March 31, 2011

A Displaced Response

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Today may be April Fool’s Day, but the brothers of Sigma Alpha Epsilon have little to laugh about. Yesterday, the last of the SAE brothers vacated their chapter house as per the University’s decision. They are still mourning the loss of brother George Desdunes ’13 and struggling with the circumstances that lead to his death, but they will now face the added burden of not having a home where they can be together and help each other through this trying time. The timing, severity and content of Vice President for Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy’s ’73 announcement regarding SAE are all telling. In its actions, Cornell showed a lack of respect for the student body and failed to responsibly address emotional and mental health concerns.

Let me first be clear: The real tragedy was the death of Desdunes. It is now apparent that the actions of certain SAE brothers and pledges on the night of his death were reprehensible. Those who acted negligently and irresponsibly will, should and already have faced the consequences. That does not mean, however, that every SAE brother should be treated like a criminal. Murphy’s announcement read more like an indictment of the organization than a statement regarding University policy. She outlined the charge and presented evidence of foul play, and then gave a numerical list of consequences the fraternity will face as a result of losing recognition. Only once was the need for dialogue and emotional support mentioned. This need for emotional support extends to all members of the Cornell community, as the tragedy affected so many in different ways.

I fail to see the wisdom behind forcing the brothers to vacate so immediately and without proper forewarning. Yes, the University showed that it will not tolerate any violations of the recognition policy and made an example of the fraternity for such an egregious violation. Cornell also pre-empted the results of a police investigation. Taking action served to advance the University’s need to address public relations concerns at the expense of the real need to focus on human relations. It would have been entirely possible to take a hard line without displacing students on such short notice. After all, the SAE brothers are students and as such it is the University’s responsibility to give them support and treat them with dignity. Too often in discourse over the series of events leading to the announcement, we have lost sight of this fact.

Closing the house at the end of the semester was inevitable and probably justified, but the imminent nature of the eviction lacks any justification or reason. All the University managed to do was exacerbate the pain and difficulties those students were already facing. Yes, some brothers acted inexcusably and they will be punished accordingly, but every one of them lost a close friend and was forced to face consequences. In taking away their home, Cornell undercut the support network SAE brothers need now more than ever, and made emotional and mental recovery that much more difficult. I can only hope the University is providing these students adequate support and resources to overcome these challenges.

The timing of the University’s announcement was also a sign of disrespect and represented a failure of commitment to dialogue. I think it’s no coincidence that Murphy’s statement was released on Friday, March 18, the last day of classes before Spring Break and after many students had left campus. Because we weren’t on campus, there was little discussion, and students were not afforded the opportunity to engage the administration until after returning from break. In the cover of night, the administration in Day Hall reacted to the tragedy by merely implementing a punishment rather than additionally presenting a plan to ameliorate problems. If we are indeed a caring community, then it would only be responsible to present new developments and decisions openly and with the expectation of fostering dialogue. Attempting to limit student reactions and discussions only shows Cornell wanted to avoid having to respond to the student body and give SAE brothers a chance to make their case.

The manner in which the University revoked SAE’s recognition is far from the only alarming development that makes me question the sincerity of Cornell’s caring community. First, the new “three strikes” medical amnesty policy is foolish and will only increase the likelihood of more tragedies. Especially now, the use of medical assistance should not be limited or punished. Other, more responsible, ways of addressing alcohol violations could be developed without putting a price on calling 911. Second, the decision of Greek governing bodies to cancel social events the weekend of a Board of Trustees meeting does not demonstrate a commitment to self-governance. Rather, it shows we are afraid of ourselves and do not have faith in our ability to act responsibly even after such a tragedy. Instead, there should be proactive educational programs that promote safety and support.

One week after Spring Break, we have yet to hear of the “campus conversation … about the implications of this tragedy” mentioned in the statement. Open dialogue is absolutely necessary in light of new findings and the withdrawal of SAE’s recognition. The eventual release of autopsy results and the police investigation’s findings will also prove difficult for all members of the Cornell community. Responsible action that will address mental health and the circumstances that led to Desdunes’ untimely death is necessary. There is no excuse for the actions of some SAE brothers and there is no doubt the fraternity should have been punished. There is also no doubt that SAE brothers are students and should be treated as such by the University. Evicting suffering students immediately, forcibly and quietly only serves to hinder, not help, recovery from tragedy. Cornell should practice what it preaches and truly act to heal its caring community.

Jon Weinberg is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at jweinberg@cornellsun.com. In Focus appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Jon Weinberg