Perspectives: A Little Bit of Knowledge (about BGLOs) is a Dangerous Thing

On Labor Day weekend I had the challenge of making some relevant and penetrating remarks to the Black Greek-letter organization (BGLO) community and interested students at Prairie View A&M University.  Yes, I mean that Prairie View, the same place where a Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity aspirant — Donnie Wade — was allegedly killed as a result of hazing activities last year.  It was the first time that I had been asked to speak at a university that was under so much scrutiny. My message was simple: BGLOs were founded with a certain organizational identity in mind; they have remained faithful to that identity in some ways, but largely, they have drifted. As such, it is up to the members and aspiring members to be what the founders intended them to be so they can make BGLOs what BGLOs were intended to be. 

The symposium was a kind of one-two punch. I went first. Philander Smith president and BGLO expert, Dr. Walter Kimbrough, went second. I framed what BGLOs should be in a global sense. Kimbrough dealt with the issue of hazing. Interestingly, at one point in his speech, Kimbrough underscored why it is difficult to make any headway with regard to solving the hazing issue within BGLOs. He said many BGLO members consider themselves BGLO experts. Consequently, those with the most minimal of knowledge about BGLOs may present major issues for the organizations. It is a classic example of the cognitive bias, the Dunning-Kruger Effect, where an individual’s incompetence robs them of the ability to be introspective enough to realize when they reach erroneous conclusions and make poor decisions. In the BGLO context, for example, you see it where members use the “tradition” excuse for hazing. An even cursory reading of fraternity history undercuts this argument, but these individuals don’t seek out BGLO-related knowledge when they already believe they have cornered the market on it. A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing!                                                                                                

I am critical of BGLO undergrads but I believe there is also enough blame to go around. And Student Affairs and Greek Life personnel who advise BGLO members deserve their fair share of blame. Anecdotally, while I have met a number of Greek Affairs advisers who are knowledgeable about BGLOs, I have also met more than my fair share that are not. Forthcoming research on Greek Affairs advisers’ cultural competence about BGLOs underscores my concern. 

A rebuttal to this is that on many campuses with National Pan-Hellenic Council chapters, many Greek Affairs offices hire NPHC-affiliated graduate or professional students to work with the collegiate BGLOs. This is problematic, however, for a host of reasons.  For one, oftentimes BGLO members lack a robust understanding of their own groups, especially sufficient enough to advise collegiate BGLO chapters. As such, many Greek Affairs offices create a situation analogous to a physician having a limited knowledge of its patient’s symptoms and possible remedies, so the physician looks to its nurse in the hopes that the nurse will address the issue.  If this is the case, a new paradigm is needed.

Undergraduate BGLO members and chapters, to the extent that they fail to live up to organizational ideals, are handicapped in part because of their own actions. But those who are reportedly responsible for their success — local alumni chapters, fraternity/sorority leadership and NPHC — have also failed them. And this failure extends to Greek Affairs advisers. While I enjoy being invited to college campuses and speaking to BGLO undergraduates, the truth of the matter is that BGLO lectures do little to educate Greek Affairs advisers and likely have no long-term beneficial impact on a campus. What seems to enhance Greek advisers’ cultural competence about BGLOs is reading the most recent scholarship on these groups. Accordingly, if Greek Affairs advisers hope to live up to name “student affairs professionals,” they should do what professionals in other disciplines must do — remain current with the research and best practices in their area. To do otherwise is tantamount to malpractice or ineffective assistance in the advising context. 

So what is a solution? My recommendation is that the same way professional regulation/licensure entities ensure that physicians and attorneys, for example, remain current with bodies of knowledge in their respective fields and render the best service to their patients/clients, Greek Affairs needs a similar body with a similar objective. The two most likely candidates are NASPA and the Association of Fraternity and Sorority Advisors. Either of these bodies should take it upon itself to set standards for Greek advising and routinely educate and train advisers about diverse “Greek” populations. Without such an effort, BGLO undergraduates and chapters will continue their steady demise, with the fallout being felt by their broader national organizations, communities they serve and host institutions.

 

Dr. Gregory Parks is a visiting fellow at Cornell Law School and a life member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc.  He co-edited, with Dr. Matthew Hughey, Black Greek-letter Organizations 2.0: New Directions in the Study of African American Fraternities and Sororities (University Press of Mississippi, 2011) and, with Dr. Stefan Bradley, Alpha Phi Alpha: An Analysis of Organizational Identity (University Press of Kentucky 2011).  Dr. Parks also edited Black Greek-letter Organizations in the 21st Century: Our Fight Has Just Begun (University Press of Kentucky, 2008) and co-edited, with Drs. Tamara Brown and Clarenda Phillips, African American Fraternities and Sororities: The Legacy and the Vision (University Press of Kentucky, 2005).