Fraternity Advisor Crisis

January 1, 2020 John R. Hatfield 0 Comments

Let us Take an Entirely Different Way from the Usual One

Discovering a New Identity as a Fraternity Advisor

John R. Hatfield

Danger gathers upon our path. We cannot afford – we have no right – to look back. We must look forward

Churchill, 10 December 1936

The number one common denominator for a chapter’s consistent success is the advisor team and his or her relationship with active chapter and the national fraternity. This position has been in turmoil for a long time. The scope of duties has dramatically expanded, and many are not prepared to handle the current complexity happening at the university, challenges from interacting with the media, the delayed adolescence in males, and threats to the mental and emotional wellness of the men entering the chapter. Our job is a living laboratory.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change.” 

Charles Darwin

The range of topics the advisor is confronted with is overwhelming. The majority are working alone, inadequately equipped to handle the constantly changing environment, and lack a seasoned leader who is experienced leading through these issues. Fortune favors the brave. We must be courageous and move forward facing our fears. We can fix this. It’s going to take focused leadership, willingness to try new strategies, and the commitment to move financial and development resources to this significant role that has the most Influence on the health of a chapter. 

“We cannot become what we want by remaining what we are,”

Max DePree.

#1 Set up for failure

“Timing, perseverance, and ten years of trying will eventually make you look like an overnight success.”

Biz Stone Co-founder of Twitter.

Why does the national fraternity often choose a twenty-two-year-old to head up the position of managing and leading fraternity advisors? It doesn’t make sense. People follow people not positions. The main advantage they bring to the position is their age, being within five years of age of current chapter members. They may have a better understanding of the current undergraduate culture and this may be helpful to the advisor’s they lead. It is assumed he or she may be current on significant issues around consent, Title 9, inclusion, diversity, and racial injustice, but this is not a given. The twenty-two to twenty-eight-year-old can share some life experiences from when he or she was a member as an undergraduate, but nothing from the position of being an advisor.

In reality, the advisor who has been in the position for several years may be better equipped and obviously more competent because he or she has had to deal with these problems already in the chapter. There is a good chance the advisor has participated in both fraternity and sorority life office trainings or his or her national fraternity trainings through the years. On the other hand, there may be advisors who are still completely clueless, toxic, rogue, and detached from current non-negotiables from the university and the national fraternity. Many of these advisors have been the problem and have been detrimental and should be removed. 

I have had all the disadvantages required for success.

Larry Ellison

Let’s take a look at this with a different perspective. A twenty-two to twenty-eight-year-old has not lived through different phases of life, marriage, divorce, career change, children of different ages, marital conflicts, or the pain of life not being what one expected. He or she cannot relate or understand when an advisor has children that demand his priority in the different stages of his fatherhood and how this impacts his amount of emotional and physical time as the advisor. Bottom-line all of these affect his time and ability in his advising.  An older man in the same position has a voice into the advisor’s life, has understanding, and can lead through a relational connection the twenty-two to twenty-eight-year-old can’t. This is one of our desperate needs and frustrations with the national fraternity recruiting a twenty-two-to-twenty-eight-year-old to lead advisors. They are at a complete disadvantage because they have little to no experience, no stories, and because of their age, have never gained any knowledge through direct observation and participation as an advisor, lacking the skill base advisors need.  The twenty-two to twenty-eight-year-old has never held an advisor position. He or she has no practical experience or understanding only theory. This creates a lack of respect from the local advisor’s they lead. And if the advisor has been in the position for five years or more, he or she has seen this position from the national fraternity change every three years and he or she can become frustrated, cynical, and pessimistic toward the national fraternity. Honestly, he or she has very little to offer. In reality, the advisor knows more than he or she does. This creates a disconnect and once again the younger man or woman is put into a position of failure, not being able to meet the needs of the advisor who lives in the daily trenches of the chapter.

Advisors become extremely frustrated and feel alone because the twenty-two to twenty- eight-year-old can’t relate and has little to offer, they do not feel supported, understood, or helped. Many times, this construct creates an antagonistic relationship with the national fraternity.

Note-In this section it may seem that I disrespect the younger man or woman put into a position of leading advisors. Please note, I deeply respect the time, energy, research, and planning he or she does for the success of the local chapter. You desire to help and have a heart to make the chapter better. I value you and I’m thankful for your hard work and sacrifice.

#2 One is the loneliest number that you’ll ever do

Three Dog Night

Being alone as the chapter advisor is a set up for failure, it’s an outdated paradigm that failed. Insanity as we all know, is doing the same thing again and again and expecting a different result. Sadly, most fraternities have been dealing with insanity for decades

“Yesterday’s home run doesn’t win today’s game.”

Babe Ruth

One of the reasons numerous chapters are in a complete free fall, and have been closing, is because of this broken paradigm. It doesn’t work, it has outlived its purpose. One advisor isn’t enough, the scope of duties has expanded, they aren’t prepared to handle the complexity of the current problems.

“No leader can ever achieve anything great or long-lasing all alone.”

John Maxwell

What a chapter advisor was responsible for, one, two, or three decades ago has completely changed. Being in tune with the current knowledge base of what is happening at such a rapidly changing environment at the university is overwhelming.  The medias exposure and assault on our repeated offenses of not living out our purpose of existence, as well as our physical and emotional abuse on our new members, for some ending in death brings incredible pressure on a lone advisor. The advisor is faced with psychological issues such as: delayed adolescence, young men walking into the chapter with adolescent trauma, and father wounding. Additionally, young men dealing with the suicide of a close friend or relative. Unless the advisor has a degree in sociology or psychology, he or she is at ground zero. He or she feels overwhelmed, anxious, and quickly realize, this is way above their pay grade. 

This fall, I asked a new member class: “What was one of their deepest pain points?” Eighteen percent of the class had a best friend or relative commit suicide. Research says, if you have a best friend commit suicide then you are more likely to commit suicide. I have dealt with two of these cases in the past three years.

A decade ago, I started as a lone chapter advisor and quickly realized, this is a set up for failure. The time and emotional commitment were beyond me. It was a full-time job. I quickly recruited a team dividing up responsibilities and having a weekly huddle. We manage and lead a chapter of 92 on the roster. Different responsibilities included: Recruitment, Finances, Exec, Well-being of the members, and Property. The House Corps Director is completely involved. The house corps and the advisor team must be in alignment, in agreement philosophically, in values, in the culture they want to build, pulling together in the same direction.

“To lead transformationally, you must first live transformed. That takes courage to let go of the familiar and set off on a better way.”

John Maxwell


Who could you recruit to join you and what position would match their skill set?
Why would it be essential to have a weekly conference call with the team?What would the job description entail for each position? 

#3 Development and Training

Every time we push personal development aside, we invite personal struggle into our lives.

Hal Elrod

Advisors need to be equipped yearly, period. With the complexity of current fraternity and sorority life issues and the rapid changing university culture this is imperative.
The advisor team plays the most important role in the health and success of the active chapter, not the national fraternity. In respect to the hierarchy of the food chain, advisors too long have been in the lower half and need to be at the top. There needs to be a clear and consistent strategy for advisor development that has mandatory training. They must be able to navigate the chaos, with help from the national fraternity. Funding needs to be allocated to their training, aka, from external firms; attending AFLV or AFA yearly conferences, or other training from say, Phired Up, or hiring a consultant to augment their team. Many chapters pay a live-in house mom who quite frankly fulfills a role but has minimal impact on the chapter. Why not allocate finances to hire a leadership consultant to work with active chapter, advisors, and house corps weekly? Wouldn’t this be wise, having a greater impactful for both the local chapter and the advisor team?

Personal development is the belief that you are worth the effort, time, and energy needed to develop you.

The national fraternity should have professional on-line modules covering key issues advisors face that address a variety of learning styles, rather than boring factual data points.
National fraternities should have webinars each semester that the advisor values and are willing to give up the time to attend. The last webinar I attended from a national fraternity, the twenty-four-year-old simply read from a script. It was boring, disengaging, and everyone walked away with the feeling it was a waste of time. Perhaps a panel discussion or a moderator that throws out a topic that advisors can share what they have learned on the topic and why. Nationals could invest in a regional day across the country of advisor training or a national conference just for advisors each year. The key to getting the advisors to attend will be the quality and professionalism in the content presented. A respected older leader who has been in the role and understands its complexities and creates challenging dialogue with significant application for when local advisors return to campus would be impactful. They should walk away both energized from what they learned and the relationships they built.

“When you share space, share responsibility, share ownership, and share rewards, everyone wants to contribute.”

John Maxwell

I work for several national fraternities. I’m the national leadership and culture consultant for Beta Sigma Psi. They are committed financially to provide the best development each year for me. It keeps me current and I am a better leader and mentor to their men. I am grateful for their vision and sacrifice to make me the best, believing in turn it will make their chapters the best!

“A good mentor has been there”

Eric Greitens

“A mentor is someone with knowledge and skill that empowers a learner through example, instruction, dialogue, affirmation, challenge and support, preferably, in the context of an authentic relationship.”

John R. Hatfield

As advisors we need mentors and leaders who have been where we are going. Those who know more, that we can listen and learn from. He or she teaches us from their life experiences not from the theory of a book or paper. They have wisdom and knowledge. These are the mentors who share their mistakes and show us how because they are living it. We desperately need mentors who have the experience, stories, practice, and perspective. We need expert judgment not novice judgment. A twenty-two-to-twenty-eight-year-old hasn’t been where local advisors are and have no life experiences as a chapter advisor.

The Messenger Matters

Resilience is the character of working through suffering, pain, and adversity. We listen and respect these mentors who have struggled themselves. They understand us and can bring us to the critical point of insight and perspective.


How can I continue to develop myself to be a better fraternity advisor?

What is one new training workshop, seminar, webinar, conference or book I should participate in every year?

Who can mentor you?

What are your semester goals for the chapter?

How do you help active chapter bring in key speakers?

#4 Trust and Betrayal

Words mean nothing when your actions contradict

Friendship is built on trust, respect, and honesty

As I choose to be vulnerable with my life, sharing what happened to me as a young man, issues with my family, my groping to find my career it creates a safe place where active chapter can listen and ask questions. Kotter (2009) believes feelings are powerful and you must have an emotional connection to truly embrace change. Advisors must know and embrace this truth on emotional connection. Sharing mistakes in how I put together my self- image, the pain of a divorce, the mistakes I made at different stages in life and the consequences gives them a picture of authenticity and garners active chapter respect. I become a struggling human just like them. When I choose to take my mask off and let the true John be seen they see me differently. Authenticity creates trust. There is power in honesty, the number one virtue people desire in their leader. James Kouzes and Barry Posner leadership experts have surveyed over 75,000 people with the question, what quality is most admired in a leader, the answer, HONESTY

“When people honor each other, there is a trust established that leads to synergy, interdependence, and deep respect. Both parties make decisions and choices based on what is right, what is best, what is valued most highly.”

Blaine Lee

Trust is the firm belief in the character, strength, or truth of someone or something. It’s placing confidence in this person or thing. I have had good trusting relationships and ones that blew up.

“Trust but Verify”

Ronald Reagan

Betrayal always involves secrets. Betrayal happens because of violating a commitment, promise, or pledge, through dishonesty.
When these violations occur, it is devastating, and trust is shattered. Yes, I have been betrayed and yes, I have been the betrayer.

Tell a lie once and all your truths become questionable

If you have ever been lied to, you know the devastating feeling. The sick-to-your-stomach, punch-the-closest-wall, paralyzed-and-can’t-even-begin-to-think feeling. You trusted someone, you trusted what they said. You may have even defended the person or the lie they sold you. 
The chapter told me they had it covered: “Don’t worry, the event will not cross the line into hazing, it’s just a funny, bonding brotherhood event.” I trusted that they were being honest with me. At the time, I couldn’t fathom these men looking me in the eyes and lying to me. 
Things couldn’t have been better! They just won best fraternity on campus; members had achieved academic success, won intramurals, and had a track record of outstanding civic service and philanthropic engagement. The chapter had been awarded as a top five chapter nationally, with countless individual awards.

Yet underneath the accolades secrets ruled, lies were justified, deception only perpetuated the persona of honesty and greatness.

The specific hazing event was a relic from the past that had been in place for decades, unbeknownst to me (nothing new, right?). As I found out later, this event had ranged from “just fine” to “on edge” to “completely out of control” in the past. 

The year in question, the brotherhood event went from a funny bonding activity to a crude, rude, disrespectful, shocking violation of values, boundaries and human decency. Immediately following this, the deception and secrecy began. A cover-up was used to deny or defend the embarrassing actions or errors made by members. Because the persona created had to be kept up; the illusion of success had to remain intact. 

Lies never fix things, they never make things right, it is just a matter of time before the lie is exposed and the implosion occurs.

Once the event was exposed – and the gravity of what the consequences might be – I had men falling apart emotionally, as they dealt with guilt, shame, and fear. Relationships, though damaged, are what kept the chapter together. The house corporation board president and I engaged student leadership to talk through the situation (honestly this time) and create an action plan to move us forward. The long and short of it: removing certain members, implementing programming, and taking time to acknowledge, apologize for, and learn from what they had done wrong. Members stepped up to claim ownership and responsibility, while solidifying their commitment to accountability. They were a chapter of leaders and this proved it. They were returning to our values, our mission, our brotherhood. 
I’m sure many advisors can relate to this story in some form. To be honest, I was devasted, and as I used the incident as a teaching moment on trust and betrayal, I began to weep. It became a beautiful moment of apology and forgiveness with the men.


Describe how you can build or rebuild a trusting relationship between you and active chapter.

#5 If you aim at nothing, you hit it every time.

Does anyone know what the hell I’m supposed to be doing?

The majority of advisors do not have a written job description, or they have a job description that is outdated. Some national fraternities do have a description but unless this is revisited yearly and talked through, it’s lost in the minutia.

If you don’t know what you are responsible for, then it’s easy to lose focus in the chaos. It’s like throwing darts without a dart board. Yes, there is time, effort, and sincerity spent throwing the darts, but it has zero influence, it’s a waste and it becomes frustrating because you never hit the target! My greatest desire is to influence these young men. I want my life to make a difference. I believe that is the desire of every chapter advisor.

Every semester I go to my favorite coffee shop and spend a few hours reviewing active chapters plans and goals and identify how I can keep them accountable and how to help them succeed. Next I think through what my goals are for the active chapter and what I need to do to fulfill them. For example, I may need to put together a program on Emotional and Mental Wellness or collaborate with active chapter to have someone from the University come and have dinner and do a program with the men. When I bring in an outside speaker, after the speaker leaves, I always have a discussion on current issues within the chapter on this topic, what we learned from the presenter, and what we need to implement.

As advisors we must know what we are going to be held accountable for and why. It is imperative. We must have a map. Without one we are continually lost. Others have unspoken expectations that may or may not be realistic, we burn out, and we continually feel we are failing. I don’t know about you, but I hate being in a failure cycle. Its draining and discouraging and causes me to be angry, bitter, and pessimistic. This is not a good place to lead from.

The Top Ten

Basic job description

  1. Promote and lead the chapter in fulfilling the mission, purpose, and sacred values of the fraternity, the why this fraternity exists.
  2. Identify my semester goals for the chapter.
  3. Be the liaison between the chapter and the university, house corps, and national fraternity.
  4. Eradicate all unacceptable behaviors not in alignment with university student conduct and national member conduct.
  5. Educated on current Fraternity and sorority life, university, and societal trends, aka, sexual orientation, inclusion, racial bigotry, acceptance, sexual harassment, assault and rape, consent, Title 9, hazing, alcohol and drugs, emotional and mental wellness and suicide to name a few. These are important programing topics each year.
  6. Build a trusting relationship between active members and himself/herself.
  7. Meet with Exec weekly, holding them accountable to their semester goals.
  8. Talk through and have active chapter provide an outline for every event during the semester, the why, is it in alignment with national and university policies, how could it go rogue, and assess the event during and after. Trust but verify.
  9. Protect the chapter from losing its charter.
  10. Guardian of the culture.


If you don’t have a Job Description write one.
What are your semester goals for the chapter?
How do you help active chapter bring in key speakers?

#6 Guardian of the Right Culture

It’s the way we do things around here

Culture is the values, beliefs, rituals, language, symbols, and most important the accepted or rejected behaviors of a fraternity. Culture is established and renewed through deliberate and thoughtful practice day in and day out. Every culture has a DNA, an ethos. The DNA carries the genetic information, the code that gives definition, information, and a picture of the selected culture. It is a way of life that involves a reward system, practices, tradition, and rituals. Culture is passed from one generation to another through communication, symbolism, teaching and correction, imitation, and most importantly mentoring.

“Our culture, our traditions, our languages are the foundations upon which we build our identity,”

Spanglish Baby.

Every fraternity has three cultures. The first is based on the foundational values and purpose in why they became a fraternity. Rituals were created, symbols made, a language between each other happened, and accepted and rejected behavior was established for the purpose of bonding, commitment, and loyalty as a band of brothers.

As advisors, we call out, continue to educate, and hold active chapter to this sacred historical loyalty that has been passed down from one generation to another.

The second culture that occurs, is when foundational values are not embraced and lived out, rituals become forms of hazing, symbols are lost or misinterpreted, and unaccepted behavior rules. In reality, the chapter doesn’t resemble anything that even remotely represents the foundational culture that established the fraternity, except the letters. We all too often have been involved in this phenomenon.

The third culture is the sub-culture that is influencing and leading the chapter. The sub-culture has power and creates divisiveness, disunity, divisions, and is destructive. There is a chapter split and this becomes fatal in the chapters ability to fulfill the mission and vision of the fraternity unless the sub-culture is removed. Once again, many of us have been involved in this situation tоo many times.

As advisors, we are the guardians of the foundational culture.

We understand the ideal culture better than active chapter. We are the front line, in the trench, on the field, the mat, in the boxing ring leader. We are the ones slugging it out, daily. Maintaining a flourishing, vibrant foundational culture will take three initiatives. 

One, having a high bar of who gets a bid and why. We must carefully manage recruitment, have a clear standards grid upon making decisions on potentials. For example, one chapter I advise no one gets a bid whose high school GPA is below a 3.4 and if they are already in college no bid if his GPA is below active chapter current GPA. They don’t cheapen their bid by offering it on a first meet, they get to know him to see if he is a right fit, they must have been involved in two or more activities in HS, they look for leadership positions he held as well as for character traits that match, responsibility, honesty, and sacrifice, (the willingness to be a giver to the chapter not just a taker).

Two, managing the culture on a daily/weekly basis. As we all know, and seen, you can recruit an incredible new associate class, but it can turn sour if the active chapter is living out a wrong culture. It always fails. We must be in tune and have a pulse, on current active chapter decisions, and events, and how they relate with each other. Its continuous leadership helping active chapter understand right and wrong culture and the results. It involves mentoring and constantly holding up the standard and answering the question why. It brings boys into manhood.

Three, removing members whose behaviors do not align with the fraternity and university honor codes. This is the most important element in protecting the culture. When active chapter chooses to remove a brother, who did not get consent, or was selling drugs on the property, or who uses disrespectful racial language or is unaccepting of men born gay it sends a signal. This behavior is unacceptable. Recently I had a chapter that removed a brother for not getting consent and another chapter removed a brother who used a racial slur. These decisions sent a clear signal of what behavior will not be accepted. This is a beautiful picture of a correct culture with outstanding leadership.

“Confidence… thrives on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection and on unselfish performance. Without them it cannot live.”

Franklin D. Roosevelt


Why can’t culture change occur in a chapter review and then a weekend retreat to move forward?
Why does this usually fail?
Why does a four-five-year chapter removal from campus and then a restart many times end up in peril again? There is a reason…

“Everything rises and falls based upon leadership” 

John Maxwell

National fraternities need to rethink the role and relationship with advisors. As Kotter states, “The 21st century will force us all to evolve toward a fundamentally new form of organization.” We must be adaptable and in tune with what is happening. Instead of advisors being a weak link or antagonist relationship they need to be placed in the position of highest priority. They should receive the very best in training and development, highly affirmed for their relentless sacrifice, and allowed to have a voice at the table of decision-making at the national fraternity level. 

“The glue that holds all relationships together–including the relationship between the leader and the led is trust, and trust is based on integrity.”

Brian Tracy

Let’s rethink the responsibilities of being a chapter advisor and our relationships with active chapter, the national fraternity, the university, other chapter advisors on our campus, and the fraternity and sorority office. Let’s work together with integrity and honesty building the glue of trust to make our chapter reflect the fraternity sacredness each of us values.


Which topic from this article spoke to you the most and why?
What is the one thing you need to change as an advisor as a result of reading this article?
Who do you need to pass this article onto?
As an advisor, what has been your greatest surprise?

With you in the fray!

John R. Hatfield


Aristotle. (1941) The Basic Works of Aristotle


Trans. W.E. Ross Ed. Richard McKeon. New York: Random House, 1941

DePree, M. (1989) Leadership is an Art.

Dell Publishing

Greitens E. (2015) Resilience. 

First Mariner Books edition 2016

Hatfield, J. (Eds.) 8th Annual mentoring Conference Proceedings: Five Distinct Mentoring Roles

University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Kotter, J. (2002). The Heart of Change: Real-Life Stories of How People Change Their Organization

Harvard Business Review Press 

Maxwell, J. (2019) Leader Shift. 

Thomas Nelson, Nashville, TN.

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Fraternity Advisor Crisis was last modified: June 21st, 2021 by John R. Hatfield