March 6, 2011

Please Drink Responsibly

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The tragic death of George Desdunes ’13 tells us that something is not right at Cornell. We are obligated to figure out what that is. Though assigning blame to the “Greek system” and not particular individuals is somewhat disingenuous, to say that the culture it fosters bears no guilt is downright irresponsible.

It is not news that hazing happens, or that excessive drinking and irresponsibility are major elements of fraternity life. It is equally clear, though, that the Greek system emerges from the recruitment and pledging processes for the most part unscathed: Hospitalizations are rare, while deaths are statistical outliers. However, it is becoming increasingly difficult to tolerate a culture that spawns even these rarities. Therefore, if the University will not shut down the Greek system, the University must get creative.

First we should assess what it has attempted thus far. After a series of hospitalizations and well-publicized hazing incidents, the University decided to drastically change its recognition policy for the Greek system. To that end, the first day of this year’s fraternity recruitment was alcohol-free, and the University prohibited mixers involving alcohol for the three weeks following the end of rush. The changes will become more significant over the next few years: In fall 2011, freshmen will not be able to attend fraternity parties during the second semester, and three days of rush in 2012 will be dry. Ultimately, in fall 2012 freshman will be restricted from any party that provides alcohol, and rush 2013 will be completely alcohol-free.

Travis Apgar, associate dean of students for fraternity and sorority affairs, explained that the new policy was necessary in order to effect a much-needed “culture change.” Though these motives are praiseworthy, Desdunes’ death clearly demonstrates that these new efforts will not be sufficient.

Indeed, it seems that the most dangerous drinking occurs during after-hours, and not at open parties or mixers. This is actually quite intuitive. Fraternities have every incentive to curb excessive drinking during their events, mostly because they have houses and reputations to maintain; moreover, there’s a greater fear of liability when hosting strangers. However, no such incentive exists when they are left to their own devices. This is of course highly problematic, because it is the only environment the University cannot possibly regulate.

However, rather than address this fact, the University has chosen to banish alcohol from the public, IFC-regulated parties, thus increasing the probability that this excessive “after-hours” drinking takes place. In all likelihood, it will shift the drinking from fraternity houses to the Collegetown annexes.

We’ve already seen a glimpse of this during rush week. As noted above, houses were not permitted to serve alcohol on the first night of rush. In addition, in order to enforce this rule the IFC created a “Social Responsibility Committee” to patrol registered Collegetown events. As The Sun reported, though, a number of fraternities disregarded the new restrictions and served alcohol to freshmen at their annexes. As the new restrictions are put into effect, we should expect to see more of the same.

At the end of the day, students will always find ways to drink. We should note that this fact was true even during Prohibition: As one Sun editor wrote during that time, “There never was a time in the history of Cornell … when students did not drink — and it is pretty safe to say that there never will be.” Similarly, E.B. White ’21 asserted “It is not divulging anything to say that the undergraduates here are already planning on their Junior Week stock.”

So what, then, is the University to do? Given that the drinking culture is so entrenched, there are no easy solutions. However, there are few things it could do better:

First, it should rethink prohibiting freshmen from attending open parties. This is clearly a mistake, as it almost guarantees that they will instead drink in unregulated venues, such as in their dorms or in Collegetown. These settings are far more dangerous.

Second, it should continue to develop reasonable alternatives to fraternity life. The West Campus system was a positive step in this direction, and the University should continue to push it onto freshmen. Moreover, the University should bolster the co-operatives, which strive to promote healthy communal living and a shared sense of responsibility. There are only eight of them, so the University should work together with students to develop new ones. Perhaps it should make a point of using the houses of deactivated fraternities for this purpose.

These steps are admittedly minor, and it’s highly unlikely that they will have the lasting effect that’s needed. In spite of our limitations, though, we are obligated to take this problem seriously. This is an issue that, if tackled properly, will force us as a community to articulate and act upon our common values. Dean Kent Hubbell was therefore incorrect in stating that the University’s efforts to curb excessive drinking constitute “a safety issue, not a moral issue.”  We owe it to George Desdunes to frame this challenge otherwise.

Judah Bellin is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be contacted at For Whom the Bellin Tolls appears alternate Mondays this semester.

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Original Author: Judah Bellin