Monday, April 28, 2008

Last Chapter Standing…

A guest post by Bob Kerr, Coordinator of Greek Life at Oregon State and OGH recipient.
Last Chapter Standing…

… may be the direction the North American Fraternal Movement is heading. At a time when the enrollment is generally on the rise, enrollment in the fraternal world is at best managing its loss. If we are who and what we say we are, then we have to take a very serious look at what the factors are that contribute to this outcome. From my perspective, I would have to say that there seems to be a loss of confidence in the product by the consumer public. In fact, I suggest there are three media moments that articulate this loss of confidence.

Specifically, the first media moment came with the publication of “Pledged” by Alexandra Robbins followed quickly by “Torn Toga” written by Esther Wright. As I read the books in preparation for working with the Greek students on campus I knew they would be upset. Both books took n inside look at Greek life and what they presented wasn’t always pretty. Naturally, the students were upset because their perception was the books were filled with stereotypes. For some of them, they recognized some of what goes on in their chapters. This revelation came at the cost of their innocence and some very uncomfortable questions from parents. For me, I recognized events from my undergraduate experience as well as threads to my volunteer experience to my fraternity. Clearly, the shine is coming off the apple.

The second media moment came on August 3, 2007 when a grand jury indicted Anthony Campbell, Dean of Students, and Ada Badgley, Director of Greek Life, both employed by Rider University, for their alleged role in the hazing death of Gary DeVercelley, who died of alcohol poisoning at an on-campus fraternity location. This was instant national news and it rocked the professional Greek advising world. Later that month both staff members would have their charges dropped, but the damage had been done. Few campuses weren’t rechecking their insurance policies and seeing what was real and what was unreal. It also raised the question, does the university really know what is going on in the Greek community on its campus? Or worse, what does the university know that it isn’t telling us?

Finally, over the summer ABC Family aired its show “Greeks” to a national audience. Students were terrified at what may be portrayed on this show. It was a novel idea, to portray the modern issues that play out in the drama of a Greek community. It revealed the petty differences, the struggle to balance privilege with service, the issue of diversity and acceptance and the challenges to develop a legitimate community. My students watch it with comfort now because they see themselves in this program. It suggests that someone understands what they are going through on a daily basis. It makes them laugh and it makes them think.

These three media moments describe a changing landscape that no longer takes the Greek world at face value. I have been working as a Greek affairs professional for seventeen years and there is a definite change in the questions being asked by parents and student alike. Safety is a top concern and parents are rightfully concerned with the binge drinking that is prevalent in college Greek communities. It is an issue we must address and we must address as a community of Greek organizations But first, we have to build legitimate Greek communities on campuses. It is a hard target that seems to be ignored by many in the movement.

Since most college and university campuses operate as micro niche markets, there is great market advantage to building a cohesive undergraduate Greek community. It does little good to have ten chapters out of forty focused on academics, service and leadership. The sense is, we all have our futures braided together whether we accept it or not. For instance, when a chapter makes the local news or campus news, for something unfortunate, few people care which chapter it is. All they see is “Greek”. When we do something good . again people just see “Greek”. But, when we work together, when we address common problems with joint creativity and investments then we act like, and look like a community. With community you rebuild the consumers confidence in the product. With community you have a chance to go farther than any of us can go alone. I am reminded of Al Gore’s speech as he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize, “… I want to borrow from an old African proverb, if you want to go fast go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” So the question is, does the North American Fraternal Movement want to go far or fast? Do we want to go far or fast?

On my campus, both the IFC & Panhellenic Councils made joint decisions to change their recruitment process. It was a difficult process to surrender decades of process that had failed miserably in the new century. But, together they forged ahead and we are back on the growth side of recruitment. No headquarters or national strategic plan could replace the work of these students. The sense of ownership they have is improving and we are even proposing radical and innovative IFC recruitment grants to the three smallest chapters to help them compete for members. Because these students know that even losing one chapter on campus is a blow to the whole community.

How this translates on a campus where students are specifically looking for community is critical. Recently, our campus received data from our entering class of freshman during their orientation sessions. 45% of these students were seeking community service as part of their collegiate experience. They want to make a difference today in the communities they live in and in communities around the world. This emphasis changes the focus from drinking and parties to work and celebrations. Some chapters, and their headquarters, are slow to pick up on this change and their chapters still focus on the competitive nature of the Greek community and lose people by the dozens. Good people who should be in the Greek community but are turned off by the emphasis on alcohol, the “silos” we call chapter and the unhealthy competition that is intentionally built between chapters.

I suggest the work is on the local campus and there are some wonderful ideas on building a broader community at the NIC level. I have forwarded a concept paper to our headquarters that describes how community building can actual build stronger organizations for all. I look forward to the conversations. [emphasis added - ed.]

“and the day came when the risk it took to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Anais Nin

So we sit, as a combined North American Fraternal Movement, and debate political leadership and strategic plans that do not include building campus communities; we do not see over the horizon. We employ top down leadership strategies as opposed to shared leadership strategies and miss the generational differences of today’s contemporary student. As I reflect on what I see, experience and learn on a daily basis I see a rich and fertile opportunity for Greek communities on campuses today and very little risk. I hope one day that we can take a leadership role in building legitimate Greek communities on the campuses of North America. It won’t be easy and it won’t be quick but I am convinced we can build the coalitions we need to climb a lighthouse and see farther over the horizon than we see as a single organization standing on the beach Otherwise, being the last chapter standing will be a meaningless accomplishment.

In the next installment of “Last Chapter Standing” I will explore some strategies and tips that can be installed on a local level.

Bob Kerr
Coordinator of Greek Life
Oregon State
OGH