First, let me welcome you to a new academic year. I hope that part of your routine at Cornell will include reading The Daily Sun, an informed, reliable and independent voice on our campus.
Second, I’d like to address an important issue. As many of you know, I recently directed Greek chapters at Cornell to use a system of member recruitment and initiation that does not involve pledging as we know it. In addition, I am urging student leaders in our Greek system to work with their national organizations to end the current system of pledging nationally, along with the hazing, alcohol abuse, bullying and humiliation that too often accompany it.
Let me share the context for this decision. Last winter, George Desdunes ’13 died after an apparent hazing incident during pledging — an incident that allegedly included mock kidnapping, humiliation and coerced drinking. The University acted quickly and decisively to close the house, disband the chapter and withdraw recognition of the fraternity for at least five years. Those indicted are no longer at Cornell, and the case is still pending resolution in the courts.
This tragic incident is only one of many that occur each year on campuses across the country. Regrettably but undeniably, hazing and risky behavior have become a chronic problem. According to a national study, 55 percent of college students involved in clubs, teams and organizations experience hazing, yet the vast majority of them do not identify the events as hazing. Of those who do, 95 percent do not report the events to campus officials. It is time to take action.
Cornell’s Campus Code of Conduct defines hazing in the necessarily complex manner of legal documents, but its most essential point is this: Hazing is any act that, as a condition for group membership, humiliates, intimidates, abuses or endangers any person — regardless of the person’s consent to participate.
Hazing has been a crime in New York State since 1983. It has been formally prohibited at Cornell since 1980, and, theoretically, given the legal drinking age, pledging is dry. Yet, during the last 10 years alone, nearly 60 percent of fraternity and sorority chapters at Cornell have been found responsible for activities that are considered hazing under the Code of Conduct. And high-risk drinking and drug use are embedded in the culture of some Greek chapters, occurring two to three times more often among fraternity and sorority members than elsewhere in the student population.
The Greek system is an important tradition for many Cornellians, and at its best, it fosters friendship, community service, networking and leadership. But the prevalence of dangerous and demeaning activities is forcing many people to question whether we should have fraternities and sororities at all. If the system is to survive — and I think it should — we at Cornell, along with colleges and universities nationwide, must look dispassionately at those aspects of fraternity and sorority life that unnecessarily put students at high risk. The illegal and irresponsible practice of hazing, which has become entrenched in the pledging process and often includes high-risk drinking, should be at the top of the list.
Last Tuesday I met with Greek student leaders at their annual retreat to discuss the decision to ban pledging. Most recognized the problems associated with pledging and agreed that change is needed. But reasonable questions and concerns arose:
Some addressed the difficulty of completely changing their pledging process, and some felt that the decision does not take into account the differences among the chapters. Many noted that they are already struggling, as a condition of University recognition, to implement significant changes, including barring freshmen from parties with alcohol and eliminating alcohol from recruitment and pledging activities.
Yes, this is a tough time to have to make new changes. But a student has died, and others are at risk. Greek student leaders, working with Cornell administrators, have a full year — and some leeway — to develop a new process. The requirement is simply that pledging be replaced with a process that is devoid of personal degradation, disrespect or harassment in any form. Each chapter has alumni who can help, and I encourage student leaders to call on them.
Another excellent resource is the Cornell Team and Leadership Center, part of Cornell Outdoor Education, which already works with the Greek community to offer challenging activities — from ice climbing to rappelling off our stadium — that encourage bonding, teamwork and trust.
Some Greek leaders questioned why we have given them only very general guidelines for acceptable induction practices. Susan Murphy ’73, vice president for student and academic services, and I believe that this is an issue of self-governance and that the students who know the system and are committed to it are in the best position to suggest a new approach. As in other sets of issues that affect our campus, Cornell students can and should lead the way, locally and nationally.
Since Tuesday’s meeting, and since my op-ed in The New York Times on Wednesday, most of the responses I’ve received from students, alumni, parents, faculty and staff have been strongly supportive. Not surprisingly, though, ending pledging is controversial in some quarters. But the bottom line is this: Given a choice between “tradition” and the health and well-being of our students, we should not have to think twice.
I look forward to working with the Greek system to move to a better process of member recruitment and intake that will realize the potential of Greek houses to be positive forces on our campus and beyond. This is a national issue, and Cornell students can and should be out in front.
David J. Skorton is president of Cornell University. He may be reached at email@example.com. From David appears bi-monthly this semester.