President David Skorton announced that “pledging as we know it has to stop” at a meeting of Greek student leaders on Tuesday. He offered few specifics of how pledging — the process used for initiating new members, which can include hazing — should be replaced, but he emphasized that “degrading, humiliating and dangerous” actions could not continue.
The decision is another shock to Cornell’s Greek system, which has already faced a range of changes — including the recent prohibition of freshmen at open parties — that some students fear will endanger the system’s survival.
Skorton wrote an op-ed that appeared in The New York Times on Wednesday that called on fraternities and sororities across the country to join his initiative.
“National fraternities and sororities should end pledging across all campuses; Cornell students can help lead the way,” he wrote.
Skorton said he did not define specific changes because he wants to allow students a voice in shaping a new Greek system without pledging.
“I refuse to believe that these smart people cannot come up with an approach to replace pledging,” he said in an interview Tuesday night. “I know we can do better, and I know we have to avoid risks associated with pledging.”
While the changes might drastically alter the culture of the Greek system, Skorton emphasized that he did not want to eliminate fraternities or sororities at Cornell.
“I am supportive of continuing to have a strong, robust Greek system on our campus,” he said.
The president’s demands for change come after a student died following a pledging activity last semester.
George Desdunes ’13, who was a brother in Sigma Alpha Epsilon, died on Feb. 25 after an alleged mock kidnapping led by SAE pledge members, according to court documents. Four of those members were later charged with several misdemeanor counts, including hazing, and are no longer enrolled at the University.
Desdunes had a blood alcohol level of 0.35, according to the criminal complaint.
In June, Desdunes’ mother filed a $25 million wrongful death lawsuit against the fraternity and 20 of its members.
While the suit does not name Cornell as a defendant, it says that information related to a sharp increase in hazing complaints at the University was “buried in the back of reports” that were difficult to access for parents. It criticizes Cornell’s website for promoting fraternity membership “without identifying any of the documented risks of pledging and membership in fraternities,” and it also says that Travis Apgar, associate dean of students for fraternity and sorority affairs, “dismiss[ed] valid safety concerns” in a letter he sent to first-year parents.
In Wednesday’s Times op-ed, Skorton said that hazing, although prohibited by law, has continued “under the guise of pledging,” which he defined as “the performance of demeaning or dangerous acts as a condition of membership.”
Skorton wants to replace pledging — which he described as “high-risk” — with a new, safer system to “protect the health and well-being of the students,” he said Tuesday night.
He will give Greek student leaders and Cornell administrators one year to develop a new system to replace pledging, he said. By the fall of 2012, pledging must be eliminated.
“We have this year to show him that we can do this before he begins to give mandates,” Multicultural Greek Letter Council President Andrew Martinez ’12 said. “If we don’t take the initiative to make these changes, then we risk letting the administration and higher-ups dictate how we intake new members.”
While several Greek student leaders said they agree changes must to be made, some were skeptical about the nature of the reforms.
“We definitely get the rationale” for the changes, Interfraternity Council President Dan Freshman ’12 said. “It’s just kind of overwhelming to envision a completely revamped pledging process,” especially when the pledging process of each individual fraternity is kept secret, he added.
Other students were concerned that their voices had already been left out, and a complex Greek system would not allow for a new, unified initiation system.
“He didn’t seek our opinion in the beginning and he doesn’t know that pledging is very different for MGLC, IFC and Panhel,” MGLC Vice President of Programming Janet Nwaukoni ’12 said. “Seeking our opinion halfway makes me skeptical.”
Skorton said that he is not entirely familiar with the differences between the pledge processes for fraternities, sororities and MGLC organizations, but he has confidence in administrators who “understand the nuances of different segments of the Greek system, including MGLC, and are equipped to address those concerns.”
He also emphasized that students would decide how to shape and implement the new system.
“It’s an important self-governance principle, as far as I’m concerned,” Skorton said. “What I’m doing is giving the students a chance to affect the future of this system.”
The changes to pledging come as the University is also requiring other significant reforms to the Greek system. New rules in place this year range from banning freshmen from open parties to preventing fraternities and sororities from hosting or advertising philanthropy events on North Campus until October.
Despite the burdens already placed on student leaders, Skorton said he does not see any alternative to making these changes now.
“Nothing is more important to me than the health and well-being of Cornell students,” he said.