Why unilateral action at Belmont is dangerous
A defense of Belmont fraternities and a call to action to stop future overreach
In my four years at Belmont University, the most recurring lesson I have learned is the power of unilateral leadership. Unilateral leadership is when decisions are made by one person or party, without much consultation with others. The latest in a long line of examples comes from university President Bob Fisher’s recent order demanding Belmont fraternities impose 100 percent bid distribution for potential new members. If a PNM meets certain criteria, they are guaranteed a bid from at least one fraternity, no questions asked. This is just the latest in a series of dangerous unilateral orders forced on students, but there is also precedent to make change.
As a member of the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity, we commit our creed to memory. The first line goes “Phi Kappa Tau, by admitting me to membership, has conferred upon me a mark of distinction in which I take just pride.”
When recruitment rolls around every fall and spring, we look to the creed to guide us in selecting potential new members. For me, I look for a mark of distinction in potential new members that our organization can confer with a bid. This helps me weed out people who want more of a “traditional” fraternity experience and would not improve our organization.
Belmont Greek Life is not like Greek Life at other schools. There are no houses, no wild parties every weekend and we do not haze. This is not Animal House, Old School or even Monsters University. Greek Life at Belmont strives to attain the highest ideals of their member organizations and make the university a better place. I always tell potential new members that we are a leadership development organization. If you look at any organization on campus, chances are their leadership team has at least one fraternity or sorority member.
Through informal conversations over rush week, we build the future not only of our organizations, but almost every other Belmont organization as well. While the process is far from perfect, we have been largely successful in weeding out the less than distinct men of character. They usually expose themselves pretty early in the week, with questions like “So like, what are the parties like?” Or they will say with an attitude that screams you’re happy to see me: “So which sorority has the hottest girls?” Even if those guys come to every rush event that week, they will not usually be extended a bid. Not just because they won’t fit in, but because they are a potential liability. I do not want a guy whose favorite past time is getting wasted and trolling for girls wearing my letters.
One member’s actions reflects on us as a whole. The fraternities at Belmont are vested with the responsibility to separate the good potential new members from the damaging ones.
Which is why forcing 100 percent bidding is so concerning. The latest decree from Freeman Hall will force Belmont fraternities to give out bids to every PNM who comes out to rush if they meet certain requirements. Belmont Student Affairs is still working with senior leadership to finalize the details, but the gist is that if a potential new member comes to every event during rush week and meets certain academic standards, they will be guaranteed an invitation to at least one organization. This will radically change one of the best Greek communities in the country for the worse. The power is taken away from us to guide our own future.
This is the already the reality for Belmont sororities. Because the university refuses to expand the Greek community by adding an additional chapter, sororities have swelled to the point where there are only a handful of spaces on campus that can hold of their members at at once. Greek membership has steadily increased for the last four years at Belmont, and is poised to explode again in the next four when this mandate is implemented. While I love giving the most people the opportunity to join such a life changing organization, there are some who simply not ready for this responsibility.
The flood gates of our chapters will be thrown open to all sorts of people who have no business receiving a bid. In fact, the student who was removed from Belmont for posting a vile, hateful, racist Snapchat went through fall rush. He did not go to every event that week, but if this current rule were in place and he came to a few more events, he would be in letters.
While the problem of 100 percent bidding will get worked through by the organizations, the larger issues is the precedent this move sets. At the end of the day our sovereignty has been violated by a unilateral action. If President Fisher wants something, it is made so. Despite the objections of those in student affairs, the measure will go through without much forethought into the future. The alarming question now is when does it end? Where’s the line?
What’s to stop someone in senior leadership from saying, “We are going to need your organization to perform your secret ritual in full for our officers so we can make sure it complies to the Bruin Guide” or “Requiring study hours is a form of hazing, you’ll need to stop that practice.” This might seem trivial now, but this issue goes beyond the confines of the Greek community to all of Belmont.
It starts with not allowing faculty to hang things on the walls, but where does it stop? When does it start interfering with classroom lesson plans? Or freedom of speech? Remember in 2014 Fisher decided to dismiss former Belmont student Danny Zydel from his resident assistant position after Zydel recorded a heated conversation with Fisher?
Sometimes unilateral action is justified. You can’t deny the power Fisher holds as a fundraiser. He’s the face of the university, and has led a dynamic rise of his school to national prominence (all the while being very well compensated for his work). We hosted a presidential debate in 2008, and played host to another round of Nashville mayoral debates in 2015. In the future, the school will partner with Ken Burns on a country music documentary and continue to give underprivileged Nashvillians a chance at college through the Bridges to Belmont program. But sometimes unilateral action harms the institution more than it helps.
The only solution for this unilateral leadership trend is to draw attention to the missteps and take collective action. There are plenty of examples in recent history of Belmont changing for the better thanks to collective action. The pushback from the Lisa Howe controversy in 2011 forced the university to change their nondiscrimination policy and finally approve Bridge Builders, the LGBTQ student organization. The public outcry when a student was denied a job as resident assistant partially because she wasn’t Christian changed hiring practices.
Despite all these examples, a culture of fear still exists at Belmont. Students, faculty and staff still fear questioning authority. But imagine what else we could change if instead of pushing issues under the rug and saying “that’s just how it’s done at Belmont,” we thought about our future and took collective action? The students, and the university, would be much better for the attempt. Not every issue needs to be a battle. But the most important aspect of picking and choosing your battles, is to choose a battle to fight.