Greek life at Cornell has evolved throughout the history of the University, inspiring camaraderie and controversy, and continues to play a profound role in the lives of students today.

Courtesy of Cornell University

Greek life at Cornell has evolved throughout the history of the University, inspiring camaraderie and controversy, and continues to play a profound role in the lives of students today.

November 21, 2019

Solar Flashback: It’s All Greek To Me — A History of Greek Life Policies at Cornell

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Greek life is one of the oldest and most controversial systems at Cornell. The current structure of Greek life that we’re familiar with has been decades in the making, and in this week’s Solar Flashback, we wanted to take a look back at some of the most significant policy changes involving social Greek organizations. As Greek life reforms come into the spotlight once again, it’s important to understand its history in order to gain insights for future change.

Solar Flashbacks is a special project connecting The Sun’s — and Cornell’s — past to the present to understand how this rich history has shaped the campus today. Flashbacks appear periodically throughout the semester. #ThrowbackThursday

[Check out the previous Solar Flashback on Halloween]

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Greek life at Cornell has evolved throughout the history of the University, inspiring camaraderie and controversy, and continues to play a profound role in the lives of students today.

Fraternities: The Early Days

The first fraternities appeared at Cornell over a decade before The Sun printed its first issue. In fact, seven fraternities — Zeta Psi, Chi Phi, Kappa Alpha, Alpha Delta Phi, Phi Kappa Psi, Chi Psi and Delta Upsilon — existed at Cornell by the end of the University’s first year, according to the 1962 book A History of Cornell, by Morris Bishop 1913 M.A. 1914.

But before the fledgling University had reached the 1870s, opposition to fraternities had already developed.

“Against the fraternities the Independents organized, as early as December 1868, with the declaration that fraternities are ‘the foulest blots upon college life,’” Bishop wrote.

However, these social organizations continued to flourish at Cornell, and Alpha Delta Phi built the first chapter house in 1878, according to Bishop. In 1881, Kappa Alpha Theta emerged as Cornell’s first sorority, Bishop wrote.

Decades later, in 1906, seven Cornell students made history by founding the country’s first African American intercollegiate fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha, according to a Cornell Library exhibit. National members included figures like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and W. E. B. Du Bois.

Members of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at Cornell in the 1940s. Alpha Phi Alpha was the country's first black fraternity.

Courtesy of Cornell University

Members of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity at Cornell in the 1940s. Alpha Phi Alpha was the country’s first black fraternity.

Misbehavior

Over the years, Greek organizations have had their fair share of accusations of misbehavior — ranging from minor infractions to larger concerns about rush practices.

In 1958, “penalties for four of the five members of Theta Delta Chi fraternity, whose theft of a cedar tree from University property last Friday resulted in an auto accident, have been imposed by the Men’s Judiciary Board and upheld by the President’s Committee on Student Conduct.”

At Zeta Psi in 1973, “a Cornell freshman was branded with a hot iron and received second-degree burns at a fraternity initiation.”

Furthermore, the concept of “dirty rushing,” or rushing outside of the official recruitment period, is nothing new.

In the years around 1915, “dirty rushing exploded into a wild free-for-all among houses competing for the most desirable freshmen. A conflict ‘of the survival of the fittest’ developed; ‘freshmen were kidnapped, taken out of town overnight, barricaded in their rooms, hid in cellars and attics,’” according to a Sun column from 1959.

In September 1948, the IFC had to hold a special session in Barnes Hall “as a result of a number of fraternities being charged with ‘dirty rushing.’”

Second semester rushing was instituted for the first time in 1954, with the column from 1959 stating that “deferred rushing has been accepted with somewhat less violence.”

In 1955, a controversial column titled “Problem of Dirty Rushing” described how “experience at other schools has often led certain individuals at this school to state that deferred rushing is unfeasible because it is impossible to eliminate dirty rushing.”

However, the column continued that the IFC formed “a special committee” to address “the immediate problem of forming a set of regulations to meet the situation.” At the time, it was “suggested by some that the most feasible means of doing so would be to impose a strict moratorium between fraternity men and the freshmen, with penalties both for the fraternity and the individual when violations occur.”

A column from 1962 stated that deferred rushing and efforts to prevent dirty rushing, “the moratorium also serves as a barrier to the upperclassman’s world. The freshman, in a sense, is isolated from his contemporaries for a term.”

Exclusivity Concerns, Anti-Discrimination Reforms, and the Ban Debate

In October 1949, The Sun reported that the number of rushees to Greek organizations had broken previous records, with hundreds of students pledging Greek houses. Greek life remained strong as ever, but concerns of exclusivity loomed.

A November 15, 1949, a Sun editorial urged fraternities to adopt anti-discrimination measures, noting efforts taken by the University of Michigan’s Interfraternity Council to tackle “racial and religious prejudice.”

“We believe Cornell fraternity men and all Cornellians should have an interest in group prejudice and should work for its extermination,” the editorial wrote.

Days later, Glenn Ferguson ’50 wrote a letter to the editor detailing reform actions Cornell’s IFC had already taken, but had not promoted with a “public relations campaign.” He argued that “possibly the SUN’s charges of inadequate leadership would have been tempered if the IFC had made its actions known.”

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The question of discrimination persisted. In an April 1965 column, Nathaniel W. Pierce ’66 argued that despite the strong anti-discrimination position of the University president and a series of IFC resolutions, “much more remains to be done.”

“As long as there is one fraternity that is restricted by its national as to the type of freshmen that may be pledged, the entire Cornell fraternity system will suffer, as will the reputation of Cornell University,” he wrote.

While there is less information on the plight of sororities, in 1958 “the constitutions and by-laws of the 13 national sororities represented at the University have been found to contain ‘no limiting clauses’ with respect to membership selection.”

Within Cornell’s first couple of decades, the issue of socioeconomic privilege also caught attention. In 1887, Bishop explained, living in a fraternity house “cost from $200 to $500 more than lodging-house existence,” so this option was “restricted to the wealthy.”

These critiques, both about racial discrimination and financial exclusivity, contributed to the formation of a group for the banning of Greek life in 1985. On Oct. 7, The Sun reported the formation of “People for the Elimination of the Greek System (PEGS).”

“We believe that without the Greek system, the Cornell campus would be a better place. Sexism, outright misogyny, racism, homophobia, elitism and tribalism would be reduced,” PEGS members Daniel Carew ’86, Harry Sices ’88 and Daniel Browder ’88 wrote in a letter to the editor later that fall.

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Other students defended Greek life in response, arguing that their sorority experiences had allowed them to better appreciate diversity.

“We can honestly say that we have become more tolerant as a result of belonging to a sorority. We now have sorority sisters that we know and love, so different from ourselves,” Rena Hecht ’87 and Brenda Bailey ’87 wrote in a letter to the editor.

In Recent Years

Over the years, participation in Greek life surged from a quarter of male students in 1887, with a humble 14 fraternities to choose from according to Bishop, to one-third of the campus today, featuring a choice of 60 recognized fraternities and sororities according to the Office of Sorority and Fraternity Life. Over 4,500 undergraduates hold membership in one of these organizations.

These organizations are divided into the Interfraternity Council, the Panhellenic Council and the Multicultural Greek Letter Council, not including professional fraternities and honor organizations.

The Greek system has again provoked attention and debate over recent incidents and disciplinary infractions. Since 2004, there have been 67 incidents in which Greek organizations were officially found guilty of hazing, according to University records.

In 2011, George Desdunes ’13 — a sophomore at the time — died after being forced to drink excessive amounts of alcohol the night before at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house. Three students involved in the hazing incident were found not guilty by a Tompkins County Court, and Cornell disbanded the chapter.

In September 2017, a Zeta Psi member allegedly chanted “build a wall” near the Latino Living Center, The Sun previously reported. Zeta Psi Nationals and the member apologized, though La Associacíon Latina called on all Greek organizations to “take active steps” to remedy the problem “deeply ingrained within the current culture.”

Also in September 2017, Black Students United accused Psi Upsilon members of being behind the shouting of racial slurs in an incident in Collegetown, The Sun reported. A black student said four or five white men had yelled slurs and then “started punching [him] in the face repeatedly” when he confronted them.

Phi Upsilon, which had already been unrecognized for over a year, announced the closure of its Cornell chapter days later, The Sun reported.

Nationwide controversy erupted in early 2018 after it was alleged that members of Zeta Beta Tau held a “pig roast” contest awarding points for sex with women, though the University later said it had “mischaracterized” investigation findings, The Sun reported.

Now, following the passing of freshman Antonio Tsialas ’23, whose death in late October is still under investigation, the IFC not only decided to cancel most regulated social events for the remainder of the semester but also voted to “give teeth” to regulations around dirty rushing and ban alcohol at all spring rush events.

Tsialas was last seen at a Phi Kappa Psi dirty rush party that involved what President Martha E. Pollack called “significant misbehavior,” and Phi Kappa Psi was suspended afterwards.
On Tuesday, Pollack wrote in an email to the Cornell community that she would enact reforms of Greek life by the semester’s conclusion.