Saturday, July 30, 2011

Balanced Men need Balanced Mentors

It has been a while since this blog has offered up ideas for change, and hopefully improvement, in our Fraternity. With Conclave coming up I have been thinking more about what SigEp means to me and what the possibilities are for it to be an even greater influence on its members both undergraduate and alumni.

I recently read “Guyland”, an examination of male culture from the age of about 16 to about 30. As you might imagine, there is quite a bit of “ain’t it awful” recounting of tragic events such as bullying, drunkenness, sexual assault, hazing, and so on. Those of us who are involved at some level with college age men don’t need to be told about those horrors again. We know they are part of that world.

At the outset, let me say that I absolutely know, and the book’s author asserts, that not all, nor even most young men, or “guys”, are the ones who take things too far. The big issue is that once something does happen the “code of silence” takes over and no one will try to stop an incident of bullying or sexual harassment. No one will talk about how they watched as a young pledge drank so much he nearly died - or did die. It seems to be part of “The Guy Code” that you don’t talk about stuff - and if you do then maybe you are the next target.

What would be welcome is to find a way to counteract that seeming cultural imperative. That is, a way that works. There are too many self-proclaimed experts with suggestions that are either expensive, draconian, limited in scope, or just plain unworkable.

As the author points out, nearly all the ‘rites of passage’ in this age group are performed with peers - no adults are in attendance and supervising. I am not talking about the beautiful rituals that fraternities have. I mean the real initiations - the ones that take place after hours in the basement, or out in the woods where no one can see. And it is not just fraternities. Sports teams and even groups like the band have their own “initiations” complete with hazing and drinking.

In societies with established 'rites of passage' for young men those rites are without exception supervised by elders. The elders’ function is to ensure that not only is the rite done properly, but if there is a 'trial' that the young men are able to complete it with honor and success. Furthermore, both before and after the passage these older men are present in the younger men's lives with advice and counsel - in other words as mentors to show them how to be adult men. That is the missing link in most of our chapters today. We have young men who are themselves still trying to find their way in the world in charge of initiating and modeling behavior for even younger and more confused men.

The undergraduates need mentors now that they are away from home and any restraints. Where is Dad, or Uncle Jim, or Grand-Dad, or that high school teacher who was such an influence?

SigEp currently has alumni and volunteers involved on a number of levels in chapters:

  • Chapter Counselor - Chapter Operations and Leadership
  • AVC Members - Finances and Physical Plant
  • Faculty Fellow - Academics and Administration relationship
  • Balanced Man Steward - Member Development planning and monitoring
  • DGs and RDs - Monitoring, Training

Each of these is a valuable and needed area, but there does not seem to be a focus on mentoring in there. Certainly it happens, and we have many good volunteers who in addition to everything else they do find time to spend the time to help individual members. If it is important to provide mentoring to members then there should be a way to measure and acknowledge when it occurs.

In a nutshell, my idea is that SigEp alumni need to become much more involved at the chapter level. Not a new idea, granted, but I think I may have a 'hook' to make it worth HQs while to develop, and worth a chapters while to accept, and fulfilling to alumni, especially older (35+) alumni.

As a former Chapter Counselor, trained BMP Steward, current member of an AVC, a participant in both Conclaves and CLAs for a number of years, and of course a former undergraduate with a pretty good memory I know that making a meaningful change will be a tough nut to crack. It seems to me however that SigEp has a leg up on a program that can possibly make a difference. I am talking about the Balanced man program with its staged challenges.

I submit that the BMP could set yet another standard for helping young men into maturity. In the process we could start to short-circuit the fear that keeps people silent when their peers go astray. Does it do that now? Depends on who you ask and where you look. Some BMP chapters work the program hard, with regular progress checks, involved stewards and celebrations of the milestones achieved. Other chapters are BMP in name only, with much of the ‘old-school’ behavior still ongoing even though they say the right words to HQ. Even some of the remaining pledge model chapters have a mature development plan - probably most of them, or they would have been ‘re-educated’ by now.

The issues we see today in chapters are the same as generally seen on campuses - bullying, drinking to egregious excess, hazing, sexual harassment, and so on. Study after study shows that while only a minority of guys act out in that way others who see it happen remain silent, neither speaking up at the time to challenge the behavior nor later to be a witness should the perpetrator be called to account. They need to see that it is OK to have principles and to speak up for them no matter the context. Pretty much the only way that happens is if they can interact with men who have 'been there' and learned it themselves.

My idea is to seriously encourage alumni interaction at all levels of chapter life. Have men around so that guidance and modeling can occur from a mature source. Let the members know they don't have to always drink til they puke. Or chant "No means yes! Yes means anal!" in front of a sorority house as one (not SigEp) chapter did. Or beat the pledges/new members because that was how it was done before.

What would be needed to elevate our BMP game? The following, in roughly the order of difficulty - easier to harder are what I think we need to concentrate on:

  • First, a chapter needs to have a BMP steward in more than name only. By that I mean someone who takes the time to learn the programs, supervise the challenges, and gets to know the members of the chapter. Even better would be to have a separate steward for each stage.
  • Second, someone who is NOT a peer. The job of steward should be very much like a mentor and as such the person needs to be older enough than the young men so they don’t see him as “one of the guys”. This is important. Just like Chapter counselors are more effective when they are enough older that the brothers start to say “sir” when they first meet.
  • Third, and this is a really hard part, have a responsible alumnus present for EVERY brotherhood development activity. The corollary to this is the chapter must know this one is non-negotiable and a ‘hanging offence’ if avoided. I expect it will be harder to recruit alumni to take part than getting undergrads to accept this oversight.
  • Fourth, and this one may require some leadership by the executives and NBD, Chapters where there is little or no alumni support should be allowed to fail. If we want to be seen as serious about alumni involvement the alumni themselves must feel a sense of accountability and "the Lifetime Responsibility."
  • The area of chapter recognition and honors will need to adjust also. For instance, I would not see a chapter being awarded a “Buc Cup” without satisfying some metric relating to alumni participation. As an additional recognition perhaps a CLA level “District Mentor” honor could be setup for BMS Stewards and other involved Alums. Sort of an alumni parallel to the “Zollinger Outstanding Senior.”

In marketing terms it is a matter of Message, Direction, and Method

Message:
Former - "Get involved with a chapter - they need guidance."
Proposed - "Help a young man to be an adult - you will be inspired"

Direction:
Former - "Alumni join AVCs, fundraise for a house, and plan parties for alumni"
Proposed - "Alumni get to know the chapter members, listen to them, guide them.

Method:
Former - "Come to house for AVC Meetings, Homecoming, Alumni Dinner, etc. Talk to fellow alums. Leave."
Proposed - "Meet with one or two members once or twice a month. Get to know them. Stay in touch. Repeat for all chapter members"

We may not be able to change the world, but we might be able to change SigEp. We have done it before with our emphasis on academic performance. I'll bet we can do it again with culture.


Thanks to Tom Barton, Bob Kerr, and Steve Taylor who provided insight and comments.

As always, comments are encouraged whether pro, con, or tangental.