ANN ARBOR, MI - Fraternities and sororities are largely self-governed at the University of Michigan, but the university does have some oversight when it comes to the Greek system.
Two university officials - Dean of Students Laura Blake Jones and UM Vice President E. Royster Harper - discussed Greek Life's most pressing issues and the university's role in a conversation with The Ann Arbor News. That includes efforts to address misconduct among chapters, the shift to a winter recruitment and how the university responds to allegations of hazing.
The Ann Arbor News: When the IFC announced in November 2017 it was suspending all social activities and new member pledges amid allegations of hazing and other high-risk behavior taking place among its member organizations, what was the university's immediate response, given that this type of behavior has become an issue on college campuses across the country?
Laura Blake Jones: I've been in my role as Dean of Students for eight years now and we have been very intentionally working to improve Greek Life throughout my tenure. I would offer that we have one of the most active, if not the most active, engaged set of student leaders in terms of their practice of active self-governance on any campus in the country. They take their responsibilities for self-governance very, very seriously and they don't just start with managing incidents. We start on the front end, much more proactively in terms of the prevention work we do with new leaders in the Greek community, with new members of the Greek community, with the community as a whole.
I certainly do not condone or am not proud of any of the actions that might have caused IFC to take that action, but when they step forward to take strong self-governance action when they have concerns about things happening in the community, that didn't surprise me and quite frankly, I was proud of the leadership they showed.
E. Royster Harper: Any time young people and student leaders decide to self-regulate or decide that, 'I'm seeing something that is contrary to who we say we are' and do a time out, we're pretty proud. Because these are 17, 18, 19-year-olds providing leadership and self-governance for more 17, 18, 19 and 20-year-olds. So for us, it's this balance between concern about the behavior they're seeing, that they want to check or have stopped, and pleased that they would take that kind of leadership.
So it's a push-pull for us.
AAN: In a situation where the IFC presents it is going to lay out a plan through self-governance, does the university work with leadership in any way or do you encourage that type of self-governance among the Greek community?
Blake Jones: That's a balance, too. Certainly, there is a long history and practice at Michigan for self-governance, in our Greek community and in other (organizations). We give a lot of autonomy to the level of leadership that we have and commitment in the community. ... Where I think self-governance has fallen short on a lot of campuses is students can't self-govern on their own without active support from the university. Doing that well is an investment in relationship building. We all have deep and authentic relationships with these student leaders. We mentor them. We support them. They consult with us. They ask for our advice and it's a two-way street.
So, if I had heard of behavior I was concerned about, I could go to them, too, and say I really need you to look into this. Practicing supported self-governance in its ideal approach is what we are striving to do here, but it cannot be the university saying 'You student leaders go take care of that.' We're talking weekly meetings and on the front end, we have to do all sorts of education in training and leadership development.
AAN: When the IFC presented its action plan in January, did the university have to sign off on these plans that they laid out? Do they come to you with those suggestions as an appropriate next step, or does the university work with them to determine what the appropriate actions are?
Harper: It's an iterative process. It's a coaching, teaching, training process. When it works well, you are actually asking the students to think with you together about steps to take to change some of the behavior. You do that because, what we've found is effective with students is when they own the solutions and help co-create the solutions, they're more likely to carry them out.
They may decide to ban hard liquor, sometimes their nationals might impose it or they might decide as an organization to do it. We certainly would support that and affirm that. The idea is to have them own the changes and to help us think about what they might be.
Blake Jones: We have this advice and support and mentoring, but we also do have a self-governance process that feeds into a university process. For example, if one of the organizations is alleged to do something that violates our expectations - let's say one of the organizations has an allegation that hazing is going on. Leaders in IFC might be who report that, because they have a very strong process for managing social situations, they have their own enforcement arm called the SRC - the Student Responsibility Committee - that goes out and checks 'Are all of the rules being followed for this party? Are there enough sober monitors? Are they starting at the right time? Is the noise at the right level? Are they managing who can come and go from the property?'
If somebody's in violation of that, they put forward a complaint or report about that and it does go into a process. There is a student organization accountability process, that if it's a Greek organization who hears that, our justices that are trained and understand the Greek community make a set of recommendations, but then I do have to sign off on them. I don't change the finding in a situation, but thereto, I can work with students and say, 'You know, if we're going to be consistent with what we did three years ago with this kind of a case,' and that student leader doesn't necessarily know that, I would add one more thing to your sanctions, which would include this.
There's also a separate, different process for individual behavior.
AAN: Let's say there's an allegation of hazing taking place at a fraternity, are there other resources outside of the online process of reporting that?
Harper: We've had everything from personal, individual calls to the online reporting. We've gotten things in the mail. There have been calls to the president's office. There are just multiple ways that alums, parents, other students might let us know that they're concerned about hazing. Sometimes it's a neighbor, sometimes it's the police department.>University of Michigan Dean of Students Laura Blake Jones speaks in an office in the Fleming Administration Building on Wednesday, April 25, 2018. Melanie Maxwell | The Ann Arbor News
Blake Jones: I would say most commonly, it either goes in the hazing online reporting or hotline reporting over the phone to the Greek Life Office. What is often a common theme in complaints coming in is people want to be anonymous. Sometimes it's a parent who says 'My son is in an organization and I think this is happening, but I don't want to tell you my name. I don't want to tell you his name. I don't even want to tell you the organization's name, but I want to know what are you doing about hazing in Greek Life.' If it's a call and we can talk to them, we can sometimes pull more information out of them and assure them we will honor their request for confidentiality.
If there is imminent harm or allegations of forced consumption of alcohol, or sleep deprivation or they can't leave the house and they have to stay in one location, those kinds of things, we immediately involve the University of Michigan Police Department and the Ann Arbor Police Department to go out and investigate.
There's a whole process. They have a hazing response team and a hazing task force inside Greek Life, so the hazing task force does the proactive work to prevent hazing, to educate people. With hazing, in particular, I believe we've got a serious societal problem right now that extends far beyond Greek Life in terms of the prevalence of hazing and the belief that our high school middle school students have inculcated in them before they even get to college. That joining a group - and it's not just fraternities and sororities anymore, it can be joining and honor society, or being part of a band or performance group - there's hazing rituals happening in all of those kinds of organizations now.
We have to do a lot of unlearning of socialized behavior with 6,000 new students every year.
AAN: Why do you think there is a natural inclination to conceal things like hazing or a desire for anonymity in reporting things like hazing?
Harper: I think that it's part of our desire to both have students and others be safe and not tell. We send mixed messages about that. I think there's this sense of 'I don't want someone harmed, but I don't want to be the person who told, or I don't want to get in trouble or be perceived as a snitch.' For some parents that might call or be concerned, they both want their sons and daughters protected, but they don't want to be perceived as the ones that got them in trouble. I think that's a societal trend that we send two messages. That kind of character trait about standing up, about being willing to stand out, if you will, as someone who interrupted and take the consequences of that, is something we're finding ourselves having to teach.
Blake Jones: (There's an) ethos of you don't tell on your teammate, you don't tell on your brother, you don't tell on your fellow organization member. It seems to me in some categories of things, people understand they need to tell, and in this one, there's blurriness for some reason. I often hear, 'and I don't want my daughter or son to leave that organization. I want them to stay.' Again, one person might be mistreating them, or a couple of people, but when they look at the whole organization, they've got these deep friendships and bonds to other people.
You might say some low-level things in hazing might be OK because they're teaching the history of an organization, or respect, but if you are on a slippery slope, I believe we have to say absolutely none of those things can be allowed. Because people can't distinguish where the drop-off point is going to be into dangerous and really harmful behavior.
Harper: I think it's this place between not wanting to be socially isolated on the one hand. So if I'm not the person who told, I don't have to risk that. On the other hand, a kind of false belief that 'I'm not really harming her, I'm creating this bond or this sisterhood.' But when you start talking about mental health and real harm, you can see a kind of drawing back. For us, it gives us hope, because at the core, students don't want other students harmed.
It's hard for us sometimes to imagine how you can think it's cute in playing, but there's a kind of socialization to it, because this is really us bonding and sort of having each other's back in going through something together.
AAN: Can you explain the goals for the shift to a winter recruitment in 2020?
Harper: We've been thinking about as an institution and as an organization, how is it that we strengthen this experience for our students? How do we make sure that when students come, they get off to the best start they can?
Ninety-eight percent of our students are in our residence halls (as freshmen). They are learning how to be in a community. For some of our students, it's their first time away from home. How do we leverage these wonderful residence halls that we've been repairing and the educational experiences we're providing - how do we leverage that to make sure that students get off to a good start? We have any number of things that we are doing to really strengthen this first-year experience for students and one of them is this altering the time or deferred recruitment for students.
What we're trying to do is three things: We want them establish a pattern of academic success, get here, take classes and get used to what professors are expecting. Because it's not the same thing they're expecting in high school. Establish strong relationships - we want to make sure the diversity that is here and the experiences that we are creating for students - they have a chance. Then certainly, take advantage of this inclusive community that we are intentionally creating.
The idea of delaying (recruitment) until the winter term is to create this space and opportunity for students to take advantage of all that we're offering. It's mission critical for us, it's focused attention on how do we make sure students get off to a good start?
AAN: Was there input from students in making that determination to shift to a winter recruitment?
Harper: One of the bones of contention with IFC and with our students is that we unilaterally made this decision without their input. The decision we made unilaterally really is around strengthening the first-year experience. It is an educational decision that is in support of the university.
Because it impacts students that are in fraternities and sororities, and there's a large number of them, we did consult with them. We've been talking about this a long time. There was a task force. They identified the pros and cons.
So when the students weighed the pros and cons, they decided we wouldn't recommend this. They acknowledged what it would accomplish but did not recommend that we do that. When you look at providing a robust and engaged educational experience for students, and you say the same things we are identifying as the reason why, are the same things our students are identifying, we just decided differently. The things they were worried about did not, for us, carry the same level of weight as the things we were concerned about that would be positive.
Blake Jones: They're used to us working in a very collaborative fashion with them. Although this time it was more of a unilateral decision and an institutional decision, we are really clear that implementing it is where you get into the weeds of all the concerns that they have. That is where they've got to have robust engagement with us in an implementation team, because we do have to mitigate the things that they are concerned about. We're concerned about them too. We won't do that unilaterally.
ANN: Have there been discussion about how you'll accommodate students impacted by this shift from a housing standpoint?
Harper: The university has self-governance, too. So those things that are about academic excellence, students developing intellectually, having a robust and whole student experience - that's our responsibility.
This idea of housing - I don't have a polite way of saying this. We are certainly going to work with students to help them land with respect to housing, but we're not going to make academic decisions or not do things that are in students' best interest because of a concern about housing in a market full of housing.
We're going to be responsive, we're going to work with students, we're going to work with our landlords - we have some great relationships with our landlords. We actually think that they're asking students to sign up for housing way too soon. Before a student gets here and gets through a semester in the residence hall, they're wanting them to sign up for the next year. I see the benefit for the landlords, but I don't see that as beneficial for students.
Blake Jones: We know that for over 100 years, fraternity and sorority housing has been a vital part of the housing experience. Right now, we have mostly sophomores living in fraternity and sorority houses. Some houses have juniors or seniors who are in some leadership role who also live in. The shift to sophomores in leadership roles as presidents is a shift, too. So you can imagine if you're a sophomore and you're living in the house, trying to be the one governing what's happening there and juniors and seniors who are older and more senior than you, and you're trying to navigate their behavior.
How we're going to work on this is multi-faceted: Can we get landlords to push back when you can sign? Because we do have ample housing stock now - different than 5 or 10 years ago - there really is less pressure to sign right away. It used to be if you didn't sign right away, you might not find housing.
Optimistically, students are pretty confident if they maximize their choices. If I look at all of the sororities or two-thirds of the sororities, not just one or two, those people that maximize their choices are given opportunities. The people in the end that don't get opportunities are the ones that have really narrow constraints on what they're willing to look at.
We just have to educate and teach everybody about what their options are. For the few at the end that kept their options open but didn't get a space, we have to be ready to help them and we are ready to help them. Everybody that I've talked to agrees that pushing back the signing time would be ideal and this is one of those places where the business interests of a landlord and what's beneficial for the student body may not be the same thing and we've got to really push on that.
Editor's note: Since this interview was conducted, six fraternities have withdrawn from affiliation with University of Michigan, choosing to operate independent of university oversight.
Source : https://www.mlive.com/news/ann-arbor/index.ssf/2018/10/university_of_michigan_admins.html