What Does Greek Life Look Like Moving Forward?
Q&A with Brandon Cutler, Associate Dean of Students at Purdue
In the fall 2021 From The Heart newsletter, we published an article featuring an interview with Purdue’s Associate Dean of Students Brandon Cutler. Below is the full transcript of the interview, or you can find the published piece here: http://www.epageflip.net/i/1433877-fall-2021-newsletter.
Were you affiliated with Greek life when you were in college?
I am a member of Theta Chi fraternity from Iowa State University.
What’s different for students pursuing a fraternity membership today than what our alumni remember?
Well, I think the world has changed significantly in terms of how people were raised, the type of community they grew up in, or the type of home, in the sense of the actual physical facility, that we’re accustomed to.
I use the example that, in the 1950s, people shared bedrooms in a big house as a starter home. So, what students expect out of the living and learning environment—the type of extracurriculars, their desire for global travel experiences, their willingness to fly to Europe for spring break—those are things that I think are very different than even what I experienced as an undergraduate 20 years ago. I think that that’s a big, big difference.
We see a lot of challenges with our students when it comes to mental health and well-being. Going to the counseling center was something we didn’t really talk about, now it’s widely understood that it’s a positive resource. It’s something that, we hope, people take advantage of. The stigma against mental health has really changed.
I also think that the types of decisions that young people are making today, and how they are involved in the decision-making process from an earlier age, has evolved. A lot of research and literature talks about how students now may have seen and experienced more things, whether that be a European vacation or larger life experiences, more than past generations. Some of those things that are rites of passage moments, like getting a driver’s license, starting to date, or having a more autonomous life experience beyond their parents … some of those experiences have decreased. We’re seeing a larger number of students that have had a lot of tremendous experiences, but maybe haven’t had the more nuanced life events of personal decision-making, advocating for themselves, dealing with differences, or working through conflict or tough times. There are many different characteristics that we’ve seen in our students over the years; their strengths, weaknesses, and challenges have certainly shifted.
Does Purdue see value in Greek life as part of the college experience. If so, in what ways?
Yes, absolutely. Purdue is a very STEM-heavy institution, especially when you think about STEAM, which is STEM with Agriculture. The background of our students is exceptionally diverse, which makes the need for a fraternity and sorority experience at Purdue incredibly high. I think it’s recognized within our administration that there’s significant value in our community.
Our students come to us with high test scores; they excel in the math and sciences; they’re very professionally driven; but, many of our students lack some of the interpersonal skills and the soft skills that they’re going to need to really be successful in their professional pursuits. That’s where fraternities, sororities, and co-operatives offer a unique perspective and add a significant amount of value to the regular university experience. There’s a deep commitment to help develop our students in those interpersonal areas, to help them better see difficult experiences, and to enhance their growth.
What is the long-term future of fraternities/sororities on Purdue’s campus? Or on other campuses?
I wish I had a crystal ball! Well, there’s a demand and expectation that our organizations are who they say they are, whether that be from a risk management perspective, a membership development perspective, or anything else. The public is also demanding that we are an experience that is open to all college students, and how all members deal with the challenges of the day in a constructive and productive manner leans into conversations about diversity and inclusion that leans into conversations about academic success and professional preparedness. That’s where we need to shift our focus long-term. We’ve always heavily focused on the social aspect of fraternities and sororities, and while I think that social aspect is important, the overall environment is something we need to start leaning into more and be much better about. Membership development experiences provide a more robust living and learning atmosphere and help us pass the test from some of our critics who ask, “Is this a healthy environment? Does it truly help our young people excel?”
SigEp, as a national organization, has been a leader in the Interfraternal world for a couple of decades in terms of looking at the student experience from a holistic perspective as well as ensuring that there’s an adequate number of volunteers and mentors that are engaged and involved. The future of the whole fraternity experience must focus on outcome-based objectives and being able to show that we’re advancing the development of young people to add more value to the collegiate experience. We must also continue to build those healthy relationships that we’ve been known for, for decades and centuries, which are important too—those are the relationships that help us do better and take care of each other, from peer-to-peer or advisor-to-peer.
So, to summarize all of that: our future will be bright if we can better look at fraternity through a lens of student success and how we’re promoting and advancing that more so than just the traditional means of social life.
What is your perspective on the economic pressures on fraternities and their members?
Most of our organizations have aging infrastructure. Our fraternity and sorority infrastructures are part of those aging buildings, but we see more developers and institutions of higher education reinvesting in their facilities while fraternal infrastructure continues to sit unaided. We’re competing against groups that are potentially doing housing better than we are.
Students are joining fraternities and sororities looking for positive, safe, and healthy outcomes. We’re seeing more diverse generations of students coming to campus that have a higher financial need alongside higher costs of education. The financial burdens for many of our young people are significant because the minimum wage has not increased, but their tuition, housing, and/or transportation expenses have gone up.
Co-operatives exist at Purdue that offer housing at a very, very discounted rate. Part of that is because they do their own cooking and cleaning, but they’re able to offer housing for about half of what most of our fraternities and sororities do. For a lot of students, they wouldn’t be able to come to Purdue at all or would graduate without mountains of debt if they didn’t join one of these co-operatives.
The economic patterns that we’re seeing in our country in terms of the wealth gap, and one of the real challenges facing students, is that they are graduating with $100,000 in debt and then potentially going into higher education to take on even more. It’s another mortgage payment! They can’t work one job and pay for their college anymore like we could in the 70s, 80s, or 90s, and I don’t see federal or state contributions to higher education getting back to that point anytime soon.
So, in the fraternity and sorority industry, we have a unique opportunity to be that solution for our members. It’s going require some of our groups to rethink what a modern fraternity looks like and how it operates. Do we want to have competitive housing? Absolutely. Do we want to have clean and well-kept housing? Again, absolutely.
There has to be a balance, however, that we consider when deciding between building a $10 million facility or a $5 million facility with a $5 million endowment. We have groups that that will raise a lot of money for a house, but when it comes time to raise money for scholarships, there’s a lot who are not really interested in doing that. It’s about finding the right balance between facility and facilitating student financial success for the end of their collegiate years.
What is Purdue’s roadmap for campus life going forward?
You’re going to continue to see a drive for affordable education. That’s something that, above all else, our board and our executive leadership is really committed to. We want to ensure that students have the highest quality and most affordable education that is possible on campus and around the community.
Purdue is envisioning a student experience that drives excellence in teaching, learning, and innovation. Bringing industry and research into the academic community gives our students a first-rate educational experience with outstanding faculty and experience in terms of collaboration as well as research and development.
We’re also committed to having a vibrant campus experience that helps maximize the potential of all students. This past year alone, we’ve seen a transformation of physical facilities, sidewalks, and roads. We’re at around 50,000 students now, which is about 10,000 more than eight years ago. There’s been a large investment in housing, and we want to see that translate into a really vibrant student experience. There’s a desire for students to become more engaged and involved on campus to drive that interpersonal and co-curricular learning experience. Purdue’s trying to really lean into student performance, student success, student affordability, diversity and inclusion, and the student connection to a first-rate academic and co-curricular learning experience.
Read more about Purdue’s Road Map for Transformative Undergraduate Education at https://www.purdue.edu/provost/about/provostInitiatives/excellence/roadmap.html.
What three things would you suggest a fraternity do to make itself more relevant in the lives of undergraduates on campus?
First and foremost, we need more volunteers. Organizations that have a high level of engagement from an alumni and volunteer base that seeks to create relationships with staff and recruit advisors and mentors that come from other groups, whether they be fraternal or not, is incredibly important.
I believe that when our young people show up on campus, they’re super smart, great at mathematics, and very talented. When it comes to interpersonal skills, though, when it comes to self-confidence … I think a lot of our young people are just trying to fit in and achieve that social acceptance. I often see young people adopt characteristics of what they think will help them be accepted. An example might be joining an organization that parties heavily and deciding that they’re going to try to party heavily so that they fit in. If they find instead that they have joined a group that is committed to academic success, then they’re going to focus more on their academics.
With the high turnover we have in the student population, having many committed volunteers and alumni that can do the little things along the way to help mentor, to help empower, and to help advise leaders or members is just so important. The number of volunteers it would take to really meet the needs of fraternities or sororities is likely more that you’d think; by the time you count the members of the Alumni Association, House Corporation, Advisory Board, and mentors and advisors, that’s just the start of the total amount of volunteers that are needed.
We don’t need one advisor, two advisors, or three advisors—we need 30, we need 40. They’re going to advise in different capacities and in different roles, but at the end of the day, we can really tap into our networks and our power. I hear folks all the time, especially alumni who are at retirement age or beyond saying, “Young guys don’t want anything from us, they’re not going to learn anything from me, they need to be talking to people that are younger.” Well, I couldn’t disagree more. Alumni of all ages have talents, and many of our young people would love to sit down and talk to a 75-year-old former CEO of a company and learn from them, hear their stories, and get advice about what’s coming next in life. I think we miss the mark sometimes, as many of our alumni undersell the value that they can bring to an organization simply by sharing their experiences.
Secondly, we must lean into conversations about how our organizations systematically support student well-being and student success or how they are creating barriers to success. Taking a comprehensive look at our membership development programs and our social culture helps us determine whether our students are learning life skills or just fraternity skills—I think those are two very different things. The way that our programs, and the time that we spend in our organizations, are aligned with our mission is deeply important. We have some groups that are doing that, and nationally, SigEp is one of those groups that does that well, but we need to get much better at aligning our mission in our organization’s norms and operations.
The third thing I would add is a simple idea that most people would respond to with, “Duh!” We need to try to figure out how we connect our strategic objectives over the next couple of decades; not just in terms of operations but asking ourselves who we want to become. We have a lot of groups that struggle to maintain a facility that passes fire code (what I mean about operations). I think it’s another thing to look at our groups and say, “How do we build an organization for the next 50 years?”
At Purdue, our fraternity/sorority groups and co-operative communities are over 80% Caucasian while the overall student population at Purdue is only 60% Caucasian. How are they going to recruit international students? How are they going to make an environment seem welcoming to students that come from diverse backgrounds? These are questions that I’m not sure any organizations have really come up with the right answer to, but we must get back to that strategic focus and plan on how we want to answer those questions during the next 50 years.
We tend to fall back on what we’ve always known when it comes to fraternities and sororities, and I don’t think what has always been known is going to serve us well. Moving forward, students need people, advisors, and mentors that are thinking strategically. They need people to help guide them. They need an experience that’s going to challenge them to be their best in all factors of their life—not just to get the grades and graduate on time (those are important, too), but to really help them develop emotionally and spiritually as well.
Anything else you would like to add?
I’ve been really encouraged by the leadership that’s involved in the organization right now. I think they’re asking the right questions. They want to be a leader. People are going to find that, as we, Sig Ep at Purdue, continue to grow in the next couple of years, it’s going to have, and be, something special. I’m not sure there’s a lot of other people in the industry that are trying to do what Purdue Sig Ep is doing to ensure a successful undergraduate experience.
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