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As college students become more involved in the ongoing discussion about race in America, two keynote speakers prepare Sigma Nu’s commanders to positively influence the discourse.

“I believe in Greek life,” Dr. Dixon Hall begins, addressing the chapter commanders gathered for College of Chapters in Roanoke, Va. “I know that it shapes men and women who transform their communities, who transform their campuses to actually lead the world.”

As a proud sorority woman and experienced educator, Dr. Dixon Hall is in a unique position to observe and reconcile the occasional tension between the fraternity and sorority community on the one hand and university administrators on the other. University presidents, she observes, are under increasing pressure to justify the rapidly increasing costs of a college education; the problem of ballooning costs is compounded by the perception by many that the value of a college degree has been diminished in recent years. Facing increased scrutiny to demonstrate the value of a college degree, combined with pressure to build what amounts to global brands, university presidents are being held to account for the negative press associated with student misconduct.

To help alleviate this tension, and ultimately contribute to thriving campus communities, Dr. Dixon Hall urged commanders to focus on the broader idea of cultural intelligence. When it comes to relationships with women and understanding race, fraternity men are often criticized for examples of some members who have been unable to handle a changing world, she submitted.

Dr. Dixon Hall offered a fresh perspective for resolving the tension swirling on many campuses around the country. “I want us to look at race in a pragmatic way,” she said. “I want us to look at race and hold that intention of who we are and who we want to be, and recognize there is a gap there.”

"This ideal has to come in to the recruitment and new member process. If you're giving a bid to a guy who's been telling insensitive jokes, he's not going to stop telling those jokes once he joins the chapter." - Dr. Dixon Hall

Elaborating on this approach, she encouraged students to avoid the tendency to view race in the contrasting terms that have proven to be so polarizing. “Too often when we talk about race on campus, especially last semester, when it was everywhere, we do so in the stark moral terms that draws everything in an exacting and inflexible line,” she said. “It creates one set of enemies or oppressors and everybody else is the oppressed. These inflexible lines really say that some are evil and some are inherently good. I think this is a false binary. This binary idea ignores the complexity of intersectionality – the idea that we are made of more than just the color of our skin.”

As a new way of thinking about an old problem, Dr. Dixon Hall proposes thinking about race through the lens of cultural intelligence. The concept originally emerged in the context of preparing corporate executives to communicate effectively with business prospects in unfamiliar cultures abroad. Encouraging students to extend this concept to racial intelligence, Dr. Dixon Hall defines cultural intelligence as “the ability to read, analyze and respond effectively to interracial and intercultural context.”

“Cultural intelligence,” she continued, “is the ability for you as chapter leaders and you as chapters to deal with people of color in a way that is consistent with the brand, the risk management, and the espoused values of Sigma Nu.” Framing the issue in terms of each member’s commitment to upholding the values of Sigma Nu, she asked commanders to think about the consequences of failing to understanding the environment around them: “Cultural intelligence is the ability to deal with the reality that your actions, which are sometimes guided about race, are going to impact your chapter.”

Cultural intelligence can be unpacked into three segments: planning, reading, and adjusting. Planning calls on leaders to anticipate the interactions that could present problems. “It means thinking it out ahead of time as you’re planning a social event,” Dr. Dixon Hall advised the students. “It means thinking it out ahead of time as you’re planning the social event, and asking yourself, What is the worst case scenario if this thing goes wrong?”

The second component of the cultural intelligence approach, reading, is the ability to survey a landscape. Applying this to scenarios for student leaders, Dr. Dixon Hall framed this as “the ability for you in the heat of the moment to see it going wrong and stop it. For you to be that last line of defense to see a situation and say, This is about to go terribly wrong.”

The ability to read a situation before it happens leads to the third component, adjusting. Adjusting calls on leaders to “pursue deliberate actions that increase the likelihood of a positive outcome. This is the hardest part of cultural intelligence,” Dr. Dixon Hall cautioned.

Students participating in a Q and A session following Dr. Dixon Hall's keynote.

Dr. Dixon Hall wrapped up her keynote by encouraging the student leaders in attendance to make cultural intelligence part of everything they do – not just an abstract three-step process to think about every so often. “Cultural intelligence has to be a part of your leadership and a part of every organizational process,” she said. “This ideal has to come in to the recruitment and new member process. If you’re giving a bid to a guy who’s been telling insensitive jokes, he’s not going to stop telling those jokes once he joins the chapter.”

She closed with an insightful observation about the root cause of viral videos of embarrassing behavior, tying it all back to the purpose of brotherhood. “The reason we see this behavior is because there was a failure of brotherly love. Love is not about just covering for your brother, it’s about expecting your brother to be better. It’s about holding your brother to high standard and loving your brother so much that you will not let him ruin his career or his life.”

Bill Courtney struck a similar chord in his keynote address the final night of the College of Chapters. Brother Courtney, the former high school football coach featured in the Oscar winning sports documentary Undefeated, echoed Dr. Dixon Hall’s emphasis on authenticity with a sobering anecdote he experienced shortly after taking over the football program at Manassas High School in Memphis, Tenn. In a candid exchange with one of his team captains, Coach Courtney was introduced to the concept of a “turkey person,” someone whose generosity and service may not be authentic.

"When you surround yourself with people who look just like you, thing just like you, act just like you, then every conversation and everything you engage in will be circular." - Bill Courtney

This exchange was a crucible moment for Brother Courtney. From that point forward he realized the importance of authenticity as a necessity in bridging the divide on race. It wasn’t something that can be learned in a program – it’s the kind of learning that only comes from real-life interactions with people who are perceived as different. Coach Courtney encouraged all commanders to pursue such interactions.

Similarly, Dr. Dixon Hall encouraged students to seek out personal relationships in place of programs. “Cultural intelligence means asking intelligent questions you might be afraid to ask,” she said. “It means engaging with people in class who don’t look like you. It means placing yourself in situations where you listen, observe, and learn from people you don’t typically interact with. What it means is looking at the guy who’s in your accounting class and inviting him or her to be part of your study group.”
Courtney echoed this sentiment with a caution about the hidden blind spots that tend to occur in cultural bubbles. “When you surround yourself with people who look just like you, think just like you, dress just like you, act just like you, then every conversation and everything you engage in will be circular.”

Like Dr. Dixon Hall, Courtney identifies lack of leadership as the root cause of many problems.. “We have an abject loss of leadership in our society today.

Bill Courtney (Mississippi)

Coach Courtney closed his keynote by articulating the difference between social clubs and fraternities, and the different skills required to run each one successfully. “Are you running a social club or are you running the Legion of Honor?” he asked the Commanders in attendance. “We need leaders. We don’t need club managers.”

Both keynote addresses come at a time when many college campuses around the country are in desperate need of student leaders who can discuss race thoughtfully, intelligently, and dispassionately. Student unrest has bubbled over at many institutions, revealing campus administrators who were unprepared to participate in the dialogue. Thanks to a duo of powerful and compelling keynote speakers, Sigma Nu’s collegiate commanders departed the College of Chapters better equipped to step up and facilitate these important conversations that will only become more relevant as student demographics continue to become more diverse.

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