President David Skorton’s recent columns in The New York Times and The Sun probably seemed reasonable and genuine to the incoming Class of 2015 and those not familiar with Cornell’s Greek system. To a large degree his words resonated with me. But many fraternity and sorority members, however appreciative of Skorton’s commitment to Greek life at Cornell, read both pieces and shook their heads in resignation. Not at the thought of abolishing hazing or serving fewer cans of Keystone Light, but rather at the suggestion that they were given an opportunity to self-govern.
Greek self-governance currently holds the same status at Cornell as public-sector collective bargaining does in many states facing budget shortfalls (yes, I’m an ILRie). Recognizing a need to cut costs, state governors either attempted to eliminate the right to collectively bargain altogether or worked with union leaders to achieve large concessions on wages and pensions. The Cornell administration is facing a similar choice: further weaken Greek self-governance or empower student leaders to initiate mechanisms for change.
If Skorton is serious about making fundamental, enduring changes while sustaining Cornell’s Greek community (and I think he is), the University must revisit not just pledging reform but also the amended University Recognition Policy. Most critically, Greek governing bodies must be empowered to collaborate with administrators in the pursuit of mutually agreed-upon regulations. Greek organizations should similarly be prepared to make sacrifices in order to preserve self-governing institutions.
In my first column for The Sun last September (time flies!), I also responded to an installment of President Skorton’s column. Coincidence? I think not. I write In Focus to share my perspective on important Cornell-related news and keep readers informed on how issues of international, national, local and campus importance affect us on the Hill.
My goal is for members of the Cornell community to become informed and take stances on issues that affect them, even if our respective conclusions ultimately differ. While I often criticize campus administrators and leaders, I respect their work and hope they consider my suggestions. Like last September, I find myself cautiously optimistic about the opportunity for renewed trust and cooperation between Day Hall and Greek governing bodies.
But the implementation of changes to the University Recognition Policy over the past year has by no means been a blueprint for how successful collaboration can be achieved. Last August, the University announced a plan to gradually alter recruitment, new member education and “open parties” over a three-year period. The lack of student input and opportunities to discuss changes prior to approval infuriated many members of the Greek community. The Interfraternity Council at the time was ineffective, and an open forum quickly disintegrated into crude mockery of the administration.
Last month, in response to the tragic death of George Desdunes ’13, administrators announced that the changes would be implemented immediately. They also chose to strictly limit the exposure of freshmen to Greek life. In this case, the concerns of the IFC and Greek alumni were ignored, and there wasn’t even a façade of open dialogue. I have personally come to see Greek self-governance as, to put it bluntly, a farce — not because Greek governing bodies are presently incapable but because their autonomy has been invalidated.
In essence, fraternity and sorority members have been treated like public-sector employees, and divergent approaches taken by two state governors represent choices administrators could make. For those of you who have never set foot in Ives Hall, the state of Wisconsin was thrown into turmoil when Governor Scott Walker introduced legislation to end public sector collective bargaining. Massive protests and a summer of bitter recall elections followed. In contrast, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York sat down with labor leaders and was able to renegotiate collective bargaining agreements that involved concessions but avoided painful public battles. Needless to say, the New York model is a much better one for Cornell to follow (after all, we are New York’s land grant university and there are plenty of New Yorkers on campus to go around). Skorton has expressed an intention to follow such a collaborative model; Greek leaders should, in the context of recent events, should be open to cooperation.
The past year has been sobering, to say the least, for me and other fraternity and sorority members. Desdunes’ death was absolutely devastating and unacceptable. I agree with President Skorton that it’s time to take action and eliminate the most dangerous and crude elements of pledging. But other elements of new member education — like those which allow new members to meet and learn about each other, the fraternity and the brotherhood — should be encouraged. Skorton certainly recognizes the differential, and it’s encouraging that he changed the wording of his directive from ending “pledging” to ending “pledging as we know it.” This change, along with his reiterated commitment to the continued existence of a Greek system at Cornell, is a sign he is willing to listen to students. For the first time in over a year, it appears Day Hall is acknowledging what the Greek community has to say. Granted, whatever changes are ultimately put into action will not necessarily amenable to many in the Greek community. But I believe Greek leaders would savor an opportunity to make their voices heard and preserve their right to self-govern, just as New York labor leaders chose to accept concessions to preserve the core institution of collective bargaining.
Any eventual change in pledging policy should be accompanied by a transition to a reasonable University Recognition Policy. Hazing and excessive abuse of alcohol should be discouraged at all costs. Introducing freshmen to positive elements of Greek life and promoting safe drinking, however, should be encouraged. As the new policy stands, fraternities are banished from the Cornell community, which reinforces the notion that they are inherently negative. A rehabilitated and improved Greek system should be promoted, integrated and engaged with the rest of the community. For freshmen, reformed fraternity houses should be presented as places for safe, fun and meaningful events. I am confident the present Interfraternity Council has much potential to initiate changes from within and at the same time negotiate with the administration.
I find myself largely in agreement with President Skorton’s stated vision for Greek life at Cornell, but the University needs to demonstrate its stated commitment to working in partnership with Greek governing bodies. Discourse and collaboration between Greek leaders and Day Hall have been hindered by over a year of consistent disregard for self-governance, mutual animosity, unspeakable tragedy and an overall hostile climate for fraternities. It’s clear that Greek governing bodies are now prepared to heed a call to lead. But they can only lead if properly empowered to do so via restored dialogue and reinforced self-governance.
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.