"DA Discusses" is a video series where reporters speak with people on campus, in the community or in the state who have influence over decisions that affect students.
Matthew Richardson is the director of the Center for Fraternal Values and Leadership. He spoke with Duncan Slade, photo editor, about how Greek life has altered recruitment to a virtual setting, the party culture existing within certain disassociated organizations and upcoming events to finish the semester.
Portions of the following interview have been edited for length and clarity.
Daily Athenaeum: For those of you who are joining us, thank you. And for those of you who are watching later, thank you as well. This is a series of conversations that we're doing here at the DA with different leaders across campus, in the arts, in student life and the administration––kind of all types of stuff. If you have any questions, our little question feature down at the bottom, if there's something you'd like to ask Matthew. Matthew Richardson is the director of the Center for Fraternal Values and Leadership and a brother of Delta Chi fraternity. He's a graduate of three universities––none of them this one––Duquesne University, University of Akron and University of Pittsburgh, unfortunately. I know, I was surprised I when I looked that up. But luckily, he ended up back here at WVU. So thank you for joining us.
Matthew Richardson: Well, listen, my sister and my brother in law both went to WVU. So I've been a WVU fan since I can remember, but going to Pitt was definitely a fun experience, but it was hard on the family. But I work here, I'm in classes here––I'm getting a certificate. So I'm somewhat of a WVU student but hopefully be some level of alum soon.
DA: Yeah, well, that sounds good. You know, you can just kind of drop the rest and say, a graduate of West Virginia University and three others.
MR: That's right.
DA: So the first thing I wanted to talk about was the ‘Would You?’ campaign which is something that Greek life and the university have been doing to raise bystander awareness regarding hazing and binge drinking on college campuses, particularly the thing that a lot of people are familiar with, which is “Breathe, Nolan Breathe” film, which is a 20 minute, really emotional, really impactful film that won a lot of awards. And I know that you've been involved. And with that campaign, it's been going for about a year so how has it gone? How have you seen the impacts of that?
MR: Well, you know, it's really been a blessing in disguise. I never thought that I would be in a position to work on a documentary, an Emmy Award-winning one. And in my role as a consultant was educational, but the fun stuff, you know. The presentations to various groups. That's what I get to do. We have presented “Breathe, Nolan Breathe” in partnership with Kim and TJ Birch to a lot of different national organizations that are Greek. I've done it for the University of Oregon, the University of New Hampshire. Really any opportunity we have to spread the word and what's really neat about ‘Would You?’ is that we intentionally didn't brand it or make it so that it was a paid service. So students can, anybody can go on to ‘Would You?’ and that's actually a website and there's a toolkit, and we encourage students, administrators, teachers, high school level, wherever, to have a conversation because it's not just Greek life, where hazing is active. It's in all facets of student life. And not just in college, you know, one of the most sobering statistics that I've learned over the course of working in hazing prevention is that there's been one death on a college campus since 1970 every year that's related to hazing in some way. And over 90% of those deaths, alcohol is involved in some capacity. So it's a very, it's a hard thing to talk about.
MR: But, you know, WVU did not run away from our past. We had a student pass away in a fraternity house, and it's mortifying, and so, five years later, we've come together with the family, we have a wonderful relationship with them. And we have really, you know, pushed Nolan's legacy to make sure that that death wasn't in vain. Unfortunately, it's still a very real thing. We saw there was a death at VCU and Bowling Green State University the past month. So the work is out there, the work is necessary. And you know, the more power we can equip our students to intervene, to engage in, do the right thing and call for help––if we can eliminate barriers, whatever we have to do, let's do that. In my lectures, I always talk about my 10 and eight year old nieces. They know, when someone's in trouble or something is wrong, go for help, call for help. I always say, why does that change when you're 18 to 22? In college? Where do you lose that? And we've learned a lot from talking to students at all different universities that there are different barriers that prevent students from calling for help. So I think that's what I love about the ‘Would You?’ campaign is we're actively learning things.
DA: I remember watching the film, and it made me think about things in a lot of ways that I hadn't before. I think it's interesting, because a lot of your work is doing some of that hazing prevention in a normal non COVID year and then we get into a pandemic and a lot of the group events are built around socialization. So you're aware that students are maybe going to go out and party in these different events like Halloween, St. Patrick's Day. I'm curious, on top of some of that hazing prevention work that you're doing, how do you approach that? How are you messaging with the different fraternities and the things that you work with?
MR: What I try to say is pandemic life and college life are not mutually exclusive. I think there's sometimes this trope out there of college, is this mystical place, which for four years, nothing matters, you know, and you go and you have fun and this is what college kids do. I think it's a very dualistic and simple way of looking at the collegiate experience. But, you know, one thing that I can say is, obviously, we've needed to make adjustments because we've had to follow rules for safety and the safety of one another. You know, it was interesting, when COVID first started last year, it was around spring break time. I remember students, you know, saying, “Oh, I'm going to Mexico, I'm still gonna go.” I had a number of students cancel their plans. And there was a sense of, ‘we really have to take this seriously.’ And I think that lasted till about Easter. And then I think COVID got political––as everything tends to do, and then people started conspiracy theories and what not. And so I just focused on how do I give my students the best collegiate experience that I possibly can? It's tough, because people always say, “Well, the Greeks there, they're going to be out of control, they're going to do nothing but party,” and we haven't seen that. I mean, we have not seen with our affiliated groups an increase in behavioral issues this year. I mean, a couple bumps in the road here and there because we're trying to manage the fact that there's some houses that have 40 men that live in that house. At one point, it was a gathering restriction of 10. How do we work with the chapter senate to manage that? How do we get the leadership to really emphasize to the students that these rules are not here to be draconian, they're here for community safety?
MR: My students have been extremely receptive to those conversations. I think part of the reason is because they recognize that the Greeks will be spotlighted as people who are responsible for upticks. You know, I don't want to say we don't have that issue here. But you know, I just think it's the relationship we have with our students where we're able to proactively address things and do so in a fair way. We're just not seeing similar impacts here than we are in other places. And I'm sympathetic to all those other institutions and certainly not providing commentary on any decisions that they made because I've been there, I get it. But I've been blessed with a community that is open to transparent conversations and has a relationship with me and my staff that I think has really fostered some positive outcomes.
DA: I know pretty recently we saw a lot of parties on St. Patrick's Day, and a lot of those are happening at the disassociated fraternities. Is your office involved in that investigation at all? Do you have any power over that?
MR: Yeah, so you know, students involved in the groups that are disaffiliated. I think it's important that we recognize that there's groups that are disaffiliated, meaning they have recognition from a national organization, and then there's a few groups that are literally just students that they have no oversight from us or a national organization. They may appear to be a fraternity because they're living in what's traditionally a fraternity house, but they're not. The affiliated organizations have standards by their national organization, as well as the University that these affiliated groups still have standards from their national organization. And as WVU students, they're still governed by the code of student conduct. So, you know, am I hanging around High Street and Spruce Street and looking for things? No. I have a presence there, I walk and obviously, you know, visit students when I can––COVID has been a little different, a lot of houses have been closed. But you know, we always have a presence, if there's a social function going on. And it's reported, you know, either to me or elsewhere. That information is passed on because they are expected to follow the city of Morgantown ordinances and rules. And if they don't, they're shut down and handled accordingly. And then behaviorally, students go through individually the student conduct process. So that process is happening. The only difference is it sometimes can be adjudicated organizationally. So we say, “Okay, the organization held an event they shouldn't have had, and so this is what has to happen to correct that behavior and move on.” So that's probably the big difference. But I'm happy to report on St. Patrick's Day, I didn't have one complaint from the recognized fraternities or sororities at all, and this was the first time we had St. Patrick's Day that wasn't on spring break since 2016, or something. So I'm just very happy to report that because it shows that our students are taking it seriously.
DA: I walked up and down North High Street on St. Patrick's Day a couple times taking pictures for the newspaper. And one of the things that was interesting was that you walk past the recognized attorney, their house is all quiet. There's like, maybe some cars parked outside, you know, a guy on a porch or whatever, versus, you know, a couple 100 people outside on the back patio. From an image of Greek life. How do you deal with that? Because, you know, at least in my mind, am I drawing a distinction between the recognized fraternities and the group with a few bad actors that are reflecting poorly, how do you deal with that?
MR: Yeah, well, it's not ideal. Obviously, you know, we've done our best to educate anybody to understand the difference between those groups that are affiliated in those groups that aren’t. And now these groups that aren't affiliated with anything, it is a challenge, to be completely honest. I mean, it is because there's, you know, they're not a part of our community as an organization. The students are a part of our community, we care about those students, but the organization itself is not. And so, it's hard, because a lot of them have houses that are so close to campus that when people are here, they see. I have been in communication with the national organizations of the disaffiliated groups and they ultimately have the same desire. They don't want to be seen as rogue or not civilized or whatnot. So, there's a little bit of collaborating that goes on that we look at that. But we weren't the first to have the disaffiliation that happened in mass––at the University of Colorado in the early 2000s. But we were the first to have groups leave it without a united front, meaning we only had a few, you know, five elected to leave, 10 decided to stay.
MR: And so if you look at what's happening, you know, at Duke, right now, they had a disaffiliation, some groups elected to stay, some didn't, you know, that creates a very hard dichotomy, because what it's doing is it's putting our students who are WVU students in the situation where they have to essentially pick loyalty to an organization or loyalty to alma mater. And those things have never been mutually exclusive before. But now we're starting to see that difference. And I can tell you that in the Greek world, in the profession, nobody wants a situation like what we had at WVU because it does put our students in a weird situation. Who oversees who, who enforces who? There's so many things that occur there. So it's not ideal. And it's hard to separate. And, you know, we do have to pay attention because student safety is important. Groups can't just exist and have no oversight or no desire to have some level of checks and balances on what they're doing. So, we've been blessed over the past three years that we haven't had any major incidents occur. But it was a new normal that we had to, we had to navigate.
MR: But to be completely honest with you, organizational conduct is a little bit––to a certain extent––better than individual conduct. Because with organizational conduct, we're looking at the organization as an entity. So if there's a function that occurred that shouldn't have happened, that the organization was involved in, there's things that we can do for the organization that can can help address that behavior. If it's individual, which is the case of you know, our affiliated groups, individual students get conduct records, you know, what I mean? They have conduct statuses. So it's a different dynamic, and each student organization and students have different levels of guaranteed process and things like that, as well. So it's not an even slate whenever we're talking about it from the student conduct lens. So in their student privacy laws, there's things that obviously, we're not going to be able to talk about but that's the major thing. If an organization has something there's an organization conduct record, but individuals might have one, if there's no organization to sort, I don't say shield them, but blame it on. So that is the unfortunate reality about not being recognized.
DA: So kind of changing gears a little bit. I know that recruitment is kind of just wrapping up. How did COVID impact your recruitment and recruitment numbers and how does that all kind of look as you get around the hump and look forward to a year where we have less restrictions?
MR: It's funny, our numbers increased. So we are a deferred campus meaning that our primary recruitment season is in the spring. So you have to have 12 credits, 2.75 GPA to join. So majority of students that are interested will go through in the spring semester. Because we had the ability to sit and watch our Big 12 counterparts do fall recruitment in the midst of COVID, we could literally say, “Did you know exactly what they did wrong?” So we were kind of just sitting there sipping tea, like, watching what was good. It was one of those things where we were able to learn from others in real time. So there was that, we also had obviously more time to plan for what we were going to do. Our IFC recruitment in the fall semester, which is the smaller semester, we were up like 128%, from last fall. And I think part of that is students are looking for a way to get involved and Greek life is a great way to do that.
MR: We had virtual recruitment, we had hybrid forms of it, you know, people always said, “You know, well, is it 100%? virtual?” Well, the formalized pieces, but human interaction is going to happen, you know, you're going to join an organization, you're gonna want to meet somebody in our groups. And they did it in a way that was appropriate at the time. Now we're starting to open some things up, you know, but I will say, our Panhellenic groups, you know, the numbers were a little bit better than last year. Our professional groups have the same thing, our National Panhellenic Council organizations are some still doing membership intake. So our historically black organizations are growing. We had the addition of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Incorporated, gave us I think, 11 new women in our NPHC community. We're currently building our cross cultural Greek council, we have interest groups forming various groups of Greek organizations based on cultural identity. And all that's happening in the middle of COVID. So when people say, “Oh, COVID destroyed Greek life or hurt numbers.” We didn't see it here in Morgantown, you know, so either we're really blessed, really talented, which is probably the case. I'm not saying it wasn't hard. I'm not saying there weren't any, you know, hurdles to get over, but we got over them. I also think that what we went through in 2018, with reaching the summit, I don't think there's much you can throw at us that we're not going to be able to overcome. You know, I think having a house divided was probably the worst thing that could have happened and we managed it. And we moved on. There's still very real implications. I'm not downplaying that. But we have really moved as a community to the next level.
DA: Is there anything that's happening in Greek life that either you want to talk about or that people might not expect?
MR: Well, I think, you know, nationally, there's a lot of stuff happening with Greek life. And there's a lot of conversations around the inclusion piece. The Center for Fraternal Values and Leadership here at WVU, one of our core values is inclusive excellence. But we were from an institution that has been exclusionary for a very, very long time. So on other campuses, there's the abolish Greek life movement, you know, because there are people that just don't think it can be reformed. There's a lot of things that people are looking at. And I think that if you look at what has happened this year from a social justice lens and things that should be at our forefront of attention, COVID, sort of knock some of those things out. But one of the things that we have done and we will continue to do is emphasize the fact that students matter, and that all of their diversity should be celebrated. And that those should be embraced and valued in our organizations. And so we look at it as sort of the national level and then the local level. And there's a lot of stuff that we can do at the local level, which will make people feel good, and that'll be powerful. But that doesn't always necessarily influence what's happening nationally.
MR: So I think about my fraternity Delta Chi. I was appointed by the National Executive Director as the chair of our diversity, equity, inclusion committee. And one of the things that we're doing is we're looking at everything we've done in the past, problematic things that have happened, owning those things. Looking at language, and its impact on what it can mean for members. Also looking at things that are in our structures that might impact access, right? So we're looking at the fact that Greek life is expensive. And so because of that, you know, you have to some level of affluence in order to join. Well, that keeps a significant portion of people away from Greek life. So how do we offset the costs? We have to have members pay dues, because we have to have insurance because everything's so high risk because of the partying and everything else that happens. So everything is sort of tied together. So you can't just look at one piece and say, this is how we're going to fix it. And I can tell you that we've had a lot of really good conversations at the local level about things that we can do to live our institutional value where diversity and you know, the inclusion piece matters. And that's really where I want to focus. A lot of the time diversity exists, right? Everyone has things that make them different, that's fantastic. But it's the inclusion, can you as a student, go to these groups, and whoever you are, be embraced? And my hope is that the answer is absolutely. And if it's not, then those are the things that I really want to encourage people to come forward and talk about.
MR: So we don't say that diversity and inclusion is our core value, it's inclusive excellence is our core value. And so how do we establish that? How do we, you know, engage this past summer, in the wake of the George Floyd murder and all the other things that have happened? We took a really hard look at recognizing that Greek life has a historically white focus. And, you know, I am a white male, right, and that's who Greek life was founded by. Colonial higher education was only open to white Christians, seemingly straight, right. So I always say, when we're doing, you know, anti-discrimination work, it's not our fault then, but it is our fault now, because those structures were created to influence, to benefit a certain group of people. But now the American college student has changed. So Greek life has to adapt and it has to figure out why we are relevant in 2021? Why are we here? Why are single gender organizations important? Right? And who defines what that gender is? And I think these are really foundational questions that every organization needs to ask itself. Because we are made up of people. And the American college student that's on campus today is very different from who was there in 1750 when the Flat Hat Club was founded as the first fraternity.
MR: So you know, those are the things that excite me because it's giving a path for innovation. At the same time, if there are students who aren't feeling included, if there are students who are experiencing outward or systemic racism or homophobia or sexism or what have you, those are the things that need to be seriously addressed. And it can't just be performative that you can't just put on a program and say, “Check, we talked about this.” You have to really take a deep dive and talk about where people's prejudices come from, where their privileges have come from, then recognize that and work to undo it. There's a lot of uncomfortable conversations that have to happen. And you know, there's a lot of systemic change that has to happen. And we have to stop giving lip service, it has to be real. Students have to feel as they can be their authentic selves. So that's the kind of community that I'm trying to build here at WVU. And since I've been here in 2017, we've done a lot of steps to do that. But it's an organic process. It's not a checklist. It's not something where I'm able to say on our website, we've done this, this, this, this and this, right? No one cares. It has to be that organic piece of students feeling that way. And so that's really going to be the emphasis of us moving forward.
DA: It sounds like a lot of great work and a lot of really important work that you're doing. I really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me on this nice Thursday night. Thank you for being with us.
If I could just say one more thing before we go. I cannot tell you how obsessed I am with my students. I mean, seriously, I mean, I've been here now for this is my fourth academic year. This class will be––I started when they started in 2017. And now, you know, they're going to go on their way. And that's sort of a surreal thing. None of this work could have been done without the buy in, without the commitment, without the individual values of the students who are in these organizations. So as director, I get the face of it. It's a good looking face, but it's the face of it. But the reality is, I have an incredible staff. I have an incredible support network within the University of all the higher ups from President Gee all the way down. I'll go even higher, Governor Justice, all the way down. We've worked with him on some legislation. The idea that WVU––and I haven't heard it in a while––but WVU is trying to get rid of Greek life. Absolutely not. We are here for a positive experience and President Gee asks me regularly, “What are you doing to innovate and change?” But my students, they're icons, they're rock stars, they're the ones that are doing the work. They're the ones that are having the hard conversations, and they're the ones that definitely should be applauded. So I just want to make sure I put that out.