Changing the Fraternity/Sorority Culture

by Todd Salen

A 2022 NIC Advisor Award of Distinction recipient reflects on priorities in the current era for IFC/NIC organizations.

I can barely make it through a day anymore without reading about a new problem with fraternities and sororities in the United States.  As someone who has devoted many hours to make these organizations better, it hurts me every time I read about another chapter or another student doing something stupid. To say it puts our entire inter/national community in a bad light is an understatement. In fact, we are in a glaringly bright focused light which should motivate each of us to commit to making our organizations better.

We earned this scrutiny. It’s easy to make the argument that in this era of “instant news” the media is chasing our story and trying to bury us. However, this story exists because we, the alumni leaders, the university staff, and the inter/national headquarters, have failed to change our culture while society has changed around us.  What was “acceptable” 20 years ago is no longer tolerated. I’m not sure it would have been acceptable then if the media had investigated with the intensity they do now. So how have we earned this reputation?

1. Failure to provide adult leadership.
2. Recruiting members based on values other than the prescribed values.
3. Not understanding changes in the leadership experience and training of college students.
4. Allowing undergraduates to avoid accountability for their actions.
5. Not creating membership development tools

Failure to provide adult leadership.

We evolved over time into a long-distance management model with alumni meeting with chapters a few times a year on site. In the worst-case scenario alumni boards do not even bother to meet in person. They property-manage chapters from 100 miles away.

We kept afloat during the 80s, although a combination of a changing campus culture and “instant news” brought issues to the surface. Then in the 90s students joined fraternities for one reason: to party. Our ideals were left on the front porches. Instant news magnified our worst practices, and the litigious nature of our culture pointed the target at fraternities and sororities. Insurance became harder and harder to secure resulting in fraternities banding together to “self-insure” their organizations. New rules were written, and with the new rules came resistance to change. Some chapters resisted change altogether driving unacceptable behaviors further underground.

The “electronic revolution” of the past ten years helped bring these practices into the daylight. Universities and inter/national fraternities began investigating reports of hazing, alcohol abuse, and sexual assault relying on social media posts as well as anonymous emails and hotline reports as evidence. While many of these reports were not proven, enough were found to be true. What was buried deep underground was now very raw and at the surface.

So how could adult leadership have helped bring things forward sooner?  First, having a house director and active board of directors and/or chapter advisory boards would have exposed the issues earlier. I do believe students will do the right thing when challenged to act responsibly. However, sometimes they need to be told what the right things are. Fraternity culture has nurtured a “rites of passage” mentality. These traditions are often perpetuated by the worst members, the members behind on paying their dues, with the lowest grade point average, and often the first to sign up for every “bar crawl.” Adult leadership helps to take away their influence.

Second, I have learned over the years fraternities can be basically broken into 20/60/20 models. Simply said, for every 100-person chapter there are 20 leaders, 20 idiots, and 60 riding the fence. In good and great chapters the 20 leaders influence the 60 in the middle. In bad chapters the 20 idiots lead the 60 down the path of destruction.

Adult leadership and presence empowers the 20 leaders and provides them with the backbone they need to make the right choices. Looking at chapters across the country, most of the good and great chapters have a strong alliance with adult leaders.

Recruiting members based on values other than those prescribed.

Said simply, social activity has been a major influence in recruitment across the country.  Joining the chapter with the best social calendar is often listed as a “reason to join.” Fraternities and sororities have paid the price for that mentality.  I’ve often advised undergraduates concerned they can’t control drinking in their chapters that “they recruit using alcohol and then wonder why they have a drinking problem.”  Young students often make one of the most important decisions of their lives under the influence. I’m sure this is not unique to  fraternities and sororities, but it is a sad commentary. Many campuses have instituted dry recruitment and certainly this is helping. Fraternities who recruit based on a higher standard have better members and achieve more success in the long run. This is a bold statement I know, but I strongly believe there are enough potential recruits drawn to fraternities for their advertised values, networking, leadership development, friendship, and a controlled social environment, that one could not only fill the chapters but also turn people away.

We need to go back to our founding values. These values are worth boasting about. We need to live those values every day. It may mean throwing people out and even closing chapters, but in the long run, we will be healthier.

Not understanding changes in the leadership experience and training of college students.

I often hear how different students are today. The world they grew up in is vastly different from the world I experienced as a college student. The internet alone leads to a dramatic shift in entertainment, information exchange, and communication with friends and family. Kids today communicate with their parents daily via text, email, Facetime, or even in person. Parental influence is apparent. This has a good and bad side. On the positive side, students largely have a stronger attachment to their parents and families and have come to expect them to help make hard decisions. On the downside, many of the students are afraid to “go out on their own.”

Students today are afraid to take risks.  They have been sheltered their whole lives with parents who don’t want them to fail.  Here’s a dramatic insight: IT’S OK TO FAIL. Certainly, constant failure won’t move someone ahead, but an occasional setback is fine. Haven’t we all been taught we learn from our mistakes? It’s time for students to have a setback or two.

In my unprofessional opinion it’s not that students don’t have dreams and aren’t interested in stepping out to achieve them. It’s just that students today are afraid to take the first step towards achieving their dreams. We, as mentors and leaders, need to help them learn to take the first steps. It might take some hand holding. It might lead to failure. And it might just be the best learning experience the student has in college. This again is where a stronger adult presence can help. Just being there to pick up the pieces for failed attempts and encouraging students to try again will make a remarkable difference in our culture. These are bright students who want to succeed. They just don’t necessarily know how to start down the yellow brick road to reach their dreams.

Allowing undergraduates to avoid accountability for their actions.

This is where we all have collectively failed in attempts to move fraternities and sororities forward. We are afraid to confront the undergraduates with tough issues. One might think everyone involved was running for office, wanting to make friends and win popularity contests. In the past ten years, I have drawn the line in the sand with the chapter I advise on the tough issues including hazing, drug abuse, and sexual assault. While there are some men in the chapter who felt their freedoms were taken away because of the changes, the undergraduates are stronger and happier to live in a fraternity that has moved beyond the traditions of the past.

When the 20 idiots are in charge they must be confronted. The truth is they may decide to leave the fraternity. That’s not a bad outcome. With a strong adult base the 20 leaders will find their courage to make certain all are accountable. Accountability is a full-time job, as our human nature is to test boundaries.

Not creating membership development tools.

Can you imagine a situation where you would come into a job, receive 6-16 weeks’ worth of training/education, and then be set free for the rest of your life to run the corporation? Welcome to the world of fraternity and sorority life. We carefully (although sometimes carelessly) craft an education program specifying when and where our new members need to be and an almost daily list of duties and materials to study. In a few weeks they become full members of the organization and within a semester one may even be elected president of the chapter.

A few national fraternities have implemented membership development programming. These programs provide continuing education for members in the semesters after initiation.

Students for the most part won’t “opt in” for more work. Imagine a student going to a professor and saying, “Your class is great, but can you just give me a bit more work so I can do better?”  It may happen, but certainly not often.  We have clear expectations for new or associate members during fraternity education programming. We need to have the same accountability for our initiated members. If a member doesn’t complete programming, they are no longer an undergraduate member. In every sense they are an alumnus, they have completed their undergraduate experience, thanks for playing, there are parting gifts at the exit.

It falls on the national fraternities and universities to develop relevant educational modules for membership education. Continuing education with real life skills, interviewing, resume writing, and transitional leadership are just some examples of that education. Deeper studies into the ritual and histories of the fraternity for those so inclined to study could easily be included. Developing curriculum is the easy part. Holding members accountable for completion is the challenge.

Is it worth it?

There are colleges across the country asking this question right now. I’m confident most if not all have weighed the pros and cons of having fraternity and sorority life on campus.  Is it worth it? Fraternities and sororities present a cultural living learning environment unlike any other in collegiate life. I often say one of the most important life skills chapter members learn is compromise. Not many successful business people have made it to where they are now without compromise. I’m guessing even Steve Jobs and Bill Gates had to compromise at some time in their lives.

Fraternity and sorority life is the arena for compromise at the collegiate level. Students with strong opinions are challenged to defend their positions and often adjust them to keep the peace or because of their growth and learning. I don’t think one learns this in the residence halls and not in an apartment complex.

I also believe that the men in the age range of 18-21 are facing one of, if not the toughest, periods in their lives.  Adjusting to a college environment, often a new physical space with less familial oversight than before, these men now must make choices that can affect the rest of their lives. Eighteen-year-olds are navigating choices involving relationships – intimate or otherwise – as well as those involving alcohol and other drugs.”s. A fraternity operating within its moral code of conduct can be a supportive partner in these choices.

So is it worth it? I think so. The 20 leaders are waiting for us in chapters all across the country. Waiting for us to sit down and listen to their ideas for change. Waiting for us to help them hold their members accountable. Waiting for us to help them take the first steps toward reaching their dreams. Waiting for us to help them be who they said they wanted to be on that day they were initiated into the fraternity and swore to uphold the values of our founders. Let’s not make them wait any longer.


About the author

Todd Salen has served in several roles in Greek Life over the past 40 years.  A member of the Phi Kappa Psi Fraternity, he has been a chapter adviser for 3 different chapters, Illinois, Illinois State and Michigan.  He served the national fraternity filling several appointed officer positions. In addition he served on the Board of Fraternity Affairs at UIUC.  He currently is director of Fraternity Education for Phi Kappa Psi.

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