Collective responsibility and leadership: FSU’s fraternities/sororities vs. Florida’s tax credit scholarship program

President John Thrasher’s decisive and courageous decision to suspend all of FSU’s fraternities and sororities invoked the idea of collective responsibility – that all who benefit from being in a group should take on the burden of addressing the failings of individual members. In the space of one week, these failings led to the death of one student and the arrest of two others on drug trafficking charges. Fortunately, a university president has the authority to demand that student organizations accept the burden of addressing these issues, and Thrasher is exercising that authority.

In contrast, a community of publicly supported institutions in Florida – schools that accept tax credit scholarships – has refused to acknowledge its collective responsibility for the good of every child under its umbrella. No one – not the state’s political or educational leaders nor those within the tax credit scholarship community who we would ordinarily expect to exercise moral and spiritual leadership – has expressed any practical interest whatsoever in the education or well-being of students in that community’s worst schools, some of which were exposed in the Orlando Sentinel’s recent series.

As a physics professor at FSU, I don’t see many members of fraternities and sororities. My students are majoring in fields like engineering, computer science and the physical sciences for which academic workloads are much greater than those in fields like political science. Among the few students I see who are members of fraternities and sororities, most struggle to keep up because of the additional non-academic obligations associated with their membership.

But the hazards of belonging to a fraternity or sorority go far beyond the infringement on study time. A campus religious leader recently told me that the young men who arrive on campus as members of his faith community but who pledge a fraternity are invariably lost, both morally and spiritually. This leader could not recall a single case in which such a young man recovered and returned to the church.

In drawing a parallel between FSU’s fraternities and sororities and the state’s tax credit scholarship program, I do not mean to argue that every tax credit scholarship school steals academic and life opportunities from its students. As the Sentinel so ably documented, some do. Others – notably the state’s Catholic schools – do a fine job of providing educational opportunities and ladders out of poverty for students who might otherwise be lost.

But Catholic schools – and by extension Florida’s Catholic leadership – have benefited richly from the tax credit scholarship program. So have schools associated with other churches. Not one church leader has publicly expressed concern for the students in the tax scholarship community who have had their futures robbed from them by the movement’s poorest schools. In neglecting to do so, they have surrendered some of their moral authority.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t call out the organizations that make a living administering the tax credit scholarship program. While Step Up For Students acknowledged shortly after the publication of the Sentinel series that reforms of the program were in order, they have not taken one step to lead such reforms. There is no evidence that any individual working there has even bothered to look in the mirror.

President Thrasher has accepted the burden of driving FSU’s community of fraternities and sororities toward a more constructive role in the university. While he hasn’t received any public backlash yet, it is sure to come. Those of us who care about the future of our university should stand ready to support Thrasher when that backlash comes.

In contrast, no one in the tax credit scholarship movement – not a single individual and certainly not any faith community – has had the guts to take on the mantle of responsibility for the movement’s failures. I have personally been stunned and disappointed by the display of apathy, and I have less faith now in the people around me and my own church’s leaders than I did before.

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