January 29, 2020

TRUSTEE VIEWPOINT | A Reflection on Greek Life at Cornell

Print More

A month-long winter break has come and passed. Still, after having just completed this year’s first rush cycle, the state of Greek life at Cornell and new University policies on Greek events remain some of the most contentious issues on campus. However, this isn’t the first time that the Greek system at Cornell has been at the center of controversy.

Some of the first major complaints about dirty rushing were filed around 1915, to which the IFC responded with a Barnes Hall trial of the accused fraternities. Why are we – a century later – still grappling with the same question of how to curb misbehavior in Greek communities? I see that while there are several obstacles, the biggest one isn’t resistance from members and alumni. Instead, it is that the recruitment procedures that give Greek life its positive, community-building attributes are the same ones that help perpetuate the cultural problems that we strive to abolish.

While it would be impractical for me to enumerate all of the problems of Greek life embedded within its long history, social structures and power dynamics, it seems that high-risk behavior and harmful culture plagues Greek life for three reasons. Firstly, as it is possible in all campus spaces, some members of Greek life communities fail to uphold the values we share as Cornellians. Secondly, the perceived lack of consequences for offenses committed in fraternity and sorority settings makes it an appealing venue for malevolent actors to fly under the radar. Finally, because Greek life recruitment practices are inherently self-selecting, they can create a cultural monolith that perpetuates precisely the type of bad behavior that we try to prevent. Collectively, these circumstances form the perfect storm.

The reality, though, is that I often, personally, struggle to reconcile the differences between the misbehaviors that afflict our community and the positive experiences I have had in my fraternity. In Korea, Indonesia and China, where I grew up, the concept of Greek life does not exist. Even to this day, I’m not sure if my parents fully understand what it means when I tell them that I am in a fraternity. My first material exposure to Greek life was at Cornell: I joined because I saw the benefits of being a part of a close-knit community even while away from home. And I turned out to be right; in a school that can be competitive and stressful, my fraternity has been a place that I could “fall back on” because it comes without the attached obligations which characterize professional clubs.

But my positive experience in a fraternity and the problems inherent in Greek life are, in fact, intimately connected. Ironically, the very benefits of a fraternity come from the double-edged sword of a recruitment process not based on a professional or objective-driven evaluation, but a social and subjective one. The self-selecting nature of chapters makes them impenetrable – and occasionally – unaccountable. As a result, culture change becomes incredibly tricky. Paradoxically, without this process designed to recruit students who are a good social fit with existing members, Greek communities would lack the tools to create a consoling and supportive environment that prompts students to want to join one. So how do we square this circle?

We begin by recognizing that a meaningful reform that preserves the positive aspects of the Greek system while addressing its flaws must walk a fine line. It should discourage the excessive selectivity that makes a cultural change in a chapter practically impossible. But it also needs to help students find a social circle that they click with. Simultaneously, as we review recruitment procedures, we must continue to transform all fraternities and sororities into a safe and risk-free environment where unhealthy behavior cannot take place under the radar.

A change in how we deliberate about the Greek system is also a necessary precursor and a good starting point for prompting this desperately needed shift. The first order of business in a debate on Greek life is often a frantic calculus of whether the person standing in front of us is “pro-” or “anti-” Greek life. However, this reductive and antagonizing process does real harm to the productive dialogue that we need to have about the state of the Greek community at Cornell. Instead, let’s ask for – and share – a more nuanced view about both the good and the bad of Greek life.

It is in these times of reflection that I remain optimistic about the Cornell community’s ability to find a way forward that establishes a healthy social outlet while ensuring the safety of our students. Further, I am confident that Cornell’s leadership has and will work tirelessly towards that end. As we navigate how to transform our Greek system, I encourage our community members to reach out to me with their perspectives.


Jaewon Sim is an undergraduate student-elected member of the Board of Trustees and a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Comments may be sent to [email protected]Trustee Viewpoint runs every other Thursday this semester.