January 21, 2013

EDITORIAL: Changing Frat Culture, Beyond the Punishment

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On Jan. 9, the University disbanded the Tau Epsilon Phi fraternity after two of the fraternity’s pledges were hospitalized during a hazing incident. The administration subsequently punished the Phi Sigma Kappa and Pi Kappa Phi fraternities on Jan. 14 for engaging in repeated acts of “underage and excessive alcohol consumption.” We hope these punishments will deter other houses from taking similar actions. However, they will only be successful if they are pursued in conjunction with broad cultural changes. Through these incidents, the University has continued to show that it is willing to punish houses for violating the rules after they happen. This strategy of deterrence is important for incentivizing houses to abandon their risky pledging practices. As we have seen in recent years with such fraternities as Sigma Alpha Epsilon and Pi Kappa Alpha, the University has not hesitated to expel chapters from campus that engage in hazing.However, even when the University has pursued this policy in the past, chapters have continued to flout the rules and thus put the health and safety of their members in jeopardy. To try to prevent these behaviors in the first place, Cornell has embarked on a strategy to “end pledging as we know it” by shortening the pledge period and requiring each chapter to submit a detailed plan of pledging events to the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs for approval.While we commend Cornell’s tough action, these incidents have only affirmed our belief that broad cultural changes — beyond what the University has proposed — are essential to changing the system. To end these harmful practices, we believe that prospective members should be initiated immediately after they accept their bids. While some fraternities may argue that students need time to learn house rituals and traditions, we firmly believe that this process can begin after initiation — eliminating the potential for hazing.We do not wish to condemn the fraternity system as a whole. Greek life is full of tradition, history and philanthropy, all of which demonstrate the positive role the system can play at Cornell. Our problem — and that of the administration — is with the continuation of an initiation process for prospective members that seeks to achieve brotherhood and unity through sometimes dangerous and humiliating hazing activities. However, these actions are often ritualized, making the cycle of hazing hard to break. Yet it is imperative, for the well-being of our community, that chapters end this cycle and cease these harmful practices.The disregard by chapters for the safety of their brothers is the greatest justification for University action. In the case of TEP, the University came to the decision to disband the fraternity after a thorough investigation of an October incident in which pledges were placed in “sexually humiliating” situations. The two other fraternities, meanwhile, were only punished after multiple recent incidents of underage and excessive drinking. These activities have degraded, harmed and even killed Cornellians in the past. They can no longer be tolerated by the University or by the student community.