March 27, 2011

A Call for Self-Governance

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Let me start by offering my condolences to the family and friends of the late George Desdunes ’13. His death was a tragic event that has affected the hearts and minds of all of us within the greater Cornell community.  In honoring George’s memory, the Greek system should take all appropriate steps to prevent a recurrence of this tragedy. I do not believe, however, that further cancelations of Greek events and the imposition of new sanctions are the appropriate response.

In September, the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs (OFSA) welcomed us back to school with a “proposed” set of rules and guidelines dictating radical changes to how the Greek system will operate at Cornell in the coming years.  The chapters voted to approve these new changes to avoid the repercussions of going against the OFSA. The changes, designed to bring the system into line with the University’s recognition policy, include instituting a dry rush week in January, limiting sororities to two mixers a week with no mixers during the first three weeks of the semester, and prohibiting open parties during first semester.

When the OFSA created these new rules, it was a pivotal point for the future of the Greek system at Cornell — not because it will decrease membership, lead to more drinking in the dorms and more secretive “closed” events (which it will). Rather, it signaled that the non-elected officials of the OFSA can create and impose rules without consulting any of the students elected by Greek members to represent the Greek system, which is supposed to be self-governed.  The OFSA, along with the Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Council, are supposed to work together to create rules for the Greek System. Yet, that is often not the case.

For the past two weekends, all Greek social events have been cancelled. No fraternity or sorority has been mandated to shut down events, but a stern warning by the OFSA is effectively the same thing. The OFSA reasoned the first weekend that the Greek system needed to honor George’s memory. I think everyone can agree that this was both justified and respectful.

The events the second weekend were cancelled after a “vote” by IFC chapter presidents in an emergency meeting. In a recent Sun article, Dan Freshman ’12, the president of the IFC, stressed that this action was made independent of the administration; however, this emergency meeting (closed to the OFSA) was called right after the OFSA met with the Board of Trustees. Was the timing a coincidence?  The result of this “vote” is not surprising; it was the result of strong encouragement by the elected members of the IFC and Panhel, undoubtedly as a way to appease the OFSA and the Board of Trustees. Without being strong-armed (albeit indirectly) by the OFSA, no chapter would vote to cancel events for a second weekend in a row because it results in financial losses, scheduling challenges and other major disruptions. Yet, the motion passed with a 32 to 0 vote. This is because, no chapter president wants to: a) go against the wishes of the OFSA and thereby bring extra scrutiny onto his/her chapter; or b) be viewed as insensitive. So, like the weekend before, all Greek events were cancelled two weekends ago.

I have several problems regarding the cancellation of events for the second weekend in a row. Many of my fellow members in the Greek community have privately voiced the same concerns, but are afraid to publicly voice their opinions due to the sensitive nature of the circumstances.

First, why is the Greek system as a whole being unnecessarily pressured to cancel all events as a result of an incident that, as far as we know, occurred at one fraternity house?  Collective sanctions are designed to create a new social norm or create incentives for other group members to behave a certain way. However, as Cornell Professor Douglas Heckathorn stated in a study published in the American Journal of Sociology, collective sanctions are an “unstable means of behavioral control in that many of the factors that motivate compliance motivate rebellion.” Moreover, collective sanctions are unjustified when we don’t even know all the facts. It is unclear if the events that transpired were systematic of the Greek system or an unfortunate isolated incident.

Second, there is no evidence that other fraternities (or even Sigma Alpha Epsilon, where this tragedy occurred) have not been adhering to the prevailing guidelines. Wouldn’t permitting the continuation of events provide an opportunity to show the Trustees, the OFSA and the Cornell community that the Greek system as a whole can run fun, safe, and effective events?

If the OFSA and/or the IFC do not plan on creating new rules or sanctions, there is no reason to continue cancelling events. If the OFSA (itself, or through an IFC proxy) continues to cancel events until it issues new rules or sanctions for the Greek system, the OFSA is creating a lose-lose situation for the Greek system.  The OFSA will perceive any future compliance with the new and more stringent rules as a sign that any sanction imposed on Sigma Alpha Epsilon or the Greek system as a whole, was needed across the board as deterrent for the rest of the chapters.  On the other hand, the OFSA will perceive any non-compliance with the new rules as a sign that further sanctions are needed. It is neither necessary nor appropriate to sanction all of the chapters for the tragic event that occurred two weeks ago, and extending an event moratorium denies all chapters the ability to show that they comply with the current guidelines and take safety seriously at social events.

I sincerely hope that steps will be taken to prevent similar tragedies from happening again, but, please, meaningfully involve the members of the Greek system in the decision-making process.  By simply imposing more sanctions, I believe it will likely create a boomerang effect — it will damage Greeks’ respect of the University’s leadership, erode campus-wide enthusiasm for the Greek system, further encourage students to drink in unmonitored environments and thereby lead to more alcohol-related problems in and outside of Greek life. The Greek system functions best when allowed to self-govern; its leaders have the knowledge and influence to help ensure fun and safe events in the future. Let us work with the OFSA to come up with an appropriate and effective permanent (if necessary) response to this tragedy.

Sam Boochever is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at swb53@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears  periodically this semester.

Original Author: Sam Boochever