Is Fraternity/Sorority an Outdated Idea?

by Jessica Gendron Williams

Let me start by saying that fraternity and sorority has showed up in the news lately way more than any of us are comfortable with. We’ve been put under intense scrutiny for some very real, very big mistakes we’ve made. Mistakes that do not represent what we espouse ourselves to be about. We’re supposed to be better than that and I believe – deeply – that we are so much better than that. However, it’s time to take a critical look with a sense of some urgency at what we’ve done to put ourselves in the situation we’re in now – with more critics than ever.

I’ve remained relatively silent on most of the current issues facing fraternity and sorority – not because I don’t care or don’t have an opinion, but because I’m not an expert on hazing or alcohol or sexual assault or racism.  I didn’t want to clutter the already noisy discussion when people who are experts were echoing my beliefs and opinions better than I could and with more credibility than I have on those topics.  Then a colleague asked my opinion one day.  And then a reporter called and asked for my opinion, too.  I started to realize that my voice does matter in this larger dialogue – but maybe not in the way I originally believed.

I was asked by a reporter last week if I believed that fraternity and sorority was an outdated idea – if I believed there was a place for fraternity and sorority on a college campus anymore. I replied,

“I don’t believe the idea of a group of people gathered together around the common purpose of deep friendship, that inspires and drives oneself to be better, and that is focused on making the world a better place is an outdated idea.  That idea will never be outdated.  I don’t believe fraternity and sorority is an outdated idea.  However, some of our ideas, practices, and traditions are outdated and this is an opportunity for us to have a national dialogue and take a critical look at some of these things that have become outdated.”

I might be biased but I believe that recruitment is the root of all good and the root of all evil in fraternity and sorority. When things are good, we can look to recruitment and see that we recruited the right people. When things are wrong, we can look to see that we recruited some of the wrong people into our organizations. Now, I am not attempting to simplify some very complex issues, however I do believe some of our recruitment practices are outdated and deserve to be a part of the larger dialogue about how we fix fraternity and sorority’s great problems of the 21st century.  This is the place where my voice matters in the larger dialogue.  How recruitment is effecting the current issues of fraternity and sorority.

Below, I offer what I believe to be 6 outdated practices or ideologies that are effecting our current and long-term success as fraternities and sororities – in the area that I know best – recruitment.  Before I begin, it’s important that I say that this is not intended to be an epic game of finger pointing or blame.  There is no one organization, chapter, umbrella group, campus or person responsible for our current reality in fraternity and sorority.  We are all responsible.  This isn’t an attempt to push off responsibility for problems on other people.  We have to stop wasting our time figuring out who’s to blame and start figuring out how we make change.  Let us, together, pull back the curtain, and take an honest look at what is wrong – and have a real dialogue about what we can do to fix it.  It doesn’t matter who’s responsible for our current state.  What matters is that we are all responsible for fixing it.

Here are the 6 outdated practices and ideologies I believe we need to rethink:

1.  Everyone who wants to be in a fraternity or sorority should be placed into a fraternity/sorority.
I fundamentally disagree with this idea. I think many of our current recruitment practices make the inaccurate assumption that every person who expresses interest in being Greek is qualified and – frankly – good enough to be Greek. They’re just not. People come to fraternity and sorority for a variety of reasons: friendship, belonging, service, philanthropy, leadership, parties, fun, social capital, popularity, power, prestige, personal development, a place to live, etc. That list can be much longer – and much uglier – unfortunately. Why are we allowing – and sometimes forcing – people who come to fraternity and sorority for the WRONG reasons to be placed into our chapters and our communities?  Why do we celebrate 100% placement?

The reality that every person that expresses interest in a Greek organization also holds the same values that Greek organizations espouse is an outdated idea. I fundamentally disagree with the practice of attempting to place everyone in an organization through a recruitment process. I believe that not everyone is good enough or qualified enough to be Greek. We used to be elite organizations with high standards of membership reserved for individuals who exemplified our values in both word and deed. It’s impossible that every individual that wants to be Greek today exemplifies what we stand for. Is this practice (of attempting to place everyone in an organization) inadvertently putting bad people into our chapters and communities?

2. We make membership decisions based on how we feel about people or the conversation.
Now, I know and have been teaching that people join people for many many years. But I believe that recruitment is 60% relationship building and 40% interviewing a person for membership. Much of our membership decisions are made in split seconds based on how we feel about the conversation/interview and the person. Do we like them?  Was the conversation fun?  Was he cool? Was she cute? Do I want to be their big?  Would I feel good about seeing them in my letters?

We can’t be making membership decisions that are based on feelings. The relationships are important, but if this the only qualification for membership than we’re nothing more than a friendship club. Being in a fraternity or sorority comes with an extra set of expectations and qualifications.  Those qualifications and expectations are quantifiable and measurable. They’re based on facts and data not feelings and emotions.

Using conversations and no criteria to determine “fit” and “qualifications” is an outdated idea.  We need more quantifiable standards for membership that allow us to find high quality people.

3.  We don’t know what we’re looking for, consistently and measurably, in candidates.
While in some instances, our chapters and organizations do have a written selection criteria that is supposed to be used to determine if someone is qualified for membership, I do not believe that our undergraduate members are adequately prepared to understand how to consistently assess if a person possesses those values within a conversation and/or amongst application materials.  If our chapter members do cognitively have the ability to assess values and qualifications within a conversation – I’m not sure they think about how to determine that information and what questions they should be asking to figure it out.  We brainstorm a list of adjectives that describe our “ideal member”, have a brief conversation about it, and then put them on some poster board that no one looks at ever again.  Those words are left to each member’s own interpretation and opinion.  There’s no consistency among the organizations about what each of those words quantifiably means and how you find those things in people through a conversation, interaction or interview.

In recent years, we’ve started to show more attention to preparing our members with the social skills to navigate conversations more easily.  That’s a good thing.  Yet, we’ve given little attention to preparing them for the conversations where they can actually figure out if a person has the same values – not just make light chit-chat about sports or whatever TV series is all the rage.  We haven’t prepared them to look for the indicators that would tell them a candidate would be a problematic member or not live up to the expectations or values.  If we do take time to prepare them to assess values within a conversation, we only spend a few hours, one time a year explaining it.  To be masterful at it, we must dedicate more time to practicing and preparing our members to select [more] better people.

The assumption that our undergraduate members know, consistently and measurably, what they are looking for in a candidate is an outdated idea.   We have to dedicate more time to helping our chapters figure out 1) what they are looking for in a candidate 2) how will they measurably know they have it and 3) how will they find that information out through their conversations/interactions with each candidate.  We must have these conversations with our chapters more frequently.

4. We have short, meaningless conversations over and over in recruitment.
A three to five minute conversation isn’t enough time to get below the surface with someone.  It isn’t enough time to assess values, character, and qualifications.  20 minutes isn’t either.  12, 5-minute conversations over the course of a couple days or weeks doesn’t equate to the quality of a 60-minute one-on-one conversation with a person.  Loud, crowded parties and events are not environments where meaningful conversations often happen.  In so many instances, we are asking a group of members to smoosh together their short interactions with a candidate to determine if he/she holds the values of the organization, is going to be a good member, and is qualified enough to join.  The mentality that a potential member needs to meet as many members as possible (or every member) is outdated.  We need to focus on depth not breadth of conversation: longer more meaningful conversations instead of lots of short meaningless ones.

Oh the horror!  How will we show a candidate who we are?  How will this person be able to determine if he/she likes us?  Simple:  Through the quality and depth of the conversation he/she has with a member.  When we have clearly outlined qualifications and values, and ways in which to determine those things in conversations, we can trust our individual members enough to engage in a longer, more meaningful conversation (and interview) with an individual potential member and be responsible for assessing each candidate for the qualifications of membership.  We don’t need everyone to “weigh-in” on those things.

Short, surface level conversations with lots of members during a recruitment process or event is an outdated idea.  We need to spend more time engaging in deep, meaningful, one-on-one conversations to truly assess values, character, and qualifications of membership.

5.  We sugar-coat member expectations before they join.
We don’t talk about exactly how much it costs to join.  We don’t discuss exactly what the time commitment entails.  We DO NOT talk about what the behavior expectations are for our members – before they join.  We don’t offer guidelines about what they should care about if they’re interested in being a member.  We don’t discuss our values and how we expect our members to represent those values in their daily lives.  We don’t talk about what happens when you don’t live up to those expectations.  We avoid the conversation altogether, most of the time.

We lie.  We sugarcoat it.  We avoid the topic because we’re afraid of “scaring people away”.  There are people we need to “scare away” from fraternity and sorority.  There are people who want to be in a fraternity or sorority who wouldn’t be willing to commit to our expectations – and they know that before they join!  What they don’t know is what the expectations are.  They can only assume what the experience and expectations are by what they hear, personally witness, see in the media, and assume.  Unfortunately for us, those assumptions and experiences often portray that fraternity and sorority is about fun events, parties, friendship, being perfect, matching t-shirts, etc.

It is an outdated idea that we can avoid sharing membership expectations before they join.  We have to start having the tough conversations about what it takes to be a member of a fraternity or sorority – BEFORE they join – before we even offer them membership.

6. We believe we can help make people better – that we can change them.
Values don’t change. Behaviors rarely do. We are not equipped to be behavior modification experts. We are not equipped to rewire people from the values they learned from the time they were a young child. We are not equipped to change people. What we are equipped to do is to help people discover who they already are. We are equipped to help bring out the best version of who they already are.

We can connect people who already care about leadership with opportunities to lead.  We can help people who are already interested in philanthropy and service connect to more service and philanthropic opportunities.  We can provide academic support and enhancement programs for people who already care about their academics.  We can provide brotherhood and sisterhood opportunities for people who already value deep, meaningful friendships.  We can provide social opportunities for people who already desire to make more connections with others.  We can provide an environment, resources, and an experience where people can become better – for people who want to become better.

What we can’t do is make people care.  

We make exceptions for people who’ve shown no prior indications that they care about leadership or service or philanthropy or academics or friendship or connection – or becoming better.  We make exceptions because we think we can change them.  We make exceptions because we believe that they do care but need our help to do it.  However, many times the reality is that they don’t actually care about the stuff that matters: They care about fun and parties and something to do and a place to live and popularity and power and social capital.  We can’t expect people who want to join for the wrong reasons to suddenly have a change of heart and begin caring about the stuff that matters.  That rarely happens.

The idea that we can change people and make them care about the values of the organization, when they inherently don’t, is an outdated idea.  We have to look for the people who do care about what we care about – and desire to be a part of those things.

Now trust me, my brain is already halfway down the rabbit-hole with you.  These 6 outdated practices and ideas only bring up more problems and more questions for me too.  Changing these outdated practices has short-term and long-term consequences and effects on fraternity and sorority (good and bad).  We’re likely to piss off some important alumni who liked these things about their experience.  We’re likely going to lose some current undergraduate membership.  We’re likely going to have a smaller pool of people (in the short term) to select from.  There’s a million reasons that its easier to just keep these practices and ideologies just the way they are – and that’s likely why we still do them now.

I just don’t think we have a choice any longer.  I don’t believe that we have the luxury as fraternity and sorority to keep coasting – and ignoring some of these issues because fixing them would be hard or different or unpopular.  We have to start, not only talking about, but taking action on making fraternity and sorority relevant to modern day society.  We have to stop relying on ideas and practices of the generations that have long-since passed.  Those ideas are outdated.  Let’s not let fraternity and sorority become an outdated idea, too.