okay, but a conservative political thinker is not okay?

I get this sense that our society is shifting to a K-16 education system, which is problematic on a couple of fronts. First, focusing on a college as a necessity leaves behind a big population of students. Secondly, it fools us into believing that college students should still live underneath the safe school umbrella that was held over their heads in high school.

It wasn’t that long ago in human history that 18 year-olds were managing an entire homestead, working in a factory, and/or dealing with life and death adult issues on a routine basis.  Even today, there are 18-year-olds that strap on the uniform of our country and go into the depths of hell on our behalf.

And yet, the 18-year-olds (even 22-year-olds) living in their well-manicured and heavily-resourced comfortable campus communities can’t be exposed to the ideas of Ann Coulter?

A caveat - in the real world, there are places in which people that feel persecuted or endangered can go to seek solace and support. Campuses should have these too. From what I've read (I accept that's not always the best research strategy) it seems that the safe place idea is becoming so wide and distributed, that it doesn't mean what it should and is open to being mocked.  It now means shelter from opposing viewpoints, as opposed to support networks for those who feel truly threatened. 

This world is tough. Living here on this rock takes resolve and grit and determination. If we are to solve our greatest social challenges, we need strength. The world overall is not a safe space, and it’s inhabitants must be able to operate within it.

Sure, it takes courage to voice an opinion.  But it also takes courage to live with and work alongside other human beings that think your opinion is wrong and be okay with that. 

So where does fraternity fit? I've said before that I believe fraternities to be the one remaining place on a college campus where real leadership is learned and practiced. Why? Because, for the most part, fraternities are still self-governed entities without a lot of micromanaging by advisors (although this is in jeopardy as well). In addition to being this practical, real-life laboratory of leadership, fraternities can and should remain places where free speech is allowed, opinions are freely shared, and personal animosities are managed through conversation and not heavy-handed silencing. A fraternity should be as free and open as the public square, consequences be damned.

But here's the thing...the goal of silencing certain speakers or creating safe spaces is to further acceptance and inclusivity.  It's a well-intentioned goal but the tactics are ineffective, emotionally-driven, and create the opposite result. However, the greater goal can still be achieved by actually fostering environments where issues are hammered out, debate is encouraged, new perspectives are awakened, and more. These are the environments that fraternities are ripe to produce.  They may not be safe spaces per se, but they will be educational ones.  

And, remember, education is the ultimate purpose for institutions of higher education.

To summarize, by being a sanctuary on the modern college campus for free speech and free expression of ideas, today's college fraternity can provide an important contribution to the goal of creating a more accepting and inclusive society.  Not a bad way to frame our continued relevance, huh?

Here are some quick ideas:
  • Open up your fraternity house doors for a series of conversations on important issues of the day. When I was an undergraduate at Miami, the IFC held "dessert and dialogue" sessions at chapter facilities.  We would invite two (or more) sides of an important political hot-button issue to debate it in front of students and then field questions.
  • This sounds terribly old-fashioned, but if you have a chapter facility, be sure you're getting one local and one national newspaper delivered. Throw in a few magazines such as Time, Newsweek, etc. You might be surprised at how access to materials like this can lead to simple (and impactful) discussions around the dinner table.
  • Before rush/recruitment season begins, devote time as a chapter to have a discussion around the importance of looking for diversity of all kinds in the potential members. Lay it out plain: we do not select members based on their political viewpoints, religious ideologies, race, sexual orientation, and so forth. We select them based upon their commitment to our values, and our belief in how much and in what ways they can make the chapter stronger.
  • Chapter leaders should stay observant of how dialogue and discussion takes place in the chapter. Acknowledge and show appreciation for those moments when brothers disagree (even if tempers flare) as long as they continue to respect each other after the fact. 
  • Be a leading organization on your campus for free speech. Support campus efforts to bring a wide variance of viewpoints by attending speakers, diversity awareness sessions, rallies and marches in large numbers.

By doing things like this, and ensuring that your fraternity chapter environment is not devoid of the true stuff of the real world - debate, disagreements, and tense discussions - then fraternity members all over will emerge from higher education as the most prepared to make it in this world...and make the world better too.

Do Strong Fraternity Stuff

I am a big fan of Dave Ramsey, who is a financial management guru famous for his radio show and bestselling books.  His style is to give tough love to people, not allowing them to make excuses for their financial situations.  His message is well-received because it’s simple: get debt-free, live debt-free, build wealth slowly, and after you’ve succeeded, give lots of it away.

One of his primary messages is a principle that is so simple, it’s profound:  If you want to be rich, do what rich people do (do “rich people stuff” as he says).  If you want to stay poor, keep doing what poor people do. 

Here is a great quote from his website:
If you are broke, you will become rich when you do rich people stuff with your money. Find out what the habits of rich people are and do them, and you will become one of them. How do I know this?  Seventy-eight percent of America's millionaires are first- generation rich. They started with nothing and became millionaires. If you do poor people stuff with your money, you will become poor people. If you are rich and you do poor people stuff with your money, you will become poor people. "Rich" isn't an amount of money; it's a mindset in how you live. I've been broke, but I've never been poor because when I was broke, I just had no money. It wasn't that I had no hope. It wasn't that I didn't believe I could win. It wasn't that I was unwilling to sacrifice.
What is “rich people stuff?”  He shares many examples that come from research and studies about millionaires.  They work their tails off to get out of debt, and then pay cash for everything.  They invest wisely and patiently.  They buy used cars with cash instead of new ones with loans.  And they live frugally.

This goes against conventional wisdom, doesn’t it?  Rich people either inherit their money or lie and cheat to get it, right?  Not according to the research.  They have very distinct behaviors and make very thoughtful decisions.

Stuff that poor people do includes things like living by credit cards, payday loans, adding debt upon debt, not saving, and frivolous spending. 

So, while our emotions may say that it’s unfair that rich people are that way, our logic should tell us that if we make the right choices and behave in a disciplined way, we can join them.

The same is true for fraternity success.  If you want to be a strong fraternity, do “strong fraternity stuff.” 

But, like rich people, we tend to demonize strong fraternities.  We hate them for all the awards they win, all the recruits they get, and all the attention they receive.  Instead of learning from them, we dismiss their success (yet secretly hope we have the same).

Let go of your envy or jealousy about the highly successful fraternities, and start observing what they do.  You can be right there with them.  One of the benefits of a Greek system is that we see several examples of how to do fraternity happening at once.  In any given Greek system, we see the range of success, from chapters that are failing completely to those that are knocking the ball out of the park. 

There is no cap on how many successful fraternities there can be.  The problem is, too many of us choose to just be mediocre, because like many people, we’re just waiting to win the lottery or for some other stroke of ridiculous good luck.  Wealth isn’t built that way.  Neither is organizational success.

It’s an old but true quote – don’t wait for your ship to come in.  Swim out to it.

So, what is “strong fraternity stuff?”  We don't have very detailed studies on this, but based upon years of observation, awards judging, and common sense, here are a few things to consider:
  • Strong fraternities are extremely discerning in recruitment.  So much so, that they have a very low pledge dropout rate.  They pick the right guys from the start.
  • Strong fraternities are quick and nimble.  For example, when a natural disaster strikes, they have tables set up within hours to collect donations and a van full of members heading towards the relief efforts.
  • Strong fraternities practice and perform the Ritual ceremonies with precision.  They treat membership initiation with the same reverence that new colonies do.
  • Strong fraternities care about presence.  They strive to look impressive and act confidently when showing their public persona.
  • Strong fraternities have high chapter GPA’s because they recruit high academic performers.  They realize that recruiting a low performer and thinking they can change him/her is unrealistic.
  • Strong fraternities do not take shortcuts in recruitment.  It’s person-to-person, time consuming, focused work.  They know it’s their lifeblood as an organization and they prioritize it that way.
The list goes on.  The main point here is that a strong fraternity is not something to ignore.  Or complain about.  Or hate.  It’s something to observe, study, and possibly emulate.  Fraternity success is not by accident.  Nor is fraternity failure.  Choose your examples wisely.

This essay was originally posted in August 2012 and has been updated.