August 25, 2011

Letter to the Editor: Fraternities are not the cause

Print More

To the Editor:

Re: “Examining the Pledge on Pledging,” Opinion, August 25

This week, most of us read that students at fraternities engage in high-risk drinking at two to three times the rate of students not associated with fraternities. In the past, we heard that fraternity members have lower grades, on average, than students who do not join the Greek system. This type of evidence (and many similar statistics over the years), has been used to suggest that fraternities are a serious problem. Unfortunately, those arguments are subject to a serious logical flaw — the confusion of correlation and causation. All of the statistics may be correct, but you cannot use them to make the causal argument that fraternities foster bad behavior.

In this case, the logical fallacy is obvious: students who choose to join fraternities are different than those who choose not to join. Students who choose to join do so because they have attitudes and values that are consistent with current fraternity culture and they have behavior patterns that make them attractive to existing members. Fraternity brothers enter their organizations with attitudes, values and behaviors that align with their houses. While the fraternity context may increase those traits’ display on the margin, it does not create them.

To address the problems, whether excessive drinking or any other undesirable behavior, we need to address the root of the problem — students’ attitudes, values, and behaviors — and we currently do that badly. Over the 26 years that I have been at Cornell, I’ve watched many student activities eliminated because they are seen as risky. Traying on Libe Slope, burning the dragon on Dragon Day and even snowball fights on the Arts Quad are stopped in part because of safety/liability concerns. Unfortunately, those activities all appealed to students who enjoy risk-taking, which is a reasonably common trait among young adults.

Therein lies the problem: The eliminated activities fulfilled the needs of a student group and when the activities were eradicated, the need was not; it simply sought a different outlet. Fraternities, which have limited oversight, have become the outlet. Changing fraternity behavior will similarly not eliminate the desire to take risks. Instead, students will simply find another context for pursuit of risk and in a decade, the administration will be targeting that new context.

Instead of trying to change fraternities, then, the University needs to think about how better to address the underlying attitudes and values that contribute to undesirable behavior. Changing the traits is not  — it is impossible to eliminate a desire for risk-taking and it is also wrong to do so because risk-taking is a key requirement for innovation, entrepreneurship and other desirable outcomes. We need to find ways to respond to student interest in a positive way. When it snows: fence off Libe Slope, enforce a breathalyzer test at entry, throw up some hay bales around the trees, create downhill paths and recycle old tire inner tubes for sledding. Speed feels risky, even when it really is not.

There are dozens of reasonable activities that could be created, but they will only come to fruition if Cornell stops thinking that the way forward is more restrictions. The correct strategy is to recognize the true cause of the problem and address that with creativity — opening options instead of closing them. I hope someone finally decides to do that.

— Jan Katz, senior lecturer in the School of Hotel Administration