Wednesday, September 21, 2016

A Fraternity Life at Forty

Here I stand.
Brothers in 1998

Brothers in 2016
A man at 40.

Check that – a fraternity man at 40.

My brotherhood now is a cluster of three whimsical, invincible boys. And my wife is my lifelong sweetheart.

A fraternity man at 40.

How did I get here so quickly? How did I reach this age that when I was in college, was the age of mentors and advisors and coaches and teachers? How can I possibly have reached a halfway point of the typical American male life?

And do I deserve to be here?

(And where did those gray hairs come from?)

No matter what, there is no escaping this point in my life. 40 years in. And hopefully at least those many yet to come.

Of those 40 years, one-tenth of them were spent as an undergraduate member of Theta Chi fraternity at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.

For a lot – maybe most – of the men who join a fraternity, that one-tenth is what they will consider their fraternity years. Not for me.

My fraternity years started in January 1995, and are still going. I took to heart what my Ritual told me about lifelong commitments and obligations. In addition, I’ve come to understand that a fraternity life is actually better understood outside of the walls of the undergraduate house, or beyond the lush landscape of the college campus.

Fraternity is like most complex endeavors in life in that it takes on new and more profound meaning when it is studied and reflected upon. It was Socrates who said that the “unexamined life is not worth living.” Well, the unexamined fraternity is a profound experience wasted.

At 40, life has taught me a few things. For example, if you love someone, don’t wait to tell them. Listening is the greatest gift you can give another person. Vulnerability is as important a leadership skill as public speaking. Brussels sprouts can actually be good when cooked with bacon. And the list goes on.

In regards to fraternity, I now look upon that experience much differently than when I was a young undergraduate member. I’ve determined the ten inalienable truths of the fraternity experience (at least until I’m 50 and change my mind). In no particular order…

1: Initiation into a fraternity is the starting gate, and not the finish line. When we see it as the opposite, then we limit the true lifelong nature of this experience. Don't tell me that when pledging was over I reached my destination. I'm still going.

2: The values in the fraternity Ritual can be life-directing. There is wisdom and guidance and roadmaps in those words but we too often treat them as only pretty ceremonies. Understand, adsorb, and live these teachings. I use them in my life today as a parent, husband, nonprofit executive, community volunteer, etc.

3: The undergraduate fraternity experience is one of the last bastions of preparation for real life leadership. I’m recalling more of the things I learned in my undergrad fraternity years in my leadership experiences right now than anything else. Leadership in so many places on campus these days is over-coached and over-structured. For me, the experience of leading my brothers was messy, difficult, and emotionally exhausting. It was real.

4: The party/entertainment aspect of a fraternity matters and can be a fondly-remembered aspect. However, it is but one branch of the fraternity tree, and not the root.

5: Hazing is absolutely unnecessary to experience fraternity. I experienced it, it did nothing for me as a fraternity member then or now, and it is actually a scar on the original vision of the fraternity movement

6: Brotherhood is much greater than friendship and is built upon fidelity to shared values. On this blog, I have defined brotherhood as
the bonding of men of various backgrounds, beliefs, places, and eras around a singular set of life-directing commitments. I have many friends in this world, but very few true brothers.

7: In order for the undergraduate fraternity experience to be profound, it needs to be self-governed. And there may be no greater self-imposed threat to our future than our desires to manage and control this feature away.I wouldn't be the fraternity man I am today if my Greek advisor hadn't let me lead.

8: Relationships take work. Fraternity didn’t just instantly make my chapter-mates and I lifelong friends. Fraternity created brotherhood, which created the opportunity for lifelong friendship to thrive. But the real honest work of relationship-building was needed and still is to this day.

9: Fraternity is a truly powerful experience if we accept that it can be, and treat it that way.

10: I am a fraternity man because at age 40, I still believe in it, practice it, fight for it, and adhere to its teachings. And you can too, no matter how many gray hairs you have.
This is a fraternal life at forty, and the road ahead is looking pretty good. Another year older, and another year deeper into the richness of fraternity. I can't wait to learn more.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Time for Finger Wagging is Now

From the warm-up room, Lilly King watched her fellow competitor, Yulia Efimova,  win a qualifying heat.  Efimova had been busted for doping months before and almost excluded from the games.  But she wasn’t, and she won her heat, and in her celebration, wagged her finger in confidence.

The culturally-acceptable response to this gesture would have been for King to silently ignore it, quietly prepare for the finals, defeat her opponent in battle, and then calmly accept the win with unspoken pride.  That would have been satisfying.

But her response instead was to wag her finger back at that screen, call out the competitor for this brazen act that disgraced her sport, keep the pressure on for a whole day, beat her solidly in the race, and wag her finger in victory as a sign to the world that we needn’t worry: cheaters weren’t going to win on her watch.  It was bold, raised eyebrows, and may have crossed over the edge of good sportsmanship.  But it was even more satisfying.

In fraternity life, we have silent warriors ethically leading their fraternities without any boasting.  Meanwhile, arrogant organizations that are disgracing the movement with their acceptance of hazing, binge drinking, and other damaging behaviors run rampant like poster children for Total Frat Move.  In essence, cheating their way through and wagging their finger as if they accomplished something profound.  

And the good fraternities – those that are trying to live their values – know they are there.  They know the “cheating” that’s taking place.  But what’s valued is to stoically fight wrong behaviors with right ones, and to politely ignore the cheaters.  Just go about our business and take care of our own house.

Perhaps the time to be stoic has passed.  Maybe the choice to stay silent is the wrong one. Perhaps King  upended our notions that it should all just be solved in the field of play.
Perhaps it’s time to answer their wagging fingers with our own. For those men and women who are doing it right to step forward, and essentially tell those that aim to disgrace the institution we hold dear to eff off. 

When will enough be enough?  All of the talk, education, and planning done by national offices and campus staff means nothing if the undergraduates don’t step forward and own the future of their fraternities. 

And that can be done quietly or with swagger.  Quietly doesn’t seem to be working for the most part. Maybe we should give swagger a fighting chance.

This means that IFC meetings shouldn’t just be polite passings of updates and announcements, but rather, poignant and free discussions on the challenges facing the greater community. And thus, uncomfortable for the cheaters.

It means that when you see something, say something.  Not with a whisper, but with a wham.  No great movements ever whispered their way to victory.

Now, tact does matter.  Lilly King didn’t storm up to her competitor and fill her face full of expletives and spittle.  But her opinion was made clear nonetheless and with force.  If you believe in fraternity and the sanctity of this movement, and you are aware that there are those attempting to dismantle it through their words and deeds, then ask yourself if your feelings are apparent to others.  And if not, why are you hiding them?

It’s the launch of the Fall semester, and there is no better time to take back our fraternity movement.  Let’s do it with attitude.  The time for finger-wagging is now.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Fraternity Movement's Innovation Gap

I recently learned a new framework by which to judge innovation, and it left me with this conclusion: the fraternity/sorority industry is not as innovative as we like to think we are.  And when we are, it’s mostly low-level, incremental innovations.

There is a strong argument to say that this is just fine! After all, we’ve been around for almost two centuries and so why radically change something that has been this sustainable?

On the other side, over those two centuries, we’ve been afflicted by longstanding and persevering problems that we can’t seem to solve with incremental changes.

Let me share the model with you, and then you can help me judge our industry on innovation.  I also encourage you to use this chart and this essay at your next strategic planning meeting to help you think about what’s needed to advance your organization.

To explain:
Efforts to improve existing offerings for existing users is referred to as incremental innovation - perhaps a fancier term for tweaks or another way to frame continuous improvement.  Existing offerings could include the traditional fraternity experience itself, or elements within the fraternity experience, such as pledging, formals, or national convention.  Existing users would of course include current members, but I would also include the “always/likely joiners” in our potential member base.  Overall, draw a circle around the typical fraternity experience and those who desire and benefit from the typical fraternity experience and there you have existing offerings and existing users.  

Examples of incremental innovation include re-configuring your convention agenda or theme.  This isn’t a major innovation because you still have the convention to begin with; all you are doing is changing some of its aspects.
Consider how much of your “innovations” really fit into this category. What percentage of your board meetings at the national level are stuck here and here alone?  This is not necessarily a bad thing, but recognize that you could be innovating more deeply.

If we take our existing offerings (the typical fraternity experience and all within it) and try to bring it to new users, then you're attempting evolutionary innovation.  In the fraternity context, I think “new users” in this case have to be those that have sworn off fraternity membership or those for whom engaging with the fraternity is highly unusual (such as elementary school students, for example).  The short version is that you are trying to bring traditional fraternity to places it normally doesn’t go.

Perhaps someday a fraternity tries to set up junior chapters at the high school level.  These are new users, but a slightly different version of the traditional fraternity experience, so it would be considered evolutionary innovation.  Expanding into new nations, such as China, could fall into this category as well.  Historically, fraternities for distinct populations (race, ethnicity, sexual orientation) are an example of evolutionary innovation.

Evolutionary innovation is also called for if you are trying to develop a new offering for your existing users.  A new offering is a new way to experience or engage with your fraternity.  This is where examples can get a bit debatable.  For instance, I wouldn’t consider a new undergraduate leadership program to be automatically an evolutionary innovation - although it is technically something new for your current users.  Leadership programs in the fraternity world essentially follow the same formulas, even when they are located outside of the country, on a boat, at a camp, in the wilderness, on Capitol Hill, etc.  Yet, I’m sure some of you reading this consider our most innovative work to be in the leadership development space.  I just don’t agree.

An example of evolutionary leadership that brings a new offering to current users would be a robust curriculum for retirees.  Finding a way to bring the values and essence of the fraternity experience to members age 60 and over would be a wonderfully evolutionary innovation.

The final category is revolutionary innovation.  This is when you try to develop a new offering for a new set of users.  This is where membership organizations almost NEVER reside, because it feels so uncomfortable.  This would be taking the core of the fraternity experience, dispensing with the structure of it, and offering it to an audience that’s brand new.

Here is a somewhat crazy example (although revolutionary evolution is almost always crazy): what if the fraternity industry positioned itself as leaders in building values-based camaraderie (i.e., brotherhood or sisterhood) and consulted with businesses, nonprofits, government, etc. to bring those lessons into the modern American workplace.  That’s a revolutionary offering.
So now that I’ve framed these types of innovation, let’s assess where we stand as a movement.

My beliefs:
  • We have an overabundance of incremental innovation, to the point that we tinker and tweak just because we feel we have to.
  • We are lacking in the evolutionary innovation that brings new offerings to our existing users. For example, does a senior member experience fraternity much differently from a freshman member?  
  • We are almost non-existent in innovations that being existing offerings to new users. This explains why fraternity continues to have a very narrow imprint in terms of membership and influence.
  • There is no standing example of revolutionary innovation in our movement, which could explain why our generational challenges persist.
Everyone wants to be innovative - and everyone wants to claim to have the next big thing in fraternity and sorority life.  However, let’s start to pay more attention to (and reward more) of the innovations in our industry that are evolutionary or revolutionary.  

Our tendency these days is to applaud those who have incrementally innovated an accepted practice or process, but not those who create a whole new practice or process (maybe because there are just too few to find).

We’re not entirely free of needed innovations. We’ve seen some really significant ones over the last couple of decades. To that point, I’ve developed a list of five fairly-recent evolutionary innovations that are examples. I know there are mixed opinions on these, and I only highlight them to acknowledge the courage they took to move beyond the typical incremental innovations we see.  I’m sure there are others that I am less familiar with too.
  • Alcohol-free housing (new offering, existing users) - This initiative that many fraternities have tried (and to which Phi Delta Theta is given credit for starting) is a sincere attempt to change the culture of alcohol misuse and abuse that a great number of fraternities struggle with.  Advocates might say this is a revolutionary innovation in that it also aimed to make fraternity appealing to those who avoided it because of alcohol.  I’m not sure much evidence bears this out.
  • The Undergraduate Interfraternity Institute (new offering, existing users) - UIFI is probably the standard-bearer of fraternity/sorority leadership education.  It's been around from a few decades now so it's not a recent development.  While it’s model isn’t too innovative (much was borrowed from other institute-style programs), it’s entry into the marketplace changed the way we view education for fraternity members, including the process (trust the process) and the focus on paradigm-shifting and values alignment. It was also unique in its emphasis on interfraternalism and bringing together members from multiple organizations to discuss shared challenges.  (Note the writer’s bias - I managed the program for 3 years).
  • Member Education Programs (new offering, existing users) - Whether it’s the well-known “Balanced Man” of Sigma Phi Epsilon, or the newer “Road” of Delta Tau Delta, member development programs are an innovative attempt to stretch the value of the member experience further and broaden the idea of fraternity as an educational vehicle beyond the pledging process.
  • The 5-step recruitment model/ Moving away from Formal Rush (existing offering, new users) - The 5-step model that the NIC promoted over a decade ago is still reflected in many of the frameworks by which companies, consultants, and speakers teach modern-day recruitment.  The 5-step model (meet him, make him a friend, introduce him to your friends, introduce him to your fraternity, ask him to join) was developed in opposition to formal rush, and is a return to our roots.  But sometimes innovation can be that way.
  • Pledging-free fraternities (existing offering, new users) - Here is an attempt to de-emphasize the value of pledging, emphasize the value of thoughtful and intentional recruitment, and make fraternity attractive to those who think pledging will result in hazing. I call it an “existing offering” since pledging is not something that has always been a part of the fraternity experience.  In a way, it’s an old incremental innovation that some are starting to believe that we can do without.
I could not determine a standing example of revolutionary innovation in the fraternity/ sorority movement.  Can you?

Is the next era of fraternity more likely to be ushered in by tinkering, tweaks, and small increments?  Or by evolutions and revolutions?  Which fraternity, sorority, campus, council, or chapter is ready to evolve or revolutionize this movement?  You are more needed, and more rare, than you might believe.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Who Owns the Future of Fraternity?

The recent issue at Harvard, with the university essentially choosing to sanction any student that affiliates with a single-gender organization, has revealed a truth about modern Greek life that cannot be ignored by fraternity supporters: colleges and universities still own our future.

For as large as the fraternity and sorority industry has become, for as big as the education industry for fraternity and sorority members has become, for all the talk about trade associations, freedom of association, and all the rest, it’s still up to colleges and universities as to whether or not we exist.

And that’s becoming an increasingly precarious position to be in.

Yet it seems to be one that we’re embracing more and more.  And we’re preparing less and less for any result other than what we getting from the likes of Harvard.  In this day and age, national fraternities and sororities are trying to outrace each other in terms of who most nicely and neatly fits within the mission of higher education.  We each want to be the one they love the best. We work hard to “speak their language” with learning outcomes that sound like they fell out of a masters thesis. Our educator and consultant class (me included) comes from higher education and tends to only know how to help Greek organizations within that realm.

In a way, we have sold out to the idea that for us to be relevant and consequential, we need our friends in higher education to tell us that we are. 

For a long time, we’ve been focused on the idea of relevance. We want to ensure that Greek life continues to be a relevant force today and into the future.  The problem is that we usually think about relevance only in terms of our host institutions.  This means that we judge our success only by if colleges and universities think we’re okay.

But to be a relevant organization, we first need to answer the question: relevant to whom?  Yes, host institutions are one of those answers, but are they the only one?  Are they even the most important one?  In my opinion, it is more important to be relevant to two other audiences: our members, and society at large.

If we determine that we are no longer relevant to host institutions, or if they determine it for us (more likely), then is it over?  I don’t think it should be.  We may still be VERY relevant to the lives of our individual members who will achieve great things because of their involvement.  Greek-letter organizations may still be VERY relevant to the growth of our society – particularly American society and its need for values-based leaders and organizers.

If tomorrow, all host institutions decided to cut their ties with Greek-letter organizations, what would we do?   We could adapt.  For instance, we might transform into more community-oriented organizations, much like Kiwanis or Freemasons.  We could find a way to carry on and still focus on instilling values in young men and women.

Just because we were founded at institutions of higher education doesn’t mean our destinies need to be intertwined.  But the sense I’m getting is that this is a very minority opinion.

I’m not making the case that we ignore our relationship with our host institutions as it stands today.  In all possible ways, we need to nurture that relationship, because it’s the business model we’ve chosen.  We should be actively concerned with how we impact the academic success of our members.  If we house students on a particular campus, we should ensure that we are creating safe and secure living environments.  Overall, we should act as good partners to these institutions, because partners are what we are.

We should pay attention to our present reality, but at the same time, imagine a future where a college or university isn’t the foundation of our existence, so that we’re ready if that day comes.  Whether or not we exist for our grandchildren relies more on innovative rather than subservient thinking.

Which fraternity or sorority out there will figure this out?  Wait – maybe NPHC groups already have.  NPHC alumni chapters, which you can join without being an undergraduate member, are often larger than their campus groups. 

I understand the need to play nice with our “hosts.”  But, I fear that in philosophical and tangible ways, we are handing over our right to exist to institutions of higher education – most of which never really wanted us to exist in the first place. And some, like Harvard, are finding creative ways to get rid of us.

The frenzy over trying to assert that we are relevant to colleges and universities has to be tempered with the following question: were we ever meant to be?  Were we ever really meant to compliment the mission of the campuses where our founders happened to meet up?  I admit that I am not a “Bairds Manual” aficionado that can speak to fraternity history with precision.  However, my understanding of the founding of our movement is that individuals were looking for something that wasn’t provided in their college experience.  They wanted shared values, camaraderie, spirited debate, and fun.  I doubt they took much time wondering how these new organizations fit into the missions of their college or university.  My interpretation of our beginnings is that we were borne out of defiance to the host institutions, not in seamless companionship with them.  So while we should care about that relationship now, should it really define our right to exist?

Constantly kowtowing to higher education also puts us on the defensive.  We are always stuck responding to someone else’s needs.  We are always reacting by issuing statements about why actions by Harvard or Princeton or Dartmouth or Colorado are wrong.  But the actions continue.  In the end, it’s a one-way relationship, with colleges and universities holding all the cards.  We fool ourselves into thinking we’re on equal footing.  Is it finally time to worry about that, and respond in a substantive and innovative way?

Until that time, have your statements ready.  Who knows what’s coming next.


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Day He Wore a Fraternity T-Shirt

“Ladies and gentlemen, we regret to inform you that due to mechanical problems, flight 1856 with service to Miami has been cancelled.” 

Rory looked up with disbelief.  There had been no warning of this – no delays or anything.  He looked around and noticed that everyone else in the gate area was surprised as well, holding emotions on their faces that ranged from frustration to instant rage.

“Please proceed to the service counter near gate 39 to be re-booked on the next available flight.” 

The crowd at the gate stood, most with a huff of annoyance.  They began to walk towards the service counter and the anger grew with every step.  The day would surely be ruined for everyone.  Plans would be cancelled.  Long stays at the airport or possibly at a hotel would be necessary.  

And Rory was angry too.  He was on his way to meet his fraternity brothers for a spring break cruise, and if he didn’t get to Miami soon he’d miss the departure.  

They formed a long line at the service counter, which added insult to injury for those who had not sprinted there to be first.  As the crowd stood, frustration grew and was shared and spread by the mass of people with the same intensity as a whispered rumor.

One by one the passengers approached the counter.  The women working behind the computer stations were the targets of pent-up anger and were greeted by most passengers with stern and harsh voices.  Not one person seemed satisfied with their re-booking, and each argued vehemently until it was clear there were no other options before sulking away.

The gate agents looked worn and beaten after every attack. They were trying to keep calm but slowly, they felt the urge to fight back.  It was a caustic scene.

Rory was getting closer to the counter, and preparing his own arguments and ideas.  A different airline perhaps, or routing through a different city.  He would be firm and stand his ground. Like others, his irritation had grown to fury and he was ready to fight the hapless gate agent as needed.

And then, by chance, he happened to look down.

And he was reminded that the shirt he had chosen to wear to the airport that day was one from his fraternity.  Large Greek letters were stamped to his chest.

And this made him pause.  He had been taught as a new member to not do anything stupid when wearing letters.  And it struck him that yelling at a gate agent, who was no more at fault for the cancelled flight than he was, was pretty stupid.  He certainly couldn’t lay into this woman with all his fury and then have her and everyone around him think that members of his fraternity were jerks.

The awareness that he was clad in fraternity letters caused Rory to reconsider his position.  Each person in front of him in line had made the gate agent’s life miserable.  Each was projecting his or her ruined day on the employee and ruining her day in turn.

What if, Rory wondered, he did the opposite.  What if he was so nice and friendly that he became the best part of her day?  What if she went home and talked to her husband or kids and told them about her horrible day, except…except for one guy…one guy in a fraternity t-shirt?  He was proud of himself for thinking of this strategy.  He puffed up his chest a bit more and walked to the counter.

And he was all grace and charm.  He was helpful, complimentary, and easy to deal with.  He didn’t yell, but rather offered gentle suggestions.  In the end, he didn’t get an ideal outcome, but it was one that was good enough.  He would arrive to Miami just in time to make the boat.

Rory left the counter with a hearty thanks, and the weary gate agent smiled.

And Rory walked with pride and confidence in himself.  He was a good guy.  He promoted his fraternity well.  He made dozens of people think highly of his fraternity.  He could only imagine how many people in line said “Wow, what a great guy!  That must be what a fraternity member is like!” 

He kept walking down the bustling airport corridor until suddenly he stopped.  He stood still as a sea of people passed around him.  He looked down at his shirt and his joyous thoughts turned sharply into self-loathing.   

Rory recognized in himself a very important fact – that without seeing the shirt he was set to be a prickly jerk just like everyone else.  

The shirt had caused him to change his behavior.  No – not the shirt – the need to promote his fraternity caused him to change.  He was nothing special.  He wasn’t a prince.  He was a guy that was worried about image more than character.

Rory considered that the behaviors he had summoned: kindness, generosity, helpfulness, were all behaviors that his fraternity expected him to carry forth all the time.  They were prominent in the Ritual and in other places where the values of the fraternity were stated.

And so it occurred to Rory that the only thing this incident demonstrated was that he wore the fraternity on his shirt, but not yet in his heart.

If Rory was indeed as much of a fraternity man as he projected a few moments before, he could have been wearing any plain t-shirt and still made the choice to be the best part of the gate agent’s day.

While he was glad that the shirt was there today – as a tool to remind him of the values he believed in – he knew that they next step was to act in that way all of the time.  In doing so, he was making the most significant decision a fraternity man can ever make: to decide that from that day forward he would live the values of his fraternity.

And what if all 100 members of his fraternity chapter made that decision?  What if the thousands of his brothers across the country did as well?  What if every fraternity man pledged to live that kind of life?  What if it were assumed - without the need to see the letters on a shirt - that a young man carrying himself with generosity of spirit must be a fraternity man?  How far might the fraternity movement be advanced?

How might this entire world be better?  

Rory grabbed his bags. He joined the sea of people again but yet, stood apart from them.  And it wasn't because of the shirt he was wearing, but rather because of who he pledged to be.

Rory had a plane to catch. And a fraternity life to lead.


Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Your Greek Advisor is a Democrat (but you probably knew that)

It must be tough to be a student affairs staff member, or anyone who works with young people, and have to keep your political opinions to yourself out of fear of alienating a segment of students you hope to reach  with your advising skills.

Oh must not be that tough at all. 

We are in the midst of a contentious presidential primary and I continue to be amazed at how many youth development professionals - including fraternity and sorority advisors - are wide open about their politics on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. And it isn’t just “I think Trump is the right guy,” or “I'm pulling for Hillary.” It has been very intense at times.  

It was long ago, but when I learned student development theory I took that dualism vs. relativism thing to heart.  The college environment is one in which students are supported in their journey towards arriving at their own conclusions in life.  When it comes to politics, however, many students affairs administrators seem to want to bring back dualistic thinking.  

There shouldn’t be anything wrong being upfront about politics, right? The students who follow us on social media sites shouldn’t expect us to filter our beliefs and passions, right?  If I've got a "Feel the Bern" sign in my cubicle or a "Cruz Crew" t-shirt on, it shouldn't matter to my ability to do my job, right?

Free speech is still one of the bedrocks of our nation. So is our ability to make choices and live with the consequences.

I have a fundamental belief that if you sign up to work with young people, from Kindergartners to college students, you have the responsibility to be approachable. Otherwise, you can’t do your job. 

And so, we who work with youth should care most about the factors that either enhance our approachability or diminish it.  The former we should amplify and the latter we should avoid.  

Saw this posted many times. Usually followed by a political post.
Our choices influence our approachability. Politics is a hot-button issue that often causes sharp emotional responses. Should a student, who is still trying to figure out his beliefs, be able to see a tweet from their advisor that enthusiastically puts her political stripes on full display and be able to compartmentalize it? Sure. In this day and age, will they?  I’m not so sure.  It’s probably why I’m a chicken about sharing those kinds of beliefs in public. 

Some may wonder if my reticence to share politics out loud like that means I’m not as confident in my beliefs. My reticence is simply practical. I want the conservative evangelical pro-life Republican and the liberal environmentalist pro-choice Democrat to feel equally excited to walk through my office door and share their dreams with me. 

I knew the political leanings of most of my favorite advisors, but I never felt that having different opinions made a difference in our relationships.  However, we didn't have social media back then and my student affairs heroes weren't expressing their political opinions for all to see.  

The vitriol and self-righteousness we see today from many student affairs professionals when it comes to politics is quite off-putting.

I'm not trying to tell any advisor what to do. My choice to not broadcast most of my personal beliefs about politics, religion, etc. has worked for me - and it is my choice. There have been many times I’ve wanted to post something on my Facebook page about sensitive topics, but I’ve held back. I share those thoughts with my friends and family instead. 

To be fair, college students aren't sheep and they have minds of their own.  Advisors can also choose to not be friends with students on social media sites (but can they really).  And students aren't stupid.  They know that the college environment tends to lean heavily in one direction already. 

The point is, approachability matters. And it’s not something that emerges without intention and attention. Those of us in positions of leadership and influence should be driven by the answer to these fundamental questions: if I open the door, who is excited to come in and see me?  And who isn't? 

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Cautionary Tale of Johnny Manziel

I don’t like to admit it often, but I am a lifelong Browns fan.  My grandfather lived in Cleveland and we’d go to games as a family, back when they had Bernie Kosar and a fighting chance.  Since, we’ve dealt with the team moving to Baltimore, restarting as an expansion team, only one playoff appearance in 16 years, and about 2,000 different quarterbacks.  But, my love for the team is cemented and it’s not going anywhere.  At the very least, I am a role model to my sons on how to be resilient, loyal, and have a sense of humor.

My fandom was challenged a bit when the team selected Johnny Manziel in the draft 3 years ago.  I wasn’t sure what we were getting with the young Aggie, but I soon learned to like the guy.  He was brash and cocky, but the Browns had a shortage of that. Because everyone else hated him, it became a badge of honor to want to see the guy succeed.  And until a few months ago, that badge of honor remained on my chest.

And now, we’re days away from the Browns cutting Johnny Manziel and ending his tenure in Cleveland.  And maybe in the NFL entirely.  Johnny has had a plethora of issues off the field, including alleged domestic abuse, alcohol problems, and lying to his coaches about his hedonistic lifestyle.  The Browns are done with him, which is hard to take because there was a glimmer of hope with him early in the last season.
Some other team may take a chance and who knows, he might finally figure out how to succeed.  But for now, his existence is best used as a cautionary tale to all of us and especially you – college fraternity and sorority members.

You see, one of the reasons it became easy to root for Johnny was that he could actually play football, which makes him different from most other "busts."  He has talent and is fun to watch on the field.  That talent could have become enough to propel him to become the quarterback the Browns have been desperately seeking for two decades, which in turn, would have made him possibly the most legendary figure in Cleveland sports.  With apologies to Jim Brown and Lebron James, the QB that leads the Browns to their first Super Bowl win will become undisputedly the lifelong mayor of Cleveland.

But it won’t be Johnny after all.  And the reason why is his sad inability to embrace the opportunities in front of him.  Aided, of course, by his apparent addictions to alcohol and a lifestyle that the modern NFL player cannot lead.

Johnny’s time at Texas A&M, and his Heisman trophy-winning success there, is like your time in high school.  He dominated his environment with relative ease, and thus, didn’t need to put forth the effort to truly embrace what he was a part of.  Going to the NFL was like you arriving to your college campus:  a new environment filled with wondrous opportunities for personal growth and achievement, but only unlocked by effort and attitude.  The laissez-fare approach you might have been able to use in high school yields a very mediocre college experience.

There are Manziels in your chapter.  Maybe lots of them. Those are the men or women who signed on to the fraternity experience, but decided not to use it for all it can provide.  Perhaps they use it only for a social outlet or a chance for a party lifestyle, similar to how Johnny Manziel used the fame that comes with being in the NFL. 

Sites like Total Frat Move want your chapter to be full of Manziels.  For them, that’s the pinnacle of the fraternity experience. 

Choosing to be in a fraternity or sorority is akin to choosing be play in the NFL (an easier choice for sure since your 40-yard dash time doesn’t matter).  Those who succeed in the NFL then make the extra choice to fully embrace the opportunity they have.  They recognize that their time is limited. Better to spend their days in the full flow of the NFL experience knowing that it can’t last forever.

The same is true for fraternity and sorority.  As an undergraduate you probably have 3-4 years in the college fraternity experience.  That is the blink of any eye.  Will you arrive to this experience feeling entitled – like the experience ought to come to you?  Or, will you go and grab it.  Think forward to your graduation day.  How will you feel if you treated your undergraduate fraternity years as Johnny Manziel treated his NFL career?  Contrast that with how you’d feel if you were like Peyton Manning or Drew Brees instead?

Within almost every fraternity house are numerous composites of previous classes of members.  Within each composite are faces of members who did so much that their names are recognizable years later.  Like the names in the NFL hall of fame.  In that same frame are faces of members that would lead even their peers at the time to say “who’s that guy?”  And sure, there are a few that will be remembered for negative reasons, or easily mocked because of how poorly they treated their fraternity opportunity. That’s Ryan Leaf. And soon to be, Johnny Manziel. How will you be remembered?

There is no formula or easy how-to guide for how to embrace the fraternity experience.  I have lots of ideas (see the 150+ posts on this site).  But none of those ideas matter if it doesn’t start with your attitude – and the choice you make.  Seize it, or waste it.

Johnny’s story also provide caution for how alcohol and drugs can destroy any experience.  Johnny has been to rehab once already and I will always root for him to get better.  That is stuff never to take lightly, and too many of our brothers and sisters do.  We have a conventional attitude that college is a time to party and drink, and I certainly did those things as well.  But, just as teammates of Johnny’s saw the signs of excess, we need to be seeing them in our brothers and sisters as well. It’s a sacred responsibility to care for each other.

It’s a running theme of this blog that the biggest challenge the fraternity movement faces is how little our own members understand its power.  Imagine if 10% more of your chapter fully embraced the experience in front of them.  Now imagine 20%, 30%, and more.  What would your fraternity be like? If more of our members nationwide decided that these few years as an undergraduate are ones to be seized and taken full advantage of, I expect our movement will finally start to achieve its potential.

But for now, we’re still waiting. Waiting to finally get it right. Waiting like the Cleveland Browns.


Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Seeking the Truth From Fraternity

I once had a conversation with Fraternity. 

I sought him out in order to discover the truth, and he received me warmly. He found in me someone who was confused and increasingly disenchanted.

“Fraternity, what is the truth about you?” I asked.

He looked at me with a smile, and replied “what do you believe it to be?”

I took a moment to collect my thoughts. “I get confused,” I shared. “I see conflict between what I believe you are supposed to be, and what it is you really are.”

He calmly asked me to explain.

“Well, people have told me that you are special and unique institution. However, it’s difficult for me to see where and how exactly you are different. Perhaps the reality is that you are just another club among many, and that’s all you will ever be.”

“Perhaps,” he replied stoically. He invited me to continue.

“I’ve heard that your purpose is noble, but all I witness is a drinking club. Perhaps instead of the broad picture you paint with your flowery creed, you are destined to be narrowly defined only as a social outlet for college students. In the end, you’re just a way for young men and women to meet each other and have fun.”

He paused. “What else do you think?” he asked.

“There is much talk about the values you promote. Maybe the values, symbols, secrets and Rituals are nothing more than a charade.” The tension in my voice was growing. “They exist only to create interest and intrigue, but serve no practical purpose.”

He continued to smile.

“I’m trying to believe in you, but you keep finding ways to shake my faith. Maybe all you are is just a temporary extracurricular activity for college kids with a robust social calendar as your only claim to fame."

I looked into his eyes, my doubts evident in my voice. "Fraternity, your words are eloquent, but your actions are coarse.  I wonder if we ask too much of you.”

We sat in tense silence, he and I.

“So what is the truth Fraternity?” I pressed. “What are you?  Really?"

Fraternity thought for a moment, and then spoke.

“Well, I can be all of those frustrating things you described. It is you, through your actions, that define me. I am a human creation, and flawed just as humans are. I can be a vehicle for their greatest ideals, and for their worst temptations. But my flaws have not always defined me. For many years, I was proud of what you created in me. I felt it was truly what I was meant to be. But over time, I became something much different. My way was lost.”

“What am I?” he continued. “Well, I’m not really sure any more. But, I’ll tell you what I want to be.”

“I want to be a movement, not just an organization. I want to change this world – make it a better place. I see a world lacking honor, and I want to provide it with honorable men and women. I see a society without courage, and I want to give it courageous people.”

“I see a world that is fractured, isolated, and full of distrust. In response, I seek to connect, to draw together, and to bond. I see a world where integrity is mostly ignored, and often rewarded. It’s a world that needs men and women of shining character so badly, and I can give them to it.”

“I see a world that is broken in so many ways, and I know in my soul that the men and women I produce are the ones that can heal it.”

“I was not founded to just be another club, or something that sits on the sidelines of society. I am completely and without apologies invested and involved in society. I was founded because there were many things that were missing or in short supply in this world, such as the kinds of things my Ritual book is overflowing with.”

“I no longer want my purpose to be so narrowly defined that it can be ignored. I want my purpose to be shouted from the mountaintops. I want all to know that my purpose is this: to build, through you and your brothers, a stronger world.”

We sat in silence, his words, and the passion behind them still reverberating in the air. He asked me to ponder these thoughts, consider them for myself, and return for further conversation when I’m ready. As I turned to leave, he spoke again.

“You said you wonder if you ask too much of me,” he said. “The truth is, I'm resting right here - waiting, hoping, even begging for you to ask for more.”

The essay was originally posted in December 2009 and has been updated.