Understanding the negative implications of subcultures in higher education

The University of Alabama’s sorority system is again in the news. Just a couple of years after a controversy regarding the inclusion of minorities into the almost exclusively white organizations, the values, beliefs, and norms of Alabama sororities are coming under fire. The issue this time is a recruitment video produced by Alpha Phi and called out in a column in the Birmingham News. While Alpha Phi may be taking the heat, a quick google search shows many sororities at UA have a similar video and some are arguably worse than Alpha Phi’s. Although there are clearly many issues one can and should consider when confronting the issues raised by the sorority culture generally and these videos specifically, I argue that the primary focus should be on understanding the negative implications of subcultures in higher education.

Photo credit: Crimson White

When we talk about culture in higher education, the discussion is often framed around the positive benefits of culture. Moreover, we tend to focus on the culture of the entire institution rather than on the smaller subcultures at work within a campus.

The challenge of understanding culture is that there are multiple interpretations and layers within a single campus. In many ways, subcultures are as powerful and influential as the broader institutional culture.

Simply put, a subculture is the norms, values, and beliefs of a subsystem within a larger organization. Higher education institutions are comprised of many subcultures such as student, faculty, and administrative. In addition, these groups can be broken down further such as Greek students, adult students, veterans, athletes, and other populations have their own subcultures.

Research on subcultures by Hatch (1997) and others have identified three ways that subcultures interact with the dominant and institutional culture.

1. Enhancing. The subculture supports and builds upon the values and beliefs of the dominant culture.

2.  Counterculture. The subculture supports values and beliefs in contrast with the dominant institutional culture.

3.  Orthogonal. The subculture supports a separate set of values and beliefs alongside the dominant culture.

I think there’s room for debate about whether the Alabama sororities are fostering a counterculture or orthogonal subculture.  I wonder what is the institutional culture given the actions of senior administrators and the board at the university that support or look the other way at the beliefs and behaviors of members of the Greek system at UA.

Regardless, it is clear that the videos (and the values and beliefs behind them) limit the ability of the university to successful support the teaching, research, and service missions of the institution.

Additionally, the issues of gender, race, and privilege that are so evident run contrary to the values and beliefs of most higher education leaders, faculty and students.

Student affairs divisions across the country spend a great deal of time, resources, and energy attempting to foster student engagement because we know this is so significant in student success.

However, we have to understand the negative implications of subcultures in higher education. By their very nature, they can be exclusionary, run contrary to institutional values, and support behaviors that the broader community may find concerning or wrong.

As institutional leaders, the goal should be to foster a shared commitment to supporting a common set of norms, values, and beliefs. Simply banning videos like Alpha Phi’s or other inappropriate activities will likely just lead to greater conflict and could even escalate such behaviors. Subcultures are sensitive to attempts by the dominant or institutional culture to dismantle their subsystem.

Only through dialogue and constant effort can institutional leaders build a shared commitment to certain culture elements even if there is not universal agreement.

While the sorority videos are rightly being called out as problematic on many levels, those of us in higher education would do well to think about all the subcultures in our institutions from students to faculty to administrative groups that support values, norms, and beliefs contrary to institutional culture.

By understanding the negative implications of subcultures in higher education, we can work together to support and sustain the missions and aims of our institutions.

Here is the recruitment video by another sorority to show the depth of the problem and how widespread it is at UA.