Newsletter > September 2021 > “Eleven Questions That Advisors & Chapter Corporation Board Members Should Be Asking Their Undergraduates This Fall” by Dave Westol
We’ve read the headlines and the stories. We know that hazing has persisted in our chapters. We know that with the advent of a return to “normalcy” on campuses this fall we may experience other tragedies—that the pent-up energy and frustration will surface in a variety of ways. And that includes the pledge process.
What can concerned and involved alums do to help address hazing in their chapters?
We can ask questions. Of our undergraduates.
Two key points:
- Don’t focus on officers when asking these questions. In a chapter that utilizes hazing, one of the reasons those individuals were elected is that they understand their role when it comes to pledge/new member education: to provide vague and generalized responses to specific questions, to equivocate, to be evasive.
Therefore, ask members, especially younger members, these questions. And don’t let them use the fraternal version of the triple option offense to pitch the conversational football to an officer— “Ah, you should really ask the pledge educator about that” Nope. I’m asking you.
- Listen carefully. This isn’t cross-examination or a senate hearing. Ask questions in a calm and thoughtful manner and then listen. As a U.S. senator remarked recently, employ “Eloquent listening” Don’t react to answers that might be upsetting. Be dispassionate in your response. Gather information first before making a judgment.
- How long is pledging, in weeks? Please be specific. Many national organizations and many institutions have a maximum number of weeks for PNM education. Listen carefully for add-on weeks, such as extending the process because of fall break or for pre-initiation week. Or on the front end for the fraternal equivalent of a syllabus week—a week immediately after the pledging ceremony when, as an undergraduate described it to me, “The pledges can, ah, make up their minds if they made the right choice” It’s still pledging and it adds a week.
- When does pledging begin—what day/date? Please be specific. I often use a desk top calendar taped to a wall when I conduct hazing investigations and I fill in key dates such as the first day of classes, formal recruitment and so forth. Identify a specific date.
- When does pledging end—what day/date? Please be specific. Using the points from Question 1, determine precisely when pledging is finished. Make it emphatic. “So, pledging ends on November 4th—do I have that right?”
- How does pledging end? Is there a ceremony? Special event? A period of days? Do you include that in the length of pledging or is that additional time? While the time-honored “Pre-initiation” week continues, some chapters employ “hell week” or a 2021 equivalent. You may also be told, “We just tell them pledging is over” If that is the response, ask more questions. It runs counter to human nature and fraternal experience for a chapter to simply tell its newest members, “Okay, you’re in. Welcome to the sisterhood/brotherhood”
- When are “Bigs” (Big Sisters, Big Brothers) selected? What are the criteria for their selection, or how are they identified? The usual response is that the pledges pick three members and the PNM educator and/or president decide who gets matched up with whom. Ask when that process occurs. And if the role of the Big is to mentor, coach, support and assist their Little, why would you wait until four weeks into a six-week program before selecting/”Revealing” the Bigs? Why isn’t each Big standing next to their Little at the formal pledging ceremony?
Other questions go to qualifications. Is there a minimum GPA requirement for the Bigs? Minimum involvement in chapter operations—have they been involved or are they one of the Barnacle Brothers who are along for the ride?
Finally, ask about “Twins”—the term used when one Big has two Littles. Why is that used in the chapter? That may generate more discussion.
- When are the Bigs “revealed” to their little sisters or brothers? Tell me about that process. Is alcohol involved in any way? Could an alum attend just to become familiar with the process?
For men’s fraternities in particular, big brother revealing night has become a deadly tradition. If there is one chapter practice of which alums should be asking direct questions, this is it. “Tell me about the evening…where the revealing occurs…during what times…who’s present…and what happens afterward?”
And ask if the revealing is held at the chapter house or at another location—an annex or other location. The “Away from the house” approach suggests that an effort is being made to keep the event under the radar. That applies to pledge activities in general if a house is involved. If there is no chapter house, ask where events or meetings are held. Be specific.
And beware of the “Hanging out”—“Oh, we just hang out” term, which is the standard answer from hazing chapter members when they don’t want to be specific. Demand specificity.
- Walk me through a typical week of pledging beginning on Monday morning and concluding on Sunday evening? Tell me what happens each day. How many hours, in your estimation, are pledges expected to invest in pledging each week?
Using the Power Five (P5) conference designation as employed in collegiate athletics, it is not unusual for a fraternity pledge on a P5 campus to be required to invest 40 to 50 hours per week into pledging. Showing up at the chapter at 8 a.m., remaining in the house doing work, driving members (and their girlfriends) to class and picking them up, interviewing members, buying them food, and cleaning up dishes from hallways are just part of the package along with cleaning the house after events. Ask about philanthropic endeavors, too—on many campuses, those are pledge-only events. Ask how many members actively participate in this or that event.
- Are pledge meetings held? If so, how often? Who calls or directs that a meeting be held? How do the pledges communicate with each other? With the pledge educator? Some men’s fraternity chapters no longer hold pledge meetings. The pledges gather each day or evening based upon a GroupMe from the pledge educator or other authority figure. Ask to see the announcements.
- Is there a group or committee—some refer to it as the “Pledge Development Committee”—in our chapter? Who is in charge of the committee? Who serves on the committee? How often does the committee meet? What is the intended purpose? This group is supposedly involved in educating the pledges, although “educating” may be a stretch term along with “development” This is a hazing committee and the task for the committee is to devise and oversee the hazing activities in the chapter. If you encounter equivocation or evasiveness in answering questions about the committee, keep asking.
- What was the GPA for each of the most recent five pledge classes? Was that above or below the All-1st year GPA on campus? What was the attrition rate for each of those pledge classes—the number of pledges on the first day v. the number of initiates on the final day? Data drives decisions and also reveals issues in an organization. Some—certainly not all—chapters have pledge classes that score below the All-First Year average for that gender on campus. Cross-check with the campus professional. And if the attrition rate of pledges is higher than 15%, that’s a good sign of issues. Cross-check with the campus and the national organization—how many pledges registered v. the number initiated.
- Are pledge classes named or designated using Greek letters? What is the purpose of naming or designating pledge classes? Tell me how many “Families” are in the chapter. And those names? Do any of the families have traditions or specific activities that members engage in during pledging or otherwise?
While the naming of pledge classes using Greek letters or other terms is not in and of itself an indication of hazing, ask for the thoughts of the undergraduates regarding the impact of that practice in terms of pledge class unity (PCU). Hazing and PCU have a symbiotic relationship—each needs the other. Did a 1st year student join a pledge class or a sisterhood? Why do we focus upon unity (and therefore separation) if the goal is “fraternity among all”? The end result of PCU is a chapter separated into four or eight separate sub-groups, each with its own identity. And that separation is achieved by hazing.
As for families: Perhaps it is a socio-cultural dynamic that our undergraduates are seeking small group interaction when the chapter has 100+ members. But some of the families have their own traditions including hazing. Hence, the “Ask”
If you believe it is better to know than not to know, ask the eleven questions. Use thoughtful and dispassionate responses, and then, if changes are needed, you have a basis for change.