Travis Apgar, former senior associate dean of students, left Cornell in January to become Dean of Students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute — but he also left behind a legacy in hazing prevention.
Apgar worked to end the pledge system that fraternities and sororities used in recruitment and to replace it with an orientation system that is based on the first-year orientation program.
“The orientation model is really expected that it is a neutral platform built on mutual respect, that this is not about new members proving themselves worthy to become members,” Apgar said. “There may be some information that they certainly need to know about the organization, to demonstrate their commitment to the organization’s activities and values, but in very positive ways.”
Apgar said that hazing has decreased on Cornell’s campus in recent years.
“We’ve seen a significant decrease, which I’m not aware of any other campus being able to report such a significant decrease, not just in Greek life, but athletics has done a great job as well there,” said Apgar, who wrote on his LinkedIn page that he is “considered an authority on hazing prevention.”
Tim Marchell, director of the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives, said a University hazing survey found that in 2013, 39 percent of Cornell undergraduate students had taken part in at least one hazing activity, according the University’s definition of the word. The number was even higher for social sorority and fraternity members: 48 percent.
But those numbers dropped by 2015. Thirty-one percent of all undergraduates said they had been involved in hazing, and only 35 percent of students in social sororities and fraternities said the same, according to Marchell.
Over those two years, the University carried out strategies to combat hazing after George DesDunes ’13 died from hazing in 2011 and President Skorton called for an end to hazing in Greek life through “ending pledging as we know it,” which prompted Greek life’s shift to the orientation model, according to Marchell.
“Dean Apgar played an instrumental role in helping to re-shape the experience of students joining the Greek system during that time,” Marchell said.
In contrast to the University’s past where “first-year students were often hazed just because they were first-year students,” Apgar said that Cornell today uses a different model of “welcoming” new students.
“Through [first-year] orientation, we are making sure that they are comfortable, that they transition to the academic rigors, as well as the social structure, and the opportunities, so that we retain as many students as possible and help them be successful,” he said. “So I think that using that foundation is what we’re trying to do with fraternities and sororities.”
The new system requires that fraternities and sororities complete a report every semester that must be approved by alumni, the national or international organization and the Office of Fraternity, Sorority and Independent Living, according to Apgar. The organizations also have to plan out their orientation events ahead of time.
Frederick Tamarkin ’19, president of Pi Kappa Phi fraternity, said he believes the orientation method was “a step in the right direction.”
“The model, when effectively communicated, sets clear expectations and modes to implement a successful member education process,” Tamarkin said.
Kara Miller, Apgar’s successor as Director of Greek Life and Associate Director of Student and Organization Development, remarked that Apgar “brought a breadth of experience in student affairs” to his position.
“He was genuinely interested in student development and in helping the fraternity and sorority experience be a positive and meaningful opportunity for Cornellians,” she said.
Apgar has worked directly with fraternities facing hazing-induced sanctions. When Pi Kappa Phi was placed on interim suspension in Spring 2016, Apgar “led the dialogue between the University and the fraternity” during the suspension process, according to Tamarkin.
“I believe that OFSIL and the IFC handled the process professionally,” Tamarkin said. “Additional improvements, if any, should focus on transparent communication throughout all levels of University administration.”
Apgar was also co-chair of the Council on Hazing Prevention, a group that “focused on expanding hazing prevention beyond the Greek system,” according to Marchell, who was the other co-chair.
“Travis was outspoken and steadfast in his commitment to preventing hazing, and his expertise on this issue had a major impact on our campus and the lives of our students,” he said. “We’re going to miss him.”