February 7, 2021

KEMPFF | Greek Life and COVID-19

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Campus was waking up from break when President Martha Pollack landed a sucker punch. The scathing and well-deserved rebuke was given a culprit by the administration: Greek life.

Social media users proceeded to publicly shame Greek houses, ranging from mild frustration to targeted attacks. Compared to some Reddit posters, the email sent by the administration was tame.

Unfortunately, the virus is a perfect target for many parts of Greek life. The packed hallways of fraternities and sororities have turned into a virus ground zero. Just picturing the sweaty, packed basements of annex parties gives us chills today. The thing that fraternity and sorority members are famously good at — socializing — has suddenly turned into a major health liability. And let’s be honest, that inherent liability has been routinely demonstrated. The consistent rule flaunting has only now caught up with the community.

National stories have not been encouraging, either. It begs the question: Can the Greek system handle COVID? The answer is yes. But, it has to be done better. There are a few steps that members like myself must take to save the community.  

The first, expanded testing, has already started. According to an email from the University, residents of Greek housing are now required to take surveillance tests three times a week.

The next step is more mandatory COVID training. Some students on campus have volunteered their time to become COVID ambassadors. But, COVID education needs to go farther than skimming the behavioral compact. A more comprehensive training in the format of a required Canvas course is necessary. One targeted specifically at fraternity and sorority members could bolster the system. 

Another step is creating accountability for all members and their organizations. It’s apparent to me that there’s a clear double standard; some houses consistently flaunt rules with few consequences, which frustrates those that don’t. Instead of backstabbing COVID reports and secret rush events, houses should come together. Leadership is needed and accountability should be demanded by all three councils.

Connor Tamor ’22, the President of Alpha Zeta, stressed that “Greek organizations as a whole have to shift their mindset from what they can’t to do what they can do. I understand that it is not ideal to do recruitment or new member education virtually, but that’s the hand that’s been dealt. We have to make the best of it.”

These adjustments, however, require a social rule adjustment. A semester of pent-up frustration has contributed to frequent rule-breaking by students. Nighttime visits to Collegetown are proof that people want to meet.So here’s an idea: Make social gatherings attainable. Work with medical professionals to safely adjust the rules. For instance, outdoor events are much safer than indoor events. But the prior semester rules restricted both outdoor and indoor gatherings in the same way. Personal observation showed that students frequently met inside to avoid getting in trouble, which is the opposite of what should have happened.

This isn’t a call for 100-person parties or loosened mask restrictions; instead, reasonable COVID rules have the potential to limit the rule-bending that has become far too common. Arguably, the main reason we return to school is to see friends. If we weren’t seeing one another, why wouldn’t we just save money and stay home? A tough, but smarter set of rules could both limit exposure and end some of the rule breaking we have seen.

President Pollack’s tough email hit close to home. Although Greek life is an easy scapegoat, the houses clearly failed in some ways this year. More testing is a step in the right direction, but progress still needs to be made in education, accountability and a social policy update.

For Cornell to remain open, it’s essential to address (instead of chastise) Greek life. Greek life is determined to remain a part of campus, and these steps would be a strong first move.

Brendan Kempff is a sophomore in the School of Hotel Administration. He can be reached at bpk43@cornell.edu. Slope Side runs every other Monday this semester.