As a member of a fraternity, it can often feel like the trustees are continually cracking down on Greek life. As a trustee, it is easy to see why.
Greek organizations can generate terrible P.R. for universities. They create safety hazards and liability issues. And they can foster irresponsible behavior that occasionally contributes to tragedies.
When the trustees amended the Greek Recognition Policy in April, there were many who thought it did not go far enough. The push to ban Greek life is gaining speed, not losing it — both among the trustees and beyond campus.
In trying to respond to both external pressures and the needs of students, the administration has so far largely made reactionary changes to Greek policies. After one fraternity sent three students to the hospital during rush week, alcohol was banned during the recruitment process. After a student died during pledging last year, the pledge process was banned.
But it is time to start acting proactively. We need to ask, “What should Greek life look like at Cornell?” Once we decide that, it is time for everyone — students, administrators and trustees — to move toward that goal together.
There is more common ground here than most will admit. A fun Greek system draws students to the University and makes them more willing to give back as alumni. A safe Greek system not only reduces liability but (primarily) keeps students healthy. Strong self-governance gives student leaders a sense of control while encouraging crackdowns on prohibited behaviors.
As I see it, there are two main issues facing Greek life: inappropriate drinking and abusive hazing. Each can be solved.
Irresponsible drinking will occur whether or not a campus has Greek life. In the best system, fraternities would be a safe outlet for those who choose to drink, while not pressuring dry students to do so. Every fraternity party would have a number of student sober monitors who were actually sober and actually monitoring — not just for intoxication but also for violence, sexual assault and other damaging behaviors. While this may seem more far-fetched than Cornell lowering tuition, students are already developing proposals (which should be announced soon) that work towards this goal.
Hazing will also occur on college campuses with or without Greek organizations. Fifty-five percent of college students experience being hazed, and up to 95 percent of cases go unreported. Cornell’s own anti-hazing website says that hazing occurs in “athletic teams, military units, performing arts groups, religious groups and other types of clubs and organizations.” But hazing is always wrong, and should be vigilantly fought. Pledging, on the other hand, does not need to involve physically or mentally damaging acts. New members can bond with current members without engaging in demeaning activities. The Tri-Council and individual chapters are already tweaking their orientation processes so that they welcome new members without running the risk of harming them.
But in order to make our parties safe and our initiations wholesome, everyone needs to be honest. The administration must embrace the fact that banning freshmen from fraternities will not end freshman drinking, and we need to have a plan for addressing increases in off-campus drinking and pre-gaming in dorms. It is difficult to argue that drinking hard liquor in an unregulated environment is safer than drinking light beer next to a sober monitor. On the other hand, fraternity members must admit that some aspects of hazing on campus are horrific. No one can argue that, for example, doing pull-ups while dangling off of the Stewart Avenue Bridge is something that can be explained away as part of pledging.
During New Student Convocation, President David Skoton urged parents to “try hard, really, really hard, to let your sons and daughters find a way to solve their problems for themselves. They will make mistakes, but usually they will be stronger and more resilient for having confronted and resolved a challenging situation.” Of course, President Skorton went on to tell parents to step in if something could be truly damaging. This advice applies not only to parents, but to the University as well. We will need to strike a balance between allowing students to act freely and stepping in when behavior gets out of hand. It will be a difficult process and will require the input of both administrators and students, but if done right, we can have a Greek system that both students and trustees are proud of.
Alex Bores is the undergraduate student-elected trustee and a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at email@example.com. Trustee Viewpoint appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.