Rewriting the Playbook: Post-pandemic priorities for fraternity/sorority life

by Stacy Kraus McDonald, Dan Wrona, Karlee Nuttelman and Dan Bureau

Perspectives editors were interested in hearing from a variety of voices in response to the prompt, “what should the top priority of fraternities & sororities be today?” As a company dedicated to organizational development in fraternity/sorority life, RISE’s team has a unique perspective on the issues facing organizations today. We looked back through the priorities that have emerged from our most recent program review and strategic planning projects across several campuses in search of an answer, and our findings amount to this: the old methods of supporting fraternity/sorority life are insufficient in the current environment.

Practices and approaches in the fraternity/sorority profession have evolved gradually over several decades through learning and adaptation to the changing environment. The volume, significance, and breadth of challenges presented by the post-pandemic environment, however, are so significant that gradual iteration may no longer be sufficient. As we reviewed our recent consulting work, we found six areas where FSL professionals may need to rethink the models used for supporting fraternity/sorority life.

Adapt to Sustainability of Institutions and Organizations

Population shift, political factors, campus mergers, budgetary strain, and the relevance of the student experience all impact the future for fraternity/sorority life. The enrollment cliff is forecast for 2026 with institutions already taking steps to ready themselves for a decrease in students. In his recent state of the university address, Dr. Gorden Gee shared that West Virginia University needs to shed weight and focus on programs that prioritize students (Knox, 2023). When WVU reflects on what benefits students, “it shines a light on those things that may no longer be relevant.” According to Inside Higher Education, WVU determined that, “$75 million would have to be trimmed from the budget to account for a projected 5,000 student enrollment decline over the next decade.”

The smaller, regional serving campuses will feel this more intensely. This past year saw the merging of six campuses in Pennsylvania (Whitford, 2021) and a partnership between Otterbein University and Antioch University to share costs and manage graduate programs together (Mollenkamp, 2022). Additional university closures and mergers are likely as these dynamics play out (Nietzel, 2021).

As a microcosm of the university community, fraternity/sorority life will be impacted by these trends. These new challenges cannot be met with existing practices. Few institutions will be able to sustain their efforts and staffing for fraternity/sorority life at the current level. With diminishing resources, fraternity/sorority professionals will need to right-size their activities to account for funding reductions and student demographic changes. Professionals should focus on services that are relevant and beneficial to student persistence and sense of belonging. As mergers occur, fraternity/sorority stakeholders will need to work in tandem with their institutions to determine a viable future for organizations represented on those campuses.

Following Through on Inclusion

Inclusion has been historically problematic in many fraternities and sororities. Although there have been recent advancements through modifying or eliminating legacy policies, addressing trans membership, revising officer structures and programming, and providing greater diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) training for staff and volunteers, fraternity/sorority life must do more to dismantle the systems in place to provide a more inclusive experience. After the recent increase in availability of DEI training and a heightened commitment to equity among Generation Z, these better-trained and more informed students are asking for more resources and direction in furthering DEI efforts within their fraternity/sorority experience. In a recent RISE assessment project, a student shared that they see “many instances of microaggressions. Many people of color in my chapter have felt some kind of exclusion or like they don’t belong within the chapter. That’s a major issue and why I’m on [the] DEI council in my chapter.”

While organizations are embracing greater transparency (Curtis Simmons, 2022) around past exclusionary practices and a commitment to DEI education, these efforts are also being met with resistance. There is litigation pending against Kappa Kappa Gamma for the initiation of a trans member at the University of Wyoming (Lenthang, 2023). Other organizations have received negative feedback from alumni for eliminating preferential treatment of legacies. Fraternity/sorority stakeholders should expect a continued push and pull both within chapters and across organizations/institutions, as efforts to increase access and inclusion reshape policies members have subscribed to for decades.

Fraternities and sororities need to continue to examine policies, procedures, and training through a DEI lens and provide better resources for positional leaders to address systemic challenges within their community. This should also include partnering with other campus offices, prioritizing cultural competency in the hiring process, and training for staff on on centering marginalized communities in policy and practice.

Delivering Membership Value

Compared to previous generations, Generations Z and Alpha demand a return on investment of their time and treasure. They are savvy consumers and surrounded by diverse involvement opportunities on campus. Students can be selective about their engagement and if they do not find their sense of belonging within fraternity/sorority, they will seek it out elsewhere. Fraternities and sororities need to reevaluate the fraternal experience to ensure that it fulfills its promises and delivers on the value that these new generations of students are craving.

In May 2023, the Surgeon General declared loneliness a public health epidemic in the United States, stating that “the loneliness epidemic is hitting young people, ages 15 to 24, especially hard. The age group reported a 70% drop in time spent with friends during [2020]” (Seitz, 2023). Fraternities and sororities, at our core, are designed to bring people together for shared experience. This represents an untapped opportunity to deliver value at a time when society arguably needs it the most.

Engaging older members members for continued personal and professional development can heighten the sense of belonging that both increases affinity and counters loneliness. Involving them in the decision-making processes will strengthen the leadership pipeline and help foster a sense of return on investment. These practices are essential for continued growth and development of chapters and councils.

Strengthen FSL Support Systems

Concerns about staffing in the fraternity/sorority profession have emerged over the past decade, and have increased more recently. The number of vacant positions has increased significantly, while turnover remains high, and fewer professionals are entering the field (Barnes Deeg, Wrona, & Deeg, 2019). Pre-pandemic concerns about low compensation and high workload (HigherEdJobs, 2015) are amplified now due to inflation and a competitive job market within and beyond fraternity/sorority life. We also are seeing high rates of transition out of the field likely attributed to competitive job markets and the post-pandemic trend of the Great Resignation (Ferrazzi & Clementi, 2022). These factors all contribute to a pattern of understaffed fraternity/sorority programs and a looming staffing crisis in fraternity/sorority life. In order to cope with these dynamics in the short term and build resilience for potentially worse challenges in the long term, universities should prioritize redesigning staffing models, developing local volunteers, and strengthening interdepartmental partnerships.

Universities should redesign fraternity/sorority positions to account for vacancies and scale back to the most impactful and efficient work. This should involve reevaluating the workload, eliminating low-impact programs and services, providing meaningful professional growth opportunities, and strengthening onboarding and retention practices. Additionally, universities will need to increase the scope of their search for relevant talent. Fraternity/sorority work could be done well with new graduates from a variety of academic programs, colleagues from other functional areas, and professionals in other industries.

Fraternity/sorority volunteers, including chapter advisory teams, regional leaders, and housing corporation boards, are part of the larger support system for fraternity/sorority life. They interact with students almost daily, they are closest to the action in student leadership and decision-making, and they often have highly trusting connections with student leaders. Fraternity/sorority staff can have a broader and stronger impact on the fraternity/sorority community by taking an active role in recruitment, training, and development of volunteers. This could and should include providing training and job aids, engaging them in joint advising meetings with chapter leaders, involving them in community-wide decisions and planning, providing opportunities to network with their peers, and providing recognition and rewards. These steps could lead to more consistent communication, better quality and accuracy in their advising work, and a larger pool of personnel to support some fraternity/sorority activities. We continually find this to be a tragically underdeveloped area of most fraternity/sorority programs.

Services and support for fraternity/sorority life come from several places on campus, not just the fraternity/sorority office, and are part of each institution’s collective fraternity/sorority life program. Unfortunately, these areas are often siloed and can have conflicting policies, practices, and opinions that create more problems within and around fraternity/sorority life. Strengthening relationships and formalizing workflow across functional areas that support fraternity/sorority life could help university staff work more seamlessly and effectively across fraternity/sorority activities, especially in high-priority areas such as risk prevention, accountability, and student engagement.

Recalibrate Training and Development Efforts

According to several colleagues, current FSL leaders seem to be entering leadership positions with lower levels of ability than their predecessors, specifically interpersonal and managerial abilities. Additionally, institutional memory, norms, and cultural cues that may have assisted past fraternity/sorority leaders have also eroded through the pandemic.

This presents a challenge for leadership training and personal development experiences in fraternity/sorority life, as programs designed for past students may no longer meet the needs of today’s learners. Fraternities and sororities should first explore whether and where this pattern is supported in the data, and then re-calibrate efforts such as leadership programming, officer transition, advising techniques, and volunteer training as needed. They should ensure these efforts target gap areas and ensure students have the support they need, not just through training, but through a holistic comprehensive talent development approach. This may mean providing additional real-time advising, refocusing from broad leadership concepts to more tactical abilities, and greater use of job aids and support materials.

More Sophisticated Student Safety Efforts

Efforts to address student safety have expanded in recent years, but their primary methods continue to be compliance, education, and accountability systems. Research into alcohol and drug misuse, hazing, mental health, and other areas of student safety suggests efforts to address environments, systems, and policies that perpetuate safety issues are more promising. This commonly involves reducing the likelihood of incidents through more careful, thoughtful work of convening interested stakeholders, sharing and compiling data, pinpointing precise opportunities to eliminate vulnerability and risk factors, and elevating protective factors through a systematic, ongoing effort.

Unfortunately, there are barriers to implementing more sophisticated approaches to student safety. Results of AFA’s Core Competencies self-assessment reveal that fraternity/sorority professionals consistently score themselves lower in the student safety competency than all other areas (Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors, 2019), suggesting the need for professional development in this area. Prevention work takes more time and effort initially, and it does not always result in flashy programs. This may discourage professionals who are told they need to check a box in this topical area. A prevention approach also requires political and instrumental support from senior leaders, which may be difficult for fraternity/sorority professionals to secure.

One of the authors was recently asked by a colleague what questions need to be answered to address the challenge of student safety. The answer is not more research or information – we already have that. We need the training, support, and will to implement strategies that are effective, even if they are not traditional and flashy. This calls for more collaboration between campus-based professionals, interdepartmental colleagues, and inter/national organizations. It also requires better training and development of fraternity/sorority professionals and volunteers in the area of student safety and prevention. Supervisors of fraternity/sorority professionals will need to ensure they provide protected time for stakeholders to work the problem and that they have access to relevant data and best practices.

Closing

There is no shortage of work to do in fraternity/sorority life, but the priorities outlined above should take center stage. It may be easy and comfortable to maintain the status quo and deliver what we know, but new symptoms will continue to emerge and more significant challenges may present themselves. The volume of change in the post-pandemic environment means there may be an opportunity to reinvent our traditional approaches to fraternity/sorority life programs. We should write a new playbook for the new environment, with approaches that allow us to adapt to threats to sustainability, elevate inclusion efforts, expand membership value, strengthen support systems, meet students where they are, and treat student safety with more thought and intention.

 

References

Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors. (2019). 2018-2019 Self-Assessment Final Report. Internal Report of the Professional Development Committee.

Barnes Deeg, B., & Wrona, D., Deeg, M. (2019). A framework for the fraternity/sorority labor market. Perspectives , 2019 (1), 11-15.

Curtis Simmons, M. (2022). Acknowledging the past, looking toward the future. Sigma Kappa Triangle (Winter 2022). https://pubs.royle.com/publication/?i=738077&article_id=4213047&view=articleBrowser

Ferrazzi, K. & Clementi, M. (2022, June 12). The great resignation stems from a great exploration. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2022/06/the-great-resignation-stems-from-a-great-exploration

HigherEd Jobs. (2015). Administrators in higher education salaries. https://www.higheredjobs.com/salary/salaryDisplay.cfm?SurveyID=30

Knox, L. (2023, May 3). Slimming down to stay afloat. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/business/cost-cutting/2023/05/03/slimming-down-stay-afloat

Lenthang, M. (2023, March 31). 7 sorority sisters at University of Wyoming sue Kappa Kappa Gamma to challenge induction of transgender member. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/7-sorority-sisters-university-wyoming-sue-kappa-kappa-gamma-challenge-rcna77266

Mollenkamp, D. (2022, July 26). Two universities team up to stay alive, but stop short of merging. EdSurge. https://www.edsurge.com/news/2022-07-26-two-universities-team-up-to-stay-alive-but-stop-short-of-merging

Nietzel, M. T. (2021, February 15). University merger talks on the rise. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaeltnietzel/2021/02/15/university-mergers-on-the-rise/?sh=700a61162709

Whitford, E. (2021, July 14). Pennsylvania board votes ‘yes’ on consolidation. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2021/07/15/pennsylvania-system-approves-plan-merge-six-universities

About the authors

Stacy Kraus McDonald has worked with fraternities and sororities for 24 years, serving on multiple campuses and at a headquarters. Currently, she is a volunteer for her national organization, Sigma Kappa, and for the National Panhellenic Conference.

Dan Wrona is the CEO of RISE Partnerships. He also serves on the Research Advisory Committee for the Piazza Center and as faculty member for the Interfraternity Institute and the Interdisciplinary Institute for Hazing Prevention.

Karlee Nuttelman has worked with fraternities and sororities, both on a campus and at a headquarters, for nine years. Focusing on prevention and eLearning, she brings a unique perspective to the RISE team and her work as a co-chair of the AFA Professional Development Committee.

Dan Bureau has worked with fraternities and sororities in various capacities for 27 years. A past AFA President (2004), Dan currently serves as a liaison to the Council for the Advancement of Standards (CAS) for AFA. He is the President-Elect for Phi Kappa Theta.

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