In an effort to highlight the proffesionals who are in charge of Fraternity and Sorority Life at colleges and universities across the nation, we at Watch The Yard reached out to Southern Methodist University’s Assistant Director for Fraternity and Sorority Life, Ron Atkinson, to get his perspective on the future of fraternities and sororities.
Atkinson is a Spring 2008 initiate of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. who crossed through the Rho Chapter of the Fraternity and has worked in the field of advising Fraternity and Sorority Life for almost nine years.
We interviewed him about his campus, his position and his thoughts on future of fraternities and sororities on college campuses nationally over the next 50 years.
Read the full interview below.
What does your job as a Fraternity and Sorority Life Professional entail?
Woo, there is a very simple way to answer that question. Simply, a lot of my role is focused on the advisement of the chapters within the community. We focus on risk reduction, operational best practices, and the general well-being of the members on our campus. However, it is FAR deeper than that. I am one of the chief advocates of the fraternity and sorority community on our campus. I work to promote and often articulate the benefits of the fraternal experience to parents and prospective students. I also work to ensure this experience is congruent with our institutional mission. At SMU, roughly 43% of our campus is affiliated with a fraternity or sorority. As you can imagine, our students represent a number of different academic majors, are members of other student organizations, athletics, student government, and are represented just about everywhere on campus and because of that, I need to be sure to develop working relationships with all corners of our campus. I can go on, but my role is to serve our students wherever they may end up.
Why did you decide to go into a job as an advisor of fraternity sorority life?
Honestly, it was by accident. I graduated during the great recession which was a tough time for recent grads. We were told “Get your degree and you will be able to find a nice job when you graduate.” When the economy took a turn for the worse, a lot of us were faced with diminished job prospects. Since I was involved with so much as an undergraduate (Varsity football player, Multicultural Student Union, Resident Assistant, Chapter President, etc.) I found my calling as a Student Affairs Professional as the Interim Residence Life Coordinator at Kansas State University – Polytechnic (then called K-State Salina) and really got my feet wet with advising an Interfraternity Council (IFC) chapter along with advising the Beta Psi chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. That experience really solidified my interest in serving in fraternity and sorority life, full time.
Why do you think NPHC and Multicultural fraternities and sororities are important on your campus?
Culturally based groups have a critical role on college campuses and in particular, predominately white campuses. When assessing their value, we have to remember what served as the catalyst for their founding. A lot of these groups were established because students of color were either barred from joining, or the groups did not serve their interests.
The roots of several NPHC, NALFO, and NAPA fraternity and sorority foundations lies with the search for representation and community. These groups historically have served as safe havens for the students and in some cases, sounding boards for marginalized communities on college campuses. From an advisor’s perspective, they also serve as tools for minority student recruitment, retention, and academic achievement.
With the prevalence of stories about sexual, assault, hazing and substance abuse, why do you think NPHC and MGC greek life should continue to be supported by colleges and universities?
I stand firmly in my belief that fraternities and sororities present a profound value to college campuses across the country. They contribute to their campus community in many mays including in the form of donations to the institution. That being said, let me be clear about my thoughts on sexual misconduct, substance abuse and destructive behavior. Many NPHC and MGC groups feel these issues are exclusive to our Panhellenic (PHC) and IFC counterparts. The common refrain is “We don’t have houses so that’s not our issue.” However, they do happen at their LB’s/LS’s apartment. They happen at the pregame or the after set. They happen in basements. They happen. So culturally based fraternities and sororities need to be held to account when they exhibit these behaviors. I am honest about these issues because I want to see our groups thrive. In order for that to happen however, we need to be cognizant of these issues and address them. So yes, these groups need to be supported but we have to own our part in eradicating these behaviors.
Looking at the future from a campus administrative perspective, where do you see greek life 10 years from now?
I won’t lie and say greek life is in a great space right now. Part of my advocacy for this experience is needing to acknowledge our shortcomings. Those of us that do this work often admit that we have times where the experience can be hard to defend. In the last few years, we’ve seen a lot of high profile incidents related to the fraternal experience that threatens its existence for future generations. St. Judes, March of Dimes, Huntsman Cancer Institute, Red Cross, and Big Brothers/ Big Sisters are just a few of the philanthropic endeavors fraternities and support profoundly. My own chapter is approaching 100 years in 2021, I for one want to celebrate all of its achievements. It is my hope that our groups continue this great work while addressing the behavior that threatens our collective existence. I do see greek life around in 10 years. In what form, I cannot say.
What is something undergrads need to do to ensure that undergraduate greek life on college campuses will survive and be around 50 years from now?
I believe that undergraduates need to get back to basics in living their rituals. Our culturally based fraternities and sororities are undergraduate organizations ran by alumni. They will in turn, be the alumni that run their organizations. I want them to operate with that thought in mind and recognize that the future of these organizations is dependent on their engagement.
How do you see individuals who join NPHC/MGC orgs benefit personally from going greek?
I believe there are two distinct differences between culturally based fraternities and sororities and their PHC/IFC counterparts. Culturally based greeks by and large have an experience that does not stop at graduation. They believe their experience is for life and do not typically see their engagement dwindle during their undergraduate experience. Additionally, there is a networking aspect seen among NPHC/MGC groups experienced through the practice of traveling. IFC/PHC groups rarely road trip and interact with other chapters. NPHC/MGC groups routinely interact with other chapters and develop longstanding relationships with other member chapters and that helps develop strong regional and national connections.
We now live in a digital world, what do you think undergraduate chapters across all orgs need to do to represent themselves online in 2019?
I see a lot of promo videos for new member presentations and parties, not much for community service. Do and document more service than photoshoots. PERIOD
Why do you think Watch The Yard is important?
Often times we hear “We do way more good than bad, but that nobody ever knows the good.” That is true to a degree. Watch The Yard has developed a robust platform to highlight the history and positive aspects of the cultural greek experience. I appreciate the work of promoting what matters and EDUCATING our peers about the culture.
What are some initiatives you see the greeks on your campus doing that make you proud?
SMU Greeks do GREAT work. Our chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha recently concluded a drive for ties to donate for men looking to reenter the workforce. Our Alpha Kappa Alpha chapter additionally hosted a shoe drive for the underprivileged. Our MGC hosts their “MGC Forum” event that doubles as a recruitment tool and an educational opportunity for their peers to learn more about their community. Our IFC sponsored an ethics speaker for the entire community. Our PHC community has members involved in more than 60 Academic and Professional Organizations. However, what I am most proud of is that ALL but two of our groups have above a 3.0 chapter GPA. Greek life isn’t a major and their academic achievements speak to that fact.
What is your favorite thing about your job?
When I went to school as an undergrad, my grandmother told me that it would be the best four years of my life (it took my five). I think of her saying that every time I come to campus. I get to do this everyday, I see homecoming, new member presentations, bid day, service events, athletic events, and most importantly, graduation. I am proud to have a hand in shaping the student experience. Now every so often, I’ll let these youngins’ know that these shoulders still got it. I’ll stroll and join on the fun at times and then go ice my knees like Lebron James. At the end of the day, I get enjoyment from being around the students I serve.
What is it about the NPHC and MGC greek community at your college/university that makes it unique/special?
SMU’s community is unique for a lot of reasons. Our NPHC community always amazes me because despite their size, they commit themselves to doing work. I often times wonder if they ever learned “excuses” because they never make them. My supervisor, Danielle Wilcher does a great job in working with them and it shows. We also have NPHC royalty on campus with the presence of Jennifer “J.J” Jones, Immediate Past NPHC President. Our MGC community is unique because we have three single letter MGC chapters on our campus. We also have a housing facility dedicated to the entirety of our council to live in and that housed experience. Lastly, our community are memorialized with a NPHC/MGC Garden on campus. While most campuses have NPHC plots on campus, few have both NPHC and MGC memorialized, making SMU’s the first of its kind in the state of Texas.
We at Watch The Yard would like to thank Ron Atkinson for taking time to speak on these important issues.