November 28, 2012

Cornell Greek System Faces New Wave of Changes

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About two years ago, a Cornell student was killed after a fraternity hazing event. On Wednesday, the University announced its most comprehensive response to that death to date.

The University released its final plans for a series of new policies that seek to substantially reform fraternity and sorority pledging in response to President David Skorton’s challenge last year to “end pledging as we know it.”

Among the most significant changes that will be implemented in some form over the next three years are a shortened pledge period, extended access for Cornell emergency responders to off-campus chapter houses and, potentially, mandatory live-in advisors, according to the report.

The impending policy changes — outlined in a report titled “Meeting the Challenge: The Evolution of Cornell’s Greek Community” — will be implemented in three phases over the next three recruitment cycles, according to the report. Phase one of the plan, which will go into effect when rush begins this January, involves several immediate changes.

One reform will shorten the new member education period, in the spring. That period will shrink to four weeks in Spring 2014. Chapters will also be required to submit a detailed plan, for approval by the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs, of the events they plan to hold during that time, according to the report.

“There will be a great deal of vigilance placed around the greek system for those six weeks,” Interfraternity Council President Chris Sanders ’13 said.

The programs will need to offer activities that avoid the inherent “power differential” between brothers and new members, according to Sanders.

“As a conditional member there’s that sense that because you’re trying to prove [yourself] worthy of gaining membership, you’re more willing to subject yourself to things [than] if it was a more balanced relationship,” Sanders said. “We’re trying to get to the sort of model where there is time for new members to learn about the fraternity but … focusing on providing an experience more in tune to personal growth.”

The University will also  increase transparency surrounding greek judicial actions: Beginning in the spring, guilty verdicts and their corresponding penalties — handed down by the the Greek Judicial Board, the Fraternity and Sorority Review Board or any of the three council judicial boards — will be posted publicly online, according to Susan Murphy ’73 Ph.D. ’94, vice president for student and academic services.

“The intent is that when a decision is rendered … the violation as well as the sanction would be made known,” Murphy said. Judicial action would only be made public after a final decision was handed down, she said.

Student leaders and administrators said that some of the new policies, particularly the provision of live-in advisors, are only blueprints for continued reform. The second phase of the plan constitutes a “vague framework” that will take shape over the next two to three years, Sanders said.

For instance, while the plan says an advisor will be placed in “each chapter living in a house,” greek leaders expressed uncertainty over whether the University will ultimately require every fraternity to have one. Whether all chapters or only newly-formed or “at-risk” chapters will be required to have them has not been determined, according to Murphy.

“There are a lot of issues we still have to work out,” she said. “All of the Panhellenic organizations already have live-in advisors. We think it holds great impact and merit, but there’s a lot of discussion left to be had.”

One such discussion will likely be how to pay advisors — details that were not included in the plan released Wednesday. Greek leaders said it was still unclear whether the full cost would fall on the chapters or whether the University would shoulder some of the burden.

Alan Workman ’13, IFC vice president for recruitment, said he predicts the live-in advisor provision will be the most difficult of the new policies to fully implement. Still, he emphasized that chapters will likely have more opportunities to offer their input as the details are ironed out over the next few years.

“I think it’s going to be a bit of a trial-and-error, seeing on the fly how it would best be implemented — kind of a pilot program,” Workman said. “Off-campus houses keeping some of their rights as independent living units is going to be one of the more delicate balances we’re going to have to keep as we move forward with these recommendations.”

That balance will come into question with another of the report’s policies: increasing University access to off-campus chapter houses for “matters of health and safety.”

In the past, Murphy said, fraternities in off-campus houses have turned away medical help from Cornell EMS responders for fear of repercussions for hosting illegal parties. Increasing access to off-campus houses is a safety measure — not an attempt to increase University control over those chapters, she said.

“We don’t own the houses, we don’t control the houses — but when there’s a member of a recognized student organization in a recognized chapter house who is in medical difficulty, we want to be able to help,” Murphy said.

For the two thirds of chapter houses that are not Cornell-owned, the jurisdiction issue is a complicated one, Workman agreed.

“Cornell EMS can’t really go to those houses. Bangs and others like Cayuga Heights EMS respond to those off-campus houses. For matters of health and safety, extending the ability for Cornell EMS to go to those houses would be a huge step for us — as long as we make sure houses remain out of University control,” he said.

Amid ongoing changes to the system, chapter officers have raised concerns about such a loss of autonomy in various aspects of greek life. The cry for self-governance, though, is a two-way street, Sanders cautioned. Many students fail to acknowledge that “self-governance is a privilege that is granted by the administration and by the trustees,” he said.

“That privilege comes with a sense of responsibility, and I don’t think as a community we’ve lived up to that responsibility.” Sanders said. “If behavior like we saw near the end of this semester continues, we run the risk of further distancing ourselves from that privilege.”

Efforts to eradicate dangerous behavior within the Greek System have been in the works since the hazing-related death of Sigma Alpha Epsilon brother George Desdunes ’13 in February 2011, which led to Skorton’s mandate and the acceleration of the first round of new restrictions handed down last year.

The latest plan was adapted from recommendations set forth by the RARE committee — or Recruitment, Acceptance, Retention and Education, a task force comprised of students and alumni — and revised with input from student leaders, alumni and the University’s Fraternity and Sorority Advisory Council.

Student leaders and administrators said that keeping the status quo — with high-risk drinking and hazing still critical issues of concern at Cornell — will not be tolerated. Chapters are going to see changes not only to new member education, but to the judicial process as well, they said.

“When we have documented cases where someone’s health and safety is at risk, I suspect we’re going to up the ante a bit,” Murphy said. “We’ve just got to take a very strong stand and we just can’t

have our students being put into situations where they’re at risk.”

Still, the changes announced Wednesday are, she emphasized, “predicated on the desire of preserving the system for all that it can and does provide.”

Original Author: Rebecca Harris