Travis Apgar served as senior associate dean of students before becoming Dean of Students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in January.

Travis Apgar served as senior associate dean of students before becoming Dean of Students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in January.

February 5, 2017

Apgar, Former Dean of Students, Sought to End Traditional Greek Pledge System

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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.”

  • Cornell & Cornell Law Alum

    Good riddance. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

    I was involved in the selection process that picked Mr. Apgar. He was unequivocally the wrong candidate to have selected out of the 4 finalists and most involved in the process said so at the time. His tenure on campus certainly had the Administration-intended effect of “cracking down” on the Greek system. While raising standards across the board is never a bad idea, Mr. Apgar presided over a department whose actions where, more often than not, capricious and arbitrary. Unfailingly, the department came to a pre-ordained result and justified it by whatever logic it pleased. Accusation of one, meant guilt for all.

    • ’07 Alum / Greek

      Apgar leaves behind a strong greek system, but whlie he was on the hill, he also left a lot to be desired. Relative to his predecessor (Suzy Nelson), and his counterparts at other institutions, Travis failed to embrace the chapters and failed to make his office into the resource it could have been. A decline in hazing is a noble and important victory, but it’s loneliness as Apgar’s sole accomplishment is telling of the way he spent his time and focus during his tenure in WSH. It also shows, better than anything else, what it was like for chapters in Travis Apgar’s greek system.

      Besides a crackdown on hazing and social policy, we never heard anything like a clear vision come from Apgar. Juxtaposed against his vision for “positive” pledging, there was nothing positive about his strategy or style of leadership. Like the hazing behaviors he so fervently detests, his operating model for his office (then called “OFSA”) was to punish chapters into submission according to his standards — and sometimes, it seemed, according to his whimsical and arbitrary interpretation of those standards. Through the swift hand of punishment, and almost exclusively through punishment, Travis worked to eradicate a negative. Like the archetype of a hazing-obsessed pledge master, Travis’ tools for managing chapters were sticks, rarely carrots. Travis Apgar’s OFSA was not an organization we could trust to look out for our interests or advise us towards a healthy and sustainable future. Travis, it seemed, didn’t look to solve problems in the greek system — he looked upon the system itself as the problem.

      My sincere hope for Kara Miller, his successor, is that she sets a course for a vibrant greek system, not just one that avoids hazing. The absence of hazing is a noble and worth goal, as we all would agree. It is not a vision. I hope Kara picks up the mantle Travis leaves, but not his blinders to other issues and opportunities besides his favorite one. Kara, in my experience, is a sharp and skillful professional. I hope she knows keenly that an office that regulates and punishes without serving as a resource is missing a wonderful opportunity.

  • frugality is power

    Can we just leave this position unfilled? I think we already have a surplus of administrator leaches consuming our astronomical tuition.

    • an alumnus

      It was endowed by fraternity alumni with the intent that there would continue to be a full time advisor for fraternities in the Dean of Students office. The position was later repurposed (in a manner inconsistent with donor intent) to cover all of Greek life as well as independent living units. Perhaps some of the unfortunate fraternity incidents of the past decade would have been avoided if there was a dedicated full time fraternity advisor position.

  • D. Westoby

    Apgars biggest failing was that he didn’t push harder for what many students, and most staff and faculty wanted — dissolution of the Greek system in its entirety (there was a survey several years back. And that, largely, is because of lack of leadership above Apgar — said leadership being too afraid of offended parents of students who partake of ‘Greek life’ (many said parents being rich alumni), and because it would only exacerbate the basic housing problem that Cornell faces.

    Travis Apgar was a really decent guy, trying to do a no-win job in a system that is content with the status quo so long as said ‘Greek system’ doesn’t bring bad press to Cornell.

  • an alumnus

    Apgar was a disorganized mess and a poor manager. This wasted a lot of valuable time and resources both of University Staff, students and Greek alumni.