Sunday, April 30, 2017

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.

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