September 8, 2017

GUEST ROOM | Cornell Freshmen, Rush!

Print More

Wow. Sarah Lieberman’s ’19 column on August 30 was a thunderclap. Cornell Alumni across the globe forwarded the link. Ms. Lieberman fires Rush 2018 starter gun by sending out an advertisement to the Cornellians interested in joining our fraternities. Labelling fraternity members with such stereotypes is as inaccurate and inappropriate as the claims that Cornell women are judged by fraternities rather than other Cornellians. If Cornell’s Class of 2021 assesses rush opportunities simply by the content of Ms. Leiberman’s column, that would be a terrible disservice.

Cornell’s institutional philosopher, the soft-spoken Prof. Carl Becker, history, wrote The Cornell Tradition: Freedom and Responsibility in October 1940. It was Carl who stated for the Class of 2021, “I came to Cornell, prepared to do as I pleased, wondering what the catch was . . .”

Indeed, the catch.

In 2012, I was asked to volunteer as president of the Cornell University Alumni Interfraternity Council in the wake of Sigma Alpha Epsilon brother George Desdunes’ death in February 2011. I accepted the volunteer challenge understanding that it is rarely our institutions which fail. It is we who fail. That is why Sarah Lieberman’s column correctly calls for reform, rather than extermination. But how do you reform an individual? That’s the catch.

CUAIFC has 42 member presidents, representing Cornell Alumni of 42 of the 72 Houses that either exist, or existed, on the Hill since 1868.  Our members understand the value of free speech and free association within the Cornell community. The question, therefore, since the fall of 1868: what bounds do we place on speech and association at Cornell? In order to do justice, how much liberty must we crush?

The Cornell community is not a Care Bear den prolonging one’s adolescence. As a Cornell undergraduate, one is not finishing the last four years of adolescence. The freshman is starting the first four years of the rest of her or his life. As we use speech and association to define who we are, there will be offense taken. The critical Cornell question since April 19, 1969 has been: what bounds exist on our speech and association to make the Hill an empowering institution, capable of lifting all Cornellians to greater achievement?

Phi Kappa Psi was to me, in 1984, a haven.  Our ‘house’ is a lifetime commitment. Someday, the last of my pledge brothers will lift a glass to all departed, remembering many years of Cornell life.  I sat with a ’20s brother doing just that when I was a sophomore. A pledge brother paid for my heating when I was unemployed during the winter of 1999-2000. Another brother, for whom I was Pledge Master, carried me through law school as I suffered from PTSD following Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.  When 47 of my fellow sailors gave their lives for you, gentle reader, in 1989 on board the battleship USS Iowa, four of my fraternity brothers made sure I was not the 48th victim. These examples are not from my undergraduate years.  It would take a library to record our brotherly love and adventures over those crazed and madcap years, 1983 to 1987. For us, Phi Psi reduced the 20,000 Cornell community to a manageable 90. And the 1200 of us total, drawn from across 70 years of Cornell classes, live, work and communicate with each other, every day still. The undergraduate Chapter has disappointed us once or twice in 30 years. But we house alumni simply took those moments as an opportunity to volunteer, as Cornellians, to lift up our younger brothers.

Sarah, all the ills you identify exist to some degree in our Cornell houses. They are also in teams, classrooms, clubs, dorms, apartments and associations across the campus. They are in Day Hall and the Cornell shops. They are not a product of an institution. They exist within the Cornell classes arriving every fall and in the employees the University hires. Carl Becker’s ‘catch’ is to take responsibility for your role in the Cornell community, and seek the rational and humane in our midst.

For the freshmen carrying ill-manners to us, two sortings occur every autumn. The first round of prelims take the highest 10 percenters and violently scatter them over an entire curve. It is educational violence, soul-breaking. We all went through it. So will the Class of 2021. It is Cornell’s collective “Hell Week.” Someone will be bottom 10 percent. She or he could also be 2017’s billion-dollar Cornell donor. Second, that first sortings’ veterans then have to find sophomore housing. Again, the institutional paddles come out.  If we are not careful, the wounded from the first sorting will derive the wrong lesson, and chose to form “wolf-packs” during the second sorting. Yes, Ms. Lieberman, in a community of 20,000 we form packs for a reason: Cornell survival. These sortings can release an individual’s bigotry; when our identities are challenged, the worst can follow.

Our fraternities cannot become havens solely for Cornellians nursing first wounds. Both the bruised and the unbruised need to rush, together after prelims, combing their talents for the collective good. What our Cornell fraternity men and women need is quality of life and high community expectations. This takes the Cornell freshman out of his or her first semester, tells them life goes on regardless of prelims and puts them on the path to safe, but enabling, Cornell living and learning. The advertising is trash; Cornell is not transformative. It is transitional. The goal is to not be subordinated and dominated. All a freshman will be, is inside the freshman.  They just need the field to take to, in life’s crazy pursuits. It is hard work helping them; CUAIFC has too few volunteers by about a dozen. But if any member of the Cornell community has recommendations respectful of free speech and free association, we are glad to hear and consider adopting them. And for the Cornell freshmen looking for a great next 60 years, rush and join us!


Dan Meyer graduated from Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences in 1987. He is a member of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity.