September 8, 2010

Skorton Voices Support for New Greek Drinking Policy

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With an ongoing campus debate regarding the administration’s controversial changes to the Greek system, President David Skorton sat down with The Sun on Tuesday to discuss the plan. He expressed support for the changes, as well as for the Greek system’s history of self-governance.

Sun: Do you think that the drinking age of 21 is the best policy to keep students safe?D.S. : I’m the wrong guy to ask because I do feel very strongly about that; I believe in data. I believe in the data that shows that when the age changed, accidents on the highway went down. We were one of the schools that decided not to sign on [to the Amethyst Initiative] 20 months ago. I’m a doc, I follow the literature … I think all the data, as opposed to strong opinions, is on the side of keeping the drinking age older and following the law.

Sun: Do you think the drinking age of 21 is the best way to keep Cornell students safe, where people aren’t really driving to parties?D.S. : Let me answer a slightly different question; I’m not trying to be slippery. I think we need more than one way to keep people safe. One element of it is to discourage people from drinking at an age when it’s illegal … Secondly, I think, as with Slope Day, there are ways to make it possible to have a great time while limiting risk to some extent … I want to be clear about this: I don’t think we have all the answers. I certainly don’t think I have all the answers. But I think in isolation, changing something like the drinking age or failing to align local policies with national policies and law, it just doesn’t compute to me. It just doesn’t make sense. I’ll be the first one to participate and be supportive in a broad discussion of what it would take to find the best possible equilibrium in this situation. I believe that [Vice President for Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy ‘73] very much wants to engage with the students in that regard.

Sun: In the interest of safety, do you think that barring first-year students from fraternity parties will remove their desire to drink? And thus make the drinking that students do safer?D.S. : It’s a very complicated problem. The way you asked it, of course not. But the question is, can we find a way to keep students as safe as possible on campus while having a fun campus environment, maintaining the strength and forward motion of the Greek system, and aligning University policies with national policies and laws. We have to find a way to do that. To [imply] the only way to work this is to leave it just like it is or to do something that’s really going to hurt the Greek system — we have to be smarter than that. We have to work as a community; there’s goodwill on both sides.This is a narrow issue. This has to do with alignment with national policies and laws. I have a hard time being against that kind of alignment.

Sun: How will this change the University’s legal liability of what will happen in the chapter houses?D.S. : I haven’t thought about that carefully. It’s a great question.

Sun: So the alignment is just to get Cornell policy in sync with the law? It has nothing to do with the University’s legal liability?D.S. : I’m not saying it doesn’t, I’m saying I haven’t thought about it.I want to make it clear that I’m a very strong supporter of the Greek system, and that I believe and expect that we can come together as a community to figure this out and not have a pushing and shoving match. We have to keep our eyes on these two goals: keep the Greek system robust and strong; and do the best we can to protect student health and well-being, aligning ourselves with national laws and policies.

Sun: When these changes first came out, [Dean of Students Kent Hubbell ’67] mentioned the need to come up with somewhere else or something else for first-year students to do other than attend fraternity parties, which seems to be the center of social life for most first-year students. What do you think the solution is for that balance of having fun and enforcing the law?D.S. : Of course, you wouldn’t want me to tell you that, right? A 60-year-old person. You’ve got to help figure that out. Student leaders and the students who are committed to leadership in the University have to figure that out. Shame on us if the only way students can have a great first-year experience is to go to frat parties and drink. There has to be a broader way to look at it.It shouldn’t be that we just turn our eyes away from the law and alignment with national policy, and say, “this is the only way people can have a good first-year experience.” I’d like to know how many students ended up in a hospital the first couple weeks of the semester. I’d like us to keep these dual things high in our mind: student health and well-being and the robustness of the Greek system. We should be a creative enough campus … to come together and figure this out.…I think this particular campus has a much better balance of Greek life and Greek service and the values that you read on the charters of the houses. You’ll never hear me say the Greek system is all based on alcohol. Alcohol obviously has a role in this society. Beyond a certain age, it’s legal. My comments about alcohol have 100 percent to do with health and safety. [They are] not a value judgment. I’m not talking about a moral or ethical value judgment, I’m talking about a very practical end stage; when somebody comes here as a freshman and sleeps down the hall from me in Donlon, I want that kid to show up at commencement four years later, healthy and with a college education. I don’t want him dead. I don’t want him sick. It’s not my child, it’s not in loco parentis, it’s just that that’s what I think my job is, number one, to work for safety for the students. So I just don’t think it makes sense for me to narrow my view of whether the Greek experience will be ruined if we don’t have alcohol. I just reject that as a concept. This is a campus where people are really idealistic, I just reject the idea that we have to lower ourselves to that kind of narrow discussion.Nobody is down on the Greek system; nobody wants to torpedo the Greek system. And I know that no Greek leaders have anything but huge motivation for student health and well-being. If some student, God forbid, dies at a Greek party, that’s going to do much more to kill recruitment for that Greek house than anything else. I’ve been through it before.

Sun: Are you trying to reduce the amount of drinking that happens on campus for students under 21?D.S. : I’m always trying to avoid, in all people, the amount of dangerous drinking that occurs, and the amount of dangerous behavior that occurs related to drinking. I’m trying to reduce the dangerous effects of a lot of choices that can be made. Cigarettes, alcohol, not taking the medicine the doctor gives you for high blood pressure or diabetes, not taking a flu shot — that’s where I’m coming from.

Sun: Would you agree that more aggressively targeting all students who drink — those students who drink a little, students who drink moderately, and students who are drinking dangerously and need to cut down — by making an across-the-board prohibition or more aggressively enforcing the state’s prohibition, you might see an uptick in more dangerous drinking?D.S.: It’s a definite risk. But there’s a difference between campus-imposed prohibition and following the law of the land. I think there’s a difference between a campus-imposed standard that’s higher than something like that and saying that we want to align ourselves with national policy … I don’t want to be argumentative, but I could turn the question the other way. I could say, why are we any different? Why should we not follow the law? Because we are at Cornell, or because college students are more privileged or something like that? That doesn’t make sense to me. One of the most vulnerable groups to accidental death is you guys. That’s the biggest killer of people your age — 15 to 24 — is accidental death. The biggest. Second for college students: suicide. So that’s where my head is. My head is: reduce the risk so that the college experience can be what it should be. And I don’t have all the answers; no way do I have all the answers. But I can’t imagine any argument in favor of not aligning to external policies and laws, other than just permissiveness. I mean, why do it?

Sun: But would you agree that it’s not a binary state of aligning or not aligning, that there’s a spectrum of how aggressively Cornell’s going to go after underage drinking?D.S.: Absolutely, I agree. I mean, how long did it take the campus to figure out the Slope Day stuff? It didn’t take one year … it took years to figure out that program. This may take a while, too. The only point I’m making is that I believe that you [the students] have the right motivation. I know that you’re concerned about student health and well-being, you want to do it rationally, you want to do it as a dialogue — as opposed to somebody pounding the table. Please believe that I am very strongly supportive of the Greek system, and everything that I’ve done and said as president I hope will back up the fact that I am very strongly support of the concept of shared governance. That doesn’t mean that we agree all the time about everything. Let’s come together, work with [Vice President Susan] Murphy [’73], work with [Dean of Students Kent] Hubbell [’69], try to make this work. That would be my message out to the campus. And raising the level of rhetoric to the point where we’re arguing whether somebody wants to “torpedo the Greek system” — how depressing. … I think we can work at a higher plane.

Original Author: Sun Staff