Fraternities have made headlines across the country recently, for all the wrong reasons. Detailed allegations of hazing have led to widespread condemnation of Greek organizations and questions over whether they should continue to be part of American collegiate life.
A recent piece in The New York Times commemorating the one-year anniversary of George Desdunes’ death, “When a Hazing Goes Very Wrong,” served as a painful reminder to Cornellians that a discussion remains to be had about the role of hazing and Greek life in our community. As a fraternity member, I can affirm that there is a place for Greek organizations on our campus, but I can no longer justify practices and rituals that are at odds with moral decency, good character and the very values fraternities are supposed to foster.
In the New York Times article, George’s life story is intertwined with a painfully detailed account of the night of his death and an assessment of Cornell’s subsequent reaction. To say it evokes an emotional response would be an understatement. A life full of promise was cut tragically short by the carrying out of an irresponsible, mindless practice. The clear intimation is that Cornell has not done enough to control the abuse of alcohol rampant in fraternities, and naturally, reactions to the piece have been largely critical of the University, fraternity and its members.
But such criticism misses the mark. The students implicated are not bad people and should not be demonized as such. The fraternity should not be defined by an archaic tradition. And the University is not to be blamed for attempting to regulate the safe consumption of alcohol by students.
Rather, the problem lies with the nature of hazing. Hazing brings out the worst in people, clouds the mission of organizations and facilitates the unsafe abuse of alcohol. And while it’s presently a ubiquitous part of fraternity life, it doesn’t have to be by definition. If Cornell fraternities want to maintain their viability and earn the respect of the larger community, they will individually do their part to eliminate offenses of basic human sensibilities from new member education.
It’s hard to understand hazing without personal experience, and it’s similarly difficult to overcome the tendency to perpetuate hazing without an outside perspective. Hazing is supposed to foster brotherhood, commitment to the organization and camaraderie with your fellow pledges. Admittedly, it is effective at accomplishing these goals. In drinking to excess and having your humanity questioned, you lose sight of values and self-respect. You are driven to enter the esteemed ranks of the brotherhood by any means necessary, and bond through common experiences. In being hazed, I formed unbreakable bonds with my pledge brothers and escalated my commitment to my fraternity considerably.
Fraternities and other organizations thus perpetuate hazing because of its supposed utility. The inhumanity of hazing is defended by the overarching, greater good it purportedly cultivates. Tragically, few stop and question if that makes the actions acceptable. I always checked my opposition at the door for the alleged good of the fraternity. But after reading an extensive account of hazing at Dartmouth published in Rolling Stone, I could no longer take part in good conscience.
As an objective outsider, I cringed and nearly vomited while reading descriptions of the tasks Dartmouth pledges were required to undertake. And then I reminded myself that, while I never partook in such vile atrocities as swimming in a pool of human waste, I nevertheless stood by while the humanity of pledges was somewhat violated. The fact that the hazing I tacitly endorsed was far less demeaning did not make it tolerable.
I ask that each and every member of an organization that hazes on this campus (we all know that many are not Greek) pause for a minute and consider the implications of their actions. Imagine an outsider observing the tradition in question. What would they think? Would they see a greater good? If not, then perhaps the common sentiment is right and the undignified task has no place in a modern, civilized organization. If you don’t believe in hazing, then don’t participate. It’s only effective with organizational support. If individuals are vocal about their opposition to hazing practices, then the hazing will lose its supposed utility and cease to occur. Don’t feel alone in your decency, and don’t feel a need to suppress that decency in the name of any organization.
Additionally, it is imperative that organizations recognize and facilitate alternative, innocuous means of building dedication and fostering unity. I have come to recognize that productive, communal activities can serve this purpose. While there is still work to be done, I can also say my fraternity has made considerable progress over the past year re-defining new member education and bringing practices more into line with our creed. That creed is worth sustaining, as is the Greek system at Cornell. I welcome any skeptics to join me for a meal at my fraternity house and see the positive aspects of brotherhood and the community we have built. It is a community that could have, and should have, been built without hazing.
We are fortunate at Cornell to have an administration that both values Greek life and recognizes a need to end hazing practices. At Binghamton University this month, all pledging was halted and the continued existence of a recognized Greek system is uncertain. At Dartmouth, according to the Rolling Stone article, the administration demonstrated unwillingness to even address or recognize hazing. Both these approaches preclude the development of a Greek system that puts its best foot forward.
President Skorton’s “Pledge to End Fraternity Hazing” uses ambiguous language but nevertheless now resonates with me. We cannot violate his trust, and also should not depend on the administration or governing councils to initiate reforms. The secretive and elusive nature of hazing means that it can only be effectively policed from within. We must come to our senses and oppose hazing in our respective organizations before opposition to their existence coalesces or they lose sight of the greater good. We students must take a similar pledge to President Skorton and in doing so change the context of discussions over what role Greek life plays in the community.
Jon Weinberg is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. In Focus appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.