March 12, 2018

GUEST ROOM | Gone With Greek Life, for Good

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This column has been edited for clarity. The fact that Psi Upsilon was not a University-recognized fraternity at the time of the alleged hate crime mentioned has been added.

Cornell’s fraternities and sororities routinely make national headlines for their exclusivity, indecency and downright cruelty. The latest revelation, concerning Zeta Beta Tau’s misogynistic “pig roast” competition, is hardly a departure from our greek organizations’ long history of abusive and deadly behavior.

When freshman Mortimer Leggett 1877 toppled off of a 37-foot cliff, he became the first casualty of our Greek system, as well as one of the earliest hazing deaths in America. Outraged by the needless loss of a “perfect gentleman” to a gruesome accident, some faculty proposed shutting down the university’s nascent fraternities altogether. But soon enough, the anger subsided and Kappa Alpha, of which he was a member, faced no penalty.

Today, almost 150 years later, the same problem which caused Leggett’s premature death remains unsolved, as evidenced by the tragic loss of George Desdunes ’13 to another hazing accident just seven years ago.

Defenders of the Greek system are keen to remind us that “it’s getting better.” If this is the case, then why did 2017 alone see the suspension of five Greek organizations for offenses ranging from hazing to severe alcohol abuse? Was it merely by chance that John Greenwood ’20, who allegedly perpetrated a hate crime last September, was an underground member of Psi Upsilon, a fraternity which had it’s recognition revoked in 2016? What about that Zeta Psi member who chanted “build a wall” outside the Latino Living Center a week before? To insist that “it’s getting better” in the face of so much counter-evidence is plainly inaccurate. Only when we can accept that Greek life is far from “getting better” can we begin to explore why it’s not.

Fortunately, the answer is simple. The same problems persist because the administration’s efforts at reform only target specific organizations and issues, as though removing a few bad apples will rescue the barrel. But it’s not a few bad apples; it’s the system that’s rotten.

The defining characteristic of Cornell’s Greek system is tribalism. Unlike interest-based student groups such as music ensembles and academic clubs, fraternities and sororities do not select members on the basis of earned qualifications, but rather according to various involuntary traits, such as familial wealth and racial background. Even if these factors are not explicitly considered during rush, they are fundamental components of the “types” that different houses favor. It’s not by accident that there are pronounced socioeconomic and racial disparities between so-called “top tier” and “bottom tier” Greek organizations, the former tending to attract more affluent students than the latter.

To put it bluntly, highly ranked houses are wealthier and whiter. At a university which prides itself on inclusivity, this is unacceptable.

Some suggest that we implement diversity initiatives in order to purge the system of its ills. The prevalence of sexual violence in fraternities, for instance, can be curbed through sexual assault education programs, right? Wrong. As Caitlin Flanagan points out in Time, “It’s been 30 years of education programs by the frats, initiatives to change culture, management policies and we’re still here.”

What exactly does Flanagan mean by “here?” According to the sexual assault prevention program, One In Four, men in fraternities are 300 percent more likely to sexually assault someone than other college men. The figure is just as harrowing for women in sororities, who are 74 percent more likely to experience rape than other college women. The statistics are not ambiguous.

So what should Cornell do about its Greek system? First, the administration ought to acknowledge that the go-to course of action is ineffective, as exemplified by the recent handling of Pi Kappa Alpha.

In 2010, PIKE lost its recognition from the university due to a “history of alcohol and hazing-related infractions.” It didn’t take long before the fraternity was reinstated and sure enough, in May of last year PIKE was suspended, again due for actions involving alcohol and hazing. Clearly, whatever “discipline” they received was not enough to prevent them from breaking the rules again.

While the repeated offenses of Greek organizations such as PIKE are upsetting, they are anything but surprising. Of course a slap on the wrist won’t change a century-long legacy of drinking and debauchery. Of course insubstantial sexual assault education programs won’t exterminate deeply ingrained misogyny.

There is only one policy which can save Cornell from its Greek system: a permanent ban on student participation in fraternities and sororities.

Critics of a ban will say that Greek organizations perform essential functions on campus and in the Ithaca community. This is true. Fraternities and sororities dedicate significant amounts of their time and resources to public service. They also offer thousands of students a valuable social mooring. But these characteristics are not unique to Greek life. All of the benefits that are promised by joining a greek organization are available in literally hundreds of other student groups on campus, most of which do not have a proclivity for identity-based discrimination.

Furthermore, Cornell would not be the first American institution of higher education to ban its Greek system. In 1962, Williams College did just that and achieved enviable results. Reflecting on the outcome, former Williams President John Chandler remarked “the ability to raise money went way up, alienated alumni who had been the victim of the fraternity system came back to the college, and the standing of Williams academically rose.” Encouraged by Williams’ success, Colby followed suit in 1984, as did Middlebury in 1989 and Bowdoin in 1997.

President Pollack and members of the Board of Trustees, let Cornell reap the same benefits as these other institutions have by putting an end to our Greek system once and for all.

Griffin Smuts is a freshman in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.