In August, administrators at the University of Michigan met with representatives from more than 30 national Greek letter organizations and pitched an idea that they hope will improve the behavior of unruly fraternity chapters: bring back live-in advisers.
The all-hands-on-deck meeting, which lasted more than seven hours, was scheduled after a tumultuous year for Michigan’s fraternities.
In January, members of a Michigan fraternity were accused of causing $430,000 in damage to a ski resort. They allegedly broke furniture, urinated on the carpet and damaged 45 rooms in all. That same weekend, two other Michigan fraternities were accused of causing $20,000 in damage to another resort nearby. The chapters were suspended and three fraternity members are facing criminal charges related to the incident.
The university said it will not require all of its fraternities to hire live-in advisers -- commonly called house moms, house dads or chapter directors -- but officials are pressuring Michigan’s existing chapters to adopt the policy and may mandate it for any new or returning chapters in the future.
At Michigan and elsewhere, house moms were the norm in the 1950s and ’60s, but are now relatively rare. Only one of Michigan's 28 fraternity chapters has a live-in adviser. The North-American Interfraternity Conference does not keep track of how many fraternities use chapter directors but the practice is thought to have peaked for fraternities in the 1970s. Live-in advisers appear to be more common in sorority houses.
There's little research on just how effective house moms are, however, and whether they could prevent incidents like what happened at the Michigan resort.
“While we do not have data that shows a direct correlation between the presence of a house director and reduced negative behavior, we do believe that consistent advisory support and mentorship is a key indicator for increased leadership development and chapter success,” William Foran, vice president for university relations at the North-American Interfraternity Conference, said. “House directors can and, in many times, do play a key role in that development.”
Those filling the role at fraternities can vary widely in age and gender. Chapter advisers are meant to serve as “mentors, chapter leaders and, in some cases, the chapter's house manager,” Foran said. They’re trained to deal with students who have drinking problems or students who develop eating disorders.
Kathy Estes, founder of the website FraternityMom.com, said the responsibilities of house moms have changed over the years. You might still find them baking cookies or teaching a freshman fraternity member how to do laundry, but the role at many houses is now more likely to resemble that of a building manager or landlord.
“Our roles no longer consist of only playing host at events or teaching etiquette on Manner Mondays,” Estes writes. “Many of us also manage our chapter properties, including remodeling projects and repairs, managing six- and seven-figure budgets and negotiating contracts on behalf of the chapter.”
While being a responsible adult is usually also part of the job description, chapters with house parents aren’t immune to negative behavior, and that sometimes includes the house mom or dad, too.
In March, the University of Oklahoma chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon was disbanded amid a national furor after several members were caught on video singing a song that included repeated use of a racist slur and references to lynching. The chapter’s house mom, Beauton Gilbow, criticized the behavior at the time, saying she felt like a “rug has been pulled out from under” her.
Days later, a video emerged of the elderly white house mom rapping along to a song called “All Gold Everything,” laughing while repeating a racist slur seven times in succession.
“I am heartbroken by the portrayal that I am in some way racist,” Gilbow said in a statement. “I have friends of all races and do not tolerate any form of discrimination in my life. I was singing along to a Trinidad song, but completely understand how the video must appear in the context of the events that occurred.”
Despite the lack of research on the effectiveness of live-in advisers, Michigan is not the first university to say it wants fraternity house parents to make a comeback. In 2010, the University of Iowa began requiring all of its chapters to have house dads.
The advisers were generally recent alumni of a fraternity chapter, and they received free room and board, as well as a fraternity meal plan in exchange for their mentorship. About half of Iowa’s houses already had house dads before the practice was mandated.
It’s also common for individual fraternities to hire live-in advisers after finding themselves in trouble. The University of Minnesota’s chapter of Chi Psi, for example, hired a house dad shortly after a sexual assault occurred in the house in 2010.
Kelly Jo Karnes, then the associate director of Iowa's Office of Student Life, said at the time that house dads were not expected to bring about a dramatic decrease in incidents like underage drinking, but instead were expected to be there for students in times of trouble, such as a member threatening to harm himself. “It’s difficult to hold your peers responsible at all times,” she said. “It’s difficult to be a student and a leader.”
Devin Berghorst, assistant director of Greek life at Michigan, said chapters with live-in advisers still have parties, but that he believes the presence of an adult can help “curb some bad behavior” that can be present at those events. Berghorst is a former house dad for Michigan's chapter of Beta Theta Pi, the only fraternity on campus that uses live-in advisers.
“It's really great having an adviser in the house that the men can go to if they need something right away,” he said. “They have someone right there they can talk to, and they also have someone that can keep some of the activities in check. They'll throw a party, but the adviser is there during the preplanning stage, helping to make sure the guys have thought of everything, risk management-wise. They can be around in case of an emergency, or they can shut the event down if it gets out of hand.”