T.J. Sullivan

Sorority chapter advisors, out of control

I have run into some seriously horrible sorority chapter advisors this year.  My fellow traveling speakers have shared the same.  Campus advisors share horror stories.  While surely the majority of these volunteers around the country are doing good work, I’m hearing it more and more.

“Our advisor is nuts. We all hate her.”

I’m sure this will ruffle the feathers of many sorority staff members and top level volunteers, and I want to assure those people that I’m not trying to simply get a rise out of you.  You need to know.  No, really, you need to know. Some of your groups have a serious, serious problem.

At a startling number of your undergraduate chapters, your advisors are ruling with an iron fist, exerting inappropriate levels of control, and are engaged in active suppression of the student leaders they are supposed to be advising.

My programs are about changing the way you do business to engage members in more effective ways.  I suggest things like changing up meeting structures, filtering our ineffective events, etc.  At almost every campus I visit, I get the sorority women who approach me afterwards, wishing they had the power to implement any changes at all.

An enormous number of undergraduate sorority officers feel completely subjugated to their chapter advisors.  They can’t make the simplest decisions about the direction of their chapter without getting the approval of a highly controlling chapter advisor who disapproves of nearly everything.

Laura, a very talented young sorority leader I met this spring, told me, “They say that sorority is this tremendous leadership experience.  It’s not anymore. You don’t get to shape anything. All you hear is No. You’re just doing what you’re told to do and when you have an idea, it’s immediately shot down.”

I recently met a sorority chapter advisor who announced that she was now in charge of establishing the slate of officers for chapter elections, essentially choosing the chapter’s officers.  She justified this because of a risk management violation two years earlier.  She sat across from me and said to my face, “If these women could elect who they wanted, there would be complete chaos.”

Perhaps it’s the influence of the insurance companies?  Perhaps it’s the influx of lawyers in sorority leadership ranks.  I am not certain.  Too many sorority chapters are strictly run by chapter advisors – many in their mid- to late-20s. I’m not sure many even qualify as student-run organizations.

They are franchises.  With angry, untrusting, unyielding district managers who rule by fear and tight control – so afraid that the young women will do something wrong that they’re not letting them do anything at all.

Meanwhile, your student members are in leadership hell.

No, you can’t have the formal there.

This is how you will vote on expansion.

All checks over $40 must be cosigned by me.

Laura told me that she was planning to quit her chapter this summer because she was finding greater leadership opportunities with a campus service organization and her student government than she was finding in her sorority.

“They tell you that sorority is going to be this great leadership opportunity and that’s total bullshit in our case,” she told me.  “And if you speak up or challenge anyone, they remove you and brand you as a troublemaker.”

It seems many are trying to impress those higher in the volunteer ranks by holding sorority student leaders to impossible standards.  The officers are burning out, getting bitter, and telling women to focus their leadership energies elsewhere on campus.

Who is speaking up for these young women?

Too often, the fraternity and sorority advising professional on campus is no help. Too many Greek Advisors are afraid of the sorority alumnae advising their chapters. Leadership consultants are caught in a tight spot.  While many acknowledge the crazy chapter advisors they deal with regularly, they know they are powerless to do anything about it.  These consultants try to pump up the student officers while knowing that nothing is likely to change.

National sororities need to prioritize training their chapter advisors how to facilitate the student leadership experience without assuming control of it.  Some of these advisors need to be told, in no uncertain terms, to get a life and knock it off.

To my NPC-affiliated readers, here is my heartfelt suggestion…

Please institute some sort of evaluation process that takes into account the experience of the collegian members, especially the officers.  Do they feel like they are directing their chapter experience?  Do they trust their advisor to give them constructive advice and support?  Is the advisor involved in chapter decision-making at an appropriate level?

Make sure your student officers are safe to answer honestly.  Most are deathly afraid of running afoul of their current advisor, and they don’t trust that you will listen to their concerns.

Then act on these evaluations, and remove advisors who are suppressing the student leadership experience.

Purge the crazies.

I’m a chapter advisor to a fraternity chapter.  I know that I have the power to strongly influence the actions of the chapter officers.  But, I also operate with the ethic that students need to learn how to be better leaders by leading imperfectly.  My guys make mistakes, I help them, we keep an active eye toward best practices, and we enjoy our relationships.

I believe that with some concerted effort, sorority chapter advisors can once again become the trusted, wise voices they were intended to be.

But ladies, please listen to me.  I know your first impulse is to be defensive.

Your organizations have some work to do, and your students are waiting for you to save their experience.  If you don’t take this seriously, your best women are going to join, then quickly lead elsewhere on campus.

 

 

21 Responses to “Sorority chapter advisors, out of control”

  1. Lynn says:

    Though I am no longer affiliated, I can remember numerous incidents where this was an issue and I thank T.J. for pointing out a huge problem within sorority advising. And as a future student affairs professional, I see this as a big issue that must be confronted to encourage better organization health. I can recall many times where I felt my own leadership capabilities and decision making were being manipulated, controlled, and over-run by the advisors of my former sorority. However, though the advisor (a lawyer in her “real-life” – an apt judgment on T.J.’s part) was quick to insert her two-cents into all of my decisions, she often left me alone to present her often unpopular decisions to the chapter. For instance, she encouraged me to enforce the national policy of preventing current sorority members from bringing past sorority members to social functions. In theory this sounded good and would bring us into accordance with national rules. However, she abandoned me to present it to the chapter alone, leading me to receive hate e-mail, texts, phone calls, and be berated publicly. These are not the leadership lessons our sorority women should be taught. They need to be encouraged, supported, and mentored to be their best. Proper advising enhances the collegiate experience and reinforces the true purpose of sorority membership: upholding the values and standards set by the Founders.

  2. Melinda says:

    ‎T.J. Sullivan, this is great. Pi Beta Phi recently changed their policies to have year maximums for terms for chapter advisors and they reevaluate the advisors every 2 years. I think it is a great policy to hopefully hold back some of this.

  3. Heather Kirk says:

    Because you’ve set up any counter comment as “defensive,” it’s difficult not to appear that way. But I do have some commentary on this topic.

    Yes, there are advisors who have the tight reigns you mention. I fully acknowledge I’ve seen and heard similar examples. This can be a stifling problem for a chapter. And to your point, NUMEROUS sororities offer the advisor training you are proposing. But just like training officers each year is challenging for Greek Advisors or Chapters … this is similarly a difficult beast.

    You are correct. Good advisors mentor, use motivational interviewing, ask great questions, prompt discussion and educate. They allow students to make difficult decisions, hold each other accountable and sometimes make mistakes and fail. I agree that we have much much work to do in training folks to do this — it is NOT easy.

    But I think this post forget to mention an important bias. Speakers likely meet the individuals frustrated with their reality, rather than those who are content. It would almost seem strange to ask for your advice if they were feeling well supported by their advisors. Furthermore, speakers see students for several minutes on one day. You get a glimpse into their very current reality. Advisors work with the same students on a daily basis, sometimes over several years. They see a far different side. A developing side to each student. They see historical perspective (which on a college campus can mean “longer than one year,” as officers rotate out each year).

    While creating much needed moments of developmental dissonance, a student may describe even the “best” advisor as “nuts.” When an advisor is discussing potential consequences to decisions, students can and do see this as a “no.” When an advisor can’t give a student the answer she wants, she is sometimes called “crazy” or I’ve even heard “shady.” (I’ve had it happen to me.) The reality you failed to write about is that students are navigating someone providing constructive feedback for the VERY first time. And many times they’re not ready to take it.

    So while you’re hearing “she won’t let me do anything,” “she won’t let me spend money,” “she’s bat sh!t crazy” … know that there COULD be and sometimes IS another side to this story.

    Advisors must live a harsh dual reality. Advisors are asked to educate on tough topics like harm reduction, social justice and ethics. They describe the consequences of making poor decisions, and the positive consequences of making good ones. They are there to both challenge and support. Student MAY or may NOT respond well to the challenge part.

  4. There are definitely good strong advisors who curry disfavor with undergrads because they are demanding reasonable adherence to rules, policies, etc. Of course there are. But, there are lots and lots of chapter advisors out there who have taken it a step too far, and it is those women that I’m addressing here.

  5. Heather says:

    I have a similar advisor ethos as yours TJ and I find that sometimes I get pressure from the national organization to do more– remind them of deadlines, make sure they are filling out forms, etc. It has been more times than I can count that I have had to tell a new IHQ staffer that the reminders from the organization should be enough–if the women don’t respond, then there should be appropriate consequences. I don’t want to be a chapter babysitter. I have similar experiences with an overbearing Greek Life advisor.

    That said, it is hard to strike a balance sometimes. I view my ultimate responsibility as facilitating the chapter offering a quality, meaningful experience. It becomes a matter of expectations, really. I have found the best way to get the chapter talking on the same page is to work on a SWOT plan together– and yet, sometimes that isn’t even enough to ensure that one person missing a paperwork deadline won’t affect the whole group (as was the case this year–the chapter is now on campus probation for two years.) Where is the line between overstepping and ensuring the entire chapter isn’t affected by leadership missteps?

  6. sororityadvisor says:

    It’s a very fine line one walks as any advisor. A good advisor is like a business manager in that they guide you toward the right direction and provide you with the information needed to make those decisions.
    I was Chapter Advisor for my sorority for 4 years and have served as the Recruitment Advisor for the past 25 years. I have seen the whole gamut of Chapter Advisors from completely hands off to those that want to control everything. Both ends of the spectrum do a disservice to these women. With no advisory board presence, the chapter becomes a bad episode of Girls Gone Wild while with the control freaks, you have women resigning.
    The same however goes for chapter Presidents and it takes the Chapter Advisor working with the President to make it work.
    You also need to remember these positions are VOLUNTEER and very time consuming. The question that needs to be asked here in that case is it better to have someone volunteer that may be controlling or have no one at all? With large universities such as the one I’m at, you then put the chapter in risk management danger.

  7. Corin Wallace says:

    I’m going to get kind of nerdy here, and offer a theory as to why we act like this and have advisors for sororities (both male advisors and female advisors) who choose this top-down, heavy handed, approach. I advise both women’s groups and men’s, and there is a concept that frankly, doesn’t even exist in women’s groups, and hasn’t been a part of our culture, well, as far as I can tell, ever. The concept of “self-governance” is simply not a factor in sorority culture. It is not an underpinning of the experience, and as our groups have evolved, sororities have struggled with the same “in loco parentis” (or in lieu of parents) approach for advisors. Think about it. Our men are offered and afforded an expectation of accountability, independence, and peer to peer leadership. Many times, the structure and culture of our sororities is not designed for advisors to allow for these women to lead independently. They are designed to support an age-old, very entrenched model of supporting young women.

    We’re working on that. Our groups are evolving at a fast pace. I know you know that.

    We also are dealing with a new brand of volunteer. The sorority volunteer of 10, 15 years ago might not have worked outside the home, and may have used sorority “support” as her primary outlet. Now, she is serving alongside women with a different lifestyle, and both types of volunteers are having to navigate an increasingly litigious culture, understandably high expectations from our groups and our campus partners, and complex issues related to assessment of experience, mental health, co-curricular life, etc. We’re figuring that out. How our women connect with those expectations takes many forms.

    I definitely don’t like the use of the term “crazies”. As for the “influx of lawyers” – I don’t think you need to be a lawyer to have a litigious bent, and I definitely don’t think we would ever determine that the influx of male lawyers has impacted our men’s groups negatively. I do appreciate the suggestions related to volunteer development and education on how best to support our women as they learn to lead.

    Sometimes, as Heather so wisely said, its about being an advisor when “friend” is easier. It’s about being branded as overbearing when the relationship goes south. Some of the men I’ve worked with have less than healthy advisory approaches as well. That’s a blog for another day, I’m sure.

    Just some context for you, T.J. (I’ll take my nerd glasses off now.)

  8. All excellent points.

  9. currentadviser says:

    This is true of any organization, whether business or service related. There are good police officers, and bad ones. There are good professors, and bad ones. There are lawyers who are controlling, and those that aren’t. (which I’m not sure what your reference to lawyers in your article means) There are good advisers, and bad ones. I have been an adviser for over 10 years. And I have dealt with chapter officers or members who claim I can be too controlling. And I have great relationships with other officers – it’s the old saying, “you can’t make everyone happy, all of the time”.

    It is a hard balence to maintain. For most topics, I allow the girls to do whatever they wish, regardless if in my experience it hasn’t worked. Because THEY need that experience. I stand back and watch as they succeed, or fail, and I am there to help them figure out why. However, when it comes to National Policies, or Risk Policies, there is no room for failure as it could result in probation or the pulling of a charter.

    What I have found, is if what they wish to do runs afoul of a policy, I explain why. A simple “no” isn’t enough. The girls need to know why. They are not my kids, and I can’t get away with a simple “because I said so”. If officers understand why, they can explain to members. Why can’t you have formal at a bar 50 miles out of town without busses? Well, there is a possibility of drunk driving, and our insurance doens’t allow for this. BUT, if you really want to have it there, you need to cough up the money for the busses. At that point, it’s a chapter decision. If the members want to pay an additional $50 a ticket to pay for busses, then sure, have at it.

    Luckily, my organization provides both adviser and officer training every year. And part of this training is done together, as a team, and on a state wide level.

    But we must also remember, that these “bad advisers” may not be as bad as the members make them out to be. It may be that the chapter is asking to do something that isn’t allowed. Not because of the adviser, but because of policy. And the chapter is angry and assumes the adviser is controlling them. Or it may be a chapter member, who was removed from the group due to illegal activity now lashing out at the organization. (which has happened to my group recently) Or, the adviser may just be bad. But, just as I am reluctant to assume that all police offiers are bad, I will not assume all officers who are called controlling, are in fact, controlling – not without additional information.

  10. Advisor says:

    Great blog post T.J. However, I have to play devils advocate. I do the best I can do with my advising my chapter. It is definitely a difficult job. But, what from I have experienced we are dealing with a generation that is not used to being told “no.” A generation that feels entitled. When I tell the women, “no, you cannot do this because it goes against national policies.” They get very defensive, upset, and emotional. Maybe this just a maturity thing and nothing to do with a generational difference. I take a hands off approach most of the time, except when it comes down to breaking policies and procedures. They do not seem to comprehend this isn’t my personal opinion but simply the rules they agreed to abide by. My personal opinions may be different then the rules, but as an advisor I am here to follow and see that the chapter follows these rules. They just do not get it. I am sure there are a lot of crazy advisors out there, but I most certainly think that we are dealing with a unique generation of students.

  11. Tracey says:

    Great post TJ. As a previous chapter advisor, I know that I and my successors worked hard to ensure that we were providing a balance of challenge and support. Our policy is that chapter advisors are 5 yrs out and only allowed a max of 2 x 2y terms.
    I am saddened to hear that the over bearing advisor is a little more widespread than I thought.

    As a student affairs professional, I would love to work with (inter)national organizations to create a training package and visiting consultant program to help with the issue.

    I think it is easy to blame the generational issues, but chapter advisors are all volunteers and organizations rely on those who are willing to devote the time, but do not receive a ton of support themselves in understanding how to encourage and facilitate – letting leaders learn by doing and often failing. It likely comes from a good place of wanting the sorority to flourish, but can go too far.

    Thanks for giving me another possible future career direction.

  12. RJ says:

    TJ,

    Thank you for bringing attention to this issue. I think that you raise some excellent points about self-governance and the importance of supporting student leadership development in our organizations. I hope that you will continue to explore this topic and consider highlighting the difficult situation that many of our advisors are in. In my experience as an advisor (and admittedly one who has at times been too authoritative), I’ve found that walking the line between (inter)national policy and chapter decision making/self-governance is a very difficult job. Many advisors are faced with competing pressures from (inter)national organization, university staff, and student leaders, which can be exceedingly difficult to navigate.

    Aside from the content of your post, I agree with Cori and hope that you will reconsider the use of the word “crazies” in reference to women. Calling women crazy perpetuates stereotypes and dismisses women as being overly emotional. This is a great commentary addressing the issue: http://thecurrentconscience.com/blog/2011/09/12/a-message-to-women-from-a-man-you-are-not-%E2%80%9Ccrazy%E2%80%9D/

    Thank you!

  13. Natl Volunteer says:

    As a regional volunteer, I also see a lot of what your’e talking about when I interact with collegians and find they don’t even know what their jobs entail because the advisors just do it and rescue them when the officers don’t follow through. I see this happening more and more and have started to conduct workshops on coaching rather than managing and having conversations about allowing the women to fail as a learning strategy. How do we best help these young women truly become leaders? By letting them fail. There are times we cannot allow them to fail, in the case of risk management issues, but we can encourage them to come up with their own alternatives. If a certain activity is not allowed, they can sometimes alter their plan slightly to stay aligned with risk management policies. There is a difference between saying “no” and saying “You can’t do it that way because of X, but let’s brainstorm another way to do it that will work for everybody.”

  14. Mike T says:

    Great post, TJ! I worked in Fraternity & Sorority Life for 7 years and this issue has been around for as long as I can recall. It’s an issue that I feel has deteriorated year by year. I am currently not in the field, but I imagine this issue has probably reached a critical mass stage.

    As the advisor to our National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC)chapters, believe me when I tell you that this issue has permeated into the day to day chapter lives of most NPHC sororities (but not the fraternities).Since 2006, I’ve seen several of my former NPHC sorority chapters being told that they couldn’t even have a gathering of more than 2 members without having a Graduate Advisor (which in NPHC terminology is the same as a chapter advisor)present. Those that disobeyed this edict were subject to fines and, in one spectacular example, it lead to a Cease and Desist of an entire 15 member chapter for an entire semester.

    The advisors claim that they are terrified about the undergraduates committing an act that could lead to the National organization being sued. While this line of thinking does have some legitimacy behind it, the advisors have managed to completely stifle the entire leadership experience for the chapter members.

    So yeah, this issue is alive and well and has also manifested itself in other Greek councils as well.

  15. I have received several private messages saying, “But this is the exception, not the rule.” Ladies, I recognize that, and I say so in the body of the post. However, when there are enough exceptions that it becomes a negative trend, it deserves comment.

    A chapter that hazes and kills a new member would be the exception to the rule. It doesn’t make it unworthy of comment. Get my drift?

  16. TD says:

    I think what you say has merit but we must remember that this is not the rule but the exception. You hear about the negative because we rarely discuss the positive. Additionally, the girls bristle under any type of advising.

    As a collegian, my advisor was scary. I was literally afraid of her. As an alumnae, I began advising. I was a chapter advisor for 5 years at a large school. I dealt with death threats from girls, grueling parent conversations, and blatant disrespect. The girls called me harsh and unbending because they weren’t allowed to have alcohol in the house per national rules… Does my enforcing of that make me ‘mean’ or irrational? No. Yes, deciding the slate or being overly controlling of the chapter is not good. But this is what I have found being active in my national organization… young alums volunteer then move on with their lives (getting married and having kids). There is, however, a segment of women who are older (40′s +) who are single without families who rule with an iron fist. It is as if this is their whole life and they do not want to relinquish it. Then the leadership tends to be even older women who have children in college or older. A totally hierarchical system.

    As a chapter advisor, I put in nearly 40 hours a week sometimes on sorority issues and details. I could not continue to sustain that. Perhaps we need to review and restructure what we do as national organizations… perhaps we try to do too much… but volunteers either stay around for 20+ years or give a year or two and leave… We are burning women out faster than we replace them.

  17. B Johnson says:

    I will admit, I was a little upset at the article at first, but I after reading it, it opened my eyes to reality that I was trying to hide. I am a new advisor to a sorority at a large university. There are three advisors around my age (late 20-somethings) and three who are 60+. Ironically, it is the ones who are 60+ that are “out of control”. As I just finished my first year, I was hesitant to make many suggestions to other advisors, but early on, i knew that some were overstepping their roles and not letting the girls run the chapter as necessary. My eyes were opened a few weeks ago when the advisors did a walkthrough of the house after the girls left. Two of the older advisors were talking about some redecorations that were going to be ocurring during the summer months and said that the house corps chair had selected a bright yellow paint color with bright blue linens for a new kitchenette. They told her, “no” without any reasoning but later said to me “these girls don’t know how to decorate. I just have to show them” and then selected paint and decorations that she liked, without the chapter input.

    As a new student affairs professional, I enjoy my time as advisor, but regularly face challenges allowing the young ladies to make mistakes, knowing that is how they will best learn. I “know” the better way to solve a problem, but I learned that on my own when others allowed me to make the decisions. While our sorority does have the rule that advisors should only serve for two years, unfortunately, there aren’t enough new people moving into our town to allow that (we are a college town in constant change), so the head advisor has been such for 15+ years. I feel the ones that serve the chapter the best are the ones who are able to serve for a few year, but then move after graduate school.

    Thank you for this article as it does shed a light on many problems. I am glad to know that our chapter is not the only one who has these issues.

  18. Rachael Brizzard says:

    I am lucky enough to be apart of a chapter that has the most excellent advisors ever. They offer their homes to us, help pay our house dues, and we can count on them for anything. However, when it comes to recruitment there are those few advisors and alumni that think they belong in the chapter still. They voice their opinions openly about what girls we should take and which ones we should “cut”. This bothers me because you aren’t in the chapter and how you see a girl is not how she acts when she is around peers of her own age. I feel like some chapter advisors need to take a step back and have trust in their fellow sisters.

    I am so thankful we do have such awesome alumni because other chapters at this university are lucky to have even one advisor.

    Sometimes though, I wonder if advisors are so crazy in some chapters because the specific chapter needs that back bone. They need an advisor to be strict and tell them what they can and cannot do! Maybe the chapter is too crazy or simply not following what their founders created them to do. I guess you just have to go chapter by chapter of each sorority.

  19. Aisha Carson says:

    I definitely think that there is a fine line between a good advisor and a bad one. But the age old saying holds true ” you’ll understand if this is ever you.” If ever I was in that position it would be hard for me to watch a chapter to make mistake after mistake while refusing your guidance. However, like most incidence in like people will learn more effective from experience. Not to say there aren’t any bad advisors out there. Fortunately, I have never ran into one.

    Aisha Carson
    Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.
    University of Southern Mississippi

  20. c101 says:

    Directives on extension/no extension votes almost always come from each organization’s National Headquarters. I’ve seen campus chapters wanting to vote differently than the Area Panhellenic’s recommendation be shot down and “forced” to vote with the majority. This may be a reiteration from a chapter advisor that is filtered from the National Headquarters, and hence a heavy hand felt from the chapter advisor. The goal of chapter advisory councils is to keep the charter on the wall. There’s lots of leeway for member leadership and growth within that goal. When an idea or direction is threatening that goal, the advisors are there to keep the wheels on the track.

  21. I think you hit the nail on the head. It’s about keeping the charter on the wall. Some might suggest that the mission of any sorority is something more admirable than that… like providing women with a positive environment in which to grow as leaders, students and citizens? Or is it more about keeping the initiation fees rolling in and the rent payments coming on sorority houses?

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