College Judicial Consultants

Information on college, conduct, Greek life, advocacy, and fairness-published every Tuesday and Friday morning.

Archive for the tag “unfair”

Never Accept “Choose Your Battles”

david_v_goliath

You will interact with many faculty and staff this semester as you engage in various activities outside of the classroom. Some of you will be working on developing your leadership skills and this means you will work with dedicated professionals all committed to helping you develop strong leadership skills. There will be retreats, meetings, trust falls, Leadershapes, and other awesome experiences. As you work with these people you will become closer to some as you identify your area of interest (Greek life, public service, college radio, LGBTQA advocacy, etc.) and assume a leadership position in these areas. You will hear words like “change agent” and be told that you can make a “huge impact” within your area, both locally and globally. If you do well, you might even be invited to sit on numerous administrative committees as the “student voice” and that will give you an inside view of policy making on a college campus. You will get to know some of the higher level administrators and feel really involved in the running of your school.

Then one day, you’ll be talking to some friends and realize that there is something you think is unfair or just plain sucks. Maybe your school receives money from a corporation you believe is anathematic to its values, maybe you think the sexual assault policy revictimizes, or maybe you just think your student fees are being mismanaged. It doesn’t matter what the issue is. The point is that there will be a policy or lack of a policy that you believe affects the people and issues you cares about. You know it will be controversial and will upset some people, but it is important to you. So you turns to your mentors in student affairs or in the administration who hears your concern, they nod and indicate that they’re listening to you, and when you’re done they say “You should choose your battles.”

keep-calm-and-shhhh-21

That phrase, and the idea behind it, is completely against everything you are being taught about being a leader, and you should demand more from your co-curricular educators.

While there is some value in the idea that not everything that annoys you should become a bloody cage match, in almost every instance the person who tells you to “choose your battles” is in a position of authority over you, disagrees with your opinion, and/or knows that if you choose that particular battle their life will become more difficult. Unfortunately, there are some places where the upper administration is insecure or desires to separate itself from controversy. At those places, the administrator you’re talking to might indeed get some heat if you protest too hard or loud, but that should never stop you from fighting a fight you think is worth it. “Choose your battles” is not the advice you give someone when you want them to pursue an issue, and it should never be the advice anyone in student affairs gives you. It is lazy, passive aggressive, and anti-developmental-you deserve better.

No matter how much of a student advocate someone is as an administrator, that person is still an administrator. This means that he or she is part of the system that is perpetrating the problem. This is true for everyone (including me) and you can forgive someone for not wanting to be seen as backing a potentially high-conflict issue when that concern isn’t shared. However, what you should not forgive them for is not helping you understand the potential consequences of their battle and then helping you prepare for that battle if you want to proceed.

Sometime ago someone decided that education should be neat. That we should be able to measure knowledge like calories and that there was such thing as “acceptable” dissention. That’s crap. The truth of the matter is that you should be encouraged to not only make mistakes, but make HUGE mistakes. Career injuring mistakes. Picking your teeth off the floor mistakes (this might have just been me.) This does not mean you should be sent into battle ignorant of the consequences, but that once you decide the potential consequences are worth the risk—they should cheer loudly for you. The key is to make sure you’re making informed mistakes. Once you do, you should be raised high on their shoulders and have a spotlight on you a real leader—willing to risk what others will not to fight for an issue you believe is right.

Notice that nothing I’m saying means that the administration has to back your issues or even defend you from people who attack you for fighting your chosen fight. It does mean, however, that they should help you develop the tools and understanding you need to fight the fight you choose. As long as you know that your battle could result in a disciplinary violation, jail time, getting fired, or any other negative consequences and your understand what those consequences mean-they have done their job.

I think there are three primary responsibilities of the student affairs staff working with you to make you the type of leader willing to stand strong in the face of opposition for your principles. The should:

  1. Help you really understand the issue. When something happens that you don’t like, you tend to react strongly. However, few issues are as simple as they seem. The administrator should help you understand why a decision was made or a policy is in place, what it accomplishes, who it affects, and who will be affected if your are successful. I have had many students decide that an issue was not “that bad” once they understood it completely, and regardless of what you decide to do once you have all the information you will be able to be confident as you move forward.
  2. Help you identify the proper audience for your complaint (or target for your outrage.) When something happens on a college campus people tend to write the President or the Trustees without realizing that doing so will just delay a response since the higher you go in a university hierarchy the less chance there is that person will be the one who understands the issue. Administrators have the ability to look into issues and identify the decision makers, and they should do so and share that information with you to not only make sure you have the right person/people in your crosshairs, but to protect everyone else.
  3. Make sure you understand all the rules and policies that will come into play as you move forward. Most campuses have rules governing when and where students can protest, appropriate language, posting rules, etc. Making sure you understand the rules not only stops you from getting in trouble accidentally, but it also allows an administrator to give you the proper framework to make it more likely you will be heard.

In the academic world students are taught to challenge the information that has been amassed before them, and to rethink issues and challenge the norms. Until student affairs not only supports students as they fight against issues but encourages them to do so, it can not claim to fully develop leaders or advocate for students. Every student affairs professional I have ever met is dedicated to doing both of those things, but when discourage dissent they encourage conformity.

And frankly, we have enough apathy and conformists in my generation. We don’t need more from yours.

Has this happened to you, or have you had the opposite experience? Let me know in the comments or email me at DaveK@collegejudicialconsultants.com!

Fraternity and Sorority Misconduct, Chico State, and the Nuclear Option

When I speak with a member of a fraternity or sorority in trouble, I know how serious the next few weeks will be depending on whether or not their hazing accusations included forced drinking or physical abuse.  If the accusations against them are in these areas, it is likely that the school is going to pull out all the stops to punish them, and that their national is going to be involved as part of that punishment. While we have successfully helped fraternities accused of drinking hazing and those accused of “abusing” pledges, the absolute worst thing a fraternity or sorority can do if they want to protect their organization is mix alcohol or violence into their pledge program.  If they use alcohol or violence as part of their pledge program, not only do they risk getting expelled, but none of the usual people will get an organization’s back or help them at all-not their alumni, not their national, not their Greek life administrator, and most certainly not their school.  I know there are fraternities that will keep doing it, and I know that there are differences in degrees of each of these categories, but ANY time an organization involves alcohol or violence into its pledge education process it risks everything. In fact, when you say “hazing” to most people (especially non-Greeks) they will almost certainly mention “forced drinking” and/or “beating” as the very definition of hazing. (Which is why I go bananas when papers print that an organization is “under investigation” for “hazing” without defining what they mean.)

It used to be that if a fraternity or sorority got caught doing something wrong, that organization would be punished.  Their school and/or their national organization would hold them accountable, and they might have members cut from the organization, be suspended on campus, be expelled, or have their charter revoked.  While (and I speak from experience as a Delt at Tulane) that sucks when it is happening to you, it is understood to be the price of doing business.  If you haze knowing the risks and you get caught, you can lose your fraternity or sorority. Those chapters that considered themselves “hazers” knew that, but that isn’t the case anymore.

Across the country we are seeing examples of organizations and entire Greek systems paying for the actions of other individual Greek organizations.  At SUNY Binghamton they suspended pledging this fall before the year began, and at Alabama just after.  At Cornell the University President has adopted essentially a “zero tolerance” stance for any sort of pledging because he sees pledging itself as not just having a hazing component, but a “high risk” component like the one that he believes lead to the tragic death last year.  Trinity College in Connecticut is mandating that all fraternities and sororities go co-ed.  Hundreds of other schools have already banned Greek life.  And, most recently, the President of Chico State banned fraternities and sororities  after the death of a 21-year old “pledge” who died on his birthday because it MIGHT have been hazing. (Message being: if you’re Greek and something tragic happens, it was hazing.)

Fraternities and sororities may have a greater prevalence of certain behaviors than other groups (that’s a different argument,) but once again we see these organizations being scapegoated for larger problems on campus. According to the same op-ed piece written by Cornell’s President there are 2000 alcohol-related deaths on college campuses each year.  (For the sake of discussion I’ll assume that every one of them results from excessive consumption and alcohol poisoning, and not things like drunk driving deaths, exacerbation of medical conditions, or the other things I know actually contribute to that number.)  He used these numbers intentionally, because when he mentioned “hazing” and used “alcohol related deaths” in the same piece the intended implication was that fraternities and sororities “cause” these deaths, and that they are caused because of hazing.  That’s simply not true.  (There’s a good list of hazing deaths throughout time by someone with an axe to grind here.) The fact is that on any given year there are almost no hazing deaths that happen in fraternities and sororities, statistically speaking. I am in no way saying that ANY hazing deaths are acceptable, but if you eliminated Greek life completely ALMOST EVERY ONE OF THOSE 2000 DEATHS WOULD STILL OCCUR.

Campus administration and “anti-hazing” groups also act like the men and women in the Greek Organization can’t decide for themselves what is acceptable behavior. People like to say that 9 in 10 people who are hazed do not consider themselves hazed, with the implication being that they are so brainwashed or beaten that they don’t even realize the reality of their situation.  More likely (from my experience being Greek and from actually talking to Greek men and women) the activities that are considered hazing are either not hazing to the people going through them, or are seen as the same as what is being done in regular social situations.  The very definition of hazing creates a “when did you stop beating your wife” type of logical trap. A common definition of hazing is that hazing is any action “that causes embarrassment, harassment or ridicule that risks emotional and/or physical harm to members of an (SIC) group or team, whether new or not, regardless of the person’s willingness to participate.”  (from http://www.hazingprevention.org/hazing-information/hazing-definitions.html)  So whether or not you’re willing to put up with is, being teased or embarrassed by other people in your drop that “risks” emotional harm (e.g. hurts your feelings) is hazing just because you’re in that particular group.

That’s crap.

I challenge anyone to find 5 people in different social circles that have not sat around with their friends and been teased about something to the point where they got uncomfortable or their feelings got hurt.  Take a group of friends that drink and find one of them that hasn’t played a drinking game or had more alcohol than they planned on having at some point. Find anyone who has been involved with a prank on someone  and the target of the prank was not embarrassed intentionally by the prank. Austin Kutcher made a name for himself with a TV show based on this very thing.  I was a comic for a few years here in Boston, and we are merciless when we tease one another because we expect other comics to be able to handle it. Most of us would not talk that way to strangers or share those conversations with our parents. The fact is that what is acceptable when you’re with your friends does not become hazing just because you and those friends are on the same athletic team, chess club, or fraternity.  You do not lose the ability to decide if the actions done to you are “okay” simply because you become part of something larger than yourself.  As long as “hazing” is used to cover everything from nicknames and scavenger hunts to forced sodomy and beatings we will not have a reasonable discussion on hazing AND student members will not take these dialogues seriously. 

If we want to change student behavior to the point where we lesson or eliminate the groups willing to hurt or SERIOUSLY risk the lives of their new members, then we have to draw some hard lines when it comes to defining risky behavior.  We must acknowledge that there is a difference between beating someone into unconsciousness and having the newest people in an organization do the worst jobs in that organization. (One man’s terrible bartending shift is another’s having to clean up at 8am after a party.) We have to admit that there is a difference between “kidnapping” a pledge class and taking them to a party on a different campus on a Friday night, and locking them in a dungeon and lowering lotion to them in a basket.

It is impossible to get member buy-in to an “anti-hazing” program when we treat pledge pins the same way (or at least with the same language and seriousness) with which we treat forced branding.  Let’s have some real honesty and let organizations define the non-lethal/harmful actions that they do during the initiation period while prohibiting the ones we KNOW are recklessly indifferent to health and safety.  Have an organization’s standards be clear during recruitment so that when someone joins he or she know what he or she is getting into. Ban forced consumption of alcohol and physical assault, but if someone knowingly and willingly joins an organization where they are going to get an embarrassing nickname and be yelled at if they don’t know the founding mothers, then let them.  If we draw actual lines of intolerable behavior, but make those lines reasonable and logical then you will find many more students willing to take up the anti-hazing banner. 

Instead you have anonymous hazing hotlines where organizations are held to the standards of acceptability as defined by the most sensitive of us, or by that person’s boyfriend, girlfriend, or parent (or even occasionally by a rival organization.)  This makes organizations that want to improve their programs unable or unwilling to be honest about what they do and find acceptable, in order to eliminate those aspects that they don’t.  If you are a student and don’t believe me try saying “we want to get rid of forced consumption and calisthenics, but we want to make sure we’re yelling enough to have them take our history and values seriously” to your Greek Life office or if you’re an administrator ask yourself what you’d do if a group admitted that the pledges had to clean the house every Saturday, but that they wanted to make the pledges understand that they never have to drink.  Are there other ways? Sure.  It is just insane to me that the same people (administrators) who will admit that abstinence is not a useful means of controlling sexually transmitted disease and unwanted pregnancy will preach a “hazing” abstinence to fraternities and sororities.  What’s worse is that this ineffective approach is just increasing the walls of silence between them and the administration.  If you have any doubt that many Greeks feel like they are at war, just ask the students at Alabama, Union, Binghamton, and, most recently, Chico State.

Singling out fraternities and, worse, punishing all of them for what happens at one when those actions happen as or more frequently outside of the chapter house walls does not address the larger issues.  It does not end “21 at 21” (drinking 21 drinks on your 21st birthday), does not eliminate beer pong or other drinking games, or pre-gaming.  It is an easy way to look like you’re “fixing” a very serious problem (alcohol-related deaths) by nuking those organizations that are, at worst, just one reason for that problem.  We would not eliminate all student clubs because the chess team hazes, we don’t end athletics because the swim team hazes, and we don’t shut down a residence hall when a suite throws an illegal party. However, once again Greeks treated like they are all the same people so when a message needs to be sent to an entire campus they are thrust upon the sword. This is not only unfair, it hurts every student on that campus. I applaud those alumni and actives who are standing up against this discriminatory act, and hope a real dialogue can begin soon on the affected campuses.

More on fairness (i.e. why I’m not talking to you in particular.)

Some former colleagues of mine (who shall remain nameless) wrote me about my last blog because they thought I was insulting judicial systems as a whole, and they took offense at what they thought was my aggressive tone.  I went back and forth with them for a while, but it quickly became clear that they could not separate themselves from their systems. They also could not understand how a system where the participants are not representing themselves to the best of their ability is inherently unfair; a fact I found particularly troubling.  I don’t think most administrators (and certainly not the ones I know) try to be unfair, but it’s inevitable the way things are.

I am obsessed with fairness.  I started College Judicial Consultants because I realized when students were either accused of something or wanted to hold other students accountable within the judicial system that the ancillary issues to the actual hearing made the process unfair no matter what I, or any other judicial officer, did.  I had the privilege of working with an amazing disciplinary committee filled with dedicated and compassionate people who were extensively trained by a devilishly handsome judicial professional.  They were thoughtful, took their time, and tried to understand each student who came before them.  In short, they were the best any student brought before them could have hoped for.  That being said, at least one out of every three students who came before them (estimated) was unable to either defend him/herself adequately, focused on the wrong issues, or made other completely understandable mistakes that either made or could have made the outcome completely unfair. The committee is not to blame, but the truth is what they were being held accountable for and the extent to which they were accountable were not solely based on the incident.  This was even truer those times when one student accused another student of something.  Most of these cases were sexual assault cases and the victim bringing the charges had to not only get past her own issues during the case and revictimize herself, but she also had to overcome sexual and gender issues of the people who listened.  Again, the committee was excellent, but very few of us truly understand our subconscious beliefs enough to identify them and not let them influence our decision.  (That’s a whole other issue that I’ll discuss later, so I’m really going to focus on respondents here.)

This is not unique to discipline systems.  Look at America’s courts.  If every person who went to criminal or civil court had the exact same amount of money and the exact same quality of attorney, our system would be as close to perfect as it could be.  A corporation could not outspend you, a clever defense attorney couldn’t say, “if it doesn’t fit, you must acquit” and get you off the hook for brutally murdering 2 people, you wouldn’t be executed if you were clinically dysfunctional, etc.  The facts of a particular case and all relevant details surrounding them would be the basis for the outcome, and I will take that system every time.  But that’s not the case so the poor, the uneducated, and the subordinated groups (i.e. those without equal access to power and privilege; the “oppressed”) face greater incarceration, have less effective legal defense of their rights, and are victims of unfair systems much more than their privileged counterparts.

The same is true in judicial cases.  An accused student in a disciplinary case is almost always accused by someone with more inherent authority than them, whether it the appointed authority of an RA or the positional authority of a dean or professor.  They almost always have less knowledge of the subject in contention than the person accusing them so defending themselves is an uphill battle. (See my earlier blog on fairness for more discussion on this.)  They do not know the system as well as the person accusing them since it is almost always their first time in that system where the person accusing them has either been trained in the system, has accused other people, or can call on colleagues with greater institutional memory to help them navigate the system.  Perhaps worst of all, they are compromised by the stress of the hearing, the potential implications of being found responsible, the shame that comes with being accused, and the fear of failing and having to face everyone you know.  That agitated state can make them seem cold, distant, and dishonest when they could simply be scared, and that influences a committee’s decision-making. It’s not intentional, it’s not personal, and it’s not a reflection on the ethics of any individuals; but it is unfair.

People may not be as concerned with fairness as I am, and that’s not necessarily because they are trying to be unfair.  When I ran a system I had to be concerned about procedural consistency, legality, regulatory compliance, institutional commitments, departmental support (or lack thereof), and messaging as well as fairness.  I did the best I could, and I believe others do the best they can, but many of those “goals” conflict with fairness as it relates to the individual going through the system.  (e.g. I could not point out where the committee may have made a mistake during an appeal.) Fairness does not mean that people in the system get what they want, but it should they get what they deserve and for the right reasons.

I don’t think any system can empower the students in the disciplinary process for many reasons and those reasons are almost never about the competency and professionalism of the administration. That’s why I created College Judicial Consultants-to help respondents and complainants have the outcome be fair. In CJC we can take all the time a client needs to help them because that is what we do, and all that we do.  We have no professional conflicts that limit our ability to assist a student to the extent they need, and college judicial systems do.  We say we give people their “best chance for the best result” and what that really means is the best chance for a fair result.

That’s not personal.  That’s fact.

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: